Howard's career in electoral politics began in 1974, when he won a seat in Parliament representing the Sydney district of Bennelong, a seat he has held ever since. Under the last Liberal government, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, Howard served as the minister for business and consumer affairs. He achieved recognition by rewriting the Australian Trade Practices Act, which prohibited boycotts on businesses and trade unions. Howard served as finance minister from 1977 until 1983 when the Labor Party came to power. In 1982, he was elected deputy leader of the Liberal Party and went on to become its leader in 1985. He led the party into the 1987 elections but lost. Two years later he was ousted from the party leadership, a position he did not regain until 1995.
Upon his reelection as party leader, Howard campaigned vigorously to oust the Labor Party. He benefited from the fact that the Labor Party had been in power for 13 years by capitalizing on the impression that Paul Keating was out of touch with ordinary citizens. However, the primary issues that were stressed in his election campaign were economic. At the time, Australia had run up a record foreign debt of A $180 billion and was suffering from high unemployment. While Howard had advanced a conservative agenda during his previous tenure as party leader, in this campaign his message was altered. Learning that unabashed free-market capitalism would not win votes, Howard moved to a middle ground in the 1996 campaign by appealing to voters whom he had earlier derided or ignored, such as blue-collar workers who had grown disaffected with Labor. Making campaign promises that required more than A $6 billion in government spending, he was prepared to forsake a balanced budget rather than break any of those promises. His success in the election amounted to the biggest victory for the Liberals since the formation of their party in 1944. The Liberal-National coalition won 95 seats in the House, the largest majority of any party in 21 years. In 1998 and 2001, voters returned the ruling Liberal-National government for second and third terms; in 2001 the number of seats won by Liberals was 68, and by Nationals, 13, for a total of 78, a 16-seat majority.