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Geoff Kitney: Selfish Australia Votes For Itself

This is the text of an article by Geoff Kitney, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 10, 2004.

With John Howard about to enter his eighth year as prime minister, Kitney ponders Howard’s influence on Australia. He argues that Australia has become more hedonistic and self-focused, whilst issues of community interest, equity and minority rights have been sidelined.

Text of article by Geoff Kitney, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 10, 2004.

Selfish Australia Votes For Itself

“It’s enough to be a good man, plain thinking, stay honest and stay true. Don’t heed the fast talker or the con man. Australia needs plain-thinking men like you. Never mind the fancy dancers, plain-thinking men know right from wrong. Don’t deal with silver tongues and chancers, keep your vision clear and hold it strong.” – verse from the First Testament of Howardism, Future Directions, December 4, 1988.

It was hardly the glorious clarion call of Gough Whitlam’s It’s Time. Few would remember either the tune or the words, not even, probably, John Howard. In the history of political ditties and slogans, it had a very short and undistinguished shelf life.

December 1988 very definitely was not time, for Howard or for his political message. Future Directions – the truest and most complete declaration of Howard’s political beliefs – was launched with a low trajectory and spluttered and died six months later, along with Howard’s blighted first period as Liberal Party leader.

But while the advertising jingles and the packaging faded into political history, the ideas lived on. As we head towards the 15th anniversary of Howard’s first political death and as he marches past his eighth year as Prime Minister and seeks his fourth successive election victory, we now know that what was not right for the times in 1988 became right for the times a decade later.

The qualities that Future Directions encapsulated but failed to sell as political virtues then – Howard’s ordinariness and his belief in such things as family values, decency, hard work and reward for individual initiative – became the qualities of his subsequent political success.

What changed between the late 1980s and the late ’90s was not Howard. It was Australia that changed. It was change which Howard instinctively tapped into and change which the Labor Party lost touch with. As Howard moves closer to the opportunity of a decade in power – achievable if he wins this year’s federal election – Labor is desperately seeking to re-establish that lost connection. In its desperation it has taken the ultimate gamble – a new leader whose primary claim to the job was that he represented a break with the past. No Labor leader has ever had such a blank cheque.

Mark Latham’s conundrum is to decide how to differentiate Labor and still win back the constituency that Howard has so successfully won over to his conservatism.

Latham’s best qualification for the job is that he comes from the suburban territory Howard has captured. The people of his daily life in western Sydney are the people of outer suburban Australia who have provided Howard with his political success. If any Labor figure is able to understand how to win them back, it should be Latham. That is, assuming it is possible to win them back.

The big Australian political question is this: how deep and how permanent is the change of the Howard years? Part of the answer can be found in looking at the catalysts of the change. When Whitlam’s time came it came because he built a powerful new Labor constituency which welded together Labor’s traditional working-class base and the progressive intellectual, artistic and comfortably well-off elites.

Howard’s political success has come from driving a wedge into the obvious division of interests between the elites, and what could be called their “state of the universe” concerns, and the closer-to-home concerns of ordinary suburban Australia which are about household budgets, personal security and the prospects for their children.

The Howard conservative agenda caught the global wave of new conservatism which has had its most dramatic manifestation in the US in the presidency of George Bush.

What the new conservatism offered was a power shift to constituencies which believed they had been disadvantaged for too long by liberal policies aimed at righting wrongs for those perceived to be disadvantaged.

Howard successfully tapped into a deepening sense or resentment in the community that governments no longer cared about ordinary people. As the antithesis of the Hawke-Keating “silver tongue” and “fancy dancer” personal style, Howard’s ordinariness appealed to ordinary voters and communicated with them in their language. Howard legitimised the conversations of suburbia, saying it was OK to attack multiculturalism and black welfare and dole bludgers and similar targets of suburban resentment about which ordinary people had felt constrained to speak by the laws of political correctness.

What Howard tapped into was a wellspring of anger the political elites and the commentators either had little knowledge of or considered to be no-go areas for responsible political leaders. By legitimising the suburban conversation, Howard won sympathy for his policy agenda.

Letting people say what was on their minds fitted well with the big idea that is at the heart of Howard’s political philosophy: individual freedom. Howard’s lifelong core belief has been in the power of the individual. It is the inspiration for his commitment to free market economics.

The Howard years have marked a dramatic surge in individual power, ironically facilitated by the financial deregulation introduced by Hawke and Keating.

For the first time, because of the flexibility in the way money can be borrowed, Australians have been able to tap into the wealth locked up in the value of their homes. Surging property values – created by record low interest rates, Howard Government assistance to first-home buyers and shrinking land supply in the major cities – have become a source of undreamt of wealth. Australians have been borrowing like crazy against the rising value of their properties to finance better lifestyles. Hedonism has never had it so good.

The irony of this is that, as public sector borrowing has been demonised and the economic credibility of governments is measured by their success in reducing debt, ordinary Australians have gone on an unprecedented private borrowing binge. It’s a binge which is going to take some containing. But it is a binge that has made Australians feel good about themselves – and about the Howard Government.

The most commonly heard positive comment heard about Howard is “he’s done a pretty good job”. This is fundamentally a view based on the state of the economy.

If there are no major economic dramas between now and the next election, it’s very hard to see this sentiment changing and while it remains, Howard will be all but unbeatable. Only a big rise in interest rates threatens Howard’s economic management reputation and that seems unlikely in the next nine months.

In these hedonistic and self-focused times, broader issues of community interest, equity and minority rights are sidelined or given lower priority. The environment, for instance. Australians are less fussed now about the threat of global warming than they used to be and the Howard Government has not paid any significant political price for playing a leading role in wrecking the Kyoto Treaty.

Australians are much more concerned about the threat of terrorism than the risk of rare animals and plants becoming extinct as the climate changes. National security and local crime are significantly bigger concerns for most Australians than financial security or environmental threat, a balance which strongly favours Howard and his post-Tampa reputation for toughness and strength.

While individualism has flourished we, in our debt-laden castles and our fear of the unknown which the new world order of global terrorism has created, have become more selfish and less tolerant. The most conspicuous victims of this are asylum seekers, the vast majority of them desperate people who have fled the threat of persecution and death but have been met with flint-faced determination to punish them for not following proper procedures in seeking to enter Australia, a shameful and immoral absurdity about which few Australians have the slightest pang of conscience.

I also believe that the power of individualism is breaking down a sense of community and community responsibility which will have long-term consequences for cohesion and ethical standards. Social workers and parents say there are clear signs of this in youth behaviour, with crumbling respect and civility as a “me first” culture grows.

But whatever the downside of the change that has characterised the Howard years, its fundamentals appear entrenched and likely to favour the conservative side of politics. That is a comforting thought for Howard as he enjoys his summer holiday and a daunting one for Latham as he goes back to work early to begin the search for a magic political formula capable of breaking the anti-Labor cycle.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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