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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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