Watch the worms squirm

November 21, 2008

The Howard Years

Series producer Deborah Masters

Interviewer/Narrator Fran Kelly

ABC, Monday 8.30pm

There has to be some merit to a TV show that annoys right-wing columnist Gerard Henderson.

And according to his November 18 column in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Howard Years definitely has. "Certainly Howard haters will have nothing to fear from the program", Henderson wails inconsolably. "The pre-screening publicity should be enough to make them happy."

The series of four episodes over four weeks covers the four terms of the "man of steel": each show a different term. The first episode, screened on November 17, followed ex-PM John Howard's first term in office — 1996-98.

The style of the documentary is oddly interesting. Now out of power and hoping to set their version of events down for posterity, former Howard ministers and staffers fall over themselves in their attempts to distance themselves from the shame of the Howard government — from the squashing of native title and the rise of Pauline Hanson, to the conspiracy against the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) in 1998.

Little Johnny Howard alone is completely shameless. Even a year after being turfed out of office and his own seat in parliament, Howard still presents with the vicious arrogance of a Nazi storm-trooper.

He regrets nothing (apart from wearing a flack-jacket at a pro-gun protest in 1996), he retreats from nothing. Keep your blood-pressure medication handy.

However, the other cast of clowns in Circus Howard are out to perform. Most of all, the deeply embittered former treasurer Peter Costello, who it seems can't help himself but dump on his former boss. Aboriginal rights, Hanson, tax reform — on all occasions Howard cops it in the neck from his once-loyal henchman.

"I got the impression that he wanted to keep the option open of preferencing One Nation", Costello said, in a crushing understatement of the tacit support that Howard gave to the racism unleashed by Oxley-moron Hanson. Costello bleated that he wasn't going to "take that option", taking credit for the Liberal's decision to preference One Nation behind Labor in the 1998 election.

The real treat of the first episode, however, was Peter Reith — in his incarnation as minister for workplace slavery. After his pathetic attempt to distance himself from the conspiracy against wharfies in the 1998 Patrick dispute, I can't wait for the second episode and his attempt to side-step the "children overboard" fiasco.

Reith's defence seemed to be that he was simply too stupid to know what was going on. At least former Patrick CEO Chris Corrigan was honest. "We achieved far more, frankly, than I thought we ever could have achieved", Corrigan boasted of the victory won over the MUA at the settlement of the dispute — which led to the reinstatement of all sacked wharfies, but on far inferior conditions than had prevailed before the dispute.

Of course, not all the clowns are willing to spill on the boss. Former Howard chief of staff Grahame Morris retains the cold, calculating expression of a sociopath.

Narrator and interviewer Fran Kelly is the real star of the show. With just a few words between interviews, she sets the scene cleverly as it unfolds. The editing is also brisk, allowing Howard's clowns to dig their own graves.

An hour of delectable entertainment.

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