If you have been a member of the Labor Party all of your adult life and then some, reading Judith Brett’s essay is a sobering and scary experience. Sobering because it paints a realistic picture of modern Australia and its relationship with John Howard. Scary, because it leads to too many sleepless nights worrying about when his iron grip on government is likely to loosen.
Much of the essay is devoted to an erudite analysis of the Liberal Party’s history and the continuing themes used by John Howard and Robert Menzies. How our prime minister views his party’s roots, its appeal and its core is interesting in the context of an examination of aspects of his character – but it doesn’t explain why a socially awkward, ordinary, boring man with a record of failure in the ’80s could become one of the most dominant political figures of post-war Australia. The Howard Australia undoubtedly sees today barely resembles the ’80s dork whom no one in the electorate wanted to vote for and many people on his own side hated.
Today he can thwart the ambitions of his loyal deputy, throttle the influence of the ever-decreasing numbers of Liberal “wets” and, with his new-found Senate power, shape our nation in virtually any way he chooses.
Winning a Senate majority, the possibility of which had fallen beneath every expert pundit’s radar at that last election, is only one measure of his extraordinary success. The other one matters even more. Howard achieved such a strong vote last time that to win the next election, Labor must win sixteen seats. The sixteenth seat is McMillan – a seat that covers Sale and Moe in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. What is far more interesting is that the fourteenth seat is none other than Bennelong. Yes, that is the real crunch – to win in 2007 Labor must defeat John Howard, the man who dug (with more than a little assistance from Mark Latham) an electoral grave so deep for Labor that disinterment is well-nigh impossible.
Howard did not rise to this position of complete dominance because he articulated some clear pictures of where the Liberal Party had come from, where it is now or where he hopes to take it. If some intrepid pollster were to walk down the main street of any suburb, or in this day and age, walk through one of our dreaded malls, he or she would be battling to find anyone who could remember anything Howard might have said about the Liberal Party’s continuing themes or even what he has said about what it is to be Australian.
Brett does get down to the nitty-gritty, though. While probably not characterising it in the same way I would, she refers to a number of things which, when added together, demonstrate that Howard has what every truly successful politician has (and I include Menzies, Whitlam, Hawke, Wran and Keating in that list) – it is called luck. While that champion South African golfer Gary Player once said that he got a lot luckier once he started practising for eight hours a day, it would be difficult for John Howard even to try to deny that luck played for, and not against, him – and did so often.
There are some great examples of Howard’s luck and Judith Brett does justice to most of them. She sums up his first really big chunk of luck – having Paul Keating as his opponent in 1996, in a few sentences that capture Keating’s problems from 1993 (where she acknowledges his brilliance in the 1993 election campaign) to 1996. While I would hate this to appear to mirror an Alan Ramsey article (i.e. where at least half of the words are quotes from a different pen than his), these words from the Brett essay sum up the reasons for the electoral slaughter of Labor in 1996:
But being prime minister is different from being treasurer, and arguing for change is harder. One has to be able to speak on behalf of all the people, not just some of them, and when arguing for radical cultural change one has to reassure as well as convince. Keating was never able to do this, to rise above partisan division and become a statesman. He was energised by conflict and brilliant at marshalling his aggression. This was exciting if you agreed with him, but very unsettling if you didn’t. Arguing passionately for reform, he could make people feel he had no respect for their views and experiences, and his verbal skill could leave them floundering to put their feelings into words. His aggression was building reservoirs of resentment.
In 2001, Howard had so much luck it appeared that God was voting Liberal. Brett refers to the Tampa episode, which had more political effect in a matter of a few days than any other event I have witnessed. One minute Beazley and the Labor Party, according to all of the pollsters, were cruising towards an inevitable victory. Then along comes a ship which had picked up a bunch of refugees – the Tampa. Australian troops board the ship and its human cargo is, figuratively at least, whisked off to detention in chains. Virtually overnight, Labor’s chances evaporated. They disappeared in a flurry of patriotic fervour and a lurking, latent suspicion that Australians have had for decades about strangers arriving unheralded, unprocessed and, as far too many (from Labor’s point of view) were concerned, unwelcome and unwanted.
The ship happened to have come from Norway – a country inhabited by only 3 million people. A country with which Australia has a miniscule trade relationship. A country with no navy to send out to challenge the capture of its sovereign vessel. A country whose protests would count for very little on the international stage and for absolutely nothing here in Australia. That, by any stretch of the imagination, is called luck – very, very good luck.
In accordance with the Gary Player doctrine, Howard exploited this luck with ruthless efficiency and breathtaking cynicism. Brett has lifted the quote from the 2001 Liberal campaign launch which captures the mood of the times. When Howard said, “We decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come,” he did so to the thunderous applause of the hand-picked audience in the hall, as you would expect, but he also received the heated agreement of every Australian with a television set.
Howard’s greatest strength is his capacity to know the electorate. I have always held the view that no matter how smart you think you are, the electorate is always smarter – the mob will always work you out. The best politicians know that when you have made a mistake, the best thing to do is admit the error and move on. There is not much to be gained from obfuscation and the verbal fudge. Australians know when you’re talking nonsense.
What goes hand in hand with knowing that the voters can work you out is how you read them. John Howard reads them very well. He is in tune with a big majority of the mob. The over-55s love him because he talks like them. He has the same values. He harbours the same suspicions they harbour about newcomers and bludgers. Almost all those over thirty share his view that while education, health and transport are important, they come way behind the economy in the rankings of the issues that change votes. The Australian preoccupation with home ownership is right up his alley. If he can keep interest rates at historically low levels, or be seen as the one most likely to achieve that imperative, Howard knows he is invincible. Add to that historically low inflation and unemployment and you take away any really strong reasons to vote against him.
That is his greatest strength. He knows instinctively what really matters to those who decide his fate. That used to be Labor’s strength, but it no longer applies. While Keating talked about engaging with Asia, Howard talked about interest rates. When Keating passionately appealed for reconciliation with our indigenous people, Howard talked about interest rates. When Mark Latham obsessed about reading to our children and climbing ladders of opportunity, Howard doggedly continued with his economic themes.
Australians see economic policy as the core, and social policy as what can be afforded after the real work is done. Labor may believe it has the right policies, but the result suggests it has the politics all wrong.
Since 2001 there is another core area that has worked well for Howard, and which in turn Howard has worked very well indeed. Brett covers September 11 and Bali in her essay. That the Twin Towers were bombed at all was a terrible tragedy. That they were bombed just after the Tampa turned up in our northern waters and just before the election was a case of perfect political timing. Electorates are reluctant to vote for change when there are serious threats to national security. The Bali bombings have strengthened their resolve against terrorism and deepened their trust in Howard. Even Howard’s harshest critics would have to concede that few prime ministers have expressed a nation’s grief or carried forward their firm resolve on the issue of national security as well as the current occupant of that high office. The Brett quote on the back cover of the Quarterly Essay puts it all pretty well: “Where Keating spoke to the nation, Howard spoke from it – straight from the heart of its shared beliefs and commonsense understanding of itself.”
In judging the 2005 John Howard as against the 1980s version, there is one obvious and major difference. The man has developed a confidence in himself that seemed completely absent all those years ago. Twenty years ago, he was all at sea when it came to working a crowd. In the company of large numbers of average Aussies, as distinct from grey-suited business types, he was embarrassed by the close-up nature of the interface and awkward to the nth degree. Last Christmas, I saw a television report on a function Howard held for the families of our soldiers on active duty in Iraq. Howard moved among the mums and dads, the wives and children, with consummate ease. He was in his element – he loved them and they loved him right back. Such a change can only occur when the confidence level has risen dramatically. On the lawns of Kirribilli House, he was king.
Perhaps the confidence level has risen in sync with his poll ratings. Perhaps it is the knowledge that success granted him licence to get away with almost anything. I can never accept that practically everyone in his office and Peter Reith’s office and in the armed forces hierarchy knew that the children-overboard story was a concoction and no one ever told the boss. I can never cease to be amazed that the stated reasons for being in Iraq could have been shown to be so flawed and yet the electorate could prove so forgiving. The hypocrisy of his railing against the Hawke and Keating governments’ spending on advertising, when you can’t look at any form of media today without being overwhelmed by the massive campaign on industrial relations reform, is extraordinary. Yet once again it seems to make little or no difference to his personal ratings.
Judith Brett’s essay is important because it makes no attempt to lionise or demonise John Howard. It seeks merely to examine the reasons for his phenomenal run and does so with great precision. I hope the Labor Party read it en masse. Labor can either continue to declare no confidence in the electorate, or, like John Howard, seek to understand it more accurately. I hope Labor chooses the latter course.
Graham Richardson held the ministerial portfolios of Environment, Arts, Sport, Tourism, Territories, Social Security, Transport and Communications and Health during his eleven years in federal politics. His autobiography, Whatever It Takes, was published in 1994.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 20, A Time for War.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY