Symposium: A Decade of Howard Government

After Howard’s decade, is Australia more conservative?

Gabrielle Meagher, The University of Sydney
Shaun Wilson, Macquarie University

As he conceded to John Howard’s victorious Coalition, the last Labor prime minister, Paul Keating, said: ‘if you change government, you change the country.’ In the four preceding years, the political life of the country had been enlivened by Keating’s bold hope of an Australia transformed—of an economy locked into Asia, and of a multicultural society that had transcended its English heritage and was genuinely aware of Aboriginal injustice.

Has Keating’s weary prediction proved right? There’s little doubt that a conservative wind has blown across John Howard’s Australia. The country has lost its focus on Asian rapprochement, gone through a traumatic ‘race debate’ that saw up to a quarter of Queenslanders vote for One Nation in 1998, rejected a republic at referendum, and watched by as refugees became political targets in the 2001 election campaign. At all times, Howard has been at the centre of these reversals, and his conservative agenda has now well and truly repudiated the Keating legacy. Howard’s Government has gone on to ban same-sex marriage, to pursue the building and maritime unions, to reinvigorate the role of churches in social policy, and to tailor welfare to breadwinner families.

Howard is a proud conservative, and has never hidden his ambitions for Australia.

Should any of this come as a surprise? After all, Howard is a proud conservative, and has never hidden his ambitions for Australia. Have his changes been endorsed by the Australian public? The short answer surely lies in the Government’s repeated victories at the polls. But a longer answer—and one we pursue here—seeks to discover how much of Howard’s success is a public endorsement of his brand of conservatism.


Howard’s agenda reads like the list of conservative ‘hot-button’ issues that have helped rebuild Republican fortunes in the United States: family values, small government, Christian morals, and the virtues of free enterprise and self-reliance. We can add to this list Howard’s own convictions for Australia: monarchism, pro-Americanism, and a blokesy version of Australian nationalism.

Have these convictions translated into public policies, and has the public supported them with an equal conviction? Let’s look closely at three policy areas—family policies, economic reform, and immigration—where there’s decent public opinion data to check whether policy change under the Coalition is reflected in Australian social attitudes. (Readers will find a guide to our primary sources at the end of the article.)

There’s no doubt that Howard’s ‘family values’—which emphasise the traditional roles of male breadwinner and female homemaker—find ever clearer expression in social policy. In one area of expanding welfare, the Family Tax Benefit system, ‘stay-at-home mums’ now receive payments without means testing in an otherwise highly targeted social security system. Meanwhile, working mothers in low and middle income households face strong economic disincentives to participating in work (Apps 2004; Hill 2006). Policy analysts are now speculating that pro-breadwinner welfare is feeding into real-world changes in women’s workforce participation (Kelly et al. 2005).

Yet public opinion is moving against the conservative values that underlie this policy direction. A large proportion of Australians now understand ‘family’ as a much more inclusive institution than the ‘man and stay-at-home mum’ combination that conservatives extol; as Ann Evans and Edith Gray show, more than half of all Australians under 50 now believe that a same-sex couple with children is a family (2005, p. 19). In fact, support for traditional gender roles has fallen precipitously in recent decades. In 1980, nearly two thirds of Australians agreed that ‘It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the breadwinner and the woman takes care of the home and family’ (Age Poll 1980). By 2002, less than a quarter agreed (ISSP 2002). And opposition to mothers working—even those with preschool children—is now a minority view. In 1994, half of all Australians agreed that ‘preschool children suffer if the mother works’ (ISSP 1994). By 2003, this had fallen to around a third (AuSSA 2003). Although these questions don’t ask about policy preferences, these findings suggest that there is no longer majority support among Australians for values that prioritise traditional families.

There is no doubt that the Government has staked its reputation on its day-to-day economic management and a majority of Australians agree that the Government is best to handle the economy (Newspoll 2006). And on the major economic issue of the 2004 election campaign—the future direction of interest rates—the public strongly sided with the Government over Labor (AES 2004), who seemed hopelessly tagged with the high interest rates of the late 1980s.

However, when we turn to matters of economic reform, a gap between policy and public opinion emerges. Industrial relations deregulation, privatisation, and smaller government have become mainstays of the Howard reform agenda. We might debate whether these are genuinely ‘conservative’ or ‘neoliberal’ policies and whether they are uniquely Coalition initiatives or continuing directions established under previous Labor governments. Either way, most Australians don’t support them.

Public support for traditional gender roles has fallen precipitously in recent decades.

Opposition to recent industrial relations changes is strong at around 60 per cent (AC Nielsen Polls, cited in Wilson 2005, p. 290). Privatisation attracts as little support. A majority of Australians prefer public ownership for Telstra (57 per cent), electricity (60 per cent), public transport (63 per cent), Australia Post (67 per cent), and for prisons (67 per cent) (see Pusey & Turnbull 2005, pp. 165–66). And even though tax cuts have been consistently promoted by the Government, their popularity has fallen against other priorities for government. Support for income tax cuts over increased spending on social services has fallen steadily from 65 per cent in 1987 to 36 per cent in 2004 (AES 1987–2004). In sum, the public endorses the Government’s economic management, but wherever conservative ideology appears to be shaping economic policy, public support falls away.

Assessing immigration policy and attitudes is particularly complex. Prime Minister Howard has fostered an inward-looking nationalism, which we might expect to be reflected in a smaller immigration program and strong anti-immigration sentiment. Certainly, several Howard ministers and the Prime Minister himself manipulated perceptions of the ‘children overboard’ and Tampa incidents, thereby blurring distinctions between refugees, terrorists and Muslims to their electoral advantage (Marr & Wilkinson 2003; Weller 2002).

Yet the Howard Government has not been consistently ‘anti-immigration’ (see Gittins 2003). On the contrary, immigration has increased under Howard: total settler arrivals in 2003–04 were 60 per cent higher than they were a decade before (Commonwealth of Australia 2004, p. 9). What has changed is the balance between different kinds of immigrants. The program now emphasises business’s interest in attracting more skilled labour, as opposed to unpopular family reunion component of the program (see, for example, Business Council of Australia 1999).

How has the public responded to immigration under Howard? Focusing on one headline measure, public support for immigration is higher than it has been for a generation (AES 1990–2004; Goot & Watson 2005, pp. 183–185). But does this represent agreement with Howard’s policy changes or a rejection of conservative anti-immigration politics? The answer is likely to be a mix of factors in criss-crossing directions. The stronger economy has undermined one traditional source of hostility to migration: a lack of jobs for Australian-born workers. Howard’s high profile in the immigration and refugee debates may have instilled greater confidence among conservative Australians in the immigration mix. But other Australians probably now feel uncomfortable with anti-immigration politics, coming to see that immigrants are good for the Australian economy and society. There is, moreover, little evidence to support the proposition that Australians are willingly turning their back on multiculturalism (Goot & Watson 2005, p. 184), even though the Prime Minister himself has explicitly criticised it.

What the immigration policy illustrates is the complex relation between public policy and public opinion. Political scientists in the United States are vigorously debating whether public opinion ultimately determines the direction of policy or whether politicians selectively ‘pander’ to the public in pursuit of their political goals—even when those goals are not widely supported (Erikson et al 2002; Hacker & Pierson 2005, Jacobs & Shapiro 2002). What we cannot say, however, is that the Howard Government has ‘made’ Australian public opinion more conservative.

The Government has pandered to some prejudices in the community.

Certainly, it is reasonable to say that the Government has pandered to some prejudices in the community, crafting its policy responses and increase its popularity. But in a raft of areas, from the role of women in the economy to the place of public services, and even in the immigration debate, we find no evidence of a uniform trend to a more conservative Australia. Indeed, the countervailing pressure of public opinion may have occasionally forced the Government to accommodate opposition to a privatisation of healthcare (the public strongly endorses Medicare) and to major cutbacks in the social safety net. Like all governments, the Howard Government remains subject to both the cycles of public opinion that punish governments for moving too far in one direction, and to secular trends in social attitudes that have generally produced a more open and tolerant society.


We have shown that Australians have not moved ‘off center’ to borrow Hacker and Pierson’s (2005) useful phrase. If anything, the public has drifted leftwards in their attitudes in major policy areas, supporting working women, public spending, and immigration. So we can’t confirm that the Government remains popular because it has succeeded in finding the true centre of gravity in Australian politics. If Howard’s ultimate goal is to instil more conservative values, then he is unlikely to succeed.

So why is the Howard Government still popular after a decade in office? Before offering some alternative answers, perhaps it’s sensible to qualify the extent of the Government’s popularity. The previous Labor government won five elections, something the current government is yet to do, and governed for thirteen years. The record for the conservative side of politics—23 years— is unlikely to be matched. Although it seems possible that a Howard-led government will narrowly win in 2007, which would mean the Government holds office for at least fourteen years, a change of leadership this year would make the 2007 contest more difficult to call.

Although we argue against the belief that the Howard Government is unusually popular, we do not dispute that the government is well positioned as it enters its second decade in office. We contend that its strong position does not depend so much in a shift to the right in Australian values, but on three other factors: the prosperous economy, the solid state of the Coalition electorate, and Labor’s present travails. We’ll try to show that the latter two factors are closely related.

After a decade and a half of economic growth, Australia is a wealthier country, and the benefits have been spread widely enough to shift Australian’s fundamental views of the economy. While some voters are swayed by non-economic factors, many are influenced by the performance of the economy. Goot and Watson report that pride in Australia’s economic achievements has risen from 48 per cent in 1995 (Labor’s last full year in office) to 80 per cent in 2003 (2005, p. 190).

Results from the Australian Election Studies reveal much the same thing. The number of Australians saying that their household’s financial situation had improved over the previous year has increased continuously during Howard’s tenure, from 19 per cent in 1996 to 28 per cent in 2004. The largest jump (7 per cent) took place between the last two elections of 2001 and 2004. Even stronger have been general perceptions of the economy; when asked if the economic situation in Australia was better or worse than the previous year, voters are increasingly positive. In 1990, as few as 8 per cent thought better; by 2004, this number had risen to 42 per cent.

Recent commentary on Howard describes him as a man with ‘a genius for politics’.

Has the public attributed the economy’s turnaround to the Howard Government? The short answer appears to be yes—and this holds for personal finances as well as the economy overall. In 2004, around one in five voters were prepared to say that the Government had a good effect on their personal finances. While this doesn’t seem high, but it represents a strengthening trend since 1993, when only one in twenty voters thought so. When it comes to the overall economy, voters are equally sanguine about the Government’s impact; in 2004, 35 per cent of Australians thought the Government had a good effect on the economy, compared with just 13 per cent under Keating in 1996. Labor’s complaint about the Government cruising along on the benefits of their reforms in the 1980s appears lost on voters. True, it’s been an economy run on debt and consumption—but enough people have benefited to keep any big problems at bay, probably left for the next Labor government to deal with.

Recent commentary on Howard describes him as a man with ‘a genius for politics’ (Wade & Garnaut 2006). Columnist Gerard Henderson calls him Australia’s ‘most significant Liberal leader’ (2006) and ‘the most successful politician since Robert Menzies’ (2005). Assessing all the claims about the contribution of Howard’s leadership skills to the Government’s electoral success lie beyond our brief. We limit our assessment to the results of voter responses to two questions in the AES 2004. The first question asks: ‘Would you say that any of the individual party leaders in the last election represents your views reasonably well?’. Some 41 per cent chose John Howard, compared with just 25 per cent for the inexperienced Mark Latham. Another 21 per cent chose ‘No leader’.

These results mean that a majority of those expressing a definite opinion identified with Howard, a clear sign of his connection to voters. But when asked how well individual political parties represent their views, some 44 per cent of voters chose the Coalition and 27 per cent chose Labor. No doubt, it’s a big lead for the Coalition, but if Howard’s leadership abilities are critical to the Government’s electoral fortunes, it’s surprising that his personal standing among voters is lower than that of the Coalition.

Howard’s gloss of success can be attributed partly to the strength of the Coalition’s electoral base (which he certainly has contributed to) and to Labor’s weakness. When we look at party identification (a ready measure of voter loyalties) among Australians between 1987 and 2004, we get a glimpse at the structural shifts in voter alignment favouring the Coalition. While the National Party has lost the loyalty of 4 per cent of voters, dropping from 7 to 3 per cent, the Liberals have actually gained new supporters over this time (up from 34 to 42 per cent).

But the real story lies on the other side of politics. Labor has suffered a huge decline since 1987, from 49 per cent to just 32 per cent in 2004. The beneficiaries of this fragmentation appear to be the Liberals and the Greens, who now attract 5 per cent of voters. But the largest increase is registered among voters without political attachment, who now count for 16 per cent of the electorate. Among these voters without a party loyalty, many must count as disillusioned Labor voters or potential Labor voters who have never developed an attachment to the party.

One source of Labor’s decline is the falling level of union membership.

Although we compare unweighted data over several time periods, the trends in voter loyalty are unmistakable: the ALP has lost part of its base electorate. And although the focus has been on Labor’s leadership problems—four different leaders in ten years—the Coalition suffered similar leadership instability during the 1980s without the additional problem faced by Labor: erosion of their core constituency.

One source of Labor’s decline is the falling level of union membership. Union members are loyal Labor voters, so the 50 per cent decline in union membership over the last twenty years has surely injured the ALP. The economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s championed by Labor contributed to a weaker labour movement (Peetz 1997, chapter 4). Viewed in this light, the Party’s commitment to fast-paced reform seems like an act of political martyrdom.

Chart 1 compares the number of Australians identifying as Labor voters with the number of union members (AES 1987–2004). We can see that the decline in union membership closely tracks the decline in ALP identifiers. Here’s the point: a weak labour movement means a weaker Labor party, and thus a Coalition and Prime Minister who appear stronger than they might otherwise be.

There may be some better news on the way for Labor, even if they are yet to realise it. The decline in union membership, measured in both the AES and more systematically by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2005), has stopped. Although Labor reformers seek to further distance the party from organised labour, they might be overlooking the value of strengthening links to their longstanding ally. Coming off historic lows, public opinion towards unions is more favourable than it has been for a generation. And in its recent campaign against industrial relations reforms, the union movement again proved that it is the strongest social force in Australia politics.


Something of the essence of Howard’s claim to history for his conservative agenda is captured in statement he made in 2004:

I can’t think of any policy of Federal Labor that would do more damage to the Australian economy that a restoration of trade union control over industrial relations. There has been an historic shift in this country over the last decade, and there can be no turning back, our economy has changed forever as a result of industrial relations deregulation. Our economy has forever, if that deregulation continues, become a more productive economy. In 1986, 35 per cent of the Australian workforce employed in the private sector were members of the trade unions. That figure is now 17.5 per cent.

Howard’s conservative agenda has assumed many guises—monarchism, family values, the threat of Islam, Australian nationalism, and individual choice—but his 2004 statement reveals its ‘historic’ commitment: to ‘freeing’ the economy from union control. Antipathy to unions runs so deeply that the Government was prepared to eliminate student unions to prove it.

That Howard has forced Labor to compete on his territory tells us a lot about his success.

The Government could hardly hide its pride last year when it passed legislation dismantling the industrial relation system. Its victory was full of symbolism, aggressive potential and, perhaps, a distasteful overconfidence. Its aim is not to just to keep productivity high, but to further weaken the standing of unions in the workplace, which, as we have suggested, brings tangible political benefits.

Although not easily or obviously linked, Howard’s conservative agenda keeps any real focus on progressive alternatives—best articulated by unions—at the margins of political debate. This is not to say that Howard’s cultural conservatism serves no other purpose—it clearly does—but rather it recognises what Hacker and Pierson say of the American political scene: ‘there is little question that conservatives often use cultural messages to trump economic ones’ (2005, p. 195).

We have argued that although the Howard Government has pursued a conservative agenda that it is unlikely to change the deeper aspirations and values of the Australian public. We claim its success is not found in Australia’s ready adoption of its conservative ambitions, but rather in the current strength of the economy and the declining electoral foundations of its main opponent. We have suggested that the weakness of the union movement lies at the core of Labor’s electoral problems. Union decline means that the structural conditions for expressing political alternatives have been undermined. Labor must hope for a resurgence in union vitality in response to industrial relations reform, or seek out new constituencies to rebuild its voter base. That he has forced Labor to compete on his territory—the conservative politics of prosperity—tells us a lot about Howard’s success.


Primary data sources include the Australian Election Studies (AES) 1987–2004, the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA). These studies are available online at the Australian Social Science Data Archive, as is the 1980 Age Poll we cite. We also use the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) Family and Changing Gender Roles II (1994) and III (2002). Links to the questionnaires and codebooks from which we drew data are available from the ISSP. Other opinion poll data is cited separately below.


Apps, P. 2004, ‘The high taxation of working families’, Australian Review of Public Affairs, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 1–24, Dec [Online], Available: [2006, Feb 22].

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2005, Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership, Australia, Aug 2004, Cat. no. 6310.0, ABS, Canberra.

Business Council of Australia 1999, ‘Business Council calls for debate on population’, press release [Online], Available: [2006, Feb 22].

Commonwealth of Australia 2004, Settler Arrivals 1993–94 to 2003–04, Australia States and Territories [Online], Available: [2006, Feb 22].

Erikson, R.S., Mackuen, M. B. & Stimson, J. A. 2002, ‘Public opinion and policy: Causal flow in a macro system model’, in Navigating Public Opinion: Polls, Public Policy, and the Future of American Democracy, eds J. Manza, F. L. & Cook, B. I. Page, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 33–53.

Evans, A. & Gray, E. ‘What makes an Australian Family?’ in Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report, eds S. Wilson, R. Gibson, G. Meagher, D. Denemark & M. Western, UNSW Press, Sydney, pp. 12–29.

Gittins, R. 2003, ‘Guess who’s coming to live here’, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August [Online], Available: [2006, Feb 22].

Goot, M. & Watson, I. 2005 ‘Immigration, multiculturalism and national identity’, in Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report, eds S. Wilson, R. Gibson, G. Meagher, D. Denemark & M. Western, UNSW Press, Sydney, pp. 182–203.

Henderson, G. 2005, ‘Minority may yet tax majority’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 January.

Henderson, G. 2006, ‘Sober, but a power walker for reform’, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 February.

Hill, E. 2006, ‘Howard’s ‘choice’: The ideology and politics of work and family policy 1996–2006’, Australian Review of Public Affairs, [Online], Available: [2006, Feb 22].

Howard, J. 2004, Address to Liberal Party of Western Australia’s State Council, Hyatt Hotel, Perth, 31 July [Online], Available: [2006, Feb 22].

Hacker, J. S. & Pierson, P. 2005, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Jacobs, L. R. & Shapiro, R. Y. 2002, ‘Politics and policymaking in the real world: Crafted talk and the loss of democratic responsiveness’, in Navigating Public Opinion: Polls, Public Policy, and the Future of American Democracy, eds J. Manza, F. L. Cook, B. I. Page, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 54–75.

Kelly, S., Bolton T. & Harding, A. 2005, ‘May the labour force be with you’, AMP.NATSEM Income and Wealth Report Issue 12, November.

Marr, D. & Wilkinson M. 2003, Dark Victory, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Newspoll 2006, ‘Importance and best party to handle major issues’, 21 February [Online], Available: [2006, Feb 22].

Peetz, D. 1997, Unions in a Contrary World: The Future of the Australian Union Movement, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Pusey, M. & Turnbull, N. 2005, ‘Have Australians embraced economic reform?’, in Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report, eds S. Wilson, R. Gibson, G. Meagher, D. Denemark & M. Western, UNSW Press, Sydney, pp. 161–181.

Wade, M. & Garnaut, J. 2006, ‘He’s in a win-win situation’, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 February.

Weller, P. 2002, Don’t Tell the Prime Minister, Scribe, Melbourne.

Wilson, S. 2005, ‘Any attention is bad attention? Public opinion towards the Howard Government’s industrial relations reforms in 2005’, Journal of Australian Political Economy, no. 56, pp. 284–298.

Gabrielle Meagher is Senior Lecturer in Political Economy in the School of Economics at the University of Sydney. She is Editor of the Australian Review of Public Affairs, and a Principal Investigator of the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes.

Shaun Wilson is Lecturer in Sociology in the Division of Society, Culture, Media and Philosophy at Macquarie University. He is a Principal Investigator of the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes.