Former Prime Minister, John Howard, shares his views on Australian society

Wednesday 7 May, 2014

Delivering the 2014 Warrane Lecture, former Prime Minister John Howard OM AC argued that Australia needs to value its history and Judeo-Christian past, particularly in the way that its history is taught.

Mr Howard, who was Prime Minister for more than a decade, from 1996 to 2007, also took the opportunity to speak out in support of traditional marriage. 

The Lecture was delivered to a packed main common room on 7 May. Among those present were present and past politicians, academics, lawyers and judges.

His views were televised and reported in detail on the website which carried full recordings of his lecture and the question-and-answer session that followed it.

Mr Howard said that, just as a successful leader is somebody who stands for something and also knows his or her limitations, a successful nation, and a nation that tackles its limits successfully, is one that understands not only what it stands for but where it came from and where it wants to go. 

“And one of the things that troubles me about Australia in 2014 is not so much some of the economic challenges . . . But I worry that sometimes in our haste to conform to contemporary notions of what the reaction of our country should be to a changing world, that we lose sight of the influences that have shaped us and that we lose sight of where we have come from.

“Some of you may be aware that 18 months ago I delivered a lecture in memory of Sir Paul Hasluck, the former Governor General of Australia, in which I lamented decisions that have been taken by the various education ministers of Australia about the teaching of Australian history. I am sorry to say that, 18 months on, nothing much has changed, although there is under review at present the curriculum being chaired by Dr Kevin Donnelly and comprising a number of other respected academics. The reality is that, save and except a few changes that were made in response to expressions of concern, that national history curriculum has been adopted.”

Mr Howard said to put the question in context, it was necessary to understand a number of fundamentals about Australia, which he described as “a projection of Western civilisation”. 

“We may be geographically located in the Asian-Pacific region – and that is to our enormous, enormous economic advantage,” he said. “That was demonstrated by the fact that we were able to sail through the global financial crisis relatively unaffected because of the enormous demand for the resources that providence has given us, by China particularly, and Japan and Korea as well.  But it doesn’t alter the fact that we are culturally, historically, spiritually and in every other way, a Western nation. 

“One’s culture is not defined by ethnicity. One’s culture is defined by one’s history and one’s experience, and by one’s values. And one of the things I find depressing about the history curriculum is the extent to which the influences of Western civilisation have been marginalised, the way in which the Judeo-Christian ethic which has borne the moral wellspring of this country ever since its formation, has been effectively airbrushed from the proper understanding of this country’s history. And the influence of British institutions from Australian life have been virtually obliterated from a proper study of history.”
 Mr Howard said one of the great virtues of Australia was that it has been able to take from its past the good things, but discard many of the bad things. 

“We didn’t transplant from the United Kingdom class snobbery and divisions nor many of the other rigid elements of British society, but rather we have taken good things,” he said. 

“We have even learnt to play their sport a great deal better. You will forgive that little bit of triumphalism. . .

“Another great thing about the Australian achievement is what I call a sense of balance, and I mentioned that at the beginning of my remarks. We have been better at achieving a balance in our society in so many important areas than have most other countries. 

“Let me take a simple area, such as health, and another area, such as education. I know there are many people in this audience who know a great deal more about the Australian health system than I do. But I know enough about it to recognise that with all of its flaws and weaknesses, it is an infinitely better health system than operates in any comparable country in the world. And one of the reasons it is effective in my view is that we have preserved a balance between the public and the private. Each complements the other and one couldn’t operate without the other . . .

“The same, I think, can be said about education. In Australia we now have something in the order of 34 percent of students throughout Australia now educated in non-government schools. That is not to deny the importance of having a strong public education system to underpin the generality of our education system. 

“One of the remarkably praiseworthy elements of Australia’s education system is that the provision of public education in the poor areas of our country, particularly in our cities, is far better and of a higher quality and a higher standard than the provision of public education in the poorer areas and inner-city areas of countries such as the United States.

“But what we have been able to do in this area once again is to preserve a sense of balance and a proper understanding that both the public and the private can make a contribution and as a consequence we are able, despite many of the shortcomings that our system has, we are able to boast a level and an extent of personal freedom and choice in this country which amazes many other countries to which we normally compare ourselves.”

Mr Howard said the other great area in which Australia had achieved a sense of balance was in politics because Australians, deep down, don’t like fanatics or extremists. 

“And in the end they will reject them whether they are extremists of the left or they are extremists of the right – they will reject them. Now if you bring all of this together, you are able to detect a pattern of a nation which not only has kept the best of its inheritance, but also a nation in relation to its own practices and its own institutions has been able to develop further a sense of balance and has a capacity in relation to that of rejecting the extreme fringes and rejecting fanaticism.” 

Nevertheless, Mr Howard said he was particularly struck by a speech delivered by a former justice of the High Court, Dyson Haydon, earlier this year when he spoke of “attempts that have been made by many to marginalise the influence of the Christian religion in the public space in the name of secularism”.

Asked during the question-and-answer session to comment on the future of the institution of marriage in Australia, particularly in the light of the high divorce rate and moves to establish same-sex marriage, Mr Howard said: “I think that marriage is the bedrock social institution in this country. It has been and it’s important to society that it continue to be. 

“The reason why I support the traditional understanding of marriage is that overwhelmingly the evidence suggests that the best environment in which to raise children in a stable fashion and with the best prospects for success in future life is in a marriage between a man and a woman. 

“My support for that is not an expression of hostility to other lifestyles. It is an expression of a positive view about the benefits of what may be called a traditional approach to marriage.”
Mr Howard said one of the problems with the debate about marriage was the capture of the language by those who want change.

“I think the attempt being made to brand everyone who has a position like mine as hostile to gay people, as homophobic,,” he said. “I find that absurd and something that people should be a little more resentful of because it is. 

“This has got nothing to do, in my view, with discrimination. It’s got to do with what is on balance the better, the more likely outcome that produces the best results for children. 

“Now I think that everybody agrees the aim should be to have children raised in the environment which is more likely to produce the better outcome. Now that is not to say that children can’t be raised in a loving environment that is not a traditional family. I accept that. It means in designing social policies you have to look at the aggregate evidence and the aggregate evidence from all of the surveys is that is very strongly the situation.”

Concluding his speech, Mr Howard noted that it was his first visit to this college, but said many of his family members had attended UNSW and he had heard “many good things about the College”. 

“But I really feel quite privileged to have been invited here tonight and to remark upon the tremendous good humour and optimism and sense of involvement which was evident at the dinner tonight,” he said. 

“It seemed to have a magnificent resident student body and I can understand the continuing enthusiasm of so many of you who were previously residents of this college.”

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