QUARTERLY ESSAY 25 Bipolar Nation



Peter van Onselen

As the fate of Gough Whitlam indicated, Australia’s federalist institutions do not reward a “crash through or crash” style of leadership. Unlike in Britain and New Zealand, where powers of parliament allow a headier pace of reform, Australian leaders must either build consensus behind their policies (the tactic of the Hawke governments through the 1980s) or win multiple elections if they are to leave a legislative mark on the body politic. In keeping with this principle, there has in the Howard government been more continuity than change, both with the previous government and with the style, if not the substance, of earlier conservative governments. Only in Howard’s fourth term has this balance shifted somewhat, the lure of a Senate majority being too much to hold in check Howard’s ideological convictions on industrial relations. On this point Labor and the unions are already pouncing, and there is some evidence that the public is starting to listen.

John Howard’s most important contribution as leader of the Liberal Party has been to adapt the party’s longstanding political philosophy to the political circumstances of his own era. By the time he became prime minister, a good deal of economic liberalisation had taken place at state and federal level, as Peter Hartcher rightly points out. While seeking to continue this trend, Howard’s greatest challenge, and in retrospect his greatest success, has been to position the Liberal Party as a party of both globalism and nationalism. He inherited a stronger economy than did the previous Labor government (an economy Howard had managed as treasurer from 1977 to 1983), but he was also left to deal with those sections of the electorate that felt left behind by decades of profound economic and social change. This has assisted Howard in playing on voters’ fears of a return to the Labor Party. 

It is also the reason why Kevin Rudd presents such a serious challenge to Howard. Rudd is a social conservative not unlike the Prime Minister, making him a very different proposition to previous modern Labor leaders at the federal level. In electing Rudd as leader in December last year, the Labor party room decided that as much as they hated Howard and everything he stood for, they were prepared to turn to a similar social conservative to see off the man who had become the sum of all their fears.

The rapid pace of economic and social change over the past thirty years has made social conservatism an attractive political platform. There is some irony in the fact that Howard, one of the strongest advocates of liberal economic reforms over the past two decades, has reaped the political benefits of the resulting sense of social insecurity. There is even more irony in the fact that one last go at significant liberal economic reform in the shape of WorkChoices might sink Howard when he is pitted against a socially conservative Labor leader not unlike himself.

John Howard attracts the votes of social conservatives because he shares their values. Derided by critics as the politics of fear, a theme picked up and run with by Hartcher, Howard’s social conservatism was buttressed by twin events in the lead-up to the 2001 election. The arrival of MV Tampa in August and the terrorist attacks in the United States in September of that year allowed the incumbent to capitalise on the electorate’s desire for security. However, where his opponents see dog whistles, wedge politics and unalloyed racism, Howard has in fact succeeded in bringing up to date the conservative vision of a unified nation that can rise above sectional interest. 

Even so, the language used to promote this organic vision has been somewhat contradictory. The Coalition election slogan of 1996, “For All of Us,” was at odds with Howard’s repeated calls to “middle Australia,” “the battlers” and the “frustrated mainstream.” His rhetoric of national unity was, paradoxically, directed at a fraction of the electorate weary of perceived favouring of minority groups by the ALP.

It is in the area of social policy more than economic prosperity or national security that the Howard government has regularly been accused of pursuing “wedge politics.” The label has an unacknowledged normative dimension – all issues are divisive; that’s why we have politics. Hawke’s introduction of Medicare, Keating’s pursuit of constitutional reform, and the Howard government’s restrictions on gun ownership were all very divisive but are not described as wedge politics, presumably because those who so liberally use the term approve of these policies and disapprove of the minorities opposing them.

Dismissing Howard’s agenda as wedge politics fails to take into account the political philosophy behind it. Here the contrast in style and substance with Paul Keating’s nationalism and social policy, centred on what we might become rather than what we are, has been crucial. Howard has encouraged disdain for elite opinion on social issues (as though somehow the prime minister stands aside from the nation’s elite), which he has characterised as overly negative about Australia’s past and present. For those at the forefront of Keating’s cultural bandwagon, Howard has been too much to bear. However, characterising him as a reactionary and an opportunist misses the coherence (and potential longevity) of his policies. 

A substantial section of the Australian population was tempted by Hansonism to turn its back on the world. Howard’s conservatism finds a place for this constituency, uncomfortable with the social and economic liberalism of the time. Yet, on a host of issues, Howard has sided with the elite against provincialism: guns, free trade, foreign interventionism and taxation reform, to name but a few. He has managed to bring a degree of consistency to his government’s program with his emphasis on nationalism.

Howard’s battler image is enhanced by what appears to be a polarity between elite and mass opinion on almost every political issue. He is always battling against either public opinion (GST and Iraq) or elite opinion (refugees and Aboriginal reconciliation) and has usually won respect from voters when he invariably prevailed. Howard’s success as a conservative has been to underline the importance of the local and the familiar in a time of rapid social and economic change, much of which he outwardly welcomes. But it is important, too, to bear in mind his role in the consolidation of the economic reforms undertaken by the previous government that continue to make Australia a more dynamic and progressive polity. Howard would tell you WorkChoices is the newest piece in the puzzle.

For these reasons, Australia never entered an era of Howardism. Unlike Thatcherism or Reaganomics, or even Fraserism, the brand of conservatism adopted by the Liberal–National Coalition government elected in 1996 defies easy description (which perhaps explains why Rudd has found it easy to attack Howard for being out of step with Menzies). The present government, like its leader, has a mixture of conservative and liberal views. It has been his conservatism, however, that Howard has primarily relied upon and which has been rewarded with repeated electoral victories.

Now, facing off against Kevin Rudd, Howard has a problem. Rudd is a social conservative with a healthy streak of pragmatism running through his veins. He is every bit as media-conscious as the Prime Minister. Like Howard, Rudd is cautious and won’t make the campaign mistakes that Latham did in 2004. Running against a long-term government trying to sell an unpopular and radical industrial relations policy will make Rudd’s life much easier on the campaign trail – at the very least he should pick up a large number of seats. That is, so long as Labor’s industrial relations spokeswoman, Julia Gillard, doesn’t repeat her threat to business that it might get “injured” if it sides with the Howard government on WorkChoices. But Rudd needs to win sixteen to form a government: a tall order in the normal course of events. Where might they come from? Rudd is a Queenslander, and the Labor Party is well placed to pick up seats there, now that it is being led by a social conservative from Queensland. Currently Labor only holds six of twenty-nine seats in the northern state. With a good showing, it should be able to win six more. In South Australia, Labor should pick up Kingston, Makin and Wakefield; in Tasmania, Bass and Braddon. Such gains would leave Labor needing to win only five more seats across the rest of the nation (assuming no losses – no guarantee when looking to Western Australia). To secure the extra seats, Labor will be looking to outer western Sydney seats such as Lindsay and Macquarie, and to the marginal Northern Territory seat of Solomon. Victoria doesn’t provide Labor with many opportunities. The Labor campaign team is confident it can pick up one or both of the WA seats of Stirling and Hasluck, but with a booming economy in the west neither is a certainty.

Given this, the election result may hang in the balance until late in the count. For those of us who enjoy election nights, that would be a welcome change from 2001 and 2004. But unless there is a clear move on, Rudd is more likely to fall just short of, than just over, the line. Incumbent governments have an enormous advantage at election time. Government advertising in the lead-up to election campaigns and the targeting of marginal seats with taxpayer-funded resources could see Howard hang on with less than 50 per cent of the two-party vote, as he did against Beazley in 1998.

The Australian public is very conservative when voting to retain or throw out a successful government. So long as voters don’t think Howard’s radicalism on industrial relations has overtaken his social conservatism, he should get to depart at a time of his choosing.


Peter van Onselen is a senior lecturer in political science at Edith Cowan University in Perth and co-author with Wayne Errington of John Winston Howard: The Biography, to be published in August. His book on the 2007 federal election will be published next year.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 25, Bipolar Nation. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 26, His Master's Voice.


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