August 2006

The Nation Reviewed

A word from Deakin

By Mungo MacCallum

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Strange are the twists of Fate.

As a young man and an aspiring politician I was an avid believer in the power of Spiritualism. Indeed, so convinced was I of my ability to communicate with the great men of the past that I thought, or imagined, to receive instruction from such as Sophocles, John Knox, John Stuart Mill, Lord Macaulay and Edmund Burke and even, on what may be seen as a lesser plane, from a recent Premier of my state of Victoria, Richard Heales.

Upon reaching maturity I put away such childish fantasies, rejecting them as arrant nonsense. But now, on what would have been my one hundred and fiftieth birthday, I am astonished to find that my original suppositions contained the kernel of truth, and that my own spirit is able to communicate with those still living. And I feel that there is urgency for me to do so, for the great principles of the Liberal Party I helped to found are endangered as never before. I therefore submit this report, as I submitted so many to the London Morning Post, under the heading

THE COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA

Liberals in Crisis

From Our Own Correspondent, Mr Alfred Deakin


Mr John Winston Howard has now been a member of the Commonwealth Parliament for more than thirty years, and for the last ten of them has held the office of Prime Minister. So it is timely, if not overdue, to measure his achievements both as a statesman and as a politician. The distinction is an important one, for while a statesman seeks to govern for the good of his country as a whole and even for realms beyond it, a politician cares only for the advancement of his own party and, more particularly, of himself.

Within the latter category, it is not to be disputed that Mr Howard has enjoyed outstanding success. Victory at four successive elections is a rare achievement and one not to be accomplished without tenacity, stamina and determination beyond the reach of most mortals. When one recalls that he spent nearly twenty-two years waiting to achieve his goal, and was passed over for many who were clearly his inferiors, his belated triumphs become all the more noteworthy.

But Mr Howard’s political longevity may also have had a dark side. It may be that the frustration of so many delays in the fulfilment of his ambition distorted it in some way, so that the desire for power became not a means of affording good government to the Commonwealth but an end in itself. The Swiss doctors who study the workings of the mind have coined an expression for the condition: Megalomania. To the layman, it would appear that Mr Howard suffers from it with an increasing severity.

It must never be forgotten that he poses as the heir and successor to those who have borne the banner of Liberalism throughout the brief life of the Commonwealth. While the name itself was lost for a period before being magnificently revived by Mr Robert Menzies – a true statesman later deservedly showered with imperial honours – the essence was retained in the major forces opposed to Socialism within the political structure.

The key to Liberalism has always been moderation; it eschews both the excesses of Radicalism and the rigidities of Conservatism. While always vigilant to restrain the power of the State, it acknowledges a role for its intervention when the free markets produce results which are unjust or inequitable. True Liberalism seeks a society in which the individual can enjoy a maximum of freedom, while still constrained by the needs and desires of the wider community. Above all, it nurtures – and is, in turn, nurtured by – the idea of the citizen as a responsible being concerned primarily with the advancement of himself and his family, but also concerned to enhance the good of the nation, of the Common Wealth.

It was to secure this end that the Governments in which I played a part set up the institutions which, until recently, were seen as the bulwarks of Australian democracy. Among them were the White Australia Policy, concerned as much with the safeguarding of Australian economic conditions as with maintaining racial purity; the Tariff Board, which had the same aim; and, above all, the Commonwealth Arbitration Court, which in its various guises has always been the guardian of a fair and reasonable distribution of the profits made by Capital to those whose Labour made them possible.

This brave experiment, the inspiration of my friend and colleague Mr Charles Kingston, was to deliver a high degree of both fairness and harmony to Industry. Indeed, as I said on introducing the bill:

This bill marks, in my opinion, the beginning of a new phase of civilisation. It begins the establishment of the People’s Peace … which will comprehend necessarily as great a transformation in the features of industrial society as the creation of the King’s Peace brought about in civil society … imperfect as our legal system may be, it is a distinct gain to transfer to the realm of reason and argument those industrial convulsions which have hitherto involved, not only loss of life, liberty, comfort and opportunities of well-being.

High-sounding words, indeed, but we hoped and believed Liberalism would deliver a brave new world, the New Britannia of which our pioneering forbears had written. And for a brief while, it appeared that it might be so. But all things change, and the sensible politician accommodates the change. No true Liberal would wish to be identified with a hidebound Conservative irrevocably lost in the past, and I would be the first to admit that both White Australia and Tariff Protection have had their day. Those monuments of the past have been overwhelmed by the Juggernaut of Progress and are best left to moulder away.

But the certainties provided by a just and equitable system of Arbitration were not and are not matters of mere fashion, to be discarded at the whim of a politician whose personal agenda involves wreaking vengeance upon his real or imagined enemies. A fair balance between Capital and Labour is the very foundation of a civilised society; it is not simply a law, but a covenant. And by breaching it, Mr Howard has sadly forfeited whatever claims he might have had to being a statesman, or a Liberal.

There are, of course, many other signs that he has crossed the Rubicon to confirm Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts. His abuse of patriotism, that last refuge of a scoundrel; the resort to military jingo in the manner of that great political tergiversator, Mr William Hughes; the corruption of the Civil Service through patronage and intimidation; the emasculation of the Senate, which, if no longer a protector of states’ rights, remains the best hope of restraint upon a Government rampant in its hubris; and so the melancholy list goes on.

I have mentioned a similarity between Mr Howard and my old adversary, Mr Hughes; increasingly they resemble each other in their love of demagoguery, their disregard for veracity and their flexibility when it comes to any kind of principle – let alone that of Liberalism. So let me conclude by paraphrasing an anathema I conferred long ago on my now-deceased rival: the sooner this ill-bred urchin is dragged kicking and screaming from the tart shop, the better.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

Cover: August 2006

August 2006

From the front page

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Surrounded by pygmies: Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘A Bigger Picture’

The former PM’s memoir fails to reckon with his fatal belief that all Australians shared his vision

An unavoidable recession

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The Sleepy Jackson’s ‘Personality: One Was a Spider, One Was a Bird’

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