In Relaxed and Comfortable my colleague in Politics at La Trobe University, Judith Brett, wrote of the Howard government’s continuities with its Liberal Party traditions. Brett’s is a sober analysis and not one of moral outrage. The essay represents a challenge to the leftist sense that under Howard, as Chicken Licken said, ‘The sky is falling!’
But because it seeks to illuminate the continuities rather than noting the disjunctures, I suspect the essay fails to capture the moral significance of the Howard years. I write this fully accepting that my own perspective, and not Brett’s, may be a partial one. Brett’s essay is the work of a political historian, whereas my knowledge is of the politics of asylum. It is my close observation of the government’s conduct in this area that has shaped my understanding of the Howard years. Yet although I accept this caveat on the extensiveness of my understanding, I expect that those who know more than me about, say, foreign policy, indigenous affairs, higher education, industrial relations or the environment, might also suggest that the Howard government has been far more radical than Relaxed and Comfortable suggests.
The issue that is of most interest to me is how the Howard government has changed the way Australians see themselves and the world around them. One of the most important sites of conflict in the contest for Australian national identity has been asylum seeker politics. Brett mentions the treatment of asylum seekers at various points throughout her essay, but in my view she underplays its significance. In the most revealing reference to the Howard government and asylum seekers – when Brett refers to Caroline’s “confused and ambiguous response” which suggests that Caroline “could have been moved either way, depending on how the leader played the issue” – the question that begs asking remains unasked and unanswered: Why, given that people like Caroline could have been moved to a more compassionate response, did Howard choose to “play” the issue the way he did, and what did his approach mean for the Australian nation?
I have argued elsewhere (Dissent, Autumn/Winter 2002) that through the politics of asylum, the Howard government legitimised, at the centre of political power in this country, a sort of racism that is not based on biology but on culture. Asylum seekers from the Middle East and Central Asia were said to threaten Australia’s culture and way of life. Certain grisly forms of protest by asylum seekers incarcerated in Australia’s Spartan detention regime were said to be culturally based and to demonstrate the inassimilability of the asylum seekers with the rest of us. Then in late 2001, the dog-whistle politics of the cultural racism which began in 1999 became a politics of the megaphone as asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat were falsely accused of throwing their children into the sea. The truth of the claims mattered less than the sense that these people were less human than ourselves.
Nor was it only the politics of asylum. Howard’s revision of the nation has included the promotion of views such as those of history-warrior Keith Windschuttle, who in 2002 published The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, an attack on what he suggested was the flawed and ideologically clouded scholarship by academic historians of Aboriginal history. In itself such a thesis, should it have been proven, would have been an important contribution to understanding our history. But Windschuttle combined this analysis with a portrayal of Tasmania’s indigenous people as lacking the same depth of human experience – including not having deep attachments to their kin (particularly their women) and tending towards robbery and murder – that the colonists who claimed their land were endowed with. In 2004 the Prime Minister indicated his support for Windschuttle’s work, telling journalists that he was reading Fabrication and was proud to have reversed the “tide of political correctness” in Australia.
There is also the creeping sense that the “old” racism may have found a new foothold in Australian public life. Might the Howard government’s legitimising of cultural racism have contributed to the response to claims by Sydney law academic Andrew Fraser that Africans have a lower IQ and are more susceptible to crime than other “races”? Even Windschuttle acknowledges that this sort of biological racism has no scientific basis. Yet according to a phone poll conducted by Channel Nine’s A Current Affair – admittedly not a scientific poll – 85 per cent of respondents agreed with Fraser’s views. And at the “higher” end of the market, the ABC’s “right-wing Phillip Adams”, Radio National Counterpoint’s Michael Duffy, interviewed Fraser on his views and the public response to them. That which for decades has not been seriously discussed is, in Howard’s Australia, not merely discussed but has become acceptable.
And then there is the debate about terrorism and multiculturalism sparked by the London bombings. To be sure, senior members of the government distanced themselves from the more inflammatory statements made by their less cautious colleagues and media commentators. But the debate has often been characterised by the same reduction of certain people – Muslims, in this instance – to nothing more than a stereotypical notion of their cultural background that dominated the politics of asylum some years earlier.
It is the Howard government’s support of this shift in Australian political culture that sets it apart from its Liberal Party predecessors. There is no doubt, as Brett observes, that Malcolm Fraser was a ruthless political operator and that his actions during the Dismissal put some of the key institutions of Australian democracy at risk. But he did not encourage the re-emergence of a form of racial politics at the heart of power in Australia, a form of politics that has not been seen since the end of the White Australia policy. To have done this – as Howard has – is to take political ruthlessness to another level again.
I accept Brett’s assertion that the sort of analysis she undertakes – one that seeks to understand and not demonise the Howard government – is more useful to those people who want Howard gone than one that is clouded by moral outrage. But equally, the moral reality of the Howard years is obscured by an analysis that suspends moral judgment in the search for historical objectivity. Brett is not, as she says in her introduction, “appalled” by the Howard government. I suspect it is for this reason.
David Corlett is the author of Following Them Home: The Fate of the Returned Asylum Seekers. His writing has appeared in the UNSW Law Journal, Dissent, Australian Quarterly and the Canberra Times.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 20, A Time for War.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY