Gun Control Is ‘Apolitical’: An Interview with John Howard

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard talks about gun control and the fate of the U.S. Republican Party.

John Howard was the prime minister of Australia from 1996 to 2007. The leader of the center-right Liberal Party, Howard championed free-market economic policy and sweeping restrictions on guns after a gunman killed 35 people in the town of Port Arthur in 1996. He spoke with me over the phone on Monday from Sydney to discuss the progress of federal gun-control legislation after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, as well as the future of moderation within the Republican Party.

(This interview has been condensed and edited lightly for clarity.)

Question: You wrote a recent opinion piece in the New York Times titled "I Went After Guns. Obama Can, Too," which discussed the passage of gun control during your tenure as prime minister. What's your view on the apparent consensus in Washington for a modest tightening of gun laws, including background checks and limits on high-capacity ammunition clips?

Answer: What I wanted to do in that op-ed piece was merely to write my own experience and to say that what was done in Australia has seemingly worked quite well in our country. By all of the surveys and analysis which have been done over the 17 years since the change, there has been a marked fall in the number of gun-related homicides and a fall in the number of youth suicides, especially among men and in the rural areas of Australia.

The ban has worked. Australia, of course, even before these changes, had a much lower murder rate than in the United States, but this has reduced that murder rate even further. It is judged, across the political divide, as having been a success.

The extent to which the Australian experience is relevant for America is a decision for Americans to make. I would not presume to lecture your country as to what it should do. I think friends can help, though, by explaining and writing their experiences, but not by telling others how they should behave.

Q: Americans tend to look at gun control as an issue supported by the left and opposed from the right. How does it fit within your moderately conservative philosophy of government, more broadly speaking?

A: I regard something like gun control as almost apolitical. It's a question of self-preservation. I think it's beyond labels of "left" and "right."

The attitude I brought to it was a common-sense view of community safety. It's the ready availability of guns that drives the high murder rate through weapon use. Mental health is important, as is improving services and background checks -- but you will never have a society in which people don't reach snap points. And the problem is that if you reach a snap point in a domestic argument or release a long-pent-up feeling of anger against the way society has treated you, and you have a weapon of mass murder at your disposal, you are likely to use it with devastating consequences.

That's the way I approached it in Australia, and that is an opinion that people of both my political persuasion and those who are strongly opposed to me politically would agree upon in Australia. I had people in 1996 stopping me in the street and saying, "I've never voted for you in my life, and I'm not likely to, but I agree with you on this." There were some of my own supporters who were unhappy with what I've done, but the great bulk took the view that this is just a question of community safety and not a question of philosophy.

I understand that with respect to the history of America and the Second Amendment, guns are treated differently. The gun issue is, in my mind, unrelated to "left" and "right."

Q: After the defeat of Republicans in the 2012 elections, much of the political right in America is going through a process of re-evaluation. For those who will read this interview, what's the "elevator pitch" for your center-right political philosophy?

A: The role of the political center-right is to propound individual freedom, to argue always for choice in the options available to people in the community. In my estimation, there should always be a mixture of economic liberalism -- which means small government, a great emphasis on markets -- but also a certain degree of social conservatism, not to favor change unless that change is beneficial. So I describe myself as an economic liberal and a social conservative.

I put it this way: The Liberal Party of Australia is the party of John Stuart Mill as well as that of Edmund Burke, that we had elements of both. That's the center-right tradition that I follow.

I'm fairly conservative on social issues, but not extremely conservative and not reactionary. On economic policy, my support of smaller government, lower taxes and economic reform is consistent with the mainstream of the Republican Party in the United States and with many Democrats as well.

Q: Let's talk a little more about the Republicans. Where do you think they went wrong, and what advice do you have for them?

A: I'd make two observations. First, it's important when you lose an election to have a period of soul-searching, a period to examine and make your mind up as to what went wrong. The other observation is that parties go through reverses and they have periods in the political wilderness, but they invariably come back when they're rooted in a strong historical tradition in a country.

There were times when we were in office in Australia when people said the Labor Party, which stands on the political left, was finished. I didn't believe they were finished, and of course they weren't. They came back, and they won. We had a long time in office -- almost 12 years -- but they won.

There are, also, some important differences between the American presidential system and the Australian parliamentary system. When a party loses an election, there's no focus, no one parliamentary spokesman on behalf of the Republican Party. In any British-style parliamentary system, the losing party either keeps the leader it had, or it puts in a new one. That leader then becomes the opposition party's principal spokesman.

Even though the opposition party is going through difficult times, at least it's got someone who can articulate the party's point of view -- but in the American system, that doesn't exist. That makes it more difficult for people to get a fix on what the alternative party really thinks. Not because it's not thinking, or for lack of good ideas, but your system doesn't allow someone to emerge very quickly as the principal spokesman on behalf of the opposition party.

Q: Your government was very different in attitude from American conservatives, who tend to place a much greater value on ideological purity. How do you see the balance between principle and pragmatism?

A: Well, you've got to achieve a balance. I used to say to my colleagues in government: It was better to be 80 percent pure in government than 125 percent pure in opposition. You can't become so obsessed with the last fine detail of the principle that you lose contact with the politics -- but if you only trade in politics, then you will lose in the public.

I think it's always a mistake, though, for a party to feel that when it's in the doldrums, it's got to jettison things it really believes in. It is very important, of course, to work out precisely what you do believe in and then to articulate it in a consistent matter.

Q: One of the major debates that exist in the U.S. -- and pointedly not in Australia -- concerns the scope of the welfare state, especially as it concerns health care. How should the center-right think about the welfare state?

A: The principles you've got to bring to it is, first, that the best welfare system is a strong, united family, where people are well looked-after within the family, and also where people have jobs. Having a job is always preferable to welfare, and we should have incentives for people to work rather than take welfare.

Having said that, I recognize -- and anyone who's got common sense recognizes -- that some people miss out on having a loving family, and that some people, through no fault of their own, cannot get work. Those who genuinely cannot find work, they should be provided with a means of support by the state, but not so generous that it discourages them from looking for work.

And I think it's fair that, if you're being supported by the state and are fit and healthy, that you do some work in return for the financial support you're receiving from the state. When I was prime minister, we introduced something called "Work for the Dole," and what it meant was that if you were healthy and getting the unemployment benefit, the government could say that it expected you do a certain amount of work in exchange for that benefit.

This followed what I see as a principle of mutual obligation: Society has an obligation to look after people who are genuinely trying to get work, but most individuals have an obligation to do some work in compensation for the benefit they receive.

Q: You left office in 2007, right before the start of the global economic recession and financial crisis. In many countries, the response to those events was to put free-market economic policies on trial. What are the lessons you draw for economic policy going forward?

A: Australia wasn't as badly affected as many other countries, and one reason for this is that my government left with no net debt, a budget surplus, and a lot of money in a future fund to meet pension liabilities of military personnel and public servants. We had a very strong public balance sheet, and that was very different from many other Western countries. The other great advantage Australia had, of course, was its resources trade with Asia.

I think it's fair to say the world handled the 2008 knockdown better than the Great Depression. That's in part due to the central banks of the world, which have done better and have learned from the mistakes they made in the 1930s.

The other important observation to make about the policy response to the recession is that the level of social destitution is much lower. That's because Western countries have much stronger safety nets. It's a good thing, because nobody wants unnecessary hardship, and it's the responsibility of governments to ensure against it.

The other, slightly contrary point I'd make is that there seems to have been not a lot of policy response to one of the problems behind the subprime meltdown: that a lot of people who couldn't afford to pay loans were given loans. I'm not sure that we -- not only the United States but also Australia and other countries -- have fully addressed that issue.

Common-sense, prudent lending habits say if people cannot afford to repay, then it could be kind to lend to them in the short term, but foolish in the medium and longer term. It's an element of the crisis that's been forgotten.

I'm always wary and leery about too much additional regulation. I think the best regulator is genuine competition, and if you have competition in the context of rules to prevent abuse. I think it would be a mistake to think you can regulate too much virtue in any economic system; you should concentrate on identifying and punishing genuine fraud and dishonesty. Competition, for the rest of this, remains the best accelerant of good outcomes and good behavior.

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