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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 August, 2003, 23:12 GMT 00:12 UK
Howard: Bare-knuckle boxer
By Dominic Hughes
BBC Sydney correspondent

John Howard
Howard has defied expectations
During almost four years in Sydney, Dominic Hughes has been watching John Howard emerging as the all-powerful figure within his own governing Liberal party and dominating the political landscape. Here, he gives his assessment of the Australian prime minister.

When I first arrived in Sydney in late 1999, John Howard was fighting off an attempt to turn Australia from a constitutional monarchy into a republic.

The newspapers never thought he'd do it. They dismissed John Howard as Little Johnny.

He'd only narrowly won the recent general election, with the opposition Labor party actually capturing a greater percentage of the popular vote. His opposition to an Australian republic was seen by many as a fatal flaw.

At the time one friend, giving me an idiot's guide to Australia, and knowing that I'd covered British politics for the previous eight years, described John Howard as rather like the former British Prime Minister John Major.

There were similarities, it's true - both come from the right of politics, both men share a love of cricket, and both have an apparent nostalgia for the 1950s as a golden age.

But I've since reassessed that comparison - John Howard is a much more ruthless and perhaps cunning politician than John Major ever was.

Pick and mix

How he dealt with the One Nation party is a case in point.

Pauline Hanson
Pauline Hanson is serving a three-year sentence for fraud
This extreme right-wing party, started by former fish and chip shop owner Pauline Hanson, attracted a massive groundswell of support with its anti-immigration, anti-Asian, anti-Aboriginal rhetoric.

For a short period in the late 1990s, One Nation was taking supporters from both the governing Liberals and the opposition Labor party.

John Howard's response was to criticise publicly Pauline Hanson's xenophobia and racism, but at the same time to quietly take many One Nation policies and adopt them as the Liberal party's own.

So Aboriginal activists have found themselves marginalised and the government has set up the tough Pacific Solution to deal with boats carrying illegal immigrants and would-be asylum seekers.

But the real ruthless beauty of the way the Howard government has dealt with One Nation has only become clear in recent days.

Pauline Hanson is now serving a three-year jail sentence for electoral fraud.

Asylum seekers in Australia
Howard has adopted a similar tone to Hanson on immigration
It appears that John Howard's protégé, Cabinet Minister Tony Abbott, had set up a special fund to help encourage disaffected One Nation members to bring court cases against their leader.

Mr Abbott was one of many Liberal politicians to express shock at the severity of Hanson's sentence.

One of his colleagues even went so far as to say she was a political prisoner, and blamed the Labor state Government in Queensland where the trial was held.

So the Liberal party, which John Howard dominates, has managed to take Hanson out of the game, while at the same time winning over many of her former supporters by adopting her policies, and trying to avoid the fallout by pinning the blame on the Labor party.


'Children overboard'

But while some people are asking questions about the appropriateness of a senior minister financing legal cases being brought against a rival party, any scandal is unlikely to stick to John Howard.

Unlike John Major, who was gradually dragged down as one after another of his colleagues became caught up in allegations of sleaze, John Howard truly is the Teflon prime minister.

One of the most disturbing examples is what's known as the Children Overboard Affair.

Demonstrating his ability to find the exact issue that will make his opponents squirm the most, John Howard focused on border security and illegal immigrants for the 2001 general election.

In a post-11 September world, the Labor party couldn't decide whether to oppose or back the government - and so appeared ineffectual.

But in the middle of the campaign came claims from the government that a boatload of illegal immigrants had started throwing their children into the sea to force Australian navy personnel to help them.

Were these the kind of people Australia wanted to let in, asked the prime minister?

After the election, it became clear that nothing of the sort had happened.

The prime minister's response? Let's move on, he said - the people have had enough of this.

And he was right - it seems that although many now accept that ministers either lied, or at best were slow in correcting the public record, no-one really cared.

In control

The same goes for the unproven claims on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Even though two-thirds of Australians believe they have been misled over the case for sending troops to fight in Iraq, John Howard still holds a commanding lead in the opinion polls.

Mr Howard has spent more than 30 years in politics, in which, to use an Australian phrase, he has become an expert in chopping people off at the knees.

Indeed he has been chopped himself, not once but twice as an opposition leader of the Liberals.

But now he looks like he is in complete control, and it's hard to see what will end his run apart from his own decision to retire.

People talk about the cut and thrust of politics - but the elegant fencing analogy seems misplaced in Australia.

From what I've seen it's more of a bare-knuckle boxing kind of world, and John Howard is the champion.

Profile: John Howard
15 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Hanson jailed for electoral fraud
20 Aug 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Howard's refugee gamble paying off
21 Sep 01  |  Asia-Pacific
Asian-Australians fear far-right return
22 Feb 01  |  Asia-Pacific
Pauline Hanson: Voice of nationalism
04 Oct 98  |  Australian elections
Country Profile: Australia
16 May 02  |  Country profiles

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