Sorry, John Howard, but you’re not great on TV…

Which is not to say that I didn’t actually enjoy the two-part series Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia.


Former PMs Howard and Hawke in Howard on Menzies

Holly Byrnes introduces the series thus:

Filmed over 15 months, Mr Howard leads interviews with 30 political and business luminaries, including former Labor PM Bob Hawke, author Clive James and News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch.

In promotional material for the series, to premiere on Sunday, September 21, Howard said: “having been interviewed all my life, it was a fascinating and entirely new experience to be interviewing others. Exciting and enjoyable.”…

Pointing to the divide which still remains between former parliamentary combatants, Paul Keating is described as the “glaring omission” from the cast of interviewees, which producer Simon Nasht, a former Canberra press gallery journalist, says was ultimately mutual.

“Neither party (Keating or Howard) seemed keen, I guess because it would not have been a discussion, more two immovable points of view. Some prime ministers on opposite sides of the fence get along and others don’t,” Mr Nasht said.

It was Keating’s belief the Menzies era was “the golden age when Australia stagnated, when they [Liberal Government at the time] put the country in neutral.”

A sympathetic historian, Gregory Melleuish (Wollongong University) counters:

This program is a work of historical and political revisionism. Its target is the view, expressed most forcefully by Paul Keating, that the 1950s was a time when Australia remained locked in the past in a self-induced stupor, brought about by a failure to recognise that the time of the British Empire was over.

Keating’s rhetoric is both anachronistic and an expression of a sectarian view of the world that was long dead by the 1990s. There can be no doubt that Australia became modern between 1949 and 1966, the year Menzies retired as prime minister.

Much opinion however does seem to dismiss the program as propaganda.

However, Howard acknowledged Mr Menzies was far from a forward-thinking Liberal.

“He was an economic protectionist, but all politicians of that era were,” says Howard. “They believed in government; I think the Liberals wanted to be smaller, when you put it that way, and Labor wanted to be larger.”

Vision of FX Holdens rolling off the production line from Broadmeadows in Victoria and workers building the Snowy Mountains hydroelectricity scheme, as well as general footage of a bustling, working population thanks in part to mass immigration, suggests otherwise.

These, however, were all Labor initiatives.

As Hawke tells Howard: “He had a situation in the post-world war era, where the world was prepared to pay anything for what we grew and, later, what we dug up. So it wasn’t the most challenging period; I think in a sense like Gough Whitlam, I don’t think Menzies personally had a great interest in economics as such.”

Rupert Murdoch concurs: “We were critical at the time and I think we were right. He was very much the status quo, central planning, wage controls. He wasn’t much for change.”

Still Howard isn’t to be dissuaded from his argument: “But it seemed to work well, didn’t it?”

Even so, and even given that John Howard is not God’s gift as an interviewer, I did enjoy the two programs. Partly this was sheer nostalgia: my schooling and university almost all took place in the Menzies years – Kindergarten in 1949 and following. We spent much of 1953-4 looking for Russian spies in the bush in West Sutherland, being excited further that they were building Australia’s first (and still only) nuclear reactor just across the Woronora at Lucas Heights.

In April 15, 1953, Australia entered the nuclear science arena, when the Atomic Energy Act came into effect.


1958: Menzies at opening of the Lucas Heights reactor

I recall too the moaning from my father’s office in Jannali about the Menzies Credit Squeeze of late 1960-1961. That was rather well covered in the program. For that and other reasons my father’s businesses had failed by 1963. Not all was golden in the golden age.

Which brings me to nostalgia, I do nostalgia. The Menzies program gave me some good hefty doses of it. It is worth noting though that nostalgia isn’t always our friend. The Revenant of Oz positively wallows in it, as this latest story shows:

While [The Had a Gutful Party] says on its website that its number one priority is to “bring about the necessary changes for fair and equal treatment of all Australians”, Senator [Revenant] made it clear that didn’t extend to marriage equality.

“I agree that everyone has the right to peace and harmony, but the gays and lesbians are now wanting to change my way of thinking, who I am,” she said.

“I come from a time when there was no discussion about gay marriage. That’s my background, that’s what I’ve grown up with.

“You want to take something away from the majority of society that we’ve grown up with. Why do you want to take the word marriage?”

Senator [Revenant] said she “associated with the gays and I’ve even worked with gays” but not all of them wanted to get married. She believes the gay and lesbian community should be content with civil ceremonies.

She said she didn’t care that other Western countries were allowing same-sex marriage, but also suggested that could be a way for Australian gay and lesbian people to get what they want.

“If you feel so strongly about it, I’m sure you can move to that country and then you can have that marriage,” she said.

You can almost hear the chalk on blackboard voice, can’t you? Stop hurting my head, or piss off, all you people that weren’t bothering us when I was five years old!  Nostalgia isn’t always a friend.

OK, another right-wing ex-politician, this time British: Michael Portillo. I became quite a fan of Great Continental Railway Journeys on SBS, and am now savouring Great American Railroad Journeys. I love this from The Guardian:

I have a small apology to make. A little over a year ago, confronted by a new series of Great Continental Railway Journeys, I wrote a piece confessing that I couldn’t stand its presenter. Michael Portillo, I said, seemed slimy and ill at ease on camera. I said he looked lacquered, that he dressed like an early 1990s gameshow contestant. The show itself was great, but I argued that this was despite Portillo, not because of him.

But now I’m here to apologise. I’ve been watching Portillo’s new series Great American Railroad Journeys – essentially his Great Railway Journeys show with a different guidebook – and, as much as it pains me to admit this, I got it wrong. Portillo is actually a weirdly compelling host. In fact, there might not be a presenter as gleefully unselfconscious working today…

Rather more colourful on TV than John Howard.


One thought on “Sorry, John Howard, but you’re not great on TV…

  1. All that yuk-yuk-yuk fake laughter (except when laughing at his own jokes, but even then still odd) by Howard. I couldn’t stand it. .Clive James goes down in my estimation the more I see of him – and I’ve never really understood why laughing at Japanese game shows should have been considered a sign of such excellent wit. Same for the sound-bites from Barry Humphries, who may be funny but from such an oddly reactionary perspective (eg all those columns for Quadrant) that he isn’t really.

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