October 2009


The insider

By Robert Manne
The insider

John Howard campaigning in Townsville, 14 November 2007. © Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images.

Paul Kelly’s ‘The March of Patriots’

Paul Kelly’s End of Certainty is perhaps the most influential Australian political book written since Donald Horne’s Lucky Country. In it, Kelly argued that during the 1980s the turbulent surface of political life was given meaning by something deeper going on – the gradual unravelling of a peculiar national political culture, which he called the Australian Settlement. The Settlement had crystallised in the decade following Federation. Its main ingredients were White Australia; Empire loyalty; all-round protectionism; the habit and expectation of government economic interventionism; the centralised system of industrial arbitration. By the end of that decade of struggle, he argued, a new political economy and political culture had been formed. The End of Certainty was superior to the earlier series of contemporary Australian political histories written by Alan Reid, The Power Struggle, The Gorton Experiment, The Whitlam Venture, and by Kelly himself, The Unmaking of Gough and The Hawke Ascendancy. For the first time a political chronicle was married to a historical analysis.

We have known for several years that Paul Kelly was preparing to publish the sequel to The End of Certainty. Last month it finally appeared. There can be no question that The March of Patriots is a brilliant, if deeply flawed, achievement and a work of first-rate significance, almost certain to provide the definitive account of Australian politics during the decade separating Keating’s arrival at the prime ministership of Australia in 1991 from John Howard’s decisive third election victory after Tampa and September 11. Because of his role as the country’s most important political commentator, Kelly has become a player of real significance in national politics. Only Kelly could have persuaded over 100 main players in our national politics to cooperate in his research. Among our political journalists no one commands even remotely equivalent respect among the political elite, from prime ministers downwards. If The March of Patriots comes to be taken as seriously as The End of Certainty, as it might, the interpretation it offers will play some part in shaping Australia’s future. For this reason it deserves detailed appraisal and careful critique.

A paradox forms the central theme of The March of Patriots. According to appearances, the decade was dominated by the fierce struggle for Australia conducted by the only two significant political personalities, Paul Keating and John Howard. Appearances were, however, deceptive. Despite the ferocity of the rivalry, in reality what they had in common was more important than what set them apart. As Kelly puts it, Keating and Howard were “declared rivals yet undeclared collaborators”. During that decade of struggle, as a result of “a largely bipartisan strategy”, a more mature Australia emerged, her institutions and her culture now tested and prepared for successful participation in the new globalised world.

In the area of the economy this argument seems at least plausible. As is generally conceded, it was during the 1980s that most of the economic restructuring of Australia had been achieved. As prime minister of Australia, while Keating’s main role was to defend his legacy as treasurer, he was also responsible for certain new reforms. Keating crafted a national competition policy, shifted the centre of gravity of the industrial relations system from centralised arbitration to enterprise bargaining, and oversaw the emergence of a truly independent Reserve Bank. According to Kelly, the proper term to describe the philosophy underpinning this restructuring is not neo-liberalism but economic liberalism. It was part of the Australian tradition of practical reform.

Far from being a dogmatic neo-liberal, as Rudd claims, Howard was also, according to Kelly, simply an economic liberal, if anything more willing than Keating to backslide opportunistically on reform. In trouble, Keating resisted a tariff reduction pause; in similar trouble, Howard did not. There was, however, little difference between the economic policies of Keating and Howard. Howard maintained the fundamental reforms of the 1980s – financial deregulation, privatisation, anti-protectionism. He completed the process of ensuring Reserve Bank independence begun by Keating. He continued Keating’s national competition policy, although he disliked the name. Howard abandoned any thoughts of scrapping Medicare. He retained the policy frame of the targeted welfare state fashioned by Hawke and Keating. Howard hardly altered income tax rates. Before his inexplicable decision for WorkChoices, even his industrial relations reform had a great deal in common with Keating’s. Keating sought enterprise bargaining with the support of the trade union movement. Howard favoured enterprise bargaining but without the unions. The only serious new economic reform Howard introduced was the GST. Despite their bitter rivalry, according to Kelly, together Keating and Howard created a brilliant new economic model that he rather grandly calls Australian Exceptionalism. Its strength was first seen internationally in the Asian crisis of 1997. Despite our massive foreign debt, it helped Australia survive the Global Financial Crisis in better shape than any other Western country. In building this economic model, then, despite their mutual loathing, the patriots, Keating and Howard, had marched in step.

Kelly tries to suggest that in foreign policy, on balance, the patriots also marched together. Unlike his argument over the economy, this is largely unconvincing. Keating famously sought to deepen Australia’s engagement with Asia and to draw the American focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific. By contrast, Howard insisted that Australia did not have to choose between its history – close alliance relations with its great and powerful friends in the Anglosphere – and its geography – as an Asia-Pacific power. Because of his early bias towards domestic politics, Howard simply could not see the damage his toleration of Pauline Hanson was doing to the Australian reputation in our region. As Kelly shows, not only Keating but even Alexander Downer was appalled. In relations with China, because he resisted the prevailing American conservative fantasy of containing China and kept his eye on a potential mutually lucrative future based on massive resource agreements, Howard, like Keating, was successful. Howard and his Chinese counterparts discovered a common “pragmatism”.

As Kelly perceptively argues, over “Asia”, between 1996 and 2001, Howard could never quite disentangle his desire to win a bout in the culture war, by proving that Keating was overly deferential to Asian leaders, from his own conduct of relations with them. As a consequence, in relations with Indonesia, during this time, Howard rather spectacularly failed. Even though Kelly vastly exaggerates Howard’s desire for East Timorese independence, what is true is that Keating would never have written the kind of letter Howard sent to Dr Habibie in December 1998 that, unintentionally, played some part in the Indonesian decision to allow a referendum on autonomy or independence. As a consequence of Howard’s decision or, as I would argue, blunder, Australia inadvertently did a wonderful thing, helping East Timor gain her independence. At the same time Australia’s relations with Indonesia temporarily reached their lowest point in decades. Neither would have happened under Keating.

Similarly, while Keating hoped to open up what Kim Beazley rightly calls some “space” for Australia to pursue a foreign policy independent from the US, Howard’s enthusiasm for the American alliance knew no bounds. Before reading Kelly, I had not realised that after a request from Clinton in 1998 Australia offered to send ground troops into Iraq. I had, however, known that before September 11, despite Australia’s longstanding commitment to multilateralism in trade, Howard’s heart was set on a “free trade” agreement with the US. Kelly rather contemptuously dismisses the case I made in the Monthly in March 2006 about Howard as a pro-American sentimentalist. Yet elsewhere in The March of Patriots he argues that Howard took his foreign policy bearings from his memory of Australia as a loyal dominion in the British Empire; that his government “became intoxicated by the idea of America as an unchallenged global power”; that he believed America would remain forever “Number One”; and that on 12 September 2001, the day Howard offered America a blank cheque in the war on terror, when Congress rose to applaud him, so moved was he that his whole body began to shake. All this seems like pro-American sentimentalism to me. If Keating had been in power on September 11, Australia would have chosen a different and far less embarrassing and disastrous course. On foreign policy, the patriots did not march in step.

What about the culture? Here Kelly’s theme of the march of patriots simply makes no sense. As Kelly argues, and as everyone knows, Keating had a powerful vision of an Australia that had fully abandoned both its racist and its British colonial past. He sought to forge a new Australia – a multicultural republic, more deeply engaged with Asia, founded upon reconciliation with the Indigenous people it had dispossessed of dignity and land. Keating’s vision was, according to Kelly, partly noble, partly misguided and partly thoroughly dangerous from the political point of view. Through his cultural politics Keating lost touch with the Labor Party’s working-class base. Through his attempt to rewrite history – for example trying to relocate Australian sacred soil from Gallipoli to Kokoda – he convinced large numbers of Australians that he despised not only their past but also them. Although even when Dr John Hewson and Alexander Downer led the Opposition he intuited that John Howard was his natural political enemy, Keating comprehensively failed to predict the way in which the radical-national culture war he initiated might be used by Howard to discredit him and refashion party politics along populist-nationalist lines.

Again, as Kelly argues, and as everyone knows, Howard despised Keating’s criticism of Australia’s colonial, Anglophile and racist past. He was the greatest ever promoter of the Gallipoli myth. It was largely because of his determination to defend the settler-colonial history of Australia from the Keating assault that Howard stubbornly refused to apologise to the Indigenous people or to countenance the idea of Australia becoming a republic, even when, at the eleventh hour, Noel Pearson tried, somewhat naively, to sell him the idea of a non-repudiationist republic. In the area of culture the only plausible argument for overlap between Keating and Howard occurs with regard to border control. It is true, as Kelly stresses, that the system of mandatory detention was pioneered under Keating and also obviously true that neither Labor nor the Liberals would ever welcome the unauthorised arrival of boats bearing asylum seekers. But it also seems to me true, although perhaps unprovable, that under Keating neither the construction of Howard’s vicious penal system for asylum seekers, let alone the deployment of military force to drive them from our shores, would have occurred.

To try to fit the struggle between Keating and Howard over culture within the trope of the march of patriots, where what linked the rivals is more significant than what separated them, seems to me absurd. In terms of the Australian culture war, Keating and Howard stood at opposite extremes. To describe Keating and Howard as cultural patriots, because both sought to create a better Australia according to their lights, is true but also meaningless. By such a definition every Australian prime minister is a patriot. At one point, Kelly turns to a George Orwell distinction to dig himself out of this hole. We are told that Keating was a patriot and Howard a nationalist. The distinction, however, does not work. Orwell thought of a patriot as someone who regards their own country as better than others but who has no desire to see it triumph or extend its power. At the centre of Keating’s cultural vision, as Kelly makes clear, was not patriotism but auto-critique. It was precisely Keating’s criticism of Australia’s racist and colonial and Anglophile past, implicit in his advocacy of a transformative agenda – closer Asian engagement, the republic, multiculturalism and reconciliation – that Howard fiercely and successfully resisted. From the point of view of culture, then, the struggle between Keating and Howard is the opposite of a march of patriots. Keating was the most cosmopolitan, Howard the most nationalist prime minister Australia has yet seen. Their only rivals are Gough Whitlam and Billy Hughes. During the decade between 1991 and 2001 this was a struggle that Keating lost and which, to his nation’s cost, Howard, at the time of Tampa, triumphantly won. The period between 1991 and 2001 is then far more accurately seen as the decade in which the economic transformation of Australia was continued but where, following the breakdown of bipartisan consensus with the election of John Howard and Pauline Hanson in 1996, the cultural transformation concerning questions of ethnicity and race stalled.

The reason that Kelly both fully understands but perversely refuses to acknowledge the significance of what was at stake in the cultural conflict between Keating and Howard is, it seems to me, not difficult to explain. In Australian politics Kelly is the ultimate insider. He retains this privileged position by remaining permanently within reasonably close proximity to power. During the Keating years, Kelly was close to Labor. During the Howard years, he was close to the Coalition. But not only has Kelly internalised, at different times, the world views of both Keating and Howard. Instinctively he understands that if he should ever become a systematic and forthright critic of an Australian government – if, that is to say, he should ever become an outsider – he would forfeit his most valuable asset. As his discussion of the children overboard affair reveals, Kelly has so internalised the viewpoint of the rulers rather than the ruled that he now regards citizens’ complaints about prime ministerial lies as “fatuous”.

A parallel weakness, flowing from Kelly’s identification with power, is a pervasive kind of parochialism – both a lack of modesty about Australian achievement and an inability or unwillingness to place developments in Australian domestic politics within the broader international context. One of the central themes of The March of Patriots is the growing independence of the Reserve Bank. Kelly writes as if this is a singular Australian achievement, a part of the Australian Exceptionalist economic model. He does not make it nearly clear enough that in very many Western countries central banks are independent and that the idea is a standard feature of neo-liberal orthodoxy. Kelly also argues that the “Canberra model” is “unique among democracies”. No doubt it is true that, as with every set of national democratic institutions, the Australian version has special features. But to describe our democratic model as unique seems to me a vast exaggeration.

The March of Patriots is, in fact, full of such hyperbole. There are far too many “revolutions” and “tragedies” here; far too many “epic” experiments, “Herculean” feats, “colossal” blunders and “mythic” events. Keating and Kelty did not merely form a powerful partnership. They formed “the most remarkable partnership between a Labor leader and union chief”. The refugee and immigration tribunals did not merely fail. They were “a special Australian failure of stunning dimensions”. Howard’s commitment to WorkChoices was not merely puzzling. It was “one of the strangest questions posed in politics”. The establishment of a Reserve Bank inflation target of 2% to 3% was not merely shrewd but “clever beyond” the “wildest dreams”. Faced with the prospect of a recession in 2001, Peter Costello was not merely anxious; for him “the horror was almost unimaginable.” Regarding the GST, The March of Patriots tells us, on the very same page, that “having crossed the Rubicon” Howard imagined himself “on the road to Damascus”. It tells us that, regarding WorkChoices, “his final crusade became a bridge too far”. Orwell taught our generation to think about the political significance of language. The more Kelly’s reputation has grown, the more pride he has come to take in the achievements of his country, the more overblown has his prose become. At the end of The March of Patriots one yearns for the sinewy, no-nonsense style of Alan Reid, the pre-eminent political journalist of an earlier postwar era.

A different kind of parochialism is also evident in the way Kelly fails to notice the role that is played in our national life by the international flow of ideas or even the existence of something one might call the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Too often he writes as if Australia is an intellectual island. Earlier this year, Kevin Rudd attributed some of the failures of the Howard government to the ideology of neo-liberalism. The charge was, at least in part, partisan and inaccurately phrased. Many of the most important Australian economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s introduced by Labor – financial deregulation, privatisation, free trade, competition policy – come straight out of the neo-liberal textbook. In his attack on neo-liberalism, Rudd clearly did not have such reforms in mind. On the other hand, the way Kelly tries here to refute Rudd makes even less sense. According to Kelly, the only “neo-liberal” in Australian party politics was the Liberal leader of the early 1990s, Dr Hewson. Because for Kelly neo-liberalism exists only if it is imposed as “a universal philosophy” and not where its ideas are integrated partially, with Hewson’s electoral defeat in 1993 the history of neo-liberalism in Australian party politics came, supposedly, to an end. At one point Kelly argues that the idea that the Australian Exceptionalist model was influenced by “abstract neo-liberal ideology” is “nonsense”. “The new economic model was conceived in practical self-improvement driven by Australia’s public policy tradition.” This is a seriously weird claim. As Kelly himself has famously argued, for almost 90 years Australian public policy supported protection, government intervention and centralised industrial arbitration.

Kelly’s case is more generally misleading than this. Neo-liberalism is both a philosophy, faith in the wisdom and the self-correcting capacity of the Market, and a set of policy prescriptions, outlined in the so-called Washington Consensus. It clearly overtook another philosophy and set of policy prescriptions, Keynesian social democracy, following the stagflation crisis of the mid-1970s. From that time, neo-liberalism was particularly powerful on both the right and left of politics, especially but not exclusively in the Anglosphere. By the early 1980s in Australia, both the Liberal and the Labor parties fell under its influence, although in neither case was the influence undiluted. It is true that the impact of neo-liberalism from the early 1980s was shaped by the character of Australian political culture and by many practical considerations, in ways that always dissatisfied neo-liberal purists. But it is also true that if for this reason the philosophy and policy prescriptions of neo-liberalism are dismissed as forces that helped transform Australia’s political economy, the character and trajectory of politics in Australia since the early 1980s will remain unnecessarily obscure.

Paul Kelly is equally blind to other international streams of thought that were introduced into Australia during the 1980s and the 1990s and from which the Howard world view was fashioned. Throughout The March of Patriots Kelly provides a compelling account of Howard’s ideology of economic liberalism, social conservatism, cultural traditionalism and national security vigilance. Kelly claims that this is “a unique Howard creation”. This is an astonishingly myopic claim. If religion were added to the mix, the ingredients of the Howard world view would be identical to those found among American neo-conservative cultural warriors and on the Republican Right. Kelly lists accurately some of the values true and good – a proud national history, the Western canon, the traditional family, Christian virtues, patriotism, a unified national culture – that Howard thought were under systematic attack from his left-wing enemies situated in the many institutions by which he felt besieged. But what he fails to notice is that every item on this list comes from the standard songsheet of the Weekly Standard and Fox News. The fact that Howard and his supporters among the commentariat imported into Australia both the world view and the style of the crudest American neo-conservative polemicists is one of the main reasons why so many intelligent Australians, including natural conservatives, became dispirited during the Howard years.

Kelly’s argument with the anti-Howard progressivist intelligentsia provides the undercurrent of The March of Patriots. Kelly is certainly aware of the nature and even the strength of their complaints. He accepts that the unwillingness to confront the meaning of the dispossession is the void at the heart of Australian national identity. He accepts that because of his failure to apologise to Indigenous Australians there will be for Howard a heavy price to pay. He accepts that Howard’s failure to condemn Pauline Hanson damaged Australia’s international reputation. He acknowledges that with Tampa Howard “sanctioned … elements of nationalism, populism and racism”. He provides new and compelling evidence from none other than Max Moore-Wilton that on the eve of the 2001 election Howard lied blatantly to the Australian people in the children overboard affair. He even acknowledges that in Howard’s uncritical embrace of George W Bush dangers for Australia loomed. None of this, however, tempers his contempt for the Left. Towards the end of The March of Patriots Kelly quotes at length from Paul Keating’s and Les Carlyon’s interventions in the politics of 2001. Kelly is not unmoved by Keating’s fury at a government that had compromised Australia’s “moral substance”. But he is also seriously tempted by Les Carlyon’s “memorable article” in which he lampoons the “irrelevant” “twee sermons” of the “anti-Howard brigade” who asked: “How can I tell my children what Howard did to [tick box] Aborigines / republicans / refugees / the broad-faced potoroo?”

If Kelly’s impressive and important book has a political purpose, it is to convince Australians to take pride in their national achievement. Kelly’s combination of patriotism and political realism will be attractive to many readers. It actually is to me. But what he does not seem to understand is that if he is to succeed in converting sceptical Australians to his point of view, he will have to transcend, by moral effort, the loathsome cynical tone, nicely captured by the Carlyon quote, that insinuated itself into Australian sensibility during the Howard years and also into his own writing. At one point in The March of Patriots Kelly suggests cautiously that the cultural vision associated in one way or another with all Australian prime ministers from Whitlam to Keating – of a multicultural, Asia-sensitive, reconciled republic – might eventually come to pass. Kelly was once a true believer in this vision. Now that Howard is history, I hope that his faith will return. He is, after all, one of our most influential and accomplished citizens.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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