Myth understandings
Did John Howard really have an instinctive understanding of “middle Australia”?

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Political theorist Christopher Flood observes that political myth is “ideology cast in the form of a story”. This year, 20 years after John Howard’s stunning victory over Paul Keating in the 1996 federal election, the time is ripe for myth-making.

The tales that the right tells about Howard have as their protagonist a man who was made great by his very ordinariness and who instinctively understood “middle Australia”. The supporting cast includes villains – pernicious elites and the politically correct – as well as “Howard’s battlers” (a term which has the faint patronising hint of possession) as secondary heroes.

A recent article by former senior Howard government adviser Terry Barnes is a classic of the genre. Barnes writes that Howard was “determined to lead a government with a tone and substance very different from the aggressive and divisive arrogance of Keating”. “Divisive” is one of the most weaselly of weasel words; like “the politics of envy”, it’s often used to shout down those who seek to address existing divisions. Dealing with those divisions is what politics is all about, for it concerns the question of how power should be exercised – a subject on which there are, to put it mildly, differences of opinion.

However, even if we accept that “divisiveness” as such is a bad thing, Howard can hardly be said to have been pure on this score. Recall his government’s encouragement of resentment against asylum seekers, native title claimants (the Wik decision, he charged, “pushed the pendulum too far in the Aboriginal direction”) and welfare recipients; and cast your mind back to a decade-long culture war which included such lowlights as the prime minister fulminating against Play School for daring to include a two-mother family. Howard’s policies have also been criticised for exacerbating class divisions. A recent article by Mike Seccombe concludes that the social and economic changes made by Howard (including the capital gains tax discount and changes to the tax treatment of superannuation) rendered Australia “less fair”.

Regardless, Howard’s much-vaunted understanding of the electorate remains an article of faith. In the article quoted above, Barnes writes that Howard became “a voice of Middle Australia, with an ear acutely tuned to what Middle Australia itself was saying”. Barnes continues that for “most of his Prime Ministership, Howard read the mood of the Australian people better than anyone”.

That word “most” is an important qualifier. It is difficult to argue that Howard was some sort of electorate-whisperer given, for instance, his failure to gain a majority of the votes at the 1998 election – his government was re-elected with a 12-seat majority but only 49.02% of the two-party-preferred vote. We came very close to a world in which Kim Beazley, not Tony Abbott, would be celebrated as our “most effective opposition leader”, with Howard reduced to a cautionary footnote.

Tales about Howard’s understanding of the electorate must also contend with the inconvenient fact that he met his downfall precisely because his control of the Senate following the 2004 election left him free to implement a deeply unpopular policy agenda: radical workplace relations reform. Howard simply did not comprehend that “middle Australians” did not share his ideological leanings; that people might prioritise their rights at work over a crusade against the union movement.

Following the 2013 election, Richard Cooke wrote that on the left, the “belief that Tony Abbott is unelectable has even survived his election”. Similarly, it appears that on the right the tenet of Howard’s infallible political instincts lives on despite his loss in 2007, which was so comprehensive that he even lost his own seat.

This argument might be greeted with shrugs and the conclusion that Howard won four elections, after all; what does it matter how we remember him? It matters, I think, because stories have power, and one of their powers is to prevent clear thinking. Academic and writer Peter Brent, who has usefully interrogated the narrative surrounding Howard, argues persuasively that Labor internalised it to its own detriment. Brent observes that during its 11 years in opposition the ALP became “so demoralised it internalised the opinion-page account of politics that had … Howard holding the electorate in the palm of his hand” and “clung in its misery to its polling gurus, who reinforced that worldview”. This had disastrous results once the party found itself back in government. Narrative, it seems, is a hell of a drug.

None of this to deny that Howard was a highly successful politician, who prevailed over his foes on many occasions and did much to shape the country we now live in. His victories and failures deserve analysis, though, not fairytales. 

Sarah Burnside
Sarah Burnside lives in Perth and writes about history, politics and culture. @saraheburnside

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