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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Australian Fabians: John Howard, 10 Years On

In my flu-addled state, the good folks at Stoush.net, wsacaucus, the Purple Blog and, yes, even the Sydney Morning Herald (who didn't appear to notice that either Judith Brett or Gerard Henderson were present - a bit of a blow for Hendo, given that he regularly writes columns for them) got the jump on me as far as the above event goes.

The topic of discussion, and the range of guests, typified the Fabian ethos of mulling over every side of the story (the now-legendary Brian Huston vs David Marr session is another such meeting that springs to mind), with Henderson - the night's first speaker - at times nearly unable to disguise his contempt for the archetypal latte lefties before whom he sat (suffice to say, when Hendo leapt to his feet to explain exactly how wonderful WorkChoices would be for all of us, and to dismiss concepts such as chronic under-employment, the feeling was mutual). Yet the point of inviting the Hendersons - and Houstons - of the world to such events can be encapsulated by a sound point that Henderson made several times. He expressed his disdain for people who told him - perhaps rather proudly - that they `don't know a single person who votes for John Howard'. How on earth are these people supposed to defeat him if they don't even know who votes for him or why? It is all too easy for the Left to pretend that the more-than-50% of Australians who keep Howard in power do not exist; for them, they basically don't. They live separate and unrelated lives, they don't care that Howard lied about children overboard, AWB, or has let ministerial responsibility dwindle to an all-time low. Most people on the Left don't know how Alan Jones and Ray Hadley instruct such people to think on a daily basis, and don't care. There is a vague feeling that at some point, these people will discover that Howard is the lying rodent all the rest of us has known he is all along, and will vote accordingly. After ten years, this is simply an unproductive position to hold. The nasty fact of the matter is - there are people out there who not only put up with John Howard, but genuinely like the little man. Why?

This is really the core question of the past ten years, and one the Opposition - the Left in particular - has found it particularly difficult to engage with, and last night's event ultimately provided only discussion points rather than answers.

In her speech, Judith Brett suggested that the Liberal Party had in fact prospered by co-opting many Labor values and styles of governance. I wasn't entirely convinced by all of her arguments, and found some of her analyses slightly facile or over-intellectual, but on the idea that Howard had made the notion of being `relaxed and comfortable' his own, she was on very sound ground. Intriguing also was her suggestion that one of the key strategies of the Howard Government has been to attack the credibility of all independent bodies such as the judiciary, non-government organisations and unions, arguing that the only legitimate voice of the people comes from elected representatives. There is certainly validity to this argument, but it is one that can only be carried so far. It depends on the body and whether it agrees with the government. For example, churches were certainly told in no uncertain terms to keep their traps shut when they spoke up on industrial relations reforms, but they have been invited to speak up much more loudly on other issues with which it previously steered clear - the RU486 debate being a good example.

Then on to Julia Gillard, who as always was ... well, rather relaxed and comfortable, come to think of it, joking that herself and Fabian Society chairman John Faulkner had recently been named Australia's sexiest politicians (an honour Faulkner likened to being named `the tallest pygmy'). Contrary to what the Sydney Morning Herald might have you believe, her speech was not about Kim Beazley (I barely recall her mentioning him), but focused mainly on the idea that the Howard Government has built its success on saying one thing and doing the other - for example, `saving' Medicare by building a `safety net', while in fact dismantling universal healthcare by stealth, and building a `more flexible' industrial relations system which is actually less flexible and less fair. This, I think, is a very good point, especially given Howard's rhetoric about mateship, fair gos, battlers, and so forth, when it's the people at the bottom of society - ironically, the people now more likely to vote for the Coalition, while the more educated are more likely to vote Labor - who are most likely to be kicked in the teeth by his government's policies.

I came away with a head full of questions, and thoughts ... but not many answers. The fact that we have realised the old techniques are not working is a valuable step forward - the fact that the phrase `There are many people in the electorate who will never like John Howard' appeared on the official Liberal soundbite cheat sheet during the 2004 election (it came out of the mouth of Alexander Downer and Howard himself - shows that the government recognises that convincing people who already don't vote Liberal not to vote Liberal is a losing game.

But how else?

5 Comments:

At 3:44 pm, Anonymous Guy said...

Twas interesting. Hendo raised a couple of good points but was otherwise even more irritating than I thought he would be.

 
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