The tenth anniversary this week of John Howard's election as prime minister will, no doubt, offer another opportunity for his critics to characterise him as a man steeped in the past, in the 1950s. They could not be more wrong. Howard has repudiated everything the 1950s stood for in Australia. It was Paul Keating's favourite game, ribbing Howard about being yesterday's man, a cultural artefact like "the Astor TV, the AWA radiogram and the Morphy Richards toaster". It was a cute line, referring more perhaps to Howard's personal style. It certainly could not refer to his ideology, because the prime minister has set out to destroy the essential value of the fifties -- the notion of an egalitarian community. For the cultural and libertarian left, the fifties may have been a stultifying period, although its adherents created their own literary and even moral counterculture in The Push. Certainly, some of our most creative and witty minds, such as Clive James and Robert Hughes, fled for the bright lights of London or New York. But for those who remained behind, Australia was a civilised, if not somnolent, country. It was certainly one of the fairest places on earth, not withstanding the paternalism of some social policies, particularly toward Aboriginal Australians. It had one of the most even distributions of wealth of any western nation and the kind of obscene market-driven executive salaries were largely non-existent. As Geoffrey Blainey, Howard's favourite historian, points out, the fifties was also a time of massive public sector, taxpayer-funded investment in vital national infrastructure, including the very university system Howard despises and seeks to enfeeble. The government saw its role as nation-building. Most of all, it was the era of what political journalist Paul Kelly has described as the "Australian settlement", which guaranteed a legitimate place in national economic management to the trade unions, which represented almost two thirds of workers. The overwhelming national ethos was one of social solidarity -- and Howard hated it. The historian Judith Brett, who knows the mindset of Howard better than any Australian commentator or intellectual, argues in her excellent book, Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class, that Howard is one of the most radical prime ministers in our history, with a devotion to the near-absolute free market that is wildly at odds with the man on whom he models himself, Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies. For Howard, the Australia of the fifties -- the Australia of Menzies -- would have been a cosseted country, full of people far too dependent on the state for their education, their livelihoods and their retirements. Industry would have been run by patrician types, far too ready to deal with unions and not brave enough to expose themselves to the chill winds of pure capitalism. Society would have been far too deferential to university professors, instead of entrepreneurs and corporate CEOs, and the sacrosanct union picnic day a blight on the national calendar and character. John Winston Howard as a man of the fifties, as a Sandy Stone-like antiquity, is an appealing caricature for his opponents. The problem is that the fifties, with all its essential decency, represented everything he hates.