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Sunday, February 26, 2006

A More Serious Reflection on the Reign of John Howard

When I contemplate - seriously contemplate - the idea that John Howard has now steered Australia for ten years, it is not the achievements that he has made that I think about. It is the achievements that the previous government (and governments) were working towards but have fallen by the wayside that really provide food for thought. We have a certain sort of Australia. But we could have had a much better one.

The impression I got when Howard attained power (and the below really was based on a true story) was of a great unspooling - like dropping a roll of reel-to-reel film and watching the delicate, tightly rolled film come undone on the ground. So many initiatives that had been carefully built up by successive governments, going back to the days of Whitlam (and including the days of Fraser) were on a heap on the ground, and it would take decades - Bob Ellis once suggested a century - to roll them back onto their spools.

Aboriginal reconciliation is once such initiative. It took nearly 200 years just to see Indigenous Australians recognised as citizens, yet the reconciliation process, built up over decades, today lies in tatters, with a puppet organisation filling the void left by ATSIC. ATSIC, and its predecessors such as the Whitlam era NAAC, were troubled bodies, but this is the same argument used by opponents of the UN. If the baby is dirty, throw the baby out with the bathwater instead of looking at better ways of cleaning the baby. Not long ago, I marvelled at the fact that Paul Keating's Redfern Speech was spoken only fourteen years ago. A Redfern Speech in the Howard era is unimaginable. It is notable that a Redfern Riot would have been equally unimaginable in the Keating era.

The republic is another issue which, of course, was stalled in its tracks when Howard took over, yet there are encouraging signs that the machine may be groaning back into life. Though being a republic is a symbolic issue, just imagine how much more pleasant it would have been to enter the 21st century as a republic - how much more meaningful celebrating the 100th anniversary of Federation might have been had it been a celebration of Australia finally tearing free of England's apron strings rather than an expensive and almost completely ignored junket, not even held in Australia but in the `Mother Country'? Australia is a young nation, and its national narrative is a paradoxical one. Ever determined to prove itself and to argue its independence, it nevertheless refuses to stand on its own two feet again and again. The republic provided the perfect chance to finally do so; yet again, that chance was thrown away, and yet again, Australia proved itself the eternal adolescent of the world stage.

The environment is one of the areas on which the Australian government has backtracked the most in the ten years of the Howard Government. By the early 90s, Australia was a world leader in terms of its commitments and actual action on environmentally friendly initiatives; ten years later, the distance that it has slid is an international embarrassment. Alone of almost all the OECD countries - save our good pals America - it has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, suggesting that it can do better, but refusing to say how. Given that Australia is one of the developed countries that stands to be hardest hit by global warming - not even counting the secondary impact posed by higher temperatures and rising water levels in poorer Pacific countries, something already being observed - ignoring the environment is something that will be viewed as positively foolhardy by future generations.

Divisiveness has been a feature of the Howard Government - just one tool in the toolkit of the Politics of Fear, something David Marr touched on during today's Insiders. Howard has consistently used a technique much favoured by marketers, who convince us to buy their products by playing on our insecurities about our attractiveness to others, the hygiene of our houses, and our ability as a parent. Setting one demographic, group or ethnicity against another is a simple way to make people in the stronger of the two groups feel good about themselves and foster a feeling of togetherness and solidarity (Adolf Hitler also knew this when he put together the Hitler Youth. The psychology isn't that complex). He has taught us to be scared of illegal immigrants, of Labor's ability to handle the economy, of Muslims, of welfare cheats. He has taught us to be relaxed and comfortable; to regard conservatism (for that is what being relaxed and comfortable is) as an Australian birthright, and to regard anyone who may disturb good Australian relaxation and comfort - thus, not only genuinely dangerous people, but people simply with progressive political ideas - with deep suspicion and, yes, fear.

Almost all of the major scandals of Howard's Prime Ministerial career spring from this politics of fear - the Children Overboard scandal; the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon affairs. The AWB does not, though it shares in common with the other scandals the fact that in no case was anyone found accountable. No ministerial head has ever been lopped over any Howard Government scandal, and as far as scandals go, they have not been small ones. Ministerial accountability, something Howard promised would be formidable in the early days of his leadership, has instead proven to be an absolute joke.

Who or what will be the circuit breaker? Primarily, the economy. In discussing his legacy, Howard returns to the economy like a dog returning a soggy old tennis ball. Nobody can dispute Australia's unprecedented economic growth, and regardless of whether you believe that it is due to the Howard-Costello approach to handling the economy, the perception that it is has been so firmly entrenched that the minute it goes southward, the fingers will be firmly pointed at ... Howard and Costello. Not by those who know that interest rates are set by the RBA and that world markets impact upon our own in ways we cannot influence, but by Mr and Mrs Mortgage Belt, the same voters who quaked in their boots at the idea of voting for Labor, who would `put interest rates up to 16%, just like they did in the mid 90s' if they got in. Likewise, the same voters might have a hard time convincing that WorkChoices did not contribute to any downturn that does occur.

When I think of the Australia we have now - a more cynical Australia; one in which the Treasurer can openly vilify Muslims and get away with it; one in which a Pauline Hanson was allowed to occur; one which is in so many ways meaner spirited, more narrow minded, and less able to see the big picture - I think of what was, and what could have been, and what is. And I try and have some hope about what will be. But boy, it can be difficult.

More commentary on ten years of Howardism on Insiders, and in The Australian (which also publishes an excerpt from the upcoming bio The Howard Factor, which from the looks of things looks like it'll be ultra critical of the PM, not), the Sydney Morning Herald, the Melbourne Herald Sun and The Age


At 1:11 pm, Anonymous Guy said...

Great post. Well may we ponder what could have been.

For all the nonsense that flies around about how much the two major parties in Australia are too close together for comfort, it's hard to imagine anything but an utterly different Australia had Labor retained governmented from 96 until the present.

At 6:43 pm, Blogger Minotaur said...

Good to have you back, Guy ;)

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