John Howard's complicated but enduring legacy for Canberra
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John Howard's complicated but enduring legacy for Canberra

Canberra and its public servants have good reason to shudder at the memory of the Howard government's first term.

The Coalition's rise to power in 1996 began a term of government that brought the loss of 30,000 public service positions, cuts that didn't fall entirely in Canberra but ones that John Howard admitted hurt the city.

Then Treasurer Peter Costello and Prime Minister John Howard in House of Representatives, 2007.

Then Treasurer Peter Costello and Prime Minister John Howard in House of Representatives, 2007.Credit:Glen McCurtayne

Newly-declassified cabinet papers, released on Tuesday by the National Archives of Australia, are reminders of the prime minister's complicated but enduring legacy for the national capital.

In some documents, Mr Howard joins the decades-long project to build the city and make it Australia's centre of federal government. His attention to the neglect of his former workplace, Old Parliament House, and his pursuit of an expanded National Portrait Gallery stand in contrast to the disinterest his Coalition successors have shown some of the city's cultural institutions.

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The papers show how Mr Howard also kept a promise to build the National Museum of Australia's permanent home after Labor resisted the idea. Regardless of later controversy over its design and presentation of history, it's an institution that benefits Canberra today. Its execution is up for debate, but hindsight shows the Coalition was right to fund and construct the national museum building.

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Credit:The Canberra Times

The former prime minister, for all his fascination with Robert Menzies, differs from his hero in one important measure for Canberra. He simply wasn't the advocate for the city that Australia's longest-serving prime minister was.

Mr Howard arguably set a precedent for prime ministers in choosing Kirribilli House as his primary home. Although he denied snubbing Canberra in an interview last month, the decisions of leaders to stay in Sydney since can be traced to his example, despite his reasonable arguments for doing so.

Cabinet papers reveal less obvious but more tangible legacies can be traced to the Howard government's early decisions. The Coalition and Labor are today locked in a debate over the government's growing spend on contractors and its cap on staffing levels. A discussion paper endorsed by the Howard cabinet in 1996 forecasts the shift towards government outsourcing that has attracted so much criticism.

Public servants looking at the pay scales of similarly-ranked colleagues in other agencies can also look to the cabinet documents if they're wondering why they're paid less. After the Keating government introduced agency-level bargaining, it was the Coalition that made it permanent. The change, likely irreversible, begins in the cabinet decisions reflected in these documents.

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Public servants reading these papers might feel they've heard many of their observations before. The resemblance to today's talk of Australian Public Service reform is uncanny. Howard-era public service minister Peter Reith's warning that the government needed to show it could reform the workplaces directly under its control has echoed under Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison in a bargaining policy blamed for years of industrial conflict.

Mr Howard may loom as a nostalgic figure of stability for those tired of the last decade's political dysfunction. In Canberra, his legacy is more complicated.

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