FORMER Prime Minister John Howard and members of his family are in town today (December 4) for the opening of the new “Howard Library” at Old Parliament House.
An initiative of UNSW Canberra, the library, a combination of exhibitions and archives, is the first of its kind for Australia, housing a collection of official papers, personal papers and memorabilia from John Howard’s time as Prime Minister from March 1996 to December 2007.
Director of the new library, Tom Frame, said the personal papers and official records alone total 150 metres of shelf space from Mr Howard’s political career, while the exhibition marking the launch includes the former Prime Minister’s desk, APEC “costumes”, advertising from both sides of politics and gifts from world leaders.
The former PM, who was quick to support UNSW Canberra’s suggestion of the library, explained: “I fully accept that Australians will have different opinions of my government’s performance and of my leadership, but these views and assessments will be more compelling and persuasive when based on public records as well as media reporting and political commentary.”
Prof Fram said a knowledge of both the American presidential library model and familiarity with Australian prime ministerial centres have informed the approach that UNSW Canberra has adopted in establishing the Howard Library.
Daryl Karp, director of the Museum of Australian Democracy, said the museum was “delighted to share the spiritual home of Australian democracy, Old Parliament House, with the Howard Library”.
The launch coincides with the third UNSW Canberra Howard Government Retrospective Conference, which focuses on the period August 2001-September 2004. These years included the collapse of Ansett Airlines the MV Tampa and “children overboard” controversies and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Prof Frame said he hoped the library would serve as a prototype for developments with other Australian prime ministers, and stressed that the Library would be “non-partisan and apolitical”.
He explained that when UNSW Canberra approached Mr Howard to gauge his support, he was at one with them in believing that private papers and public records should be available to shine light on the challenges and questions the government faced between 1996 and 2007, allowing researchers and students to make their own judgements about the period.
Mr Howard said he hoped the public documents reveal the advice provided to the government, the basis upon which the Cabinet made a particular decision, and why a certain course of action was pursued.
The Howard Library is now open to the public daily at Old Parliament House.