John Winston Howard completed a law degree at the University of Sydney in 1961 and worked as a solicitor. He joined the Young Liberals when he was 18 and was active in political campaigns for the Liberal Party. In 1973, he won pre-selection for the House of Representatives seat of Bennelong. He won the seat at the federal election in May 1974 and entered parliament as an Opposition backbencher.
In 1975, Howard became Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs in the coalition government of Malcolm Fraser and Doug Anthony. He became Treasurer in 1977 and held this portfolio until the government lost office in 1983.
Howard was leader of the Opposition from 1985 to 1989 and again from 1995 until the coalition won government at the 1996 federal election.
Howard was born in the Sydney suburb of Earlwood on 26 July 1939. He was the youngest of the 4 sons of Lyall and Mona (Kell) Howard. The family owned and operated a garage near the Dulwich Hill railway station and lived in nearby Earlwood. In the 1949 election campaign, the family were strong supporters of Robert Menzies’ Liberal Party, which promised to end petrol rationing. John Howard attended Earlwood Primary School from 1946 to 1951. In his last year there, he won a citizenship prize donated by Eric Willis, the new local member in the New South Wales parliament. Willis was a state parliamentarian for 28 years and a mentor to John Howard.
Howard’s father died in 1955, while he was at Canterbury Boys’ High School. He finished school in 1956 and the following year began studying law at the University of Sydney. He had joined the Young Liberal Movement when he was 18, and at university had some involvement in student politics and debating.
Howard graduated with a law degree in 1961 and was admitted as a solicitor of the New South Wales Supreme Court in July 1962. He worked for leading Sydney legal firm Stephen, Jacques and Stephen. Howard was elected president of the New South Wales Young Liberals in 1962, and the next year became a member of the Liberal Party State Executive. In the 1963 federal election, Howard managed the successful campaign of Tom Hughes for the seat of Parkes, which had been held by Labor member Les Haylen since 1943. In 1964, Howard travelled overseas. While in England, he campaigned for the Conservative Party in an election that returned a Labor government under Harold Wilson.
On his return to Australia in 1965, Howard worked for the firm of solicitors that became Truman, Nelson & Howard, and resumed his place on the Liberal Party State Executive. In 1968, he won pre-selection for the state seat of Drummoyne, and he and his mother moved to the electorate. He was unsuccessful in the state election.
On 4 April 1971, Howard married Janette Parker. The Howards moved into a home unit they bought at Wollstonecraft on Sydney’s North Shore. The following year, Howard was elected vice-president of the State Liberal Party and took 8 weeks off work to help parliamentary Liberal Party leader William McMahon in the coalition’s 1972 election campaign. In 1973, he defeated Peter Coleman in a pre-selection contest for the seat of Bennelong, the federal electorate covering Sydney’s inner north-western suburbs.
In 1974, the Howards’ first child was born, and Howard won Bennelong in the federal election.
Member for Bennelong 1974
The Whitlam Labor government was returned at the May 1974 election and Howard entered parliament as an Opposition backbencher. His first speech in parliament was on 26 September 1974, mainly focused on attacking the budget of Treasurer Frank Crean. After the coalition’s defeat in the 1974 election, Howard supported Malcolm Fraser in 2 leadership challenges against Billy Snedden. The second of these was successful, and Fraser became leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party on 21 March 1975.
The coalition had control of the Senate and blocked Supply Bills in September 1975, effectively cutting off funds for government to operate. The parliament was unable to resolve the deadlock, and on 11 November 1975, Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam government and appointed Malcolm Fraser Prime Minister. Fraser then sought and was granted a double dissolution of parliament. At the federal election on 13 December 1975, voters returned the coalition government led by Fraser and Country Party leader Doug Anthony.
Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs 1975–77
Howard became a minister at the age of 36. He had been in parliament for only 18 months, but had a decade of solid experience in the Liberal Party organisation. He was sworn in to the Fraser–Anthony Coalition ministry as Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs on 22 December 1975. He was one of 13 members of the ‘outer ministry’, while the Cabinet comprised 12 senior ministers. Under the leadership of Fraser, this was a very busy ministry. The Cabinet secretariat was increased, and Geoffrey Yeend took over the post of Cabinet Secretary with the new status of permanent head. His predecessor, Alan Carmody, became head of Howard’s Department of Business and Consumer Affairs.
In this portfolio, Howard worked with state attorneys-general to establish the National Companies and Securities Commission, following the report of a Senate select committee in 1975. He also directed the amendments to the Trade Practices Act that outlawed union black-bans.
From 24 May 1977, Howard was also minister assisting the Prime Minister, and from 17 July, he was Minister for Special Trade Negotiations with the European Economic Community (EEC). In May and June 1977, Fraser had visited Italy, the United Kingdom, France and Germany for discussions about Australia’s difficulties with the ‘closed shop’ policies of the EEC. Howard’s task was to attempt to negotiate concessions for Australian exports to member countries.
On 19 November, Fraser requested the resignation of Phillip Lynch as Treasurer, after questions about Lynch’s financial interests in the lead-up to the December federal election. Lynch complied, although after a report on his financial affairs, he was given another portfolio the following year. His successor as Treasurer was Howard.
Howard was sworn in as Treasurer on 19 November 1977 at Admiralty House in Sydney. He presented the first of his 5 federal budgets in August 1978. During the 1970s, he had moved from a protectionist to a free trade position – although this was in the new ‘economic rationalist’ mould, rather than the old program of the 1901 Free Traders. Howard’s key adviser as Treasurer was economist John Hewson, who had also advised Phillip Lynch. Howard argued unsuccessfully for a broad indirect tax, and in 1982, disagreed with Fraser’s push for an expansionary budget with the economy worsening but an election looming.
Phillip Lynch did not contest the deputy leadership of the parliamentary Liberal Party and Howard was elected deputy leader in a party room ballot on 8 April 1982.
Fraser secured a double dissolution of parliament on 3 February 1983 and called the federal election for 5 March. Fraser’s strategy to go to the polls with Bill Hayden as Labor leader was foiled when senior Labor figures – in Brisbane for the funeral of former Prime Minister Frank Forde – secured Hayden’s resignation. Bob Hawke led Labor to victory at the election. After the election, Andrew Peacock replaced Malcolm Fraser as leader of the Liberal Party.
In Opposition 1983–96
Howard was deputy leader of the Opposition and shadow Treasurer from 16 March 1983. In a 31 August speech to the National Press Club in Canberra, he criticised the Hawke government’s consensus approach to wage regulation, but supported deregulation of the dollar and lifting the controls on foreign investment. Howard put forward a reform program of wage-fixing that he said would ‘turn Higgins on his head’. The strategy challenged Australia’s basic wage structure developed from the decision of Justice Higgins in the 1907 Harvester case in the Conciliation and Arbitration Court.
On 5 September 1985, Howard replaced Andrew Peacock as leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party and became Leader of the Opposition.
Howard led the party at the federal election in July 1987, when Queensland National Party Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen made a bid to enter federal parliament and seek the prime ministership. The Labor government was returned.
The bicentenary of the establishment of the British penal colony in Sydney was celebrated in 1988. Among the events arranged by the federal government was the opening of the new Parliament House in Canberra by Queen Elizabeth II on 9 May. This was the 61st anniversary of the opening of Canberra’s first Parliament House by the parents of the Queen, then the Duke and Duchess of York. At the end of that year, Howard launched the coalition policy statement ‘Future Directions’.
In May 1989, Andrew Peacock successfully challenged John Howard in a leadership ballot. The party had 2 more leaders, John Hewson and Alexander Downer, and 2 more electoral defeats, before Howard returned to the leadership on 30 January 1995.
When Howard again became leader of the Opposition in 1995, the Labor Prime Minister was Paul Keating, who had succeeded Bob Hawke in 1991. Keating had achieved an increase in Labor support in the 1993 election, when John Hewson led the coalition campaign with a key policy of introducing a tax on goods and services.
At the federal election on 2 March 1996, the coalition won government with a Liberal landslide – the party increased its House of Representatives seats from 49 to 75. The National Party, led by Tim Fischer, also increased its seats, from 16 to 19, giving the coalition a majority of 55 seats. On 11 March 1996, John Howard became Prime Minister.
- Barnett, David and Pru Goward, John Howard: Prime Minister, Viking, Melbourne, 1997.
- Grattan, Michelle, ‘John Winston Howard’, in Michelle Grattan (ed.), Australian Prime Ministers, New Holland, Sydney, 2000.
- Souter, Gavin, Acts of Parliament, Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton, 1988.