July 2007



By Judith Brett
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The knack of successful political leadership in parliamentary democracies is to balance the politics of unity with those of division, to put yourself forward as the representative and protector of the nation as a whole while using every trick in the book to attack and sideline your opponents. The qualities needed for the two tasks are diametrically opposed. For the first, a leader needs to be able to find common grounds of national belief and experience which override the differences, to be able to build consensus, to develop the best possible policies to defend the national interest, and to use language in ways that bind rather than divide. For the second, a leader needs aggression, a forensic eye for opponents' weaknesses, a capacity for scorn, and not too much reflection on the beams in their own eye. And to achieve this balancing act, a leader needs to be a master illusionist, able to convince both him or herself and enough of the public to win government that there are no unworkable contradictions between the thrusts and parries of adversarial conflict and the purposes of governing in the national interest.

Since at least mid-May, when Peter Costello's budget failed to lift the government's approval ratings, it has become clear to John Howard, to many in the Liberal Party, and even to a perplexed and out-of-touch press gallery, that Howard is no longer the master illusionist he once was. He admitted as much when he said there were no more rabbits left in the hat. When and how did Howard turn from a master illusionist into (as Bill Bowtell has put it) the Wizard of Oz, just an old man behind a curtain after all?

First, we need to remember that almost half the electorate never believed in Howard as the leader of the Australian people, and always saw him primarily as a partisan figure of conflict and division. Left-liberals were appalled by the way he gave permission to Pauline Hanson to air her racist views; by his evasion of responsibility for the children-overboard affair and for the scandalous behaviour of the Australian Wheat Board; by the harshness and hypocrisy of his asylum-seeker policies; by his stacking of public bodies with right-wing warriors; by his government's unrelenting hostility to the ABC; by his bullying of public servants; and so on. Many trade unionists and working-class voters never trusted him not to govern as Liberal governments always do, in the interests of small and big business. And many Australians of ethnic background distrusted his backward-looking, British-centric version of Australian nationalism. These people are all still there. And, as the rising vote for Labor in blue-ribbon middle-class Liberal seats shows, liberal Liberals with moral qualms have also been defecting.

For his first three terms, though, Howard has been a confident master illusionist of the nation. I have argued elsewhere (see in particular Quarterly Essay 19), that Howard has been astonishingly successful in creating a new language of national unity for the Liberals. When he became leader of his party for the second time, in 1995, this seemed an almost impossible task, Keating having so successfully deflected the negativity and divisiveness associated with economic liberalism onto the Liberals. But with astonishing adroitness, Howard shifted attention away from the conflicts of the economy to the cultural unity of the nation, and staged a successful takeover of the symbols and imagery of popular Australian nationalism which had once belonged to Labor. Through Howard's words, the Liberals became the guardians of Australia's traditions of mateship and the fair go, of practical common sense and an endearing informality of manners. And in tracksuits, Akubras and cricket hats, our off-duty prime minister became a reassuringly suburban Australian everyman.

But since his unexpected 2004 Senate majority, Howard has stopped talking so much about the nation and started to talk almost exclusively about the economy. Having attacked the foundation of Australia's egalitarianism with WorkChoices, he is now stressing his skill in managing the economy, and in delivering prosperity and long-term economic security, as the basis of his claim to govern for the benefit of all. The economic indicators that Howard is most comfortable with are the macro ones: low numbers for interest rates, inflation and unemployment; levels of growth; overall levels of wealth. The trouble is in the detail: household debt, housing affordability, and wages and conditions traded away for little or no gain in the less-regulated workplaces that resulted from WorkChoices. As Howard has looked after the health of the economy as a whole, many people have lost economic ground.

The whole point of WorkChoices, of allowing market forces a greater role in setting the price of labour, was that this price could fall as well as rise. The government acknowledged as much when first arguing for the changes, saying that lower wages would create jobs for unemployed people whom businesses might not otherwise be prepared to employ. So when some people's wages and conditions fell, the government could hardly expect people to believe that this was not intended. Re-introducing the no-disadvantage test and banishing the tarnished brand name simply confirms what many believed all along: that WorkChoices was an unfair diminishing of the rights of the weakest workers. Economic liberals always overplay the harmony of interests in the economy, just as socialists always overplayed the conflict. There are both, and a leader needs to find a plausible point of balance if he is to base his claims to govern for all pretty well exclusively on economic management. The language of nationalism has always helped soften the inevitable conflicts of interest within the economy. Having unleashed the economic liberal within after his Senate victory, Howard has severely compromised the credibility of his claims to uphold the old nationalism of mateship and the fair go.

Howard's other main claim to govern in the national interest was that the Liberals were better at managing defence and ensuring Australia's national security. The disaster of Iraq makes this less and less plausible by the day. Whatever Howard's intentions in joining the Coalition of the Willing - to defend the free world from terrorists, to free the people of Iraq from a murderous tyrant, to renew our insurance policy with the US - the result has seen Australia mired in a bloody civil conflict and tied to a lame-duck US president. It is hard to see how any of this has served our national interest. Staring down the strong public opposition to the war, Howard argued that while he respected the views of those who disagreed with him, he asked that they rally nevertheless behind the brave Australian men and women who were serving their country in Iraq. He farewelled, welcomed and visited our troops like a wartime leader. But the war is going so badly now that it is hard to see it as anything other than a political liability.

Labor has a credible representative to drive home the point: the military lawyer Colonel Mike Kelly, candidate for Eden-Monaro and internationally renowned as an expert on the laws of occupation and peacemaking. "We've actually made the international security situation worse by the way the operation has been conducted," he told Kerry O'Brien on the 7.30 Report in May. Predictably, he's being attacked as purely a mouthpiece of Labor: "I wouldn't expect a candidate from the Labor Party to be saying anything else than some sort of critical comments about Iraq and AWB," said the sitting Liberal member, Gary Nairn. Kelly's reply, with its appeal to the ideal of service, shows what deep trouble his candidature represents for Howard: "Well, I'd say look, just look at my record, you know, I've always served both governments of all colours faithfully and loyally. You don't have to believe my words, but judge me by my actions."

The interview with the straight-talking Kelly, his face weathered from service in Somalia, East Timor, Bosnia and Iraq, was followed by one with Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, his hair coiffed like a courtier, who smiled and evaded Kelly's accusation that he had warned the Australian government about the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib months before it was exposed publicly. The two interviews were riveting. That they did not elicit the usual government accusations of ABC bias perhaps indicates that Howard knows he has so completely lost credibility over Iraq that the best tactic is to not mention the war.

Nation, economy, strategic national interest: none of these is working anymore for Howard. And he is now faced with a new Labor leader who is proving frustratingly resistant to being characterised as a figure of division in the well-worn Liberal way: as a creature of the unions, and as prone to corruption and blind to conflicts of interest. In Liberal Party rhetoric, ‘union' is a code word for the selfish pursuit of sectional interest; the lawless use of power; workplace bullying; factional warlordism; rude, crude masculine aggression; and probably a bit of crime and violence on the side. But Rudd does not come out of the Labor Party's industrial wing. Rather, he comes from its social-democratic tradition of faith in the creative powers of government to develop good policy and solve national problems in the interests of all. And the probing for personal weaknesses with the Brian Burke connection, and more recently the business affairs of his wife, Therese Rein, has turned up only small misdemeanours, a couple of meals, and underpayment of wages of around $75,000 which have been repaid anyway. If this is all the Liberals can find, they must really be getting desperate, given how hard they will have been looking. And it's not much to put on the scales against the evasions and shady business of the children-overboard affair and the AWB pouring $300 million into the war chest of the regime we were about to send our soldiers into battle with. As Mike Kelly told Kerry O'Brien, "At another time something like that well might have been called treason."

Since Whitlam, Labor has been the party of the public service as well as of the unions. When Rudd entered federal parliament, in 1998, he had worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for seven years and as director-general of the Cabinet Office in Wayne Goss's Queensland government for three. If he becomes prime minister, he will be the first person to hold the office with such extensive experience in the public service. The public service - despite the changes to tenure, particularly at the top level, which have made it more responsive to partisan political concerns - still represents a tradition of working for and on behalf of the Australian people. Of its nature it has to be bipartisan, and to serve the government of the day with dedication and intelligence. Of course, not all public servants do this equally well, but the point is that within Australia's institutional traditions the civil service represents an ideal of bipartisan commitment and good sense.

It is because he is grounded in this tradition of our political life that Rudd is able to present himself as a plausible figure of national unity, and this is the basis of much of the power of his challenge to Howard. This is particularly the case as the two leaders struggle over their policy responses to climate change. We all know that Howard has no form at all on climate change, and not much on water shortages, but the conflict between Rudd and Howard is not about the particulars of their respective policies. It is about the public's judgement of which leader understands the true dimensions of the problem, and the public's realisation that if we are to have any hope at all of tackling the greatest crisis of survival which our nation has faced, we will need a leader with an open and enquiring mind and a bipartisan approach, one who will not marginalise scientists who disagree with him. Who better than a well-educated, slightly bookish former public servant?

Howard's claims to govern in the interests of the nation have never convinced everyone, yet they have had a plausibility that has enabled him to talk confidently with the Australian people about common problems and a shared destiny. Events have been eroding that plausibility for some time, and he's been stumbling more often. But when the Opposition was led down the yellow brick road by a big, shambling, good-natured lion of a man, no one really noticed. And then along came Toto and pulled away the curtain. Here, though, the analogy with the Wizard of Oz fails. Behind the curtain is no apologetic old man who was just trying to give people what they wanted, but rather a man filled with barely contained fury, lashing out at the Opposition with his full partisan armoury of denigration and, as he does so, making it less and less likely that he will be able to switch convincingly back to the statesman's language of national unity.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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