QUARTERLY ESSAY 3 The Opportunist



John Birmingham

They looked like Bjork fans. You know, way cooler than you or me. They were tucked away in the corner of an impossibly hip indie cafe at the north end of Bondi, one of the spiritual homes of the chattering classes, or the new élite. Call them what you will. They sat there early in the election knocking back the muffins and lattés and broadcasting their views about the Tampa crisis to all within earshot. I sat nearby and listened with amazement as these three latté Nazis agreed that if the refugee ships coming from Indonesia would not turn around, some would definitely have to be sunk. And perhaps a couple of Afghans might need to be shot too. One of them, henna tattoos, nose rings and all, volunteered that she was up to the job.

It was a political moment of fantastic incongruity – even more so than John Howard’s housing policy photo-op with that earnest, bizarrely haired neo-punk couple. It neatly demonstrates one of the weird inversions which have made this campaign so difficult for Kim Beazley. If, as reported, Peter Reith really did say that war would be the only issue in the election, then this sort of scene – played out endlessly in cafés, pubs, on buses and, of course, across the airwaves via talkback – will have loomed large in Howard’s reckoning.

It certainly dominated the imagery of his campaign launch in Sydney last weekend. As the faithful took their places in the recital hall, a giant slide show featured happy snaps of the Prime Minister with George Bush, East Timor peacekeepers and military personnel bound for the Afghanistan conflict. The set was spare, the tone was sombre. The message, not entirely subliminal, was safety and security. Howard was more upbeat than he had been in the first two weeks of the campaign, but a restrained air prevailed.

Television is not kind to Howard. The broadcast of his speech did not do his performance justice. There is something in the compressing effect of TV which diminishes his presence, makes him seem smaller than he really is. His voice, nasal and flat, can sound more defensive and even petulant than it should. His limitations haunted him throughout the 1980s but he has made them into something of a weapon in the later years of his public life. He is more natural in person, less the caricature we are used to, and he is more at ease with ordinary people than they often are with him. Two young teenage boys – “of Middle Eastern appearance” as the saying goes – who chanced across a press conference in his suburban campaign office last weekend were left star struck and grinning like the dumber models at a motor show when he bounded over to schmooze them for the cameras.

To visit his campaign office is to enter a small monument to the determinedly ordinary. It is a temporary space, rented on the ground floor of a failed homecraft business, but the dowdiness seems almost purposeful. The decor consists of a few blue and white partially deflated balloons, old worn carpet, faded Whitlam-era wallpaper of astounding ugliness, pine panelling and cheap cast-off plastic furniture. The whole scene is of a kind with Howard’s relentlessly unhip image.

Understand one thing, though. He is not an ordinary man, no matter how much he might cloak himself in the cardigan of middle-class respectability. He is a thousand miles removed from being boring or grey or even conservative. He is a fascinating study, as worthy of consideration as his arch-nemesis Keating. He inspires passions every bit as powerful and profane. In him, as in Keating, we find the best and worst of ourselves.

That’s right. The best.

Let’s start there, since it is the road less travelled.

Our politics are brutal. Not bloodthirsty, or primitive, but totally lacking in pity for any hint of weakness or human frailty. Howard knows this down in his meat, where the damage lies. Old wounds he has aplenty; the deepest of them, the thickest, most hardened scars, he took from allies, not enemies. He understands betrayal in the most bitter and intimate of ways. In a way that we who have lived normal lives can only guess at and shudder.

Consider the witless beserkers of the Joh-for-PM campaign, who stormed out of Queensland and destroyed any chance he had of taking the prime ministership from Bob Hawke. Remember Andrew Peacock’s cabal of assassins, who stole upon him with knives in hand, like Brutus and the Senators upon Julius; traitors who, not satisfied with merely plunging in the blade, then had to gloat over their treachery in the most obscene and public fashion. Can you even begin to imagine the extremes of humiliation and helpless rage to which they subjected him? Can you make the leap of empathy from the worst betrayal you have ever known, at the hand of a friend or family member or lover, and magnify it a hundred times over, with the whole world watching?

It would likely destroy you.

And yet there he was, never retiring from the field, simply binding up the wounds and standing to, ready for battle again. With one cautious eye to the rear, for sure, never really trusting those around him. Making a list and checking it twice. But there, like the ancient mariner clinging to life as the tempest ebbs around him, or harking to Shelley’s howl in Prometheus Unbound, neither to change nor falter nor repent, but just bear up and hope “till Hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates”. His survival and triumph given the relentless hostility directed against him speaks of a weird, almost Nietzschean willpower. That which does not kill me can only make me fit for public office.

Beneath this refusal to surrender in the face of overwhelming odds you can find, if you care to look, faint echoes of our creation myths; the stoic perseverance on the frontier, at Gallipoli or Kokoda. This is not to make some fatuous and embarrassing link between the courage needed to charge up the Nek and that required to show your face on television after being comprehensively outclassed by a hapless soufflé like Andrew Peacock. Rather it is to admit that Howard is sincere in his worship of the old Australian virtues because they inspire him and give him strength far beyond anything conceded by his opponents or those many, many Australians numbered amongst the ranks of the new élites – a group for whom there is but one perfect word to describe their feelings about the Prime Minister. Appalled.

It is a confounding irony of his administration that Howard should have been the one to deliver on two shibboleths of the old Left and the new élite. Gun control and East Timor. In forcing through the former despite the savage and sometimes unhinged opposition from sections of his own natural constituency, he demonstrated that unshakeable commitment to a principle which, in other circumstances, would so infuriate opponents in the Labor Party, on the waterfront, in the women’s, green or gay movements. In shepherding the country through the latter crisis, a potential catastrophe of historic proportions, he achieved what no Labor leader had ever come close to: the deployment in East Timor of an Australian military shield behind which the benighted people of that island could come to freedom at last. Of course it is in the interest of the ALP to downplay Howard’s role, and to emphasise the many tactical and strategic blunders his government made in the months leading up to the ballot which undeniably made the final conflagration worse. But in the end it was John Howard, not Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke or Paul Keating who took up the sword and shield.

As he flies around the country, rattling sabres and showering largesse on the new-born and the geriatric, it is tempting, post-Tampa, to view his campaign in the most cynical fashion. Guy Rundle, in the recently released Quarterly Essay, The Opportunist, puts forward the most coherent and aggressive analysis of this sort. In Rundle’s view, having long ago lost any chance with the small, but significant minority forming the new élites, Howard decided it was better to “go in hard and summon up the worst side of the Australian spirit”. It is a view of the PM shared at the other end of the ideological spectrum by journals such as the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, illustrating that strange alliance of interests now arrayed against him.

But Rundle errs in perceiving in Howard our own Richard Nixon, a man distanced as a politician from his own beliefs and morality. The key to Howard is not his cynicism but his sincerity. Certainly he is astute and knows only too well the power of the symbols and emotions he has been manipulating since the Tampa hove into view. The triumphalist roar which greeted his introduction of Philip Ruddock to the Liberals’ formal campaign launch in Sydney spoke eloquently, if brutishly, of the mortal harm which the refugee crisis had done to the ALP. That room full of well-fed white people knew they had been resurrected by Howard and his principle spear-carrier. Just as Lazarus himself had recovered from his triple bypass to seize the reins of the party, and then the government, after the bitter and barren years of the early 1990s.

However, to think of Howard as some cold, amoral tactician playing with the lives of refugees for personal gain is to fundamentally misunderstand his nature. He is a believer. To some it seems grotesque to describe his stand on asylum seekers as principled, because of the terrible human cost, the bizarre political contortions, the monstering of the Pacific micro-states and, of course, because of the massive boost it gives to Howard’s own chance of retaining government – the obvious self-interest involved. But when he talks about the principle of controlling the nation’s borders it is not just political expediency. He believes in what he is doing even as he consciously and happily reaps the electoral benefit. In this he is a sincere and utter bastard.

This duality of Howard’s is in part what so bewilders his cultural enemies. We cannot see his championing of the monarchy as nationalism, for instance, only betrayal. We can see nothing of his own background – his own father’s battle to secure a modest but solid future for his family – in Howard’s preference for practical Aboriginal reconciliation emphasising health, education and the provision of basic services over symbolic atonement. We see only the punisher and straightener.

And of course we see a racist.

Of all the charges levelled against him, this is the one that wounds most deeply, which brings forth that peevish lower lip and belligerent defensiveness. It will haunt him forever. His Labor opponents will be ever ready to insinuate the worst. Those Australians who loathe him as much as Keating was ever loathed will always believe it, particularly as his continued success flies in the face of everything they hold dear.

What is truly in his heart? Only he can know. But it may well be that he is not the demon of modern political mythology. His genius, as David Marr wrote, might simply lie in seeing us not as we would like to be, but exactly as we are.


John Birmingham is the author of Leviathan, a history of Sydney. His essay Appeasing Jakarta was the second in the Quarterly Essay series.

A version of this article was first published in the Age, 3 November 2001.


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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