Remarks at Award of John Howard Honorary Degree University of Sydney

30 Sep 2016
Prime Minister

[Greetings omitted]

Well this is, as Janette said, a great day for the Howard Family. Hello Melanie.


It is a great day John, it’s a great honour for you. You’re laden with honours and you deserve all of them. As Janette was saying it’s great to be awarded this degree from your own university, from your own alma mater.

Thank you very much, Belinda for inviting me to pay tribute to a man that I admire so much and it’s wonderful to be back on the campus of the university that gave us both, and I suspect most of the people here, such a great springboard into the world. We are always indebted to this university.

I also want to reflect today on how much Australia owes to John Howard and perhaps a good place to start is with how much I owe him. But for his intercession and wise counsel I might not be standing here as Prime Minister at all. After I lost the leadership of the Liberal Party in 2009, I announced my intention to quit politics altogether. Now John had his own brush with the special kind of disappointment that comes with losing the leadership and nobody was better placed to offer advice and encouragement. He convinced me that I might still have a future in politics and as has often proved the case, his advice was impeccable. His own political career was testimony to his perseverance and we are all grateful that he pursued the path of public service with determination and grit in the face of many adversities over the years.

He famously said once: “The times will suit me.” The times proved him right. The election of the Howard Government in 1996 was a watershed moment in Australia’s political history, delivering one of the greatest periods of prosperity our nation has ever known.

John’s legacy to the nation is the Coalition government’s lengthy rollcall of achievements over more than a decade, a continuous run of strong economic growth through more than a decade. A reenergised private sector, ready, willing and able to compete with the world’s best. Record low levels of unemployment and a more productive and better-paid workforce, and a reputation internationally as a confident, capable, and constructive power.

None of this happened by accident. John was instrumental in bringing back a style and substance of government that is absolutely crucial to our continued success and prosperity. I have often said that John Howard’s Government is the gold standard and the one to which I aspire.

The Howard years are a template for good government. His operating principle of collegial, consultative Westminster-style Cabinet Government delivered sound policy outcomes and superb management.

He was the right leader for the times because he understood and respected Australians like few others. He knew that you have to earn community support, you have to make your case compellingly, you have to win the public trust.

John, who practiced, as you know, after his graduation here, for a dozen years or so as a lawyer, understood that an advocate who is unsuccessful, can never blame the dimness of the judge or the unreasonableness of the jury; the advocate’s job is to get his or her message across. If you’re not being persuasive, that’s your fault as the advocate. He understood that and still does.  He is a man and a leader with a deep respect for the people, for the audience he is addressing. He understands that it’s his job to make the complex comprehensible and to make the difficult, palatable. He understands that responsibility of the advocate. That ability, I have to say, is harder to emulate than almost anything, because we live in challenging times with difficult problems and I often think about the way John would lay out the problem, explain it very clearly and then having established that, then present a solution.

Now he never retreated from challenge. I can think of no greater example of this, and perhaps no more enduring Howard legacy – although there are many - than the gun reform that came from the Port Arthur tragedy. It happened just a few weeks into his tenure as Prime Minister and is not the kind of crisis for which there is a blueprint for action. But his ability to craft the right response, showed the measure of the man.

No matter what political colours Australians nail to the mast, most agree that John’s actions in the aftermath of that terrible day, have changed our nation for the better. The National Firearms Agreement is now held up around the world as an example of a society refusing to relinquish control of its peaceful existence.

To be able to take one of our saddest moments and make us better, shows true leadership.

We were a grieving, shocked nation; John Howard made us a freer, safer one.

Other nations have faced similar, challenges, similar tragedies. But the challenge of tighter gun control has eluded them. Strong leadership and a willingness to act, despite the threat of division and disharmony, helped Australia succeed where others have failed.

Three years later John faced a crisis that was played out on the international stage. Violence, intimidation and atrocities in East Timor demanded action, but who would act? John Howard acted. He put principle over precedent. Australia was central to the United Nations intervention that stopped a humanitarian disaster after East Timor’s independence vote.

He took the lead in the United Nation supervised transition and 2500 Australian troops disarmed the militia and provided shelter, food, and medical aid to the people of East Timor. The intervention was popular at home, but very controversial internationally. John persuaded the world using the same technique that made him such a successful politician at home; you earn support for action by making a compelling case for it. Ultimately, the Australia-led action in East Timor would be rated within the United Nations as one of its most successful interventions.

Later, in restoring our relationship with Indonesia and in strengthening trade in the region, he displayed an understanding of and engagement with our neighbours that few at the time gave him credit for. But he built the foundations for the relationships that are critical to our success today. The test of a real leader is whether they do what is right, not just what is popular. True leadership is often about telling people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.

John pursued large scale economic reform, not because it could make him popular, but because it was the right thing to do. Tax reform was a vital component of that and in the heat of an election campaign, he convinced the public that it was the right thing to do. It is challenging to do that – I have a recent recollection of taking tax reform to an election.


We both had a close result, although John ended up with some more numbers in the House than I did, I must say. Nonetheless it is challenging.

The economic management of John and his Treasurer Peter Costello has set up the general wellbeing of Australians today; confident engagement by Australia in global markets, the deregulation of sclerotic and underperforming domestic markets, and a sober, responsible approach to public finances.

His commitment to economic reform was unflagging. In the last year of his government, 2007, and in the midst of the worst drought for a century, he took on the task of reforming the management of our interstate water systems - a problem that had been put in the too-hard basket by the founding fathers of the Commonwealth no less!

He took that on, I supported him as his Water Minister, and his reforms - while diluted somewhat by the subsequent Labor Government - confirmed our global leadership in water management, acknowledged as recently as last week at the United Nations.

Now I recall saying to John, while he was still Prime Minister, that he would be our best ex-Prime Minister. He is proving my prediction correct.


He makes a strong, constructive contribution to public life: he continues to mentor new waves of politicians and leaders, including myself, he is active in the Liberal Party and he often provides cool counsel to heated heads.

As a writer of political memoir in Lazarus Rising, and political history, in The Menzies Era, he demonstrates a flair for the written word that has been lapped up by the public. The Howard volumes are not be found in those places, to quote his contemporary Clive James, “where remaindering occurs”. Lately we have enjoyed him on the ABC in a quite different role - as presenter and interviewer in Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia, seeking to reframe our thinking of the founder of our Party and in many ways, as John explains, the architect of modern Australia. Those two episodes are among the finest political historical documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s a great tribute to you John, to take up television production so successfully.

Of course, it’s  built on a lifetime of admiration for our national broadcaster too, so that’s good.


Of course no tribute to John Howard and his contribution to the nation would be complete without acknowledgement of that great love affair, that great partnership, acknowledgment of Janette.


They are one of our great political couples, a great team. Together they are role models for so many others, not just in politics, but what a partnership. Certainly Lucy and I have been inspired by both of you as a team and the way you’ve approached these challenges together, the way you’ve supported John and you’ve taken on the challenges of the world as a great team.

So congratulations John, on being admitted to the degree of Doctor of Letters.

And on behalf of a nation grateful for your service, thank you.