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John Howard in 2003

The Howard Government refers to the federal Executive Government of Australia led by Prime Minister John Howard. It was made up of members of the LiberalNational Coalition, which won a majority of seats in the Australian House of Representatives at four successive elections.

The Howard Government commenced on 11 March 1996, nine days after the defeat of the Keating Government at the 1996 federal election. It concluded on 3 December 2007, nine days after its defeat at the 2007 federal election by the Australian Labor Party, whose leader Kevin Rudd formed the Rudd Government and became Prime Minister. It thus was the second-longest government under a single Prime Minister, with the longest having been the second Menzies Government (1949–1966).

As has been the convention with Coalition governments, the leader of the Liberal Party, John Howard, served as Prime Minister, whilst the leader of the National Party served as Deputy Prime Minister. Three Nationals leaders served in this capacity: Tim Fischer until 20 July 1999, followed by John Anderson until 6 July 2005 and then Mark Vaile. Two senior ministers also served in single roles for the duration of the Government—Peter Costello as Treasurer, and Alexander Downer as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Decisions of the Executive were made either by the Cabinet or by the appropriate Minister.

For the first three terms of government, and part of the fourth term, the Howard Government did not have control of the Senate. Significant legislation needed the support of the Opposition or minor parties for that legislation to be passed and become law. In the 2004 election, the coalition won control of the Senate for all but the first nine months of its fourth term, and was able to pass legislation without the support of minor parties.


First term: 1996–1998

Election win

The Liberal-National Coalition won the federal election on 2 March 1996 against the incumbent Keating Labor government. The coalition had a 45-seat majority in the House of Representatives. Howard announced his proposed ministry team on 8 March 1996, with the Governor-General swearing them into office on 11 March. The size of the Coalition victory gave John Howard great power within the Liberal party and he said he came to the office "with very clear views on where I wanted to take the country".[1 ] In the first week of the new government, Howard sacked six department heads and chose new department heads himself and changes were made across the public service.[1 ]

Howard during a visit to the United States in 1997

Port Arthur massacre and gun control

On 28 April 1996, eight weeks into the new government's term, 35 people were shot dead by a lone gunman in Port Arthur, Tasmania. John Howard led a push to significantly increase restrictions on gun ownership, which divided the cabinet and inflamed rural voters who were an important part of the Coalition's core constituency.[2 ][3] The new legislation was implemented on a bi-partisan co-operative arrangement across the States which restricted the private ownership of semi-automatic rifles, semi-automatic shotguns and pump-action shotguns and raised the prospect of a referendum on gun control. A "National Firearms Agreement" was introduced which covered related matters such as uniform firearms licensing, although this was never fully implemented.

Government spending cuts

The Government soon found that the previous Keating Government had left them with an unexpected $9 billion "black hole" budget deficit. The new treasurer, Peter Costello, and Finance Minister, John Fahey worked at trimming government spending. This involved reneging on a number of election commitments, which Howard defended as "non-core promises".[4] At the first Coalition government budget, the public service was "down-sized", the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) was privatised, and big cuts were made to all departments including universities, the Office of the Status of Women, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, ATSIC, with the exception of defence, which received no funding cuts.[1 ] Further big spending cuts came in the 1997 budget.

Industrial relations and waterfront dispute

The Howard Government made waterfront reform a key feature of the 'first wave' of its industrial relations agenda.[5] Their intent was to lift exports with a unitarist HRM and hence improve the economy, but also sought to use it as a symbolic issue to decrease trade union influence. Initially, new workplace legislation was introduced in December 1996—following a deal with Democrats Leader Cheryl Kernot—to include a no-disadvantage test, increase employer's power to deal directly with workers, limit strike action, ban secondary boycotts, ban compulsory unionism, and introduce Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs). Large fines were imposed on unions involved in illegal strike activity.

Peter Reith in 2001

The “Interventionist Strategy” was devised in March 1997 between Industrial Relations Minister, Peter Reith, Transport Minister John Sharp, and Patrick Corporation managing director Chris Corrigan wherby Patrick’s would replace the existing current unionised labour with non-unionised labour using the government’s new industrial relations legislation. The government agreed to the company’s request to fund redundancy payments later announced to be $250 million. The company secretly trained an alternate workforce in Dubai. In December 1997, the plan became public (Peter Reith denied knowledge of the plan) and the union movement was able to stop the Dubai training; the training was finished in Australia with the assistance of the National Farmers' Federation. At 11pm 7 April 1998, Corrigan, with the assistance of security guards with dogs, sacked the union workforce of 1,400 across the country, and replaced it with the alternate non-union labour. John Howard describes the action as "a fightback by the people of Australia against the inefficiency of the wharves.”

Over the following months, a bitter and sometime violent dispute took place at port locations. The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) took the case to the Federal Court and after an appeals process, and an interim injunction instructing the company to reinstate the 1,400 workers, the High Court ultimately found in favour of the MUA. The MUA and Patricks reached a new workplace and productivity agreement, which was adopted in June 1998, that included halving the permanent workforce, casualisation and contracting, the MUA retaining the right to represent maritime workers, and changing work practices to what the company originally sought.[6]


The government did not have a majority in the Senate, and thus had to negotiate legislation through the Senate with either the Australian Democrats or the independents. The Senate modified Government legislation, including the partial privatisation of the government-owned telecommunications company, Telstra; increases in university fees; large funding cuts in the 1996 and 1997 budgets; a 30% private health insurance rebate; and the Wik 10 Point Plan, giving extinguishment of native title on pastoral leases.

During this first term, only two pieces of legislation were rejected outright by the Senate, being the Workplace Relationships Amendment Bill 1997 and the Telstra (Transition to Full Private Ownership) Bill 1998.[7] A "work for the dole" system was introduced that required able-bodied social security recipients to participate in activities aimed at improving their social and work skills.

Ministerial code of conduct

The coalition campaigned on a policy of "clean government"[8] as a contrast to the previous government. A "Code of Ministerial Conduct"[9 ] was introduced in fulfilment of this pledge. The code required ministers to divest shares in portfolios that they oversaw and to be truthful in parliament.[8] The code eventually led to seven cabinet ministers resigning following breach of the code. Jim Short and Brian Gibson both resigned in October 1996[10] as both held shares in companies that were within their ministerial portfolios.[11] Bob Woods resigned in February 1997 over questionable ministerial expense claims.[12] Geoff Prosser resigned in July 1997 following the disclosure that he was a shopping centre landlord whilst he was responsible for commercial tenancy provisions of the Trade Practices Act 1975.[11] John Sharp,[13] David Jull[14] and Peter McGauran[12][15] resigned in September 1997 over irregularities in the use of ministerial travel allowances in what became known in the media as the "Travel Rorts Affair".[16][17][18 ] John Moore and Warwick Parer survived revelations about his shareholdings.[18 ] Parer however was not reappointed to the Second Howard Ministry.[11] In early 1999, the government announced that ministers would no longer be required to divest themselves of shareholdings.[11]

Wik & Native Title

On 23 December 1996, the High Court recognised the Wik people's native titles rights, and that pastoral and mining leases would not extinguish native title as had been assumed after the 1992 Mabo decision and subsequent Native Title Act 1993. Rather, the High Court decision determined that Native Title could co-exist with pastoral leases, which caused farmers to fear they would lose their land. The government announced a "Ten Point Plan" to deal with the uncertainty that had the effect of weakening the Native Title Act. The legislation termed the "Native Title Amendment Act 1998" was introduced into Parliament in September 1997,[19] John Forbes in the Adelaide Review raised critical five issues which the proposed government plan did not address.[19] but was opposed by the Labor party in the Senate. A deal announced on 3 July 1998 between Independent Senator Brian Harradine and the prime minister saw the legislation pass the Senate. The legislation meant that 120 agreements and permits in doubt due to the "Wik decision" were now valid.

Taxation and the GST

Peter Costello was Treasurer throughout the Howard Government's period in office

A broad-based goods and services tax (GST) had been proposed by both the Labor Party and the Coalition as a means of increasing the tax base; in 1981 Treasurer John Howard proposed an indirect consumption tax to Cabinet, a mid-1980’s proposal advocated by then treasurer Paul Keating was stopped within the Labor Party, and the Coalition’s loss of the “unlosable” 1993 Federal Election was widely attributed to their GST proposal. In reference to his long-held support for a GST, John Howard said in the lead up to the 1996 election that a GST would “never ever” be Coalition policy, which was repeated in August 1996 once in government.

In May 1997, the Prime Minister shocked the party and created headlines when he unilaterally indicated a GST might be proposed as part of broader changes to the tax system. In August of that year, the Prime Minister announced that the Government would contest the next election offering a GST with extensive compensatory cuts in income and sales taxes. A long held conviction of Howard’s, the tax reform proposal was credited with boosting his confidence and direction, which had appeared to wane early in the Government’s second term. The Treasurer was charged with forming and running a special confidential working group to devise the details of the plan over the following 12 months.

The Coalition Tax Reform Package was launched on 13 August 1998 and included a 10 percent GST with the proceeds to be distributed to the states. Over that fortnight, the proposal received a generally positive response and on 30 August the Prime Minister announced an early election for 3 October 1998. The GST, however, proved to be a difficult sell during the election campaign which was considered a “referendum on the GST”.

1998 election

Through much of its first term, opinion polling had been disappointing for the government; at times many in the government feared being a “one-term wonder”. The popularity of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party and the new restrictions on gun ownership drew many traditionally Coalition voters away from the Howard government. Also unpopular with many voters were the large spending cuts, the waterfront dispute and industrial changes, and the Government's commitment to a GST.

On 3 October 1998, the Howard Government won a second term with its March 1996 majority of 45 seats reduced to 12. Exit polls had predicted a government loss. A 4.6 percent swing away from the Government translated into a two-party preferred vote of 49.02 per cent for the Government to Labor’s 50.98 per cent. Despite One Nation winning almost 1 million votes and its 8.4 percent first preference vote being larger than the National Party’s, Pauline Hanson did not win her run for the House of Representatives seat of Blair. On election night, John Howard claimed the win as a mandate for the GST, and in surprising and apparently impromptu remarks, he committed the government to reconciliation with Australia’s indigenous peoples.

Second term: 1998–2001

John Howard (sitting, fifth from left), with the rest of Cabinet, 1999

The 1999 Republican referendum

The 1999 Australian republic referendum was a two question referendum held in 1999. The first question asked whether Australia should become a republic with a President appointed by Parliament, a model that had previously been decided at a Constitutional Convention in February 1998. The second question, generally deemed to be far less important politically, asked whether Australia should alter the constitution to insert a preamble. Neither of the amendments passed, with 55% of all electors and all states voting 'no' to the proposed amendment.

The referendum was held on 6 November 1999, after a national advertising campaign and the distribution of 12.9 million Yes/No case pamphlets. The question on a republic was defeated. It was not carried in any state and attracted 45 per cent of the total national vote. The preamble referendum question was also defeated, with a Yes vote of only 39 per cent.

Many opinions were put forward for the defeat, some relating to perceived difficulties with the Parliamentary Appointment model, others relating to the lack of public engagement. Many republicans voted no because they did not agree with provisions such as the President being instantly dismissable by the Prime Minister.[20]

Implementing the GST

In the month following the election, the Government moved to implement its tax changes, and sought the support of Tasmanian independent senator, Brian Harradine. The Senator, however, announced on 14 May 1999, that he had an in-principle objection to the GST and would not support the bill.[21] The sole remaining opportunity for the Government to pass the legislation through the Senate was to obtain the support of the Australian Democrats. Following intense negotiations which had at one stage almost broken down, a deal was reached on 28 May whereby the concessions given to the Democrats included and exemption on basic food, more generous compensation to pensioners, and a reduction in tax cuts to higher income earners.[22] The GST came into effect on 1 July 2000, the lead up to which was marked by public concerns and confusion, interest group lobbying for exemptions, and the Opposition campaigning against it.[23] The GST lead to a single quarter of negative economic growth and a spike in the consumer price index, however, these effects were transient. The implementation of the new tax system was not without its problems and voter dissatisfaction with the GST increased; Labor stepped up a campaign against it, promising a partial rollback should it win office.[24]

East Timor

Australian peacekeepers and East Timorese civilians in Dili during 2000

Australia was one of the few countries to recognise the 1976 annexation of East Timor by President Suharto's "New Order" government. The 1998 resignation of Suharto and replacement by his reformist protégé, B.J. Habibie, created an opportunity in both countries for policy reform. Habibie was suggesting East Timor receive special autonomy status within the Indonesian republic, which he offered as part of United Nations (UN)-mediated negotiation process between Indonesia and the territory's former colonial ruler, Portugal.[25] Australian policy also changed. From a position of not supporting any act of East Timorese self-determination, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Downer formulated a shift in policy to suggesting not just autonomy but a political solution that included a referendum on independence be provided in about a decade.[26] This was developed confidentially without the knowledge of Cabinet, and outlined in a December 1998 letter to Habibie suggesting the Indonesian government prepare for such a referendum.[27]

Reacting to the Howard-Downer letter, in January 1999 Habibie announced a snap decision for East Timor to have a UN-supervised referendum within 6 months rather than the 10 years suggested by Howard.[28] The Habibie announcement provoked violence from East Timorese pro-integration militia groups, violence that the Indonesian military (TNI) could not or would not control.[29] The Prime Minister’s request for President Habibie to permit a UN peace-keeping force to take control was rejected by President Habibie as unacceptable and inflammatory to the Indonesian domestic political environment.[30]

On 30 August 1999, the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence. Within a few days, the pro-integration militia—along with their TNI supporters—undertook a retaliatory scorched earth campaign that left over 1,000 people dead and destroyed much of the territory’s infrastructure.[31] In the face of Australian public and international outrage, the Prime Minister led discussions for a UN peacekeeping force, a position supported by US President Bill Clinton and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Following international pressure, President Habibie allowed the peacekeeping force (INTERFET) to enter Indonesia, with Australia providing the largest contingent of 4,500 troops. Landing in Dili on 20 September 1999, the mission was popular within Australia and maintained bipartisan political support.[32][33][34] In early October, the UN Secretary-General announced that INTERFET had largely restored order to East Timor.

In the Bulletin Magazine it was suggested that the Prime Minister viewed Australia as a "deputy peacekeeping capacity to the global policing role of the US" in the Asia-Pacific region, and that he had embraced the term "Howard Doctrine". Both notions were criticised in the region—including by diplomats and academics—and Howard rejected both notions later that week.[35]


As recommended in the 1997 Bringing Them Home report, the Government considered the issue of a national apology to Indigenous Australians, in recognition of the treatment by previous governments since the European settlement of the country. However, in the face of a growing movement in favour of a formal national apology, Howard remained strongly against it, saying he didn’t believe that the current generation should accept responsibility for the actions of previous generations. Instead, on 26 August 1999 John Howard introduced a “Motion of Reconciliation[36] and repeated his personal expression of "deep and sincere regret" for past injustices.[37 ]

At Corroboree 2000, a Reconciliation convention in May 2000 in preparation for a reconciliation ceremony to be held at the centenary of Australian Federation, the Government opposed the wording of a proposed “Australian Declaration towards Reconciliation”[38]. Consequently agreement is not reached with the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, with the Government preferring reference be made to “practical reconciliation” that focuses on health, education, housing and employment, rather than the more symbolic proposal for an apology, to expressed as part of ‘’“walk[ing] the journey of healing”’’. No member of the Cabinet reportedly at the instruction of John Howard, joined the 250,000 people who walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge as part of the Peoples Walk for Reconciliation.

Leadership tensions and slump in popularity

Howard’s reported instruction to his Cabinet to not join the Reconciliation Walk highlighted tensions between him and Treasurer Costello, who was amongst those Cabinet Ministers who had wanted to walk. In a 2000 radio interview on his 61st birthday, Howard suggested that if the Party still wanted him to contest the next election he would consider retirement when he was 64. This was interpreted as boosting Costello’s leadership aspirations, and the enmity over leadership and succession resurfaced publicly when Howard did not retire at the age of 64.[39] In May 2001, an internal Liberal Party memo written by Shane Stone, the Federal President of the Liberal Party, was leaked to the media. The memo, particularly critical of Peter Costello and warning that the government was perceived as “ a mean government”, “not listening” and “out of touch”, was highly embarrassing for the government’s top leadership group and flared tensions between Howard and Costello.[40]

In the first half of 2001, the government suffered a number of setbacks including rising petrol prices, voter enmity over the implementation of the GST and its new administrative obligations on business, a spike in inflation and a sharp slow down in the economy. The Coalition lost office in both the West Australian and Queensland state elections in February, while defeat in the Ryan by-election and bad opinion polls led to predictions of the Howard Government losing office in the election expected late that year.[41]

In response, the government announced a serious of reversals and softening of policy: fuel excise was decreased by 1.5c/litre and indexation of excise was removed with John Howard saying the government was “not going to be sacrificed on the pyre of ideological purity”. Contrary to their previous record on encouraging foreign investment, the government announced intention to block Royal Dutch Shell’s $10 billion takeover of Woodside Petroleum. It was generally a popular decision within the electorate but one that critics said was pandering to "Hansonite" economic nationalism. By June, government spending on media promotion and advertising of government programs was $20 million a month. The subsequent federal budget had a lower than expected surplus of $1.5 billion, and contained significant benefits and tax cuts for older Australians, a demographic whose support the government keenly sought. News that the economy had avoided recession also boosted the government. In July, the Liberal Party held onto the seat of Aston in a by-election prompting John Howard to say that the Coalition was “back in the game”.[41]

In 2001, Finance Minister John Fahey, announced he would retire at the next election, as did Defence Mnister Peter Reith. Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer resigned from the Ministry in 1999 and from Parliament in 2001.

Asylum seekers

From 1999 to mid 2001, approximately 8,000 asylum seekers had landed on Australian shores. The government instructed the Australian Navy to turn boats back, which it said would stop more asylum seekers making the journey. The program dubbed "Operation Relex" begins on 3 September. In August 2001, the government refused permission for the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, carrying a group of asylum seekers picked up in international waters, to enter Australian waters (see Tampa affair).[42] When the Tampa entered Australian waters, the Prime Minister ordered the ship be boarded by Australian special forces. This brought censure from the government of Norway who said the Australian Government failed to meet obligations to distressed mariners under international law at the United Nations.[43] Within a few days the government introduces the Border Protection Bill[44] into the House of Representatives saying it will confirm Australian sovereignty to "determine who will enter and reside in Australia". The Opposition opposed the bill defeating it in the Senate, and John Howard accused Labor leader Kim Beazley of standing for nothing and said "He has no ticker". Two weeks later, the opposition supported an amended version[45] of the Bill. The Government brokered a deal, dubbed "The Pacific Solution", with the Government of Nauru whereby the asylum seekers were taken to Nauru where their refugee status was considered, rather than in Australia.

On 7 October 2001, a Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel (SIEV) containing 223 refugees was intercepted by an Australian warship as part of "Operation Relex". The Department of Defence informed the government that children had been thrown overboard. The Government said that the refugees threw their children in the water and sank the boat in an attempt to force the Australian sailors to grant them asylum. John Howard said "we're not a nation that‟s going to be intimidated by this kind of behaviour.” Three days later doubt was cast over whether photos offered as evidence by Defence Minster Peter Reith actually proved that children had been thrown overboard. Evidence later presented suggested that the Government had exaggerated or fabricated these claims.

These asylum restriction incidents resounded with the Australian electorate; many commentators cite the August 2001 Tampa controversy as the decisive issue in Howard's 2001 election victory.[46] The government pointed out that by that November the boat arrivals had stopped. The Government's position on asylum seekers was criticised by Liberal members Petro Georgiou and Bruce Baird, questioning the extent of the problem and the ethics of the Government's response.[47]

On 5 October 2001, John Howard announced a federal election to be held on 10 November. From the poor opinion polling in early 2001 that suggested electoral defeat, the government recovered to win the 2001 election, recording one of the biggest electoral swings to an incumbent government.[48]

Third term: 2001–2004

Howard and George W. Bush on 10 September 2001. Howard was in Washington, D.C. during the September 11 terrorist attacks, the response to which occupied much of his third term in office

The Governor General, Dr. Peter Hollingworth, faced allegations of not investigating Anglican ministers accused of paedophilia while he was Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane. Hollingworth subsequently resigned the governor-generalship.[49]

In April 2002 changes where made to Australian nationality law that allowed Australian citizens who had acquired another country's citizenship to keep their Australian citizenship concurrently.[50]

Despite its victory in 2001, the government did not have a Senate majority, and its ability to pass planned legislation was restricted.

"War on Terror"

Following the 2002 Bali bombing, in which 202 people were killed including 88 Australian citizens, Howard pledged that Australia would fight in worldwide "war on terrorism", saying; "I can't understand how anybody could argue that you can respond adequately, in the name of the scores of Australians who were killed in Bali, without being part of the worldwide war against terror."[51] Two days before the attack, the US issued a worldwide warning notice urging tourists to Bali to avoid "clubs, bars and restaurants" where Westerners congregate. The Australian Government had received US intelligence identifying Bali as a possible target of a terrorist attack on Western tourists but did not change its advice to Australian holidaymakers.[52] The Howard Government did not issue a similar warning, though following the attack it issued a travel advisory warning against any travel to Indonesia.[53]

In March 2003, Australia joined the so-called Coalition of the Willing and sent troops and naval units to support the invasion of Iraq. Australian opinion was divided on the war and large public protests against the war occurred.[54] Several senior figures from the Liberal party, including John Valder, a former president of the Liberal Party, and Howard's former friend and colleague, former Opposition Leader John Hewson and former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser publicly criticised Howard over Iraq.[55] John Valder's criticism was particularly strong, claiming that Howard should be tried and punished as a war criminal.[56]

On 5 February 2003, the Australian Senate presented its first vote of no-confidence against a serving leader for deploying troops to the Persian Gulf.[57] The unprecedented vote carried no legislative power as the motion was defeated in the House of Representatives. Senior Australian intelligence officer, Andrew Wilkie resigned from his job citing ethical reasons.[58] Wilkie later went on to challenge Howard in his electorate. On Anzac Day 2004, Howard made a surprise visit to Australian defence personnel in Iraq. This came amid a bitter debate in Australia over the war following opposition leader Mark Latham's promise to return Australian troops by Christmas. Howard successfully portrayed Latham as a threat to the U.S.-Australia alliance, which led to a fall in Latham's popularity.[59]

Renewable energy

On 6 May 2004, Howard convened a meeting with a group of energy industry representatives called the Lower Emissions Technology Advisory Group (LETAG). Although it met with the renewable energy sector separately, the Government was later criticised for not inviting them to this meeting. According to leaked minutes from the meeting, Howard would conclude that technology would be the long-term solution to greenhouse issues and his focus should be on ways to accelerate introduction of technology for reducing greenhouse gases, but that he was not looking for the establishment of public policy. Concerns about the cost and effectiveness of the current Mandatory Renewable Energy Targets (MRET) were also raised.[60]

Same-sex relationships

In May 2004, and with the help of the Australian Democrats,[61] the Howard Government amended Australia's superannuation law to allow same-sex couples to inherit their partners' private sector superannuation.[62] Announcing the May 2004 proposal, Howard said:

"The changes we are announcing today will provide greater certainty for the payment of super death benefits for those involved in interdependency relationships including, of course, members of same sex relationships"[63]

The changes did not extend to members in Commonwealth superannuation schemes.[62][64]

On 13 August 2004, the Senate passed the Howard Government's[65] Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill[66] which incorporated the common law definition of marriage—"the union of a man and a woman to exclusion of all others"—into the Marriage Act and the Family Law Act.[67]

International affairs

By 2003, trade with China had tripled since the Government came to office and Chinese President Hu Jintao selected Australia as his first international port of call after taking office. Howard invited Hu to become the first Chinese leader to address the Australian Parliament.[68] Presidents Bush and Hu addressed the Parliament over two days in 2003 and Howard has claimed management of China relations as his major foreign policy achievement.

Fourth term: 2004–2007

Tsunami and Changing Opposition Leaders

On 26 December 2004, a massive Tsunami devastated large areas of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Howard moved quickly to offer a $A1 Billion aid package and won praise from Indonesia's President for being first on the phone and first on the ground aiding Indonesia.[69] After nose-diving at the time of the INTERFET intervention in East Timor in 1999, government-to-government ties with Indonesia had been strengthening in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali Bombing, notably through counter-terrorism co-operation and inter-faith dialogue. The Australian response to the Tsunami further consolidated improving relations and a personal rapport between Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and John Howard.[69]

Opposition Leader Mark Latham came under criticism for failing to take time out from Christmas leave to comment on the Tsunami disaster adding to growing speculation about his leadership.[70] Citing ill-health, Latham resigned as Leader soon after and was replaced by veteran Kim Beazley.[71] Unable to dent Howard's popularity as preferred Prime Minister, Beazley's was replaced in December 2006 by Kevin Rudd[72] who went on to successfully oust the Howard Government from power in the 2007 Election.

Industrial relations

Kevin Andrews was Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations during the introduction and implementation of WorkChoices

In 2005, Howard announced significant changes to industrial relations laws. Government ministers, including Howard, felt the Coalition's new Senate majority should be used to implement the potentially unpopular legislation.[2 ] From the time changes were first hinted at, the changes became the subject of a national publicity campaign by the government and pronounced opposition from community groups, the union movement and state Labor governments. On 15 November 2005, public rallies were held to protest against the industrial relations changes. An estimated 100,000-175,000 people attended rallies in Melbourne and around 300 other meetings and rallies, held concurrently around the country, were also well attended.[73] These meetings were organised by various unions and community organisations with the help of Labor and the Greens. Due to the Coalition's slim majority in the Senate, the passage of the proposed laws was put in doubt following criticisms from Queensland National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce, although he later voted in support of the legislation. The industrial relations laws were passed without substantial change.

WorkChoices continued to be unpopular after they came into effect on 27 March 2006. Opinion polls found that 63 percent of voters opposed WorkChoices in 2006 and 65 percent in 2007 and that the policy was reducing support for the Coalition.[74] The Government responded to the continuing union campaign against the reforms by conducting a large scale information campaign of its own.[75] On 4 May 2007 Howard announced reforms to WorkChoices which included a new 'fairness test' to protect workers paid less than $75,000 a year.[76] Despite these responses, the Labor Party's polling in 2007 found that opposition to WorkChoices was one of the three biggest vote drivers at the election.[77]

Anti-terrorism measures

Howard with Condoleezza Rice, Philip Ruddock and Alexander Downer in March 2006

In mid 2005, John Howard and his cabinet began discussions of new anti-terror legislation which includes modification to the Crimes Act 1914. In particular, sections relating to sedition are to be modified. On 14 October 2005, Jon Stanhope (Chief Minister of the ACT) took the controversial step of publishing the confidential draft of the Federal Anti-Terrorism Bill 2005 on his website.[78] This action was both praised and criticised.[79] Citing concerns about civil rights raised by the Australian National University as well as concerns over the speed of the legislation's passage through parliament, he later refused to sign off on a revised version of the legislation, becoming the only State and Territorial leader not to sign.[80] The House of Representatives passed the anti-terrorism legislation which was debated in the Senate before its final implementation in December 2005.

On 2 November 2005 Howard held a press conference to announce that he had received information from police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) that indicated an imminent terrorist attack in Australia. Within a week, on 8 November, anti-terrorist raids were held across Melbourne and Sydney, with 17 suspected terrorists arrested, including Abdul Nacer Benbrika. These raids, according to Howard, demonstrated the need for his Anti-Terrorism Bill.[81] Critics have also said that the press conference was held on the same day as the changes to industrial relations laws were introduced to Parliament.

Since Mohamed Haneef spent 12 days in jail without charges (he was suspected to have supported the perpetrators of the foiled terror attacks in London and Glasgow in July 2007), the anti-terrorism bill and its impact for the separation of powers in a democracy became more publicly discussed. When a judge found insufficient evidence for the charges against Haneef, Minister of Immigration Kevin Andrews withdrew his working visa. While the Howard government unequivocally backed Kevin Andrew's decision, members of the judicial community in Australia raised their concern about the interference of the government in judicial proceedings.[82]

Mandatory detention policy

Throughout the first half of 2005, the Howard government faced pressure regarding the controversial mandatory detention program, introduced in 1992 by the Keating Labor government.

It was revealed in February that a mentally ill German citizen and Australian resident, Cornelia Rau, had been held in detention for nine months. The government then established the closed non-judicial Palmer Inquiry promising that the findings would be made public. In May, it was revealed that another Australian, subsequently identified as Vivian Solon, had been deported from Australia and that the department responsible was unable to locate her. By late May, it was revealed that an additional 200 cases of possible wrongful detention had been referred to the Palmer Inquiry.[83] Also at this time Howard faced backbench revolt from small numbers of his own party demanding that reforms be made.[84] On 9 June Australia's longest serving detainee, Peter Qasim, was moved to a psychiatric hospital.[85]

In June 2005, several backbenchers including Petro Georgiou challenged the Howard government's holding of asylum-seeker children in immigration detention centres.[86] Over 2000 asylum-seeker children were held in detention centres during previous years. The longest period a child was detained was 5 years.[87]

Under the agreement between Howard and the MPs, legislation was introduced to "soften" the detention system enacted in 1992. Detained families with children were moved out of detention centres and placed in "community detention", and people detained over two years received an ombudsman review.[88] Questioned as to why the government had not acted sooner, Howard was quoted as saying: "We have to confess that was one of the many failings of this Government."[88]


The Howard Government initially negotiated favourable Kyoto Protocol targets for Australia (8% growth on 1990 levels) and Australia was estimated to have matched that target in 2007 at the close of the Howard Government's term.[89]. Nevertheless, Howard had elected not to sign the Treaty following the withdrawal of United States support for the process. Howard argued that without the involvement of the United States (which accounted for 25% of global emissions); and without binding emission reduction targets for the other large emitters in the developing world (China and India), the Treaty would not be viable and could harm Australia's coal industry without effectively reducing global emissions.[90][91]

Howard and other APEC leaders at APEC Australia 2007

This position was established at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in September 2007, which had "nothing to do with trade deals announced [in the previous two] weeks" for the Howard Government. Because "many [of its] business communities were ahead of [government] in preparing and instilling corporate change" on climate issues, Australia could justifiably wait for its overture to the Chinese to "return with greater fervour as trust between [American investers] and the Asian political communities developed" in the future; as it was believed they had to, in order to follow the global energy markets, come to share relatively level business expectations and time horizons.[92]

On 6 June 2006, Howard announced a task force to conduct the "Uranium Mining, Processing, and Nuclear Energy Review", the terms of reference of which include "the extent to which nuclear energy will make a contribution to the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions".[93] Howard announced on 10 December 2006 the formation of a Prime Ministerial Task Group on Emissions Trading.[94] On 3 February 2007, the Australian government announced that it could not by itself have a significant effect on mitigation of global warming, though it would continue to make efforts to cut greenhouse gases; it would be necessary for Australia to find means of adaptation.[95] On 4 June 2007, Howard announced a new Carbon Trading Scheme to be in place in Australia by 2012. Only four months earlier, Howard rejected such a scheme by the states, claiming "knee-jerk reactions that are going to destroy the jobs of coalminers".[96]

Northern Territory intervention

The NTER included bans on alcohol and pornography in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory

In August 2007, Prime Minister Howard and Indigenous Affairs minister Mal Brough announced the $1.6 billion Northern Territory National Emergency Response (NTER). This package of revisions to welfare provisions, law enforcement and other measures was advanced as a plan for addressing child abuse in Aboriginal Northern Territory communities that had been highlighted by the "Little Children are Sacred" report in mid-June[97][98].

While the scheme received bi-partisan support from the Opposition lead by Kevin Rudd, and the commitment to health and policing improvements were generally well received, aspects of the plan were considered controversial[99]. A key component of the intervention included compulsory acquisition by the Federal Government of local community land leases for a five year period; and removal of the permit system that had been designed to allow aboriginal communities to control access to their land. Minister Brough compared the permit system to apartheid and described their removal as an attempt to normalise Aboriginal communities by ending a race-based system[100].

Another controversial aspect of the plan was the introduction of welfare income management among prescribed communities. These provisions forced 50% of government welfare payments to be reserved by recipients strictly for purchasing essential goods such as food. Alcohol and pornography was also banned in these communities. Critics of the scheme labelled these measures "discriminatory"[101].

The plan drew criticism from the Little Children Are Sacred Report's authors for incorporating few of the report's recommendations,[102 ] and was broadly criticised by Lowitja O'Donoghue and the Dodson brothers; however it received broad support from activists including Marcia Langton, Sue Gordon and Noel Pearson[103]. Pearson outlined qualified support: "I'm in agreement with the emphasis on grog and policing. I'm in agreement with attaching conditions to welfare payments. But the difference between the proposals that we've put forward to the Government... there is a difference in that we would be concerned that those people who are acting responsibly in relation to the payments they receive, should continue to exercise their freedoms and their decisions, we should only target cases of responsibility failure[104]. Some critics, like Northern Territory Labor Parliamentarian Marion Scrymgour questioned the government's motives implying that the intervention was an attempt at pre-election "wedge politics"[105].


The Howard Government's fourth term took place during a period of exceptional economic growth and prosperity.[106] During the term over 855,000 new jobs were created, unemployment declined to just over four percent and inflation generally remained within the Reserve Bank of Australia's (RBA's) target range of 2-3 percent. The Government also completed repaying the Commonwealth's debt and recorded surpluses in each of its budgets during the term.[106] Australia's strong economic performance was largely attributed to the reforms made by both the Hawke-Keating Government and Howard Government and the growth in the world economy over the same period.[107] Growth in Australia's productivity did slow during the Howard Government's fourth term, however, and many areas of Australia's infrastructure reached capacity and required reform. The Howard Government's ability to drive these reforms was limited by the lack of a working relationship with many of the state and territory governments.[108]

The RBA's use of monetary policy was a significant issue during the Government's fourth term. A key element of the Government's campaign in the 2004 election was the argument that only a Coalition government could keep interest rates low.[109][110] As a result, the ALP was able to use the RBA's six interest rate increases over the term to criticise the Government. The interest rate increases and strong growth in house prices during this period contributed to housing affordability reaching an all-time low.[111]

Changes to fiscal policy introduced in the 2004–05 budget included a 'baby bonus', increased tax benefits for families with children, and lower income tax rates for all Australians. The family benefits introduced by the Howard Government led to middle-income households becoming the largest single group of social welfare recipients. The superannuation system was also changed in 2007 to allow most people to withdraw their superannuation tax-free after they reached the age of 60 and to increase incentives for semi-retired people to work part-time.[112] Once the Commonwealth debt was repaid, the Government used its financial surplus to establish a 'Future Fund' to pay its superannuation liabilities and a Higher Education Endowment Fund was established in the 2006-07 Budget.[113] The Government also negotiated and signed several free trade agreements between 2004 and 2007, including one with the United States which had been mostly negotiated during the third term.[114]

Other activities

Other previously blocked legislation secured by the Government in this term included abolition of compulsory university student union fees and the liberalisation of media ownership laws (by lowering restrictions on media companies owning multiple different media). The government instructed the Governor-General to disallow the ACT Civil Unions Act.[115] In April 2006, the government announced it had completely paid off the last of $96 billion of Commonwealth net debt inherited when it came to power in 1996.[116 ] Economists generally welcomed the news, while cautioning that some level of debt was not necessarily bad, and that some of the debt had been transferred to the private sector.[117]

In 2005, the Howard Government abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the only federal body charged with formally representing indigenous Australians. This was done in response to concerns that its organisational structure was conducive to corrupt behaviour by its officers.[118]

Following the 2004 Asian tsunami, the government pledged US$820 million (including US$761 million for Indonesia) worth of assistance to affected countries.[119] In 2005, with the support of Indonesia, the Howard Government secured a seat for Australia at the East Asian Summit.[120]

2007 election loss

For most of 2007, polling by various companies including Newspoll indicated that the Howard government was likely to be defeated if it went to an election. The election, held on 24 November, represented a 5.44 percent swing against the government nationwide, with a much stronger swing in Queensland of 7.53%. Howard lost his seat, as did three of his ministers (Gary Nairn, Mal Brough and Jim Lloyd) and 17 other Coalition MPs, although the Liberals gained two marginal Labor seats in Western Australia. The Rudd Government was sworn into office on 3 December 2007.[121]

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  • Garnett, Anne; Lewis, Phil (2008). "The economy". in Chris Aulich and Roger Wettenhall. Howard's Fourth Government. Australian Commonwealth Administration 2004–2007. Sydney: UNSW Press. ISBN 9780868409825.  
  • Megalogenis, George (2008). The Longest Decade (Revised ed.). Melbourne: Scribe. ISBN 9781921215940.  

External links

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