Arts editor HELEN MUSA takes a walk down Lazarus Lane – the library dedicated to former PM John Howard at Old Parliament House.
“WE call this Lazarus Lane,” Prof Tom Frame says as he walks me into the inner chambers of Old Parliament House to visit the Howard Library.
That’s a reference to the time when John Howard, after whom the library is named, claimed that any chance of his returning to the Liberal Party leadership after his 1989 election loss to Bob Hawke’s Labor government, was like that of “Lazarus with a triple bypass”.
Frame, an academic at UNSW Canberra and the former bishop to the Australian Defence Force, is director of the library and the university’s public leadership research group, had contacted us for a walk through the Howard Library as it celebrated a year of operation in December.
The library houses more than 10,000 items spanning Howard’s political career from 1974 to 2007.
Frame is keen to emphasise that he is first and foremost a scholarly historian and when John Howard told him: “I don’t want a shrine”, quick as a flash, Frame had replied: “It’s not on offer.”
“To intentionally misquote John Howard,” Frame says,“we will decide what is displayed and the circumstances in which it is displayed. The university has exercised complete control over the choice of exhibits and the text panels in the displays”.
Howard has in fact been scrupulously hands-off in matters of curating the material, which ranges from smiling prime ministerial happy snaps and lifebuoys from HMAS Manoora and Norwegian freighter MV Tampa during 2001 to a cartoon featuring the “lying rodent” made famous by former minister George Brandis. Frame is quick to clarify that Brandis has claimed he merely called Howard a “rodent.”
There’s even a wall devoted to “Honest John’s” denial that he would introduce a goods and services tax – “There’s no way that the GST will ever be part of our policy… Never ever. It’s dead.”
Frame is even-handed on a dubious point in Australian public morality when the Tampa affair led to the introduction of the Border Protection Bill, saying: “In 2001, politics were on steroids and there were genuine concerns about merchant ships being commandeered – we present both sides of the argument.”
To that end, the collection includes imagery of rival leaders Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and a suite of published attacks on Howard by Labor leaders Kim Beazley, Simon Crean and Mark Latham.
There’s even a Philip Ruddock themed room showing the former Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs’ strong record in human rights, something rarely emphasised in the press, a diary from former Howard government minister Peter Reith showing how he took notes verbatim to counter a poor memory and a section on Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer.
Central to the collection is Howard’s enormous library of written material, a cabinet of his sporting trophies, with his favourite cricket bat at the centre, some unusual honours including a knighthood from the government of the Solomon Islands and a section on Howard’s role in East Timor’s independence.
There’s a kimono worn by the former PM at the 1995 APEC meetings in Osaka, a bullet-proof vest he was forced to wear, very reluctantly, when he addressed angry gun owners in Gippsland in 1996, and a corner devoted to the 9/11 attacks, since Howard was in Washington DC at that time.
Frame is particularly proud of Howard’s own Chesterfield armchairs and the prime ministerial maple desk, put into storage by Gough Whitlam then brought out again by Howard until, as he lamented: “The style police didn’t like it”.
Volunteer curator Trish Burgess says she’s had a lot of fun curating a fascinating display of official gifts, some of them priceless, presented to Howard and later passed on to the library. These include a solid-gold, apple-like object from the Sultan of Brunei and a bronze bear (the state emblem of California) from then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Frame sees considerable irony in the fact that he was raised in a strong Labor-voting family, but he brings to his job the measured approach of an historian saying: “Here we do critical analysis… John Howard changed the country for good and in some cases for ill, it is our job to be critical and scrutinise the 11-year period in which he was PM.”
The Howard Library, Old Parliament House. Free after entry via the Museum of Australian Democracy. Open weekdays, 9.30am-4.30pm.