The National Archive has released thousands of pages of cabinet files from the first two years of the Howard government, revealing previously secret internal discussions.
It was a landslide win that swept John Howard to power in 1996, after more than a decade of Labor rule under Hawke and Keating.
With a 45-seat majority that would be the envy of both sides today, an inexperienced but ambitious cabinet was ready to get to work on sweeping economic reforms – including the sales of valuable national assets like Telstra and the national shipping line.
On New Year's Day, 2019, the National Archive released thousands of pages of cabinet documents, detailing the decisions of the early Howard government.
The papers shed new light on how the cabinet handled the challenges of the day, from the Port Arthur massacre to the Kyoto climate pact.
Creating dual citizenship
In April 1996, then-Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said it was “urgent” to move ahead with reforms that would allow Australian citizens to pick up a second citizenship for the first time.
Back then, Australians automatically lost their citizenship if they acquired another nationality.
Mr Ruddock said this was inconsistent. Migrants to Australia were often allowed to keep their home citizenships, but dual-citizenship was off-limits to natural-born Australians.
It would be another six years before the Howard government changed the law in 2002 — but the 1996 submission got the ball rolling.
The minister was concerned about some backlash from RSL groups, but said the prohibition was a matter of “great concern” to those affected.
He compared Australia with the countries that allowed dual citizenship at the time — like France, New Zealand, the USA, Israel and Syria — and those that did not, like Indonesia, Iran, Norway and Austria.
If only they knew
Right at the end of the submission, officials from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet make a prescient warning.
Allowing Australians to become dual citizens was all well and good — but it could cause problems for parliamentarians down the line.
“Acceptance of the proposals would increase the disparity between the qualifications for citizenship and those for elected office,” the department wrote.
Under Section 44 of the Constitution, politicians are not allowed to run for office if they hold a dual nationality.
The unprecedented High Court drama of 2018 proved them correct, as more than 10 senators and MPs were ejected from their seats.
The cabinet was deeply concerned it could end up internationally isolated over climate change, and possibly even face economic sanctions from European nations over its reluctance to accept binding emissions targets.
As world leaders met for landmark climate talks in Kyoto, Japan, the cabinet considered its options.
Mr Howard said Australia’s economy would suffer more than most because of its reliance on natural resources.
So the cabinet agreed to stay in the negotiations, and try to convince other countries that targets should be set on a country-by-country basis.
“Senior ministers counselled cabinet that Australia should stay in the negotiating tent. Quote, ‘we should be seen to be pushed off a cliff, rather than walking away’,” the archive’s cabinet historian Paul Strangio explains.
Australia found allies in Canada, Japan and the United States — and was eventually allowed a much less restrictive climate plan that actually allowed Australia to emit more greenhouse gases in the subsequent years.
Less than two months after the 1996 election, the nation was confronted with a horrific mass shooting at Port Arthur.
“As soon as the full extent of the tragedy became known, and that was on the day it occurred, when we knew that 35 people had been murdered using these ferociously effective weapons, I just felt that we had to do something,” Mr Howard told SBS News in an interview ahead of the document release.
The cabinet spent months refining its sweeping gun reforms and the national gun buyback.
There was public blow back from farmers, collectors, and sport shooters — but also from some within the government’s own ranks.
“It was quite hard for members of the National party because some of their constituents felt that they were being unfairly caught up in what was being done,” Mr Howard said.
The welfare cuts that never were
The Howard government decided to cut spending and sell major public assets to improve the budget bottom line.
“We certainly held that view very strongly in 1996, there'd been too much unnecessary spending [under the previous Labor government],” Mr Howard said.
Telstra and the national shipping line were sold, and ministers were tasked with finding savings in each portfolio — except defence.
But the cabinet papers shed new light on some of the tougher measures that cabinet considered, but never went through with.
There was a proposal to start charging commercial interest rates on student loans.
Cabinet also considered a radical move to put a 12-month cap on unemployment payments, modelling the potential savings.
But it realised doing so would break Mr Howard’s “iron-clad” guarantee in the campaign.
The cabinet ditched the plan after concluded cutting off the money could create a “poverty trap”, pushing people through the doors of charities and into the informal cash economy.
Keep the Indonesians close
In one secret cabinet file, marked for Australian eyes only, the cabinet agrees to move ahead with a plan from defence and DFAT to “develop …. [redacted] … further cooperation between Australia and Indonesia in science, and technology, and defence industry”.
Some parts of the document are still redacted, likely because their contents are still sensitive in 2019.
The submission, which cabinet backed, says it would be consistent with the agreement to “engage” the Indonesians more “thoroughly” over security issues in “PNG”.
The ongoing conflict between Indonesian forces and indigenous populations in West Papua, a province of Indonesia that borders the nation of Papua New Guinea, has claimed hundreds of thousands of Papuan lives.
The file goes on to say the expanded “interoperability” with the Indonesians should not impact on the structure of Australia’s own armed forces.