QUARTERLY ESSAY 3 The Opportunist



Christopher Pearson

One of the first casualties of the Culture Wars in the 1960s was civility. Previously it had been quite commonplace for husbands and wives to disagree passionately about politics and religion without abiding rancour and for lifelong friends to be in lifelong disputation.

May I say at the outset that I bear Guy Rundle no resentment over the many issues where we differ deeply. He is a worthy sparring partner, and one of the regular columnists in the Adelaide Review (which I edit) whom we’re proud to publish. His particular distinction, in Arena Magazine and elsewhere, is to re-invent and rehabilitate the Left as a political project. Characteristically his approach is subtle, genuinely funny – a rarer commodity on the Left than many would like to imagine – and prepared to confront inconvenient facts.

It grieves me that his admittedly polemical Quarterly Essay on John Howard (The Opportunist) falls short on civility, subtlety and engagement with the facts. I found it more bilious than enlightening. Peter Craven, in his Introduction, claims that one of Rundle’s distinctive starting points is that, unlike so many of his colleagues and contemporaries he’s “not offended by the Prime Minister’s personal style”. Yet he summons up the tension between Howard’s sensibility brought “eyeball-to-eyeball with a sensibility, at once mordant and self-involved, that cannot believe all this drivel about Family, Mateship and the bloody picket fence”. He calls it “an attempt to understand the kind of mind that could see political advantage in such pity and such terror” as Tampa and September 11 evoked.

Rundle himself calls Howard “the short-trousered boy-man striding through a series of foreign capitals like Tintin”. The allusion is presumably to the classic demeaning stereotype of the schoolmaster – “a man among boys, a boy among men”. He reinforces the notion of immaturity and directionlessness some paragraphs later: “the Tampa crisis will hang around his neck as he wanders the world” – an amalgam of the Ancient Mariner and the Flying Dutchman.

The adjectives “shoddy” and “cynical” are often deployed. Rundle’s case is that Howard relied on grotesque, unscrupulous tactics to win the election and “some very dark corners of the Australian psyche”.

Ad hominem abuse is a poor substitute for fact-based argument, no matter how therapeutic it may be for the author and many of his readers. Let’s consider a few of those Derridean obdurate facts which Guy Rundle leaves out of his analysis.

First there is the fact that some 1,684 people suspected of serious criminal offences unrelated to their means of entry were detained in refugee camps last year. There’s little doubt that some of them were engaging in the routine practice of spying on exiles from their own countries. Nor is there any reason to doubt that there is also routine exploitation of migrant enclaves, detained or at large, whether by evangelism, the enlistment of passive support or coercion via threats to relatives still overseas. Among the detainees was a known mass murderer who was a high-ranking officer in the Iraqi secret police. This is a matter of public record.

Second, there is the well-documented movement of various and sundry terrorist organisations out of the Middle East, where the spectre of the war of all against all is an increasing problem, into softer target locations in Southeast Asia, notably Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. The Deputy Chief of the Indonesian Army, General Kiki Syahnakri, has repeatedly warned of their presence in the region. Indonesia’s border control in an unstable archipelago is at best vestigial and Syahnakri has been outspoken about the presence of bin Laden associates in Indonesia and their recruitment of local militants. Is it likely that Islamic fundamentalists in the mutinous areas of the Philippines and in Malaysia aren’t also, as the local Asian press has so often reported, being invited to join the Jihad?

One of the commonplaces of national security debate is that for at least the last decade there has been a transformation in the way that international terrorism functions. As Rohan Gunaratna, a Senior Fellow at St Andrews University Centre for the Study of Terrorism (Scotland) puts it: “there’s been a change not only in the location but the tactics and focus of political violence.” It’s now aimed “especially at Western targets in most vulnerable areas, such as Asia ... and by intermingling with refugee and migrant flows, terrorist groups have established their presence . . . especially in liberal democracies like Australia ... They operate through front cover and sympathetic organisations, taking the face of human rights and humanitarian groups.” As he also notes, one of the crueller ironies is that their interventions in aid of the poor are often very effective.

Rundle no doubt distrusts anything coming out of the Murdoch press instinctively, but it’s worth mentioning that the Australian reported (30 October) that “bin Laden’s men are here.” It confirmed that ASIO had uncovered substantial evidence about terrorist cells just before the Olympic Games and that a number of bin Laden’s known associates were being investigated. It also repeated the disturbing report that telephone records showed that the Muslim extremists who bombed the World Trade Center back in 1993 had made multiple calls to Australian numbers, believed to be in a cluster of terrorist safe houses in New South Wales.

Apart from the bin Laden connection, Gunaratna cites a number of other terrorist groups known to have an Australian presence. They include the pro-Palestinian Hamas, the Lebanese Hezbollah, two separate Punjabi outfits (the International Sikh Youth Federation and the Barbacosa), the Tamil Tigers, the Chechnyan Mujaheddin and the IRA.

According to Gunaratna – and it’s a view broadly accepted within the Office of the National Assessments and Military Intelligence circles – Asian-based terrorism has a new-found tendency to mutate rapidly, when it moves into host countries, from support structures to operational infrastructures.

In Canada, for example, the Barbacosa bombed an Air India plane leaving for India in 1985, killing 329 passengers, including many Canadians. More recently, Ahmed Ressam claimed refugee status in Canada via a lax “touch soil” policy much like our own. In 1999 he was arrested crossing the US border with a truckload of plastic explosives. These details and the analysis based on them have been public knowledge for months and in some cases for years. I’ve drawn heavily in this reply to Rundle on a column of mine published in the Financial Review earlier this year.

On the question of the Tampa incident, the US Deputy Secretary of State specifically referred to it at the time as a security concern because people who could gain asylum having destroyed their passports would obviously use those strategies, as well as flying in people in business suits with expertly forged papers, if infiltration by stealth rather than immediate political violence was being planned.

What Guy Rundle’s highly emotive account of the Tampa boat people omits to mention is that almost all the adult males (quite understandably) had crude, lethal weapons. When the Tampa captain spoke of the ease with which a group more than ten times the number of his crew could overpower them he was entirely serious. According to the law of the sea, when rescue victims issue threats, enforce demands and essentially take over the running of a ship, it’s hijacking or, more precisely, piracy. That they were desperate and determined enough to take the law into their own hands is a plea in mitigation, not a defence.

Even if one were prepared to accept that Howard and Beazley’s initial response to the Tampa incident was heartless and cynical – a proposition which I don’t for a moment accept – the accusation would be beside the point. What Rundle fails to consider is the question of whether Australia has discernible national interests, which override humanitarian concerns regarding an (in all probability) otherwise blameless majority of this boatload of illegal immigrants.

The Left habitually dodges the notion of the national interest, as Rundle has in this case, even though it is far more compelling an argument than “our international obligations” as defined by UN treaties of the most Mickey Mouse kind. It’s of a piece with the internationalist habit of mind that refuses to engage in complex arguments about moral law and obligations outside a Genevan reference point.

It seems to me that the Left want to avoid a prudential debate on the merits of particular cases and the evidence of real and present danger to the State in favour of one founded on moral absolutes, couched in humanitarian Newspeak but largely unexamined. The deployment of terms like “social justice”, an oxymoronic notion if ever there was one, is symptomatic.

Meanwhile, on other major moral questions, Rundle and his allies hysterically assert a consequentialist ethic on “safe injecting rooms”, drugs policy generally, abortion, bioethics and family law. Selective moralism is the last refuge of polemicists, apart perhaps from sneering. They want to claim that Howard’s policy, and Beazley’s incoherent bet-each-way echo of it are wrong ethically rather than merely mistaken or impractical. No doubt it’s rhetorically easier and more satisfying; cheap shots that will go down well with their subdivision of the true believers..

Nonetheless there are questions about international terrorism and Australia as a soft target which won’t disappear simply by wishing them away or disregarding them, and they are urgent questions. The transparent snobbery of deriding Howard for being shorter than Keating, or because his wife doesn’t have a paid job, or Pauline Hanson for that matter because of her mangled pronunciation of “Australia” isn’t even the beginning of an answer.

Craven, in his Introduction, says: “Rundle’s is a dazzling fragmented portrait, more like a de Kooning than a Lucian Freud, because the portraitist keeps having to retrieve himself from his own obsessive technical problems that threaten to swamp his sense of the subject...”

This strikes me as inordinately kind. Rundle’s argument is kaleidoscopic in its representation of its subject. To put it another way, the essay is a catalogue aria of all the failings, real and imagined, of Australian Liberalism, conservatism generally and John Howard. It’s kaleidoscopic in the sense that the elements of the argument resolve themselves into patterns as reassuringly symmetrical as the world does when viewed through a Marxian theoretical prism. Notions like “progress” and “reaction” are used as though, assured of certain certainties, they could be relied on as conveying meaning – with no need for qualification – where they strike me as buzzwords of long ago.

Historical determinism is used in much the same way. This is disappointing because at his best Rundle is as concerned and effective as anyone on his side of the argument about purifying the dialect of the tribal discourse about politics. Again, when he claims that political correctness is “a usefully ‘spectral’ political force – its opponents brought it into being simply by mentioning it”, he does less than justice to his own powers of observation. He claims that: “By no fair assessment could it be said [of native title arguments and the Zeitgeist in the early ’90s] to be a debate in which there was an attempt to stifle discussion.”

No one listening to ABC Radio National or attending a tertiary institution during that era could have failed to see evidence of stifled debate. The lack of pluralism in the case of the ABC is still breathtakingly conspicuous. Either Rundle has fallen into the terrible trap of the polemicist – becoming incapable of distinguishing between one’s own propaganda and things as they are – or he’s trespassing on our good nature.

There is one important point on which I partially agree with him about Howard – the incompatibility of libertarian economic policies and “the idea of a bounded and stable social order”. Rundle says, “Howard refuses to recognise that the former is now the principal enemy of the latter,” (an issue of which he is increasingly well aware) and identifies him as “first and foremost a servant of a corporate world”.

The contradictions between the conservative/liberal and economic libertarian world views are real enough. One of the interesting things about Howard is that he has become increasingly less doctrinaire about dry economics, less the slave of some long-dead economist, and more flexible and pragmatic than the dry commentators can find it in themselves to forgive.

By this I don’t simply mean the time-honoured expedient of “buying off the sugar seats in Queensland”, as one National Party minister rather bluntly puts it. I mean that he is less driven by any abstract notions of how Australia should do business than a concern that the part of the economy governments can manage or influence are managed as well as they can be, given the vagaries of domestic politics and our place in the world economy.

The idea that Howard is primarily a servant of the corporate world is a familiar nostrum of the Left. I think that in fact he has a Menzian preference for not being beholden to the big end of town and, while clearly he has to deal with it, has markedly distanced himself from the big business/ big government/big unions corporatist model which characterised government in the Hawke and Keating years.

It seems obvious to me that Howard realises he has a variety of constituencies to attend to and larger responsibilities that go with prime ministerial office, and that’s what he concentrates on. Rundle’s summation of a recent drugs strategy is that “by insisting on familial pieties, the federal campaign offered a black, comic allegory of John Howard’s incomprehension of the contemporary world”. At his best, Guy Rundle understands that there is no such single entity as “the contemporary world”. Howard knows full well that the people who keep on electing him live in a plurality of sometimes overlapping conceptual worlds. It’s the disquieting ease with which Howard intuits the ways people who are quite unlike him think and feel and can be persuaded which provoked Rundle into this bewildered and, despite itself, mesmerised tract.


Christopher Pearson is the editor of the Adelaide Review, a columnist for the Australian Financial Review and a member of the Australia Council and the Council of the National Museum of Australia.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 3, The Opportunist. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 4, Rabbit Syndrome.


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