Daily Media Quotation
In Search Of Howard's End
October 9, 2006
by Robert Manne - The Age
Last week, at Quadrant's 50th anniversary dinner, John Howard effectively claimed victory in Australia's culture wars. The boast was premature but far from empty.
During the past 10 years Australia has undergone a profound conservative-populist transformation. The Howard Government has abandoned the quest for Aboriginal reconciliation. It has ended discussion of the meaning of multiculturalism. It has closed our borders, by the use of military force, to all those seeking refuge by boat. It has adopted a foreign policy of a more uncritically pro-American kind than was seen even in the era of Menzies. And, by its refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, it has turned its back on the international fight against global warming.
A new kind of political culture, even a new kind of Australia, has begun to emerge. How?
Let us begin with the role of the Prime Minister. The anti-Howard intelligentsia have often described him as a mere opportunist. This seems to me quite wrong. Howard is a man of old-fashioned and dogmatic opinions and emotions. He will act on these principles at least up to the point where adherence to them seriously threatens his grip on power.
Howard's greatest strength has been his capacity to translate his prejudices into political assets. In addition, he is unusually interested in ideologically sensitive issues, like indigenous dispossession and asylum seekers, and in the prosecution of culture wars against the left.
He quickly saw how he could use the hostility to Aboriginal rights, multiculturalism and refugees unleashed by Pauline Hanson to destabilise Labor and advance his conservative-populist version of Australia.
It would, of course, be foolish for those who want to explain the Howard Government's cultural victories to ignore the fact that it has presided over 10 years of steady non-inflationary economic growth. Yet concerning the consequences of that prosperity there are also some less obvious things to say.
In comparison with the security and serenity of citizens in the postwar boom, what is unusual about our own time is the curious combination of well-being and anxiety. Very many Australians are aware that they have never had it so good. Because of the unprecedented levels of private indebtedness, however, the high vulnerability to interest rate rises and the increasing levels of job insecurity, many are far from convinced that the good times will last.
The preoccupation of large numbers of citizens is now individual and familial well-being. The main aspiration is to acquire, or at least to hold on to what has been gained. Politics is accordingly even more thoroughly reduced than usual to judgements about the economic competence of governments.
No account of the conservative-populist transformation would be complete without some reference to the most important failure of Labor since 1996, its incapacity to construct an attractive, alternative vision of the future of Australia that is capable of discrediting the neo-liberal, neo-conservative, patriotic story the Prime Minister has so successfully told.
No one should deny the difficulty of the task. While it is true that Keating also had a powerful story - of a republican and multicultural Australia, reconciled with its indigenous population, at ease in Asia and at home in a globalising world - after the 1996 defeat of Labor this story could no longer work.
The Keating vision divided the two most basic constituencies of Labor - the workers and the professional middle-class. It appealed deeply to the left-leaning "elites" but repelled large numbers of "ordinary people". Beazley abandoned the story shortly after gaining the Labor leadership. He was not helped by the carping incapacity of the left-leaning intelligentsia, even after Tampa, to understand the real dilemma facing him.
In some ways it is surprising that Beazley has not found a story because there has long been one available waiting impatiently to be told. John Howard's form of Liberalism is highly vulnerable because it is composed of two incompatible strands. One is unrestrained economic individualism, the other social conservatism. Citizens are told simultaneously to devote their lives, on the one hand, to material acquisition and to work, and on the other, to the preservation of family, community and church.
For citizens, in the chaos of contemporary society, the incommensurability of these values eventually becomes clear, not, of course, in theory but in the impossible pace and pleasurelessness of daily life. In the acquisitive, individualist, consumerist society of neo-liberal theory, time is short, human relations are short-changed, families fracture, the needs of children are ignored, identity is shaped by consumption, losers are treated with contempt, and levels of insecurity, drug dependency, even mental illness, increase.
As Kevin Rudd has intuited in an article on faith and politics in the most recent Monthly magazine, Labor is nothing if not inspired by the idea of social justice or, in local parlance, by the light on the hill. The story it should tell must focus on the costs of unrestrained economic individualism. Policies like generous parental leave, increased expenditure on mental health, opposition to the workplace-relations legislation, conspicuous commitment to the environment, could all be part of this new story.
Why, then, did I call John Howard's victory speech premature? His prime ministership now reminds me of Sir Robert Menzies' in its final years. Because of a certain stubbornness and inability to respond to the winds of change on racial questions, such as apartheid and the White Australia Policy, Menzies quite suddenly began to look like a man from a bygone era.
The same is happening to John Howard. Through a romantic attachment to American civilisation and a lazy commitment to the American alliance no matter what, Howard has led Australia to a humiliating foreign policy of automatic loyalty and into complicity in the moral and strategic disaster of Iraq.
Through an ideological hostility to environmentalism as a supposedly left-wing cause, and a belief in economic growth at any cost, Howard has caused Australia to be seen as one of the two recalcitrants in the developed world on the most pressing issue of our era, the fight against global warming.
As neo-liberals might put it, it may not be too long before it is generally recognised that Howard, like Menzies 40 years ago, has passed his use-by date.
Robert Manne is professor of politics at La Trobe University. This is an edited extract of a speech delivered yesterday to the National Civil Society Dialogue held in Parliament House, Canberra.