The Prime Minister is right. It’s a dangerous business to ”get into a public commentary about your relationship with your wife”. So I’ll have a crack at it for him.
John and Janette Howard are a gun political partnership. Despite the years of sacrifice, separation and compromise demanded of federal politicians and their spouses, the Howards appear more tightly locked in-sync by shared success, than just about any other couple that strut the Australian stage. Although they don’t strut. They strategise – in private.
For too long, too little has been known about Australia’s first lady. She has made it hard for the public to admire her, much less love her. Mostly because we don’t know her.
However, this week’s release of John Winston Howard: The Biography, shines some light on Janette Howard. Although the morsels unearthed serve mostly to further fuel curiosity. One thing is clear however. Margaret Whitlam was wrong when she said of Janette Howard, ”She doesn’t do a thing. She’s contributed nothing”. Howard has done plenty. But her contribution to public life is not about charities, luncheons and patronage – although she does do those things. Rather, Howard’s role and her place in Australian history is that of private key strategist, advisor and minder to the political phenomenon that has been, and is, John Winston Howard.
She rarely gives interviews. But when she did back in 2001, to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Garry Linnell, Howard was unperturbed by rumours circulating about the power she wields behind the throne. ”I know what I am,” she said.
In this new biography the authors admit, ”the consensus is that, like Lady Macbeth, she has had enormous influence”, but they suggest such comparison is unfair. Certainly an insatiable appetite for power, at all costs, is not her driving force.
Nevertheless, Howard’s ambition – for her husband’s success – should not be underestimated. Nor should her formidable will.
The biography at times pitches Howard as her husband’s ”number one political strategist”. When not with him, she is never far from him: ”Janette’s input even over the telephone was decisive.”
It’s now clear she was pivotal in steering her husband away from political oblivion when things went awry, and towards a leadership challenge, when she saw the opportunity and thought the timing was right. It’s no wonder then that John Howard’s victory over Peacock saw his wife stand on a table, raise her glass and declare, ”Next step, The Lodge”.
It’s therefore a little incredulous to read Janette Howard’s response to questions about her putting her ”bib in”, as she puts it, when she says, ”My husband is clever enough to always make me think that my view is more important, more pivotal than anyone else’s. But he probably does that to everyone”.
For the past couple of years Australia’s premier ”power” list, drawn up by a panel commissioned by the Financial Review, has grappled with the Janette Howard enigma. Whilst her husband tops the list for Australia’s most ”overtly” powerful, Janette Howard repeatedly appears as the only woman in the ”covert” power list. She’s there at number three, just behind the PM’s chief of staff and the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. And yet this is for a woman ”who once revealed her balm after a stressful day was to go home and do the laundry”.
Interestingly, last year’s power list was compiled shortly after the leadership pact between Peter Costello and John Howard was made public, but before Howard declared he would dig in and run for a fifth term. If the panel had met after that announcement, the Financial Review says Janette Howard’s power ranking may well have been higher. Such is her undeniable influence on John Howard’s perseverance.
Howard’s biographers note his wife has always been ”conscious of politicians who gave up their political careers too early”. They suggest her advice on this front helps explain ”one of the reasons Howard has continually delayed his decision to retire as prime minister”.
But could Howard have over- stretched her husband’s staying power this time? Has her own ambition – for him – got in the way of a graceful and dignified departure?
There is no doubting that John Howard’s political success is shared between the two of them. However, there is a most telling moment in the biography about the extent to which Janette Howard views that success as a reward for all she has helped build and achieve. When asked about the discovery of her cervical cancer, shortly after Howard first became prime minister, Janette Howard says, ”The thought is ‘Gosh, we’ve got here and I’m not going to be around to see it all”’. That ”thought” perhaps goes to the heart of her irrefutable sense of political partnership.
But what we will never know about Janette Howard is the true make of her steel. For example, what is it that enables her to snub the Treasurer’s wife as blatantly and pointedly as she has? And this goes well beyond a lack of dinner invitations.
The footage of Howard shaking hands and kissing the cheeks of front row guests at the ’98 Liberal campaign launch has been played over and over this week. As Tanya Costello extends her hand, Howard looks away and down – perhaps at the muck on her shoe – and moves on. In the public glare of TV cameras, it was an astonishing moment and a calculated piece of choreography. But why did she do it?
Laurie Oaks reckons he doesn’t know. Ditto Glenn Milne.
A full and frank account of the woman behind the man who has shaped and dominated Australia over the past decade is yet to be revealed. My guess is, it never will.