The vic­tor and van­quished

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - David Burchell

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

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