November 2007


Why we need a change of government

By Robert Manne
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In the October issue of the Australian Literary Review, Australia’s most influential political journalist, Paul Kelly, published an article attacking Australia’s intellectuals. Kelly sought to turn Donald Horne on his head. Horne had famously described Australia as a “lucky country run mainly by second-rate people”. According to Kelly, the truth was rather different. From Bob Hawke to John Howard, Australia had actually been a country with “first-rate national leaders and second-rate public intellectuals”.

Kelly’s argument was confused. On the one hand, he attacked Australia’s intellectuals for invariably being on the wrong side in the big debates about their country: the successes of Australian governments from Hawke to Howard in the spheres of the economy and foreign policy were the intellectuals’ “worst nightmare”. On the other, when Kelly came to deal with specific instances of intellectual failure, he chose three writers who had written next to nothing on Australian economic policy or international relations - David Marr, Raimond Gaita and Julian Burnside - and who had been concerned with the corruption of the public sphere under Howard. Kelly not only made no effort to reconcile the contradiction between the general and particular dimensions of his attack. He also showed no curiosity about a genuinely interesting problem. Marr, Gaita and Burnside are self-evidently not isolated intellectuals. In their writing on Howard they reflect the views of hundreds of thousands of Australians, many of them of conservative disposition. Such people now feel a kind of dismay about the behaviour of an Australian prime minister and government that they have never felt before. Kelly clearly thinks this dismay ridiculous. But how are their feelings to be explained? One possibility is that a considerable section of the educated and creative classes in Australia has lost its balance and its reason. Another is that people like Paul Kelly have lived for so long so close to those in power that moral judgement has deserted them. This is what the argument about the meaning of the Howard years is essentially about.

The most economical way of illuminating what has happened to Australia under Howard is to provide not a general portrait, convincing only to those already persuaded, but an analysis of representative incidents from the pre-election manoeuvres of recent weeks.

For several years every political observer has been aware of tension over leadership between the prime minister and the treasurer. Time and again Howard was asked about leadership transition. Invariably, he answered with a standard formula: “I will remain leader for as long as my party wants me and it’s in the best interests of the party that I do.” In September, several right-wing columnists argued that Howard should quit office before the election. Howard responded by asking Alexander Downer to test Cabinet opinion. After taking soundings, Downer told the prime minister that the majority believed it was time for him to go. Howard consulted his family. They advised him not to quit. The prime minister agreed. He now informed the public that it was not in his nature to run away from a fight. Howard’s words had a double meaning. On one level, he had signalled his desire to undo Kevin Rudd. On another, he had issued a warning to his colleagues. If they persisted in their attempt to convince him to leave office, he would not go quietly. Whatever slender chance the government still had of winning the election would be eradicated. Unsurprisingly, his colleagues capitulated. At the next meeting of the parliamentary party, which endorsed his leadership, Howard was reported to have said something very interesting. He had never offered simply to quit the prime ministership when asked to do so by his party. What he had actually meant by his standard formula was that he would leave office when his party asked him, and when he decided that it was in the interest of the party that he should follow its advice.

For years, everyone had believed that John Howard had promised to leave the prime ministership when asked to do so by his party. In September, the most authoritative voice of the party - a majority of the Liberals in his Cabinet - had asked him to retire. Howard stubbornly refused. Not only had he broken a promise made on a hundred occasions. It was suddenly clear that the promise had been formulated in so cunning a manner that its second half effectively negated its first. This was what one of those who spoke to the recent biographers of the prime minister meant by Howard’s “lawyer’s tongue”.

The issue passed swiftly. Most political insiders were no longer disturbed by the prime minister’s deceptive behaviour. Perhaps they no longer even noticed. Yet when critics of the Howard government write about the arrival of an atmosphere of pervasive mendacity, as Raimond Gaita did brilliantly in Breach of Trust, this is precisely the kind of example they have in mind. It is an atmosphere in which honest political debate has become impossible. Paul Kelly has lost the capacity to see this. In the past four years, Howard has not uttered a truthful sentence on Iraq. Even now, he does not have the character to think honestly about the calamitous failure of the Vietnam War - a point made by David Marr in His Master’s Voice, which Kelly comprehensively misunderstands.

The second incident is no less revealing but more disturbing. Each year Australia administers a humanitarian program offering homes to 13,000 refugees. In recent years the largest beneficiaries have been Sudanese people. On 18 August, Kevin Andrews, the Minister for Immigration, announced that the quota from Africa would be greatly reduced and the quotas from Burma and Iraq increased. Andrews explained that the reduction in numbers from Africa was a result of the “improvement in the conditions in some countries and an increase in the number of people returning to their country of origin”. The decision caused no stir.

In late September, a young Sudanese man was murdered in a suburb of Melbourne. Shortly after, Andrews was interviewed by Neil Mitchell on commercial radio. The minister made it clear that he believed Sudanese refugees were having difficulty integrating. No more of them would be admitted during the current financial year. Andrews’ statement instantly became major news throughout Australia. Commercial television showed misleading video footage purporting to show young Sudanese men behaving badly. When the Herald Sun asked readers if they thought all African refugees should be banned from entry to Australia, 72% of those responding said they did. Neil Mitchell wrote an inflammatory column. He argued that the issue was not about race but “fear, violence and even death”. Streets where Sudanese roamed had become “no-go” areas. But things were even worse than this. “Last week a young Sudanese boy, Liep Gony, was bashed to death in Noble Park and police fear reprisals.” Apparently the Sudanese were now to be held to blame for being murdered. Pauline Hanson joined in the chorus. She claimed there had been a 25% increase in the incidence of HIV infection in Victoria, for which the Sudanese refugees were responsible.

Victoria’s Police Commissioner, Christine Nixon, pointed out that the Sudanese were, if anything, under-represented in the crime statistics. The chief of police in Toowoomba, another area of Sudanese settlement, described the refugees as “model citizens”. By now the minister found himself being backed into a corner of his own making. Asked to justify his comments on the Sudanese, he produced nothing but anecdotal evidence centring on “race-based gangs, altercations ... disagreements amongst prominent community organisations, tension within families ...” Andrews broadcast whatever complaints he could muster about Sudanese behaviour. When asked to comment on police suggestions that these kinds of complaints were greatly exaggerated, the minister claimed the police were in denial.

Even if the minister was sincere in his conviction that the integration of the Sudanese refugees was proving difficult, his behaviour was extremely reckless. Andrews must have known that the way he spoke to Neil Mitchell was certain to provoke an instant controversy, to marginalise a small and vulnerable refugee community, to inflame ugly racial tensions. The decision to reduce the intake of African refugees had been opposed by no one. When asked about problems of integration, Andrews could have maintained a prudent silence. The evidence on which he based his views was anyhow extremely feeble. Why then did he choose to speak? There have been plausible suggestions that the comments were made to assist Liberals’ election chances in a series of marginal seats in which Sudanese live. A junior minister, Gary Hargreaves, used Andrews’ intervention to point out that in the effort to integrate the Sudanese, who comprise a mere 0.5% of his electorate, those he represented were already altogether “exhausted”. Did it register with Hargreaves that many of the people who had supposedly exhausted the patience and good will of his constituents had escaped from the genocidal hell of Darfur?

As Josh Fear has shown in a recent Australian Institute paper, dog-whistle politics is a strategy for awakening popular fears for political advantage in such a way that the intention remains plausibly deniable. Andrews’ comments excited a deep layer of racial phobia, as he must have known they would. Howard instantly claimed that it was utterly “contemptible” to describe his minister’s comments as politically motivated or racially based. This is the way the dog whistle works.

Pauline Hanson once made “Asians” feel uneasy in Australia. Kevin Andrews had by now achieved for “Africans” a similar result. Every Australian government, from Whitlam to Keating, refused to engage in odious racial politics of this kind. Why is Paul Kelly apparently undisturbed?

Three days before announcing the election date, John Howard, to everyone’s astonishment, committed his government to an act of symbolic reconciliation within 18 months should Australians be kind enough to re-elect him. Between 1996 and 2000 Howard had almost single-handedly killed off the prospect for precisely such a symbolic act. He had harangued the Indigenous delegates at a 1997 Reconciliation Convention. He had refused to offer compensation or an apology to the Aboriginal people who had been forcibly taken, as babies or infants, from their mothers, families and communities. He had denied that any contemporary government could apologise for the deeds of earlier generations. (According to his logic, the current Japanese government could not apologise to Australian prisoners of war or Korean ‘comfort women’.) While no prime minister had expressed more pride than he in the deeds of the young Australians at Gallipoli, Howard absolutely refused to admit that the brutal treatment of Indigenous Australians during the long process of dispossession might properly be regarded as grounds for shame. He had refused to accept a reconciliation document which called on non-Indigenous Australians to offer apologies for what had happened to the Aborigines and which called on non-Indigenous Australians to find it in their hearts to forgive. In place of symbolic reconciliation he offered instead a morally incoherent notion of “practical reconciliation” in which, as Paul Keating pointed out, the adjective destroyed the noun. For the next seven years, whenever Howard’s right-wing minions in the media mentioned symbolic reconciliation, they sneered.

In now committing himself to the cause of symbolic reconciliation, Howard admitted a certain share of blame for the “side-tracks and dry gullies” the process had encountered along the way. He also engaged in some uncharacteristic self-criticism. “The challenge I have faced around Indigenous identity politics is in part an artefact of who I am and the time in which I grew up.” To put it mildly, this self-criticism did not go deep. Everything about the act of symbolic reconciliation had already been decided by the prime minister in the absence of Aborigines. Howard’s symbolic act would exclude any hint of apology or any expression of shame. It would take the form of a constitutional preamble of the kind he put to the electors in the republic referendum of 1999.

Because he has turned his back on Aboriginal Australia since taking office, John Howard is now hated by most Indigenous people and their leaders. Ironically, if he had embraced symbolic reconciliation in the early days of his prime ministership and won the trust of Indigenous Australians, even his Northern Territory intervention would have a much greater prospect of success. We only have to imagine a similar decision made by Paul Keating. The fact that the prime minister is now able to convince himself that it is proper for him to dictate to the Indigenous people, in advance, both the form and content of a symbolic act of reconciliation is evidence not of growth and self-criticism but of enveloping moral solipsism and ballooning self-regard. Reconciliation necessarily involves a relationship between two peoples. After the prime minister’s reconciliation speech, no political commentator, including Kelly, pointed out this painfully obvious truism. This general blindness is telling evidence of how coarse the political nation has become by the end of the Howard years.

I hope this commentary will prove to be an epitaph for the Howard years. Let me therefore, in conclusion, attempt a balance sheet.

It is not entirely negative. The economy has been well managed, as I have no doubt it will be under Rudd Labor. The Treasury and the Reserve Bank are first-rate institutions. Howard was right to introduce a GST. One of its greatest benefits is that it has given the states a reliable revenue stream, reflecting the current strength of the Australian economy. The only serious economic mistake the Howard government made was the introduction of radical workplace-relations reform after winning control of the Senate. This might prove the government’s undoing. Howard was right to stare down many conservative Australians to bring about effective gun control. It is hard to believe that the absence of urban massacre since Port Arthur is an accident. Despite very serious intelligence and political error in the lead-up to the East Timor independence plebiscite, the role his government played in the creation of an independent East Timor represents John Winston Howard’s finest hour.

The greatest mistake in the first half of the Howard years was the attack he launched against what American neo-conservatives had labelled political correctness. The country’s racist past was increasingly denied. The ambitions for reconciliation with the Indigenous population and for the creation of a multicultural society were abandoned. The bitterness of so many Indigenous people and the daily experience of marginalisation faced by Australian Muslims are the consequences. The Keating government bequeathed to Howard a dangerous legacy in the policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. After losing East Timor, Indonesia secretly encouraged boats of asylum seekers fleeing from the regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban to sail on to Australian territory. The cruelty with which the Howard government treated these people will astonish Australians in the future. So will the use we made of military force and detention camps on Nauru to resolve the asylum-seeker problem. For his fine moral leadership on these matters, Julian Burnside should always be remembered. After years of war on political correctness, a kind of political culture new to Australia - conservative populism - had imperceptibly emerged.

John Howard was in Washington at the time of the terrorist atrocity of September 11. At that moment he decided to abandon Australia’s quest for an independent foreign policy within the framework of the American alliance, and to embrace a policy of automatic support for whatever the American administration decided to do in prosecuting its War on Terror. Our support for the invasion of Iraq was the worst foreign-policy decision ever made by any Australian government. Not only was the supposed reason for the invasion baseless and confected. As a consequence of the invasion, several hundred thousands of Iraqis have died; three million have fled their country; the forces of jihadist Islamism have been strengthened; Iraq has probably been irreparably destroyed. The Howard government, alone among all countries of the world, also aligned itself with American policy concerning the greatest challenge of our age: the threat of global warming. Only unprecedented international co-operation can now save humanity from catastrophe. To its shame, our government supported the American fantasy that climate change can be overcome painlessly through voluntary emission reductions, outside the framework of a treaty and through yet-to-be-discovered technological fixes. Future generations of Australians will find the Howard government’s folly difficult to grasp.

My mother was very fond of an old German joke: “Go with God, but go!” That is how I feel about John Howard. I hope that by the time the next issue of this magazine is published, a new era in Australian history, under the prime ministership of Kevin Rudd, will have begun. Only when that era opens will the meaning of the Howard years - the point of contention between the public intellectuals and the Kelly gang - gradually become clear.

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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