Greetings from Canberra. I’m in Australia to spend a few days with contacts in the Liberal Party and then enjoy a few days’ holiday in Sydney. While I am here I plan to write a few Platform pieces – sharing some observations about the ten year old premiership of John Howard.
"Gun law reform to ban automatic and semi-automatic weapons is not something you would expect from the conservative side of the fence. Yet he acted to ban these weapons – not something you could imagine his friend George W Bush doing. Taking Australia into the Iraq war was not an easy undertaking, either. But, persuaded that it was in the country’s interests, he put his case to his colleagues, listened to their concerns and then made a decision… Reforming taxation by broadening the base with the introduction of a Goods and Services Tax (like your VAT) was a big call. I remember when he rang me, as his campaign director, to let me know he wanted to consider it. All I could think of was Sir Humph-rey in Yes, Prime Minister: "Very courageous, Prime Minister!" Many of these things did not pass the superficial political popularity test. Yet he has done them, and not only retained his support base but enhanced it."
Glenn Milne, a columnist for The Australian, agrees. People don’t always agree with John Howard but they have come to believe that he takes unpopular decisions for the greater good. Milne paraphrases how ‘punters’ have come to talk of Howard: "Howard obviously believes in it and he’s not doing it for political advantage. He must be doing it for Australia."
America’s John McCain has built his own political reputation in a similar way. His straight-talking approach is celebrated for its authenticity – even when voters disagree with what the Senator is saying.
I thought of the Howard-McCain model when I read yesterday’s Observer story about the likely conclusions of David Cameron’s transport policy review – headed up by Steve Norris. Mr Norris wants David Cameron to make big increases in green taxation – increases that will be offset by reductions in other forms of tax. This trade-off was first posed by ConservativeHome four months ago.
I don’t happen to agree with Steve Norris’ proposals (preferring a technological approach to environmental challenges – hammered out in concert with developing nations) and I am not so worried about the environment as Mr Cameron. I, like most readers of ConservativeHome, believe that the world faces bigger dangers. But many people will respect David Cameron more if he matches his environmental rhetoric with environmental action. Tough, environmentally-friendly policies will give the Tory leader some credibility and Mr Norris appears to be offering those tough policies.