Annoyed by Mr Average
There is some dissent about the nature of the beast, writes David Burchell His Master’s Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate under Howard, Quarterly Essay 26 By David Marr Black Inc, 105pp, $ 14.95
JOHN Howard’s prime ministership has seemingly entered its twilight days. The signs are that the electorate has wearied of him. In recent months the PM’s voice has sounded increasingly shrill, and his appeals to the common sense of the electorate increasingly strained.
He looks like a man who, after the longest period of happy remission, once again sees the ghostly shadow of political mortality.
He will leave behind him a puzzle. There never was a modern PM who aroused more anger and loathing among the intelligentsia and the political class. And yet the electorate as a whole has conspicuously failed to share in this view. The puzzle of the two John Howards — the loathed one and the benignly tolerated one — is still waiting to be solved.
Should future historians be looking for an entry point into this mystery, David Marr’s His Master’s Voice provides a few clues.
On the face of it, there’s nothing much new in Marr’s somewhat rambling and stream- ofconsciousness essay on the misdeeds of the PM. Rather than catalogue the entirety of Howard’s malignity, Marr decided simply to keep a diary of every bad thing that’s happened since February this year. In many cases these bad things aren’t obviously attributable to any action of the PM, or even the federal Government.
But Marr wants us to believe that Howard’s influence over the national psyche is so intense that just about every act of dishonesty, suppression or even meanness of spirit in our public life is somehow attributable to his personal aura.
As you may expect, then, Marr’s catalogue of misdeeds is a varied one.
His diary begins with a stoush between a Brisbane academic, David Peetz, and Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey over a paper by Peetz critical of the effects of Work Choices. Hockey had read into Hansard sundry titbits concerning Peetz’s political past in an effort to present him as antigovernment and something of an extremist.
There’s an unpleasant savour of David and Goliath about this episode. Peetz is a private citizen. And he has no litigation- free forum such as Hansard through which to reply.
But it’s not clear why Marr should view it as an episode in a grand drama of the suppression of free speech. Peetz is still free to speak and write on this subject, as he has been doing with some verve.
After the Peetz affair Marr wanders in all sorts of directions. He is angry that Peter Costello criticised the actions of the lobby group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He is outraged that the Classification Review Board banned a DIY suicide video from euthanasia advocate Philip Nitschke.
He is unhappy about the recent inquiry into the 1975 deaths of Australian journalists in East Timor. And so on and so on. Much of this is the literary equivalent of an afternoon spent with clever but idle friends in an inner- city cafe.
Throughout it all, the visage of the PM seems to hover enigmatically, rather like an image of the departed at a seance. In the end, Howard resembles not so much a political actor as a symbol, a sign of what Marr believes to be remiss with the nation’s soul.
This becomes increasingly apparent about halfway through the essay, when Marr takes yet another detour to ponder the history and character of the Australian people.
When Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the 1830s, he saw a vibrant emerging nation marked by a rambunctious individualism. Had he visited Australia at the same time, Marr claims, he would have seen nothing more than a supine colony, ‘‘ deferential, businesslike and orderly’’.
Even today, Marr insists, ‘‘ Australians remain
more subjects than citizens’’. We aren’t the larrikins of our imagination. Rather, we’re ‘‘ an orderly people who love authority’’.
And this, according to Marr, is why Howard suits us so well as our PM. Like him we’re ‘‘ uncomfortable with high principle’’: at heart we’re a nation of unimaginative pragmatists, rooted in the mundane.
Scratch every good hater, though, and you’ll find a hero- worshipper in remission. Marr’s acknowledged literary hero is the novelist Patrick White: he has written White’s standard biography, edited his letters and acted as his posthumous spokesman.
Sure enough, White surfaces in Marr’s account as the antithesis to Howardian pragmatism. Even the novelist’s return to Australia after a wartime sojourn in Britain is invested with heroism. White’s return was brave because it required him to exile himself in ‘‘ the Great Australian Emptiness’’, a landscape ‘‘ in which the mind is the least of possessions’’. And so he endured a country where bronzed young people stared at the world through ‘‘ blind blue eyes’’, ‘‘ and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves’’.
As White later recalled, ‘‘ it was the exaltation of the average that made me panic most’’.
Australia has changed since then, Marr hastens to remind us. Yet for him Howard is just another characteristically Australian ‘‘ exalter of the average’’.
And under him it seems the ‘‘ blind- eyed’’ mainstream has reared its head once more, something that makes Marr panic too.
It’s almost possible through these pages to detect a White- like nightmare vision of Australia reborn, replete with the novelist’s robotic suburban drone- males, anchored to their lawnmowers, and those malevolent little old ladies who always say ‘‘ Yairs’’ instead of ‘‘ Yes’’.
Phillip Adams recently asked playfully in these pages what Howard- haters like himself would do if and when the man was ousted.
This volume hints at an answer. Because Howard is a cipher, a symbol of what still irks so many Australian intellectuals about the unheroic character of the national culture, the hatred will live on. It will simply migrate to new targets, even new obsessions.
The trick is this. Because they never troubled themselves to understand what made Howard successful, the same people will never twig to what has brought about his eclipse. And so they’ll beat on, boats against the current, eyes fixed firmly on the past. David Burchell teaches in the school of humanities at the University of Western Sydney.
Conundrum: David Marr, above, tries to unravel the mystery of the electoral success of John Howard, left