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Brian Howe
Second Keating Cabinet 1994 (cropped Howe).jpg
Howe in 1994
8th Deputy Prime Minister of Australia
In office
3 June 1991 – 20 June 1995
Prime Minister Bob Hawke
Paul Keating
Preceded by Paul Keating
Succeeded by Kim Beazley
Deputy Leader of the Labor Party
In office
3 June 1991 – 20 June 1995
Leader Bob Hawke
Paul Keating
Preceded by Paul Keating
Succeeded by Kim Beazley
Minister for Regional Development
In office
25 March 1994 – 11 March 1996
Prime Minister Paul Keating
Preceded by Peter Cook
Succeeded by John Sharp
Minister for Local Government
In office
24 March 1993 – 25 March 1994
Prime Minister Paul Keating
Preceded by David Simmons
Succeeded by Warwick Smith
Minister for Housing
In office
7 May 1990 – 11 March 1996
Prime Minister Bob Hawke
Paul Keating
Preceded by Peter Staples
Succeeded by Tanya Plibersek (2007)
Minister for Community Services
In office
4 April 1990 – 25 March 1994
Prime Minister Bob Hawke
Paul Keating
Preceded by Neal Blewett
Succeeded by Carmen Lawrence
Minister for Health
In office
4 April 1990 – 24 March 1993
Prime Minister Bob Hawke
Paul Keating
Preceded by Neal Blewett
Succeeded by Graham Richardson
Minister for Social Security
In office
13 December 1984 – 4 April 1990
Prime Minister Bob Hawke
Preceded by Don Grimes
Succeeded by Graham Richardson
Minister for Defence Support
In office
11 March 1983 – 13 December 1984
Prime Minister Bob Hawke
Preceded by Ian Viner
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Batman
In office
10 December 1977 – 29 January 1996
Preceded by Horrie Garrick
Succeeded by Martin Ferguson
Personal details
Born (1936-01-28) 28 January 1936 (age 88)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Political party Labor
Spouse Renate Howe
Alma mater University of Melbourne
Occupation Politician, Christian minister

Brian Leslie Howe AO (born 28 January 1936) is a retired Australian politician and Uniting Church minister. He served as Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and deputy leader of the Labor Party from 1991 to 1995, under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. He was a government minister continuously from 1983 to 1996, and a member of the House of Representatives from 1977 to 1996, representing the Division of Batman in Victoria.

Early life

Howe was born in Melbourne. He grew up in the suburb of Malvern and attended Melbourne High School, going on to complete a Bachelor of Arts and a diploma in criminology at the University of Melbourne. He later moved to the United States to study at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Howe was the minister at a Methodist church in Fitzroy from 1961 to 1969, while lecturing part-time in sociology. He remains an ordained Uniting Church minister.

In the early 1970s, Howe was the founding director of the Centre for Urban Research and Action (CURA). This model of research and action was based on his experience studying in Chicago from 1965 to 1967, and particularly his involvement in the civil rights and anti-poverty movements. CURA participated in campaigns against major changes in inner city Melbourne, including homelessness, the demolition of housing for high-rise estates, freeway construction. It supported the rights of tenants, the marginalisation of ethnic groups, and the provision of social services.


Howe was elected to the House of Representatives at the 1977 federal election, representing the northern Melbourne metropolitan electoral Division of Batman. He defeated the incumbent Horrie Garrick for Labor preselection in a hard-fought preselection contest. It was reportedly the first occasion on which an incumbent Victorian Labor MP in a safe seat was defeated for preselection. A member of the Socialist Left faction of the Labor Party, Howe was Minister for Defence Support in the government of Bob Hawke from 1983. In 1984 he became Minister for Social Security and carried out various radical reforms to Australia's welfare system.

Howe appeared to face significant opposition within his electorate in 1988, when up to 60 members of the Greek Westgarth branch of the ALP defected to join the Australian Democrats. One of the defectors, tram-conductor George Gogas, contested Batman as a Democrat candidate in 1990, but polled only 12.9 per cent of the vote.

After the 1990 election Howe was appointed to the post of Minister for Community Services and Health. When Paul Keating resigned from the cabinet in 1991, Howe was elected deputy leader of the Labor Party in his place, defeating Graeme Campbell in a caucus ballot by 81 votes to 18. He was subsequently appointed Deputy Prime Minister. He became Minister for Health, Housing and Community Services in the Keating government in December 1991, dropping the health part of the portfolio in 1993. In June 1995 he resigned as Deputy Prime Minister and was succeeded by Kim Beazley. He remained in the House of Representatives until the 1996 election.

Howe's last months in the Deputy PM's role were marked by speculation that his successor would be, not Beazley, but Carmen Lawrence, the erstwhile Premier of Western Australia. At the time Lawrence enjoyed considerable popularity, and there were those in the ALP who hoped that with her as Deputy PM, the Keating government (then doing badly in the opinion polls) would benefit. This hope was dashed when Lawrence herself became the subject of a royal commission around the time Howe left the post, although she denied that the royal commission had been her reason for not seeking out the job. Kim Beazley was eventually elected as his successor.


Howe was an extremely active Minister with a strong sense of social justice, Radical reforms were implemented in social security, disability and other areas during his term of office.

Social security

In February 1986 Howe instigated the Cass Social Security Review, which led to substantive restructuring of the social security system. Some of the most important changes were

  • providing positive incentives to reducing welfare dependence, especially education and training
  • guaranteed indexation of benefits to cost-of-living
  • ongoing monitoring and evaluation of all programmes
  • removal of gender-based eligibility for payments
  • rationalisation and fortnightly payments of most benefits.

The most important new payments were:

  • Family Allowance Supplement, which eventually incorporated all child-related programmes with far higher rates of payment than previously, and which incorporated Rent Allowance when applicable
  • Jobsearch and Newstart, which replaced unemployment benefits and which required regular evidence of search for work.

Disability policy

Howe’s tenure as Minister for Community Services from 1990-1994 coincided with a reorientation of disability policy to encourage disabled people to enter or remain in the formal workforce, enhancing and protecting the rights of people with disabilities and providing opportunities for them to contribute to wider society.

In 1991, Brian Howe was the responsible minister for the Disability Reform Package. which modified Commonwealth income support payments for people with disabilities to encourage their integration into the workforce. The package contained a large shift in emphasis toward 'open employment' as opposed to the existing special employment programs. Open Employment Services subsequently offered intensive and ongoing support to secure work for disabled people in the open market.

The first Commonwealth State Disability Agreement (CSDA) in 1991 clarified the roles and responsibilities of the governments. The Commonwealth was given responsibility for income support and employment services and the States and Territories were given responsibility for accommodation and other support services. According to Lindsay (1995), the 1991 agreement provided no extra resources and merely reaffirmed the status quo; but it did set in place a permanent mechanism whereby disability policy could be advanced.

Howe also introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, which made disability discrimination unlawful and promoted equal rights, equal opportunity and equal access for people with disabilities. The Act empowered a Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

In 1994 the Commonwealth Disability Strategy set in place a consultative ten-year framework of action for Commonwealth departments and agencies to remove any barriers or discrimination in employment and program delivery.


In health policy, Howe established the National Mental Health Strategy, which included the 1992 mental health policy and allocated $269 million for implementation.

The Commonwealth Dental Scheme arose out of a 1992 Health Strategy background paper. It provided for free dental care for financially disadvantaged adults from 1994, but was terminated on 1 January 1997 by the Howard government.

Housing and urban policy

Howe supported an edge-city concept of locational disadvantage, where people on the edge of cities were supposed to be poorer and more disadvantaged than others with better access to services, and commissioned 17 case studies intended to demonstrate this. However the initiative was discontinued when it was shown definitively that the inner cities contained the areas of greatest disadvantage.

The main innovation by Howe in the urban sector was the Building Better Cities Programme (BBC), the first federal venture into urban development since the Whitlam government, and Australia's first submissions-based capital assistance programme. The Commonwealth government supplied $816.4 million over five years for 'demonstration' projects meeting its urban objectives. From 1991, State and local governments could submit capital projects for consideration. The Programme supported projects variously redeveloping inner city precincts, constructing and refurbishing housing, building and upgrading railways and transport interchanges, new light rail systems, new water management infrastructure, as well as developing under-used government land. The incoming Howard government in 1996 discontinued the Programme.

In 1992 Howe initiated Australia's first Housing Strategy, led by Meredith Edwards AM. The Strategy had no effect on housing policy, unlike the Staples Review that preceded it in 1988. It did recommend the establishment of an Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, which Howe founded in 1993 and which is still operating in 2022.

Later life

Following Howe's departure from parliament, he became Schultz Visiting Professor at the Princeton University. He was then appointed by Melbourne University as a Professorial Fellow in the Centre for Public Policy. He taught postgraduate students, worked on several research projects, authored three books and published many articles. He organized two major international conferences in Melbourne on changing labour markets and their implications for Australian social policy. He received a visiting fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in 1997 and 1998.

In 2012 he chaired the ACTU Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work in Australia. He spoke widely about the issue to the media and addressed the National Press Club.

In 2017 Howe and his wife Renata were the subject of a documentary podcast interview by the Fitzroy History Society Oral History Project covering their early years of activism in the 1960s.

He served on the board of the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Patrons Council of the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria. He was a founding director of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government; and was chairman of the Victorian Disability Housing Trust and the community housing association Housing Choices Australia.


Howe was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in January 2001, and promoted to Officer level (AO) in January 2008. He received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Sydney in 2015.

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