A Longer View

The March of Patriots is a large book united by a set of ideas. Robert Manne in his review (‘The Insider’, October) seeks to engage some of them and I appreciate the critique he offers. The unifying theme of my book is that after the early 1990s recession, Australian leaders devised a distinctly Australian series of public policies to respond to the challenges of their increasingly globalised age. I argue that Paul Keating and John Howard were patriots in a new project of national renovation. I believe the long view of history will show their shared progress towards completing this new Australian project to have been the defining story of their era. Obviously, neither party nor any of their polemicists is attracted to this view.

Manne concedes that, in relation to the economy, this argument is “plausible”. I believe the book demonstrates why the modern Australian economy is a shared Labor–Liberal endeavour. Australia’s unmatched success among OECD nations in negotiating the 2008 global financial crisis is powerful proof that together the Keating–Howard governments created a distinctly Australian economic model.

In relation to foreign policy, Manne says the case I have made is “unconvincing”. Yet he fails to rebut my argument – that the central achievement of both the Keating and Howard governments was a deeper integration of our ties with America and Asia. Once again, I think the evidence is persuasive, given the sustained strong relations that Australia enjoyed with Beijing, Tokyo, Jakarta and Washington upon Howard’s departure, relations that were the product of his time in office. Manne concedes my argument that Howard was “successful” with China and resisted the fixation of US conservatives to contain her. I note the obvious: the Iraq war is the major split between Liberal and Labor – though Afghanistan, which has bipartisan support, may become the more significant conflict. I believe my conclusion – that Howard’s continuity with Keating was “far greater” than his discontinuity – is backed by the evidence and that this will become more apparent over time.

In relation to culture, Manne says my book makes “no sense”. This is because he misconstrues my argument. I believe that Keating and Howard were culture warriors fighting each other over history, the ANZAC legacy, identity, Indigenous reconciliation, the republic and the cultural dimension of Asian engagement. The book asserts that Keating began the culture war, and that Howard retaliated and joined the battle. I argue that Keating and Howard, while driven by a deep sense of patriotism, differed in their patriotic visions. These differences provide the main reason for my argument that the Keating–Howard project mirrored “their grudging agreements and their bitter conflicts” and that their joint legacy is “impressive, contradictory and incomplete.”

A theme of Manne’s critique is that, because I am an “insider” to the political process, I am unable to become a “systematic and forthright critic”. With respect, I think this misconceives the nature of political journalism and contemporary history. My view is that this period is misunderstood precisely because it lacks an “insider” perspective. The March of Patriots tries to explain what happened and why and I attempted this task fully aware of the groundswell of resistance to this approach to contemporary history.

Also, as a critic, I have never had any reluctance to attacking bad policy or corrupt process at length and I think this is true of most experienced political correspondents. Over the years I have had intense disagreements (to use polite terminology) with Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard. But I am also prepared to strongly support good public policy and national interest decisions and many people find this disconcerting. It is not my job to be a professional critic – an easy and intellectually lazy option – but to try to separate wheat from chaff in the imperfect arena of public policy. The real issue here is disagreement between Manne and myself over national interest policy and this can only be addressed by further argument.

Finally, I believe Manne’s review betrays the emotional confusion of many of Australia’s intellectual elite about the Howard prime ministership. In the book, I outline Howard’s political character in an attempt to explain his competing guises as conservative, radical, populist and vote-buying pragmatist. No single dimension can explain John Howard. I conclude he is best understood as representing four brands: economic reformism, social conservatism, cultural traditionalism and national security vigilance. I argue the Liberals have never had such a leader and that Howard’s interpretation of the Liberal Party is the most contentious in the party’s history – a unique Howard creation with a legacy the party must struggle with in the future.

It seems to me the evidence for this is persuasive. I am surprised that Manne finds this “an astonishingly myopic claim”. He lurches into a series of bizarre claims: that religion aside, Howard’s model was the Republican neo-conservative model, the songsheet of Fox News and of other crude American polemicists. This brings us to the bedrock: Manne cannot free his head from the compulsion that Howard Americanised this country, from his embrace of neo-liberal economics to his conservative social values. This is an article of faith among many Australian intellectuals that they seem unable to surrender despite the evidence.

It is not so much that I criticise this argument in the book; the entire book involves a repudiation of this position. When intellectuals so fundamentally misunderstand the dynamics driving our government policy, the risks to our public debate are substantial. During the Keating–Howard era, Australian governance and policy became more patriotic in the sense that a distinctively Australian model was devised to meet new global and national challenges. I understand the warmth between Howard and Bush – their status as political mates – can offer a false trail to such understanding. The truth, however, is that John Howard, in his instincts and outlook, was Australian to his bootstraps. The reality is that Keating and Howard were profoundly rooted in their sense of ‘Australianness’ and their long experience in Australia’s public policy debates (which made and broke their careers). Their impulse was to establish Australia as a successful nation in the globalised age and that meant finding policies that internationalised the country but were consistent with Australian values and aspirations. They had different solutions but neither believed the answer was to follow America.

Notwithstanding such arguments, I want to thank Manne for the comprehensive, generous and vigorous critique he made of The March of Patriots. He suggests the purpose of my book is to convince Australians to take pride in our national achievements. But generating pride has not been my purpose. It is, rather, to frame Keating and Howard as Labor and Liberal agents of change working in their different ways towards an Australian project for success in a far more demanding world.

Paul Kelly
Sydney, NSW