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John Hewson

Dr John Hewson

Dr John Robert Hewson (born 28 October 1946), Australian Liberal politician and economist, was born in Sydney, New South Wales, the son of a working-class but politically conservative engineer. He was educated at state schools, and then at the University of Sydney, where he graduated in economics. He then gained a master's degree from the University of Saskatchewan and a doctorate in economics from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He is the most highly educated man ever to have led a major Australian political party. In 1967 he married Margaret Deaves.

Returning to Australia, Hewson worked as an economist for the Reserve Bank of Australia. From 1976 to 1983 he was employed as an economic advisor to two successive Liberal Treasurers (finance ministers), Phillip Lynch and John Howard. During this period he developed a keen interest in politics, and determined to enter politics himself. While a strong Liberal, he was critical of what he saw as the weakness and inconsistency of economic policy under Malcolm Fraser's government. He was a supporter of the radical economic policies of Margaret Thatcher.

After the defeat of the Fraser government in 1983, Hewson went into business journalism, and became a director of a private bank, the Macquarie Bank. This allowed the Labor Party to tag him as "a wealthy banker" when he entered politics. During this period he also went through a messy divorce. In 1988 he married Carolyn Somerville.

In 1987 Hewson was elected to the House of Representatives for an upper-class Sydney electorate. He was lucky to enter Parliament at a time when there was a leadership vacuum on the conservative side of politics. His former employer John Howard had just lost the 1987 elections, and the Liberals had no obvious alternative leader. In September 1988 Howard appointed him shadow Finance Minister. In May 1989, when Andrew Peacock replaced Howard as Leader, Hewson became shadow Treasurer. In this role he performed well against the dominating Treasurer, Paul Keating.

When Peacock was defeated at the 1990 elections, Hewson was elected unopposed to the Liberal leadership, despite having been in Parliament only three years. His positive qualities were his obvious strength in economic policy, and his attractive media personality. But he had no experience in other areas of policy, his views on most issues were unknown, and he had little experience of political tactics, particularly against such hardened veterans as Hawke and Keating. He was vulnerable to the accusation that he was a narrow economic technocrat, and his Thatcherite views laid him open to criticism.

Neverthless, Hewson made up ground on the Hawke government in the opinion polls. Hewson was determined to make a break with what he saw as the weak pragmatism of past Liberal leaders. In November 1991 he launched "Fightback," a radical economic policy package. The key elements of the package were introduction of a consumption tax called the goods and services tax (GST), the compensatory abolition of a range of other taxes such as sales tax, deep cuts in income tax for the middle and upper-middle classes, and increases in pensions and benefits to compensate the poor for the rise in prices flowing from the GST.

The package was at first well-received, and was welcomed as an idealistic alternative to the rather cynical pragmatism which had come to mark the Hawke government. Hawke and his Treasurer, John Kerin, were unable to mount an effective response, and in December Keating successfully challenged Hawke and became Prime Minister. Through 1992 Keating mounted a ruthless scare campaign against the Fightback package, and particularly against the GST, which he described as an attack on the working class in that it shifted the tax burden from direct taxation of the wealthy to indirect taxation of the mass of consumers.

This assault forced Hewson into a partial backdown, agreeing not to levy the GST on food. But this concession opened Hewson to charges of weakness and inconsistency, and also complicated the arithmetic of the whole package, since the weakening of the GST reduced the scope for tax cuts, the most attractive element of the package for middle-class voters. Keating's campaign was demagogic and in some ways unfair, but Hewson's personal detestation of Keating clouded his judgment, and he lacked the political skills to counter Keating effectively. At the March 1993 election Hewson was defeated by Keating, in what many had described as "the unloseable election."

Hewson had never imagined the possibility of defeat, and for the rest of 1993 he seemed to be in shock. By 1994 his colleagues had had enough, and in May they engineered a leadership coup, replacing Hewson with Alexander Downer. In February 1995 he resigned from Parliament after one of the shortest parliamentary careers of any leader of a major political party. He became Professor of Management at Macquarie University, Sydney, and Director of the University's Graduate School of Management. He also wrote frequently in the business press and became prominent on the lecture circuit. After 1996 he became increasingly critical of Prime Minister John Howard. In 2003 he opposed Howard's decision to take part in the Iraq War.

Preceded by:
Andrew Peacock
Leaders of the
Liberal Party of Australia
Followed by:
Alexander Downer