The victor and vanquished
FOR the greater part of the past decade political argument in this country was dominated — as it seems now, to an absurd extent — by the spectre of John Howard. With the benefit of even a few weeks’ hindsight, this vast outpouring of hatred and adulation already seems unbalanced and illusory.
The Howard years saw remarkably few enduring policy innovations. Even where Howard’s instincts have been proven broadly correct — as in the case of Aboriginal policy — he failed to act on them decisively until it was almost too late. In retrospect, the last few months of his prime ministership probably produced more policy insight than the previous half- decade. This is not the record of a political monster or a political colossus.
Howard was by nature reactive and calculative. He acted chiefly through instincts of parsimony and largesse. He rewarded institutions and issues he approved of with more money and stinted resources from those of which he disapproved.
Even then, his government rarely acted vengefully. For all the sturm und drang over the government’s arguments with the ABC, the national broadcaster was never seriously impeded in carrying out what it saw as its corporate mission.
Non- government organisations in the welfare sector were punished if they behaved like lobby groups. Yet they continued to act effectively. Unions had their rights to recruit and agitate in workplaces circumscribed. Yet they are still a formidable political force, as their startling contribution to the 2007 campaign displayed.
These are not the signs of a country emerging from the rule of a repressive regime.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the obsessive critical preoccupation with Howard was chiefly an act of personal self- development rather than of political judgment. To hate the PM was a kind of psychic emancipation, as if to strip away the burden of one’s personal and familial past.
Melbourne academic Judith Brett was one of the few commentators who failed to succumb to the undoubted emotional rewards of Howard hating, so there’s a certain aptness that her Quarterly Essay forms the earliest effort at a political obituary for the former PM. She, at least, has earned the right to judge him, critically but without malice.
Brett’s previous researches into the history of the modern Liberal Party and its supporters had alerted her that something was afoot in our political culture.
Since Gough Whitlam reached out to them in the 1970s, many of the offspring of the traditional ‘‘ moral middle classes’’ had deserted their parents’ old political allegiances. They retained an attachment to the idea of political involvement as a form of personal moral duty, a means of giving back to the community in recompense for one’s privileged social position. But they redirected the impulse in new directions. The welfare sector replaced charitable activity; white- collar unionism replaced professional associations and Rotary.
These people were conscious of their own social and cultural centrality to affairs. They could talk to each other on television or write books for each other to read about their newfound moral urgency and outrage. But they were fatally inclined to overestimate their sphere of influence. And they were prone to imagining dark shifts and crises in the national psyche that might elude less sensitive and gifted souls.
Meanwhile, Howard’s prime ministership spoke out of the older moral tradition of the Liberal Party, but in terms that had subtly shifted so as to appeal to a different audience. These were people who identified strongly with what they took to be traditional Australian virtues: thrift, sobriety, hard work, sticking by each other in times of need.
The tragedy of the intellectual Centre- Left during the past decade is that it abandoned its hold on those elemental values just as Howard colonised them.
It actively aided the perception that mainstream social and moral values were in fact conservative ones and that people who held them ought to be voting conservative. Yet, somehow, it managed to be outraged when people proceeded to do precisely that.
Brett may well disagree with this jaundiced conclusion; after all, it’s my extrapolation from her arguments.
Yet it’s fair to say that Brett helped to provide the evidentiary basis out of which any sober account of the past decade could be crafted. She provided a sense of distance and perspective, when these were in perilously short supply.
By contrast, Brett’s new Quarterly Essay and Nicholas Stuart’s What Goes Up are unabashed post- election quickies. In each book we’re taken through the election year with almost hypnotic attention to detail, as if somehow in these details may be found the mystic key to the Howard government’s abrupt decline and demise. In each the electorate remains a shadowy force in the background, acting silently and inscrutably, like a demotic mandarinate.
Brett seems to need to prove that Howard was destined to fail in 2007, out of the internal facts of the political situation alone.
Howard had certain established strengths and weaknesses; Rudd counteracted these in certain definite ways. Hence Howard’s confoundment was ensured. It’s as if electoral democracy could be described as a game of chess between the political actors, with the electorate reduced to the role of a ticking clock.
Brett’s working hypothesis is that there are only a few viable styles of political leadership in a democracy but that they interact in complex ways, somewhat after the manner of the old playground game of rocks, scissors, paper.
Howard was a strong leader. His strengths were founded in treating politics as a kind of war. Rudd is by contrast an inspiring leader, who works in his appeal to synthesise strength and compassion, like a Clintonian triangulator. The implication is that inspiration is to strength what paper is to the rock.
They’re appealing templates. In the absence of a closer sense about what the electorate was seeing and thinking, they’re also unprovable. Still, they point to a subtler, more variegated account of our political culture than the routine dichotomies of much academic commentary, founded as it is in the world- historical confrontation between political progress and reaction.
In Brett’s account, Howard and Paul Keating, for all their contrasting views, were political polarisers of a surprisingly similar stamp. The effect of their style of political warfare was to divide, then corral, various aspects of the nation’s moral instincts into rival camps.
Rudd’s role, in this picture, is to sidestep the culture wars altogether, reopen the avenues of a less rancorous public debate, and facilitate a new political civility, ‘‘ before the next partisan cycle inevitably starts up’’.
Brett’s own manner of political argument foreshadows the hopes she has for Kevin Rudd as PM. She, too, has sidestepped the culture wars, and is trying to imagine a more realistic role for Rudd than the grand, ethereal one being offered him by some of Labor’s new friends.
Stuart’s book, by contrast, is a purely journalistic account, devoid of conceptual buttressing, yet this doesn’t necessarily work to its disadvantage. Some of his narrative is familiar, even pedestrian at points. Yet there are nuggets of observation and insight here that are almost impossible to obtain in the quiet hallways of academe.
Stuart’s opening account of the Howard government’s final political debacle — the effort to panic voters in the western Sydney seat of Lindsay by letter- boxing them with bogus leaflets arousing fear of Islamism — speaks volumes about the miserable, furtive lengths to which the Liberal Party had been reduced at the end of its governing days.
His closing ruminations on the complex private personality of our new PM offer a better insight into Rudd’s strengths and weaknesses than most of the commentary ( whether gushing or hostile) written so far.
Stuart provides a striking account of a campaign dinner held for Labor staff members on election eve, during which the PM- to- be was visibly overcome by his emotions.
‘‘ Rudd opened himself up, exposing his own vulnerabilities and offering his gratitude for their trust. A warm glow seemed to envelop the table as he sat down to loud applause. For just a moment, those on the outer ring of his team had felt embraced within the inner circle.’’
A US sports coach once observed that losing doesn’t test character. Anybody can lose graciously, with practice. What tests character is success because it appears to confirm your strengths and makes your weaknesses seem less consequential. It’s easier to shrink than to grow in victory.
For all his faults and limitations, Howard grew in his emotional range during his period as PM: indeed, this may be one of the keys to his tenacious popularity.
Rudd has won the respect of the electorate because of his unillusioned appreciation of their basic values. As Stuart hints, if Rudd wants to go further than this and acquire some tincture of positive affection, he will need to attempt a similar task. David Burchell teaches in the school of humanities at the University of Western Sydney.
Fallen from grace: Ulf Kaiser’s caricature of former prime minister John Howard
Young blood: New Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is seen as a political pragmatist