Cabinet papers from the early years of the Howard government have today been released.
Cabinet papers from the early years of the Howard government have today been released.

Howard government was almost one-term

In early 1996, time was up for an unpopular Labor government.

Opposition leader John Howard romped to power with a five per cent swing and a comfortable majority. But at the end of 1997, Mr Howard was looking increasingly like a one-term prime minister.

Between July and September, four ministers quit over various breaches of the ministerial code of conduct and travel claims irregularities. Polls were placing Labor well in front.

The coalition government had responded effectively to an early term challenge, the Port Arthur massacre, overseeing the introduction of national gun laws over the vocal objections of a good part of its own constituency.

Yet gun law changes didn't win the government many new votes, while many conservatives took their vote to the new One Nation party.

The government's first budget in August 1996 featured unpopular cost-cutting measures to repair the deficit inherited from Labor.

By the end of 1997, the government was also heading towards a showdown with unions over waterfront reform.

In answer to criticism that the government lacked a reform agenda, Mr Howard and his treasurer Peter Costello had placed a consumption tax - GST - back on the agenda, making backbenchers very nervous, as that was precisely the issue which cost John Hewson victory in 1993.

Cabinet historian Professor Paul Strangio said in hindsight the Howard government always seemed destined for a long period in office. Yet that wasn't at all how it appeared at the time.

"If few would have banked on Howard becoming a long-term prime minister at the end of 1997, the cabinet papers from his first two years in office suggest he headed a government sure of its fundamental values and imbued by a powerful sense of conviction," he said as the National Archives of Australia today released cabinet documents for 1996 and 1997.

"These would provide ballast and direction for navigating a course through the policy conundrums and political vagaries of 1998 and beyond."

Mr Howard, the special guest speaker at the launch of cabinet papers for his first two years of government, said he was fortunate to come to government with a talented team, though just two - himself and John Moore - had previous federal ministerial experience.

"We had a plan, a program and we set about implementing it. Of course, we had a few unexpected challenges," he said.

One was the tragedy of Port Arthur. But before that, the day after the election, he was handed incoming government documents revealing the true budget position and what came to be known as the $7.6 billion "Beazley black hole."

"We realised we had a big job ahead," he said.

Mr Howard referred to the inherited Labor debt as the “Beazley black hole.”
Mr Howard referred to the inherited Labor debt as the “Beazley black hole.”

Mr Howard said the government fell behind Labor in the polls in 1997 because it looked as though it was drifting.

"And governments should never look as though they are drifting," he said. As well, the Labor opposition appeared to be on a roll. A factor was the defection of then-Australian Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot to Labor. "Some of my colleagues got nervous. But nobody fundamentally thought that we hadn't been doing a good job," he said, noting success with the budget, industrial relations reform and an overhaul of tax.

"I thought we would win the 1998 election." Many others didn't.

Mr Howard said he was surprised on election eve when polls placed the government six points behind Labor. He was even more surprised on election night when exit polls also showed the government six points behind.

"We ended up winning despite the two-party vote being against us, but we hung on in the right places," he said.

Professor Strangio said the cabinet papers gave a sense of strong conviction, fundamental values and unity.

"Mr Howard obviously made errors. He has been acknowledged for his great sense of self-knowledge and capacity to learn. If you don't have that capacity or you are not given time to have that capacity, it's problematic."

Prime Minister John Howard and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley accepting a petition to outlaw firearms in 1996.
Prime Minister John Howard and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley accepting a petition to outlaw firearms in 1996.

PAULINE HANSON RATTLES NATION WITH FIRST SPEECH

In the joy following the coalition's election victory of March 1996, few on the government side really noticed or even cared about the new Canberra-bound member for Oxley.

That was until September 10, 1996 when Pauline Hanson rose in the House of Representatives to make her first speech, famously declaring: "I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians."

That echoed across Australia and throughout the region and the red-headed Queenslander suddenly found herself the figurehead for the fast growing constituency of the disenchanted and marginalised.

She called her new party One Nation, though she initially stood as a Liberal. Shortly before the election she was disendorsed for remarks in the local paper about Aboriginal welfare.

By then it was too late to reprint the ballot papers. Possibly most thought she stood no chance anyway as Oxley was the safest Labor seat in Queensland, with a margin of 15 per cent. She managed a swing of almost 20 per cent. Pauline Hanson is one of the great survivors of Australian politics. Her first term in office lasted less than three years but she's now a senator for Queensland and president for life of her party.

Her concerns are now directed more to Muslims than Asians. Accusation of racism continue.

Along the way, she repeatedly and unsuccessfully stood for election at state and federal polls and spent 11 weeks in jail for electoral fraud, a conviction subsequently overturned.

One Nation itself has experienced multiple incarnations, with its fortunes rising and falling according to the political temperature of the moment and the calibre of those elected under its banner.

Pauline Hanson in June 1997
Pauline Hanson in June 1997

John Howard, who became PM the same day Pauline Hanson was elected as the member for Oxley, reflected on what he termed the "One Nation insurgency" in his first term.

Speaking at the National Archives of Australia launch of cabinet documents for 1996 and 1997, Mr Howard said his national gun laws introduced following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre contributed to the rise of One Nation. He said there was overwhelming support for the gun law changes in the cities and in most of regional Australia.

"But in certain areas of the bush, people felt aggrieved. They thought they had been deprived and handicapped through the behaviour of a madman," he said.

"I think it did contribute to the One Nation insurgency. The flannel shirts who felt their guns had been taken away unfairly rallied to Pauline Hanson. I don't think that was the immediate and overwhelming reasons. But I think it fed into it."

HOWARD LED COALITION HESITANT TO SIGN CLIMATE PACT

As the Kyoto climate change conference loomed, the coalition government grew increasingly concerned that Australia could be saddled with binding emissions targets would hurt the economy, but not those of competitors.

Cabinet papers for 1996 and 1997 show rising apprehension of a US-European Union deal with both blocs favouring binding targets, which Australia did not.

Then Environment Minister Robert Hill attended the Geneva meeting in the lead-up to Kyoto, saying there was a general perception Australian was isolated because of its opposition to legally binding targets.

He said Australia's ability to pursue its interests internationally would heavily depend on being able to demonstrate an effective domestic greenhouse response.

Mr Howard said this conundrum remained - Australia is a major exporter of energy and has significant reserves of oil, natural gas and uranium.

"The problem I had with fully endorsing the Kyoto Protocol … was that fully embracing it would have imposed restrictions on Australian which were not imposed on our potential competitors," Mr Howard said.

He went on to say an aluminium smelter could go to Indonesia or Malaysia or China with slacker environmental rules.

"That fundamentally was one of the reasons why I just kept resisting, even though popular culture said "Sign Kyoto and save the planet"," he said. "We had always wanted the differentiation because our circumstances were different."

Another problem Mr Howard had with Kyoto was that it was advantageous for Europe which could easily achieve emissions targets because of two historic events. One was the mass closure of coal mines in Britain and the other was the massive deindustrialisation of East Germany.

Prime Minister Howard is pictured here yelling back at protesters after a speech in Mooloolaba in 2001.
Prime Minister Howard is pictured here yelling back at protesters after a speech in Mooloolaba in 2001.

Mr Howard attributed climate change as one of the issues leading to his defeat in 2007.

Australia's concerns about Kyoto rose following the Geneva preparatory conference with the prospect of a US-EU understanding on binding and uniform targets to stabilise emissions at or below 1990 levels.

In their joint submissions to cabinet, Mr Hill, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Energy Minister Warwick Parer said Australia should be seen to be "pushed off the cliff" and excluded by international parties, rather being seen to walk away.

It didn't come to that. In July 1997 Senator Hill reported to Cabinet that the meeting of G7 nations had not produced the feared US-EU agreement and did not narrow down to Australia's negotiating position.

One reason was the major international campaign for "realism", strongly argued by Mr Howard.

The Kyoto Protocol emerged from the Japanese-hosted conference in December 1997, requiring developed nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions according to legally binding but differentiated targets.

Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol in April 1998 but did not ratify until December 2007, after Labor was elected.