I first met John Howard through the International Democratic Union, a working association of over 80 Conservative, Christian Democrat and like-minded political parties of the centre and centre right.
The IDU promotes the ideals of liberal democracy, freedom of the individual, and the need for economic growth to be based on individual initiative and free, competitive enterprise economies. He was elected in place of William Hague who had retired from the IDU Chairmanship. I was impressed by this very busy Prime Minister who enthusiastically embraced an opportunity to engage in democracy building worldwide despite having plenty to do on the home front, having wrestled the mantle of Government from Paul Keating. As the Treasurer of the IDU I came to know and like John Howard. The news that he has been conferred a member of the Order of Merit will be applauded by those who know him as a hard working, effective and committed servant of the public. John Winston Howard is a true Australian statesman who left an indelible mark in his time.
The Australian Labor Government of Bob Hawke abolished the Imperial Honours system in 1986 leaving in place the Order of Australia as its pre-eminent civil award, thus making it very difficult for an Australian to be acknowledged by the old country. They also abolished the categories of Knight and Dame of the Order, just to make sure that Australians didn’t get above themselves with titles and appellations. However, the Order of Merit is within Her Majesty’s personal gift, and therefore not subject to government advice or meddling. In the words of the Australian Governor-General it is “a rare and singular honour” as Howard joins Australian icons Dame Joan Sutherland, Howard Florey and Sidney Nolan. The OM’s living membership is limited to 24 (Margaret Thatcher among them). Since the Order of Merit was founded by King Edward VII in 1902 eight Australians have made the cut; the only other living recipient is one of my fellow peers, the cross bencher Lord May of Oxford.
The OM doesn’t come with a title so that should be some consolation for those in the Australian Labor Party who feel awkward about such awards. Labor PM Julia Gillard is not among them; she welcomed John Howard’s induction into the Order of Merit because it recognized his decades of distinguished public service. She said “He led our nation through many difficult days, including our grieving after the Port Arthur massacre, 9/11 and the Bali bombings. He led our nation through times of widespread and complex economic and social change. While Australians will inevitably have a variety of views about the record of the Howard government, Mr Howard rightly commands ongoing respect for his contribution to the nation.”
Howard was Australia’s second longest-serving Prime Minister after the legendary Bob Menzies. He came from a modest Sydney background, attended state run schools and graduated from Sydney University in law before embarking on a political career. He was twice Leader of the Opposition, succeeding in his second tilt at office when he toppled Paul Keating in 1996. He went on to build a formidable reputation in Government, winning four general elections. A strong economy, secure borders – “We will decide who comes into this country and on what terms”, as he famously put it – and policies that directly assisted working class blue collar workers (“Howard battlers” as they were called) remain among his legacy. He gave Australians an opportunity to vote for a Republic whilst remaining true to his belief that a Constitutional Monarchy was right for Australia; the referendum motion was defeated overwhelmingly. As he correctly points out his Government “changed the country” in those 11 years and although his defeat in 2007 coincided with the loss of his own seat (only the second Australian Prime Minister in history to suffer that fate) it wasn’t long before the bumper stickers started appearing on cars – “Missing Me Yet?”
In 2008 John Howard was awarded Australia’s most senior civil award, the Companion of the Order of Australia. His citation read “For distinguished service to the Parliament of Australia, particularly as Prime Minister and through contributions to economic and social policy reform, fostering and promoting Australia’s interests internationally, and the development of significant philanthropic links between the business sector, arts and charitable organizations”.
He was awarded the Star of the Solomon Islands in 2005 and the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
In adding the Order of Merit to his collection Howard was ever mindful of the significance of the award in telling journalists “It’s a compliment to Australia and a recognition, among other things, of the respect the Queen has for this country. I’m very grateful for it.”