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John Howard has always been underrated — often by his friends, and always by his opponents. Although it is more than six years since he was Australian Prime Minister, he has now slipped easily into the role of an elder statesman who chooses his topics and words carefully. To his surprise, he found himself quoted widely in the British press for a recent lecture he gave to the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London, criticising attempts to silence dissent on the topic. However, he told me he is determined to confine himself to a small range of topics where he is well informed, rather than become one of those media commentators with an opinion on every current topic. After 11 and a half years in office and four election victories in a row, he will leave that to his colleagues still in the game. "I owe them my silence," he emphasises. One of the issues he is most concerned about is the national history curriculum, drawn up in 2012 by an old radical leftist colleague of Julia Gillard, which was installed by her government in all Australian schools earlier this year. To Howard's dismay, the curriculum no longer discusses Australia's British heritage or its Judaeo-Christian culture and tradition.

When he lost office in October 2007, he felt the public had had enough of him for a while. He left parliament with the firm intention of disappearing from view for a respectable period. He decided not to comment publicly on the affairs of the Labor government that defeated him or on the Liberal Party opposition. In his mind, he said, he kept open the option of responding to substantial public criticisms of his former policies, but found the opportunities were rare. 

So, to keep his hand in, he accepted an offer from HarperCollins to write his political autobiography. The writing, editing and production progressed throughout 2008 and 2009 while his party went through the turmoil of blooding and then discarding two alternative opposition leaders. 

By the time the autobiography, Lazarus Rising, was launched in October 2010, the political situation was transformed. His own party had settled on its third leader, Tony Abbott, while Julia Gillard had staged a successful coup against Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and formed a minority government in coalition with the Greens. Amid all this high political drama, John Howard was a forgotten man.

Yet Lazarus Rising became the Australian publishing sensation of the year. This was partly because its author is a good writer and has a story that has always gone down well in Australia: ordinary boy from the suburbs rises to the top. It was also because Howard worked very hard to sell the book. He accepted almost every invitation to speak about it, no matter how small or remote the occasion, and drew crowds of fans who wanted to talk to him personally. 

Meanwhile, his publishers were ordering one reprint after another. By the time he finished, the book had sold more than 100,000 copies, making it Australia's all-time best-selling political autobiography. 

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