May 2005


So happy we could scream

By John Birmingham
So happy we could scream
Still comfortable but relaxed no more in John Howard’s Australia

It’s a hell of a thing, to see the dead come back to life. But that’s what it felt like driving through my hometown. When I left Ipswich in the early 1980s the place seemed to be teetering on the edge of a death spiral. Steam-age industries that had supported generations of miners and factory workers were wheezing out their last gasps. Unemployment was becoming something a man would hand on to his children, and they to theirs. The town’s beautiful colonial core was being eaten out by blank, bottom-feeding retail developments of such aesthetic worthlessness that not even Jeffrey Smart could render them interesting.

The feeling that it was a good town to leave was only confirmed when I returned a decade later to cover the freak show that the rest of the country knew as Pauline Hanson and One Nation. I can’t recall which magazine sent me up there, but I remember only too well picking up a copy of the local newspaper, The Queensland Times. Once a proud if occasionally eccentric journal, it had fallen on some very hard times. Its major source had become the local courthouse and the editor had an embarrassing hard-on for colourful sex crimes. The lead story on the day I arrived was about a man convicted of prostituting and raping his 15-year-old stepdaughter. Pimp-daddy happily admitted pocketing most of the money he charged for her services, but in his defence he offered evidence of the three blowjobs, all gratis, she’d performed on him. To his way of thinking those freebies were his get-out-of-jail-free card. They proved that she really wanted it.

This was all a thousand miles removed from the tough, hard-knuckled, working-class town I’d grown up in. A city of pubs and churches, they called it. Both were still there but largely empty now, even the pubs, which had once roared to the massed bullshitting of thousands of workmen from the railroads, woollen mills and coal mines. All gone by the time Hanson, that red-headed berserker, arrived to pitch her message into the empty space cleared by the economic programs of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating’s governments.

These stories never end well. Or at least they’re not supposed to. And yet another ten years on and Ipswich is a boomtown. The existential despair that had threatened to engulf her is gone, disappeared as completely as those rustbelt jobs had once vanished. Like magic. I’d driven up the highway from Brisbane, about 30 clicks to the east, to do a gig with another old boy of the town, Tom Shapcott, the poet. We had been invited by the library, which was putting on a mini-festival of local writers. I’d spent a lot of my early teen years in the old library, a musty brick building that looked like it might once have done sterling service as a barn. The new facilities were of an entirely higher order, three floors of bleeding edge technology with sweeping views out to the ridge line of Queens Park, a huge and perfectly maintained green space at the edge of the CBD.

Tom and I spent the day giving talks and classes. In the evening the locals put on a spread for us and turned out in their Sunday best, even though it was Tuesday. This was Ipswich as I once knew it: a buffet of cheese cubes, cold sausage and an old-fashioned regard for the proprieties. Not at all the sort of place where dim-witted rednecks pimped out their stepchildren.

I lost touch with Tom early on, drawn into conversation with locals who could have been Sydneysiders, so obsessed were they with real estate, which was putting on value like an Asian stock market before the crash of ’97. Except that nobody was thinking about ’97. They were all glassy-eyed and jabbering about the torrent of money pouring into town as capital fled the overpriced Sydney market and inflated the price of local homes by 100% in a couple of years. As John Howard once said, nobody complains about the value of their homes going up.

Ipswich had somehow missed out on all of the booms but none of the crashes of the previous 20-odd years. It had come good, however, with a head-spinning rush at the last moment. Even the editor of The Queensland Times was leaving his job to take up a new career as a mortgage broker. And unlike the surge of irrational exuberance gripping the rest of the country, the good times were not just a matter of runaway house prices. The local council, a perverse mix of National Party mayor and Labor Party aldermen, had turned themselves inside out to position the city as the only viable growth corridor open to a state capital with nowhere else left to expand.

Private contractors were building thousands of modern homes in bushland about halfway between the old town’s colonial core and the edge of Brisbane’s metro sprawl. But unlike the vast wasteland of Whitlam-era public housing estates lying like a giant scab over south-western Sydney, these prefab suburbs were being built for the new middle class, for the aspirationals, for Howard’s battlers; call them what you will. So they came with a Greg Norman-designed golf course, green belts, artificial lakes, carefully positioned village-style shopping hubs and one gigantic 320 hectare neo-urban meta-concept, the Springfield Town Centre, with staged development of retail, commercial, light industrial, medical, university and research facili-ties all mapped out over 20 years.

The virtual destruction of the town’s old industrial power structure meant that a green-field site existed for new players to come in, providing jobs to the hundreds of thousands of new residents who would move into the city over the next generation. Aerospace, infotech, financial services and modern manu-facturing projects were already on-line – like Boeing’s operation at RAAF Amberley. Or they were in development – like the giant Swanbank paper plant that will produce 350,000 tonnes of high-gloss magazine paper by this time next year, replacing about $400 million worth of imports and earning hundreds of millions more in exports. You can see why people were smiling like dingoes on speed.

But if the slightly fevered buoyancy and confidence of that night in Ipswich is not to turn bitter and ugly, the good folk of my hometown are going to have to pull a few more Swanbanks out of their star-spangled magician’s hat. The story of our last 20 years and of a conflicted unknowable future is out there in the raw scrub on the edge of town, as it fills up with premium kit homes and “exclusive” golf resorts. For the most part the billions of dollars pouring into those property developments have not been earned. The plasma screen TVs, espresso machines, DVD players and digital camera-phones that fill them up are likewise melting the national bankcard. Indeed the bill comes twice, because not only was the money to pay for these things actually borrowed but almost none of the marvellous trinkets themselves were manufactured here. When the money was trousered it was by happy Japanese, inventive Finns or Marxist business barons from the perverse cloud cuckoo land that is the modern Chinese economy. And try as we might we can never sell those bastards enough trees, sheep and lumps of rock to pay for our expensive tastes. It’s what Paul Keating used to call living a champagne lifestyle on a beer income, and both the bar tab and the hangover have come due.

“Let us our lives, our souls,

our debts, our careful wives,

our children, and our sins lay on the king!”

– From King Henry V by William Shakespeare (1599)

All he ever wanted was for people to be relaxed and comfortable. Well, in fact all he ever wanted was power. But unlike Keating, his much-reviled predecessor, John Howard did not appear garbed in the raiment of a philosopher-king, forever tortured by the inability of his subjects to match his magnificent expectations of them. He’d learned better in the 1980s.

The gnarled furrows of scar tissue he wore like a leaden cloak seemed to have crushed all the piss and bad manners out of him. From an unreconstructed ideological warrior he had evolved into The World’s Most Reasonable Man. Only in extremis did he let it slip, such as the moment when activists stood and silently turned their backs on him at an Aboriginal reconciliation conference in May 1997. For a few minutes as he lost it badly, hectoring the audience, sweating like a wheel of cheese, errant strands of his comb-over flying out of place, he was the very image of his enemies’ worst fears and most beloved fantasies.

Mostly though, Howard has been the master of his own imagery. His constant warnings to backbench and ministerial colleagues to avoid complacency and arrogance are a low-level, anodyne example of his craft. More interesting, however, is the skill he has brought to massaging the national psyche to either soothe or arouse broad-scale fear and uncertainty depending on the needs of the day. There’s nothing unique about that. Every politician, including His Holiness Senator Bob Brown, does exactly the same thing every day of the working week. It’s just that the PM does it better.

Sometimes the tiger gets away from you. It slipped Howard’s leash in 1999 when the fear and loathing whipped up by Indonesia’s ham-fisted brutality in East Timor finally swept away the strategic agreement that had ruled Australian policy for two-and-a-half decades, forcing the government to commit military forces to the island. This was exactly the outcome that both Liberal and Labor ministers had been trying to avoid since 1975. The Howard government was no different. It was cringe-making at times to watch the contortions forced on Howard and his foreign minister, Alexander Downer, as they tried to avoid the electorate’s growing demands for some form of action. Even pressure from the US wasn’t enough to budge the appeasement paradigm. In the end Howard acted because he had to, not to save the East Timorese but to save himself.

But for the most part Howard has enjoyed nothing but Tampas. The old dog has continuously and comprehensively wrong-footed his critics. In the weeping and wailing and gnashing of dentures over a host of cultural conflicts – the High Court’s Wik and Mabo decisions, stolen children, political correctness, boat people, gay marriage – the Left consensus has suffered one glorious defeat after another because Howard seemed more tuned in to the polity. On Tampa, the intercepted Norwegian vessel that rescued a toppling boat-load of asylum seekers in 2001, and a modern Guernica for the Australian Left, he carried with him the support of three-quarters of the population. Whatever the merits or otherwise of that black farce, his actions were, on the face of it, an expression of the people’s will.

A conundrum arises only if that common will is seen to be less a thing of solid, rational considerations and more an artefact of free-floating anxieties and instincts, a will o’ the wisp. There is a school of thought, led by the late American political scientist Murray Edelman, that politics is much less concerned with legislative programs and outcomes than it is with mobilising mass opinion. Political manoeuvring becomes an end in itself as leaders gain or lose support based on their ability to manipulate the myth and symbol of political life. These myths – say, that the nation will be swamped by boat people who share nothing in common with us, not even a love of their own children – are largely unquestioned beliefs, held by large numbers of people, which give complex and bewildering events a reassuring meaning.

To be reassured doesn’t always mean to be soothed. There is nothing soothing about an image of a deeply alien-looking man or woman apparently dangling their child over the side of a leaking boat and threatening to let go if they don’t get what they want. But for most people there is something very soothing in the image of a strong prime minister standing firm against such villainy and promising to keep such people, and presumably their waterlogged offspring, from ever reaching our shores and threatening our way of life.

As Edelman points out, political events are frequently tangled and ambiguous. When they relate directly to such intimate and powerful concerns as one’s survival they need to be given some sense of order and meaning, never more so than after the September 11 and Bali atrocities. Myths can help replace “gnawing uncertainty and rootlessness with a vivid account of who are friends, who are enemies, and what course of action must be pursued to protect the self and significant others”. While the Howard government’s success has rested four square on our contentment with the fruits of debt-driven spending – at least while the cost of debt has remained low – it has also benefited from the ability of Howard, his ministers and their spruikers in the media to tell a particularly vivid story of who are our friends, who are our enemies and what they are going to do about it.

He is not king but Howard has taken upon himself, as all leaders must, the burden of expectation that Shakespeare laid upon Henry before Agincourt. Our lives, our souls, our debts, our sins, our hopes and fears and dreams of a secure future, with plasma screens and baby bonuses for all. At times he has astonished us with his humanity. Images of him comforting survivors of the massacre at Port Arthur, or the terrorist attack in Bali, the way he embraced them without reserve and spilled his own tears on the ground to merge with theirs, stand in total contradiction to the received wisdom of the Left that he is perhaps the meanest, trickiest, most vindictive and hard-hearted little rat bastard to occupy the Lodge since Billy Hughes.

It is not all smoke and mirrors. For all that he is able to play public sentiment like a Stradivarius, Howard has concentrated power in the hands of the executive, destroyed his enemies within and outside the party, cowed and politicised the civil service to an extent that must leave the Labor Party simply dying with envy, and recast politics in his own image much more successfully than any of his predecessors. Keating was right. When you change the government you change the country, and this is now John Howard’s Australia. In the argot of gangsta rap, we are his bitches.

And all this has come to pass before the last bastion of the Senate has fallen to his forces. That happens on July 1, the day when Liberal–National coalition senators officially outnumber their Labor opponents. Something of a phony war has festered these past few months over what Labor leader Kim Beazley calls Howard’s squandered inheritance: the legacy of growth bequeathed by the reforms of the Hawke and Keating governments. But it’s an arguable point. The reformist energies of the last ALP administration, while truly terrible to behold at first, had largely spent themselves by the end of the 1980s as the party got about the business of tearing itself apart. And of course when Howard did let slip the dogs of war, at least figuratively, on the waterfront, the Labor Party blocked him in the Senate, as they would on the sale of Telstra, and on the goods-and-services tax, and on a raft of other changes which are now being pulled out of bottom drawers in ministerial offices all over Canberra.

Like cowering peasants in a city taken by the Mongol horde, we can only wonder what lies in store for us now the bulwark has fallen. Or for some of us anyway. You’d do your dough cold backing the union movement in the next little while. And it’s a lay-down certainty that life is going to get tougher for welfare recipients, low-paid workers and uppity migration lawyers. But not everyone will lose, possibly not even the perennial losers. One of the more unexpected pieces of research published this year was a paper by Ann Harding, director of the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling. Much to her own surprise, she found that Australia under Howard has not become more unequal, and indeed it may even have become a little more equal. In contrast, a clear widening of the income gap between rich and poor marked the Hawke–Keating years.

Here is the explanation of Howard’s political success, notwithstanding his keen eye for the main chance when fate sends him a Tampa or Wik. A lot of lean and hungry people, who banished Keating to the outer wastes for his sins, got fat under the tutelage of Prime Minister Howard. He once wanted to preside over a great share-owning democracy, but instead an old-fashioned property boom made his government and turned a swathe of traditional Labor seats into blue-ribbon conservative strongholds.

Ipswich is one of the few places to have resisted. After that one mad fling with Hanson it returned to the ALP fold, its natural state of being. But Labor’s grip on the city is tenuous. The new faux-sumptuous estates at Springfield Lakes are an almost perfect avatar of the transformed society that so haunted Keating. The people in them are the new battlers, the PM’s fat and happy bitches. But even this, as Howard himself warns in that Chicken Little refrain of his, could all change.

When Beazley talks about selling the story of Labor’s economic reforms of the 1980s, it is the residents of suburbs like Springfield Lakes he is thinking of. They are the people who emerged from the wreckage of those old inefficient Ipswich industries that were abandoned to their fate according to the dictates of economic rationalism. They are the ones who see Howard, not Hawke or Keating, as the architect of their prosperity. Ungrateful bastards. They are in many ways Howard’s re-imagining of Sir Robert Menzies’ forgotten people, who included Howard’s own father: a hard-working small-business owner and citizen soldier of the Great War.

Unlike the residents of old Ipswich, the Springfield Lakers are not blue-collar union members. If you were looking for a new tag to hang on them you could try the working rich. They wouldn’t like it much – only the super-wealthy like to think of themselves as rich – but compared with previous generations of Ipswich residents they enjoy undreamt of material wealth. Their houses are larger, more luxurious and full of technologies their parents would have thought the preserve of the Jetsons or Murdochs. Their children are better educated. Their cars are safer, more comfortable, more numerous. Whatever skills they possess are in demand, especially if they are highly trained tradespeople. They probably have no immediate fear of the industrial relations jihad the government is cooking up. Many, seduced by the individualist mythology that lies at the heart of neo-liberal economic thought, would prefer to think of themselves as independent contractors.

But they are also the bunnies the Reserve Bank governor has in his headlights when he thinks about putting pedal to the metal on interest rates – which would be an overblown metaphor except that a light tap now counts as a major acceleration of most mortgagees’ repayments. Mark Latham, Beazley’s predecessor, thought he could entice them by talking about their real lives, rather than engaging in the kind of grand macro-policy debates he traversed in his book Civilising Global Capital. But the new rich, or the new elites, had invested their votes with Howard since 1996. Latham’s Madman of La Mancha routine was not going to change that. Not with such gargantuan debt-loads hovering over all of them.

That debt, hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth in total, is the 900-pound gorilla sitting at the kitchen table that nobody wants to talk about, or even look at. It is as though the polity cannot bear to think about the consequences if this beast should suddenly turn nasty. Managing the gorilla, and just as importantly our fear of the gorilla, will be Howard’s greatest challenge. More than anything, this will determine whether he gets to plonk himself down next to Sir Robert on a fluffy cloud in Liberal heaven, or whether historians spend the next 30 years beating on his sorry carcass with nail-studded clubs. It would be an exquisite irony if Howard was to be destroyed in this way. To see why demands a brief history lesson.

It was back in Ipswich, in the 1996 election that swept Howard into office, that Pauline Hanson erupted into public consciousness with an attack on the chimera of Aboriginal privilege. She had already been excommunicated from the Liberal Party, at which point she branched out more effectively, moving her focus onto Asian migration and then globalisation – without ever really defining the term. The spectre of Hanson and the wagon train of nutters, whackjobs, race-war hobbyists and sloughed off failures-to-fit-in who trailed around after her has now receded for good. But our politics remains wrenched out of shape by the blast effect she created.

Beazley, for instance, was paralysed in the 2001 election by the contortions forced on him by the Tampa. After only a few short years where people finally felt free to speak their minds, there was no humane and rational position he could advance against Howard that would not be rejected by the majority of a population coarsened in spirit. Later, when the government came under attack for the mandatory detention of other asylum-seekers, including children, in conditions of crude and unnecessary ugliness, the ALP, which had actually created the detention system when it was last in power, found itself torn between expedience and conscience. Neither won. The internal grappling lives on today.

Our susceptibility to manipulation of these issues in times of economic expansion is curious. Migrants have always performed immaculate service for half-smart demagogues when times are tough. Race doesn’t even have to come into it. For the colonial-era working classes, sturdy English labourers provided just as much unwanted competition as imported Chinese seamen. But after many years of more or less continuous growth, what could possibly have energised any phobias on this issue until the Tampa sailed into view and Osama bin Laden’s mass murderers brought down New York’s twin towers?

It’s hard, now that her streets are crackling with the barely contained energy of renewal, to recall what a hopeless shithole Ipswich was until just a few years ago. All these years of growth, 14 so far, were the result of massively painful restructuring and dislocation after the Hawke government’s election in 1983. Just as the planned City Heart redevelopment – with its new malls, piazzas, pavement cafes and Truman Show aesthetics – is an almost spooky evocation of aspirational Australia, so the ghost town that died to make way for it was a totemic example of Old Australia.

What the journalist Paul Kelly once called the Australian Settlement died hard there. The deal cut in the first years of nationhood to enshrine wage fixing and tariff protection in the engine room of the Australian economy unravelled most dramatically in places like Ipswich, where rusted-out factories that had employed generations of men were taken off life support and allowed to pass away. Soon the only growth industry was welfare provision and zero tolerance policing, which spooled up to cope with the aftermath of reform.

When you escape a fate like that, the fear of falling backwards into the pit you left behind never really fades. Not for a generation or two. It should not be surprising, then, that our wealth which has metastasised like Mickey Mouse’s brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is not enough to free us from fear. In fact, with so many people geared to the max on their mortgages and credit cards during a period of historically low interest rates, fear of change and the unknown is a given.

The irony I spoke of before lies in recognising that although John Howard was consigned to the irrelevance of opposition by the leadership struggles that ruined his party in the 1980s, he was by no means irrelevant to the reform processes which first destroyed places like Ipswich before leading to their rebirth. He was a champion of the rationalist model a long time before Hawke and Keating. His influence ensured that Labor’s reformist economic legislation, with which he agreed, was not blocked by the Senate in the same way his has been since 1996. As Herodotus taught us, the wheel of time is always in motion. Howard has ridden it so long that it finally delivered him to a place where he could reap the rewards of the ideas stolen from him by Labor. And having done so? It rolled on to a point where he now faces a fair chance of that prosperity destroying him and the lives of all those people at Springfield Lakes who naively trusted him with their money.

Like a poorly constructed great iron bridge about to give way to the enormous pressures building up in its pylons and cables, the first high-pitched screeches are sounding in the economy. The collapse of growth, the febrile end of the property boom, the labour shortages, the bottlenecks, the distant rumble of crumbling infrastructure; they all presage a disaster. Howard has attempted to mollify the rising clamour of complaint from economic analysts with a half-baked inquiry into the national infrastructure – and of course by holding out the prospect of strangling the unions come July.

But the unions are increasingly irrelevant. The vast majority of the workforce has bought the conservative argument that they are all magnificent freelancers, masters of their own fates, who do not need the protection racket being hawked by the fossils of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. An investigation into bottlenecks at the ports, and into the degraded condition of Australia’s road and rail network, will do nothing to alleviate the problems because the source lies elsewhere, in developments like Springfield Lakes, and in the tens of thousands of empty, probably un-sellable apartment complexes still being built.

Howard’s great share-owning democracy might have been a beautiful thing but it’s not going to happen now. In all of the five property booms and crashes preceding this last one, about a quarter of the foreign debt we ran up to fund our binge went into unproductive residential investment, not factories or commercial buildings. In this last boom, which has run from 2001 until just recently, the figure was 56.7%. Howard and his treasurer Peter Costello are partly to blame for this. But we, the people, should acknowledge the considerable burden of our own guilt. We have indirectly borrowed hundreds of billions of dollars from overseas lenders via our insatiably greedy banks and mortgage lenders. And if – no, sorry, when – rates climb towards 10% it won’t be entirely the fault of the government that the sheriff comes-a-knockin’ to repossess our McMansions.

Individual decisions bear individual consequences, but policy decisions set the boundaries within which those decisions are made. A little-publicised factoid, for which I’m grateful to George Megalogenis of The Australian, is that since the government’s halving of capital gains tax in September 1999, just before the last boom, the Australian Taxation Office has gone from being comfortably in the black in its dealings with property investors to being deep, deep, deep into the doo-doo. The capital gains reform seems to have been the starter’s pistol for our race into debt, but negative gearing is the high-octane fuel that powered everything. At the start of the madness in the first two financial years of the decade, the government was “losing” – or gifting to property investors via gearing – about $600-700 million a year. At the time of writing, the cost for FY 2002–03 is expected to be well over a billion. After that, who knows? But there will probably be a black hole in the accounts so large that you could shovel every single mother and disability pension holder in the land into it, as Mr Costello seems inclined to, and you’d never hear them hit bottom.

In light of this, the coming revolution in the Senate looks less a beacon to Howard and more a treacherous siren song, drawing him onto the rocks. He has been in this game for too long to take refuge in denial. He knows what is coming, even if the millions of gumbies who voted for him don’t. Whether he gets to hang out with Sir Robert, or is cast down into the fires, depends on what he does with his brand-new rubber stamp. Come July 1, the Senate will not automatically kill every contested reform that enters the chamber. He will have no excuse, bar some eccentric, independently minded individuals in his own ranks.

He needs to do more than settle a few old scores with the unions. He needs to do what Hawke and Keating did, to hurt the very people who put him in office.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.


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