The Opportunist

The Opportunist

John Howard and the triumph of reaction

Guy Rundle


An Australian Coastwatch plane was the first to spot it, and it alerted the Indonesian coastal search-and-rescue service. A ship laden with refugees was sinking in the Indonesian sea, with an SOS painted on the roof. The Indonesian coastal service put out a general alert to ships in the area. The first to get there was the MV Tampa, a Norwegian container vessel making its way from Perth to Singapore. Its captain, Arne Rinnen, didn’t hesitate to respond, nor would it have occurred to him not to – responding to stricken vessels, no matter how inconvenient it might be, was simply a customary law of the sea.

When over 400, mostly Afghan refugees were taken aboard the Tampa on 26 August, they were in an extremely agitated state. The Indonesian town of Merak was the closest port of call and Rinnen headed for that. Five of the refugees came onto the ship’s bridge and behaved in what Rinnen called an ‘intimidating manner’. They made clear their desire to go to Australia, and that they were desperate enough to begin throwing themselves overboard if they were to be taken back to Indonesia. Rinnen didn’t want to call their bluff, and he didn’t have enough crew to stop them if they carried out their threat, or resist them if they decided to take more aggressive action. He changed his course and made for Christmas Island.

When it became clear to coastal surveillance that the Tampa was heading for Australian waters, the information was quickly communicated to Canberra, where the Federal government swung into action. According to the testimony of Bill Farmer, permanent head of the Department of Immigration, under cross examination by Julian Burnside QC in the habeas corpus case pursued by Liberty Victoria and Vadarlis on behalf of the asylum seekers, the matter was almost immediately taken under the command of the Prime Minister and his advisors – rather than left in the hands of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA).

The Tampa was refused permission to enter Australian waters and instructed to turn back to Indonesia. Captain Rinnen refused to leave, pointing out that the ship was no longer seaworthy, it had insufficient safety equipment for 500 people, and Christmas Island was now the nearest port. As the conversation of the nation – in streets, bars and across the airwaves – turned to the topic of asylum seekers, illegal or otherwise, the Tampa remained moored outside the twelve nautical-mile limit, requesting medical assistance. By now the 433 asylum seekers had been living on the sweltering deck and sleeping in empty containers for several days, and some were unconscious. Despite repeated requests for medical assistance, no help arrived and Rinnen decided to play it safe and take the ship into Australian territorial waters, at which point it was boarded by the Australian Special Air Service, the SAS.

By all accounts, Prime Minister John Howard was across the issue throughout – pumped with adrenalin, buoyed by the increasingly aggressive tone of talkback callers and tabloid media who had no time for the niceties of international Sea Law or refugee rights. Howard’s firm belief that Australia’s coast had to be ‘defended’ from such incursions coincided with an issue that could do him nothing but good in the heartlands. Opposition leader Kim Beazley had slunk to the microphone to endorse the government’s stand in a terse and minimal manner that seemed to communicate the odiousness of the realpolitik decision he had made. The laws on boarding the vessel were open to multiple interpretation, to say the least. A Border Protection Bill was drawn up with mind-boggling haste and presented to the house. It was shoddy and draconian legislation which would have clashed with half a dozen other laws and international treaty obligations, and Howard might have been hoping it would be too much for the ALP to swallow. At this point it was; it went down in the Senate, and Howard had what is appropriately called ‘clear blue water’ between himself and his opponents. The general public could now easily see who was really committed to keeping out the queue jumpers.

‘Those people will never set foot on Australian soil … Never,’Howard said as he sprang into the press gallery at the height of the crisis. It was a line he repeated more than once on talkback. But behind the scenes he was a little less confident as he scrambled around to try and make a deal with anyone who would take them. As civil libertarians obtained an injunction preventing the removal of the Tampa and its unscheduled passengers from Australian territorial waters, Howard was trying New Zealand – a country the government had hitherto criticised for being a backdoor into Australia used by asylum seekers taking advantage of the Trans-Tasman agreement; and the United Nations – a body he and his government had frequently criticised for having the temerity to assume that its treaties could override national concerns. On the first morning of the Federal Court hearing to see if the Tampa asylum seekers had the right to habeas corpus, Commonwealth Solicitor-General David Bennett QC stood up in court and dramatically announced that a solution had been found that would make the entire hearing unnecessary – Nauru had agreed to accept the asylum seekers, numbering almost 300, above and beyond the 150 in family groups that New Zealand had volunteered to take. The last mention of Howard in connection with Nauru had been when he had declined to attend the South Pacific Forum held there in August 2001, sending instead his departing defence minister Peter Reith. Reith didn’t have a great time – Australia was widely criticised by Pacific island nations threatened with extinction by rising sea levels for its failure to support the Kyoto accord and its blasé attitude to their most pressing concern: a guarantee of places for resettlement when the rising sea flowed into their fresh drinking water sources and made life unsustainable, something that could happen in less than 25 years time. But his stay was principally marred by the fact that Nauru had more or less collapsed as a viable state, due to financial mismanagement. Electricity was restricted to two hours a day and drinking water had to be flown in because there were insufficient foreign currency reserves to have the fresh water pump repaired. Reith’s aides had to bring in Australian currency for the Australian journalists to pay their hotel bills because the local bank had no money.

For this and other reasons, the Federal Court hearing was not brought to a halt – because the applicants saw the Nauru option as something akin to latter-day transportation to a place that was unkindly referred to as a ‘pile of bird poop in the middle of the ocean’throughout. As an agreement was reached whereby the Tampa people would begin a journey to Nauru on a navy frigate but would have their case considered as if they were still on the deck of the Tampa, the tabloids ran polls to see whether average readers wanted the ‘civil libertarians’to continue their case or to cease and desist. The result was split along the same lines as might be the question, ‘Would you like your children set on fire?’; and the court case was overwhelmingly condemned. Being arrayed against lawyers and courts didn’t hurt the Prime Minister. Further polls found that John Howard’s approval rating on the issue had soared to 77%, and that his overall approval rating was now at 57%, well above Beazley’s. The latter’s refusal to back the Border Protection Bill – a document that the normally pro-Coalition independent MP Peter Andren had said, in his refusal to support it, ‘diminishes us all’ – had given him the worst of both worlds. Liberal-minded ALP supporters were dismayed by the desperate electoral calculus, while those opposed to the refugees landing berated him for his failure to back the Prime Minister at this time of alleged crisis. Suffering from a persistent virus that he couldn’t shake, Beazley sounded weak, hoarse and tired. Howard meanwhile had a spring in his step and was widely seen – à la the cover of the Bulletin – as ‘Iron John’.

As he well knew, the Tampa was Howard’s Falklands, a godsend. Had the refugees made it in on their original vessel, not even John Howard would have sent it back to sea – though a Prime Minister Hanson might have. Had Rinnen called the refugees’bluff and stayed on course for Indonesia, the public would barely have become aware of the situation. On the Tampa they were stuck but safe, albeit desperate. Howard’s play was risky, but all indications were that he had nothing to lose anyway.

That the government’s opportunity to get back in the game had come by way of the Tampa was almost too symbolic to be true. Six months earlier they had been all at sea and taking on water, with disastrous losses in Queensland, rural revolt, the revival of One Nation, and a leaked focus document declaring them to be ‘mean, tricky and out-of-touch’. They bailed furiously, dismaying their broadsheet free-market supporters by blocking the takeover of Woodside Petroleum by Shell, and tampering with a fuel excise they had hitherto declared an inviolable feature of a non-distorted market. These moves got them up on the deck of the tanker, as it were, but the Northern Territory electoral result showed them to be becalmed once more. Though the unprecedented defeat of the Country Liberal Party had vindicated the Federal Liberal Party’s decision to preference One Nation last, the cure was almost worse than the disease – the loss of the Territory had been as unimaginable as the defeat of the Kennett government two years earlier. It was a fresh reminder that dissatisfaction with the conservative side of politics had many sources, and that hitherto solid social groups could no longer be relied upon. Any one of a dozen forms of dissent had lodged in people’s breasts, and it seemed that no amount of backtracking could move them. And then the ship came over the horizon …

The overhead photo of that crowded deck would appear to have usurped all other images of the Howard era, pushing out other candidates – for example the sight of delegates to the 1997 Australian Reconciliation Convention turning their backs after the PM had refused to offer an apology for the ‘stolen generations’; or the photo of him attending the Olympics with Juan Antonio Samaranch, with Howard identified only as an ‘unnamed official’. It surmounts even the agreeably dowdy footage of him on his brisk morning constitutionals – the short-trousered boy-man striding through a series of foreign capitals like Tintin, trailed by bodyguards and camera crews bumping into each other’s boom mikes. For those who support his courageous stand against the coming hordes on behalf of the battlers, the Tampa image summons up all they fear and hate about the erosion of an older Australia. The wandering winds of Tampa talkback blew into some very dark corners of the Australian psyche, and Howard’s emphasis on our ‘soil’ and how he would prevent its contamination by Afghan feet fanned those winds. For those who thought that our ports and navies should honour the mutual consideration demanded by distress at sea, and that the 5,000 or so arrivals by sea did not present any sort of logistical problem, the image is one of enduring and actual shame. It was no more deserving of personal shame than was the revealed history of the stolen generations, but it was all the more visceral for being done in our name, now – that our leader had opted out of the most basic international civility, and that this would be attached to the notion of ‘Australia’in the eyes of the world. Nor was it merely the so-called bleeding hearts who felt this way – even the Wall Street Journal, the newsletter of global capital, felt moved to call the decision ‘callous’. Some of the most trenchant Australian criticism came from Greg Sheridan, the Australian’s foreign editor, who not only rounded on the cynicism of the Tampa manoeuvre, but also noted the most obvious sign that the overall refugee policy was actively dehumanising its enforcers – Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock’s disturbing use of the pronoun ‘it’ to refer to a six-year-old Iranian boy whose prolonged stay in the camps appears to have rendered him catatonic.

Each party had their own, more strategic reasons for taking such a stand, of course – Sheridan is an eager supporter of the Asian élites, dismayed by the reappearance of the rhetoric and practice of the White Australia Policy; the Journal was concerned as much about a breach of universal consent to the common Law of the Sea (and the attendant risk to the smooth flow of global trade) – but it was also clear that Howard’s action had stirred up the residual political liberalism attached to their usually more visible economic liberalism.

That may be of concern to Howard after November 10 – should he progress to a third term, the Tampa crisis will hang around his neck as he wanders the world. But for now, stirring up a rare conjunction of the Left and Right of broadsheet opinion couldn’t be better. It allows him to tap back into what has always been the mainspring of his political career, his improbably successful self-portrayal as a battler, a man who rejoices in the virtues of ‘mateship’, a representative of the average Aussie. It’s a line he’s been running since the early ’80s, one picked up from U.S. neo-conservatives who claimed that a ‘liberal élite’or ‘new class’had supplanted supporters of the working class in the leadership of social democratic parties, despite a deep contempt for mainstream values. The disapproval of such people will do him no harm at all with the groups he believes it most necessary to win back – the small business battlers hurt by the introduction of the GST and the rural voters who believed that voting out the Keating government would put an end to the market-led destruction of a host of rural industries and communities. He seems to believe that he has already lost the significant minority whose commitment to social justice was sufficiently outraged by his government’s policy on the Aborigines, the Republic and immigration detention – and they are hardly decisive anyway. Better to go in hard and summon up the worst side of the Australian spirit, forcing your more scrupulous opponents into a position where sooner or later they cannot bear to match you blow-for-blow, and are revealed to the public as the anti-patriotic time-servers they were all along.


The Tampa crisis may push Howard over the line for a third term – if the image sticks, and if more ships do not come over the horizon, ones less propitiously seaworthy than the Tampa. If it doesn’t, it will neatly bookend the last phase of John Howard’s political career, for the final stage of his zigzagging path to the Lodge began with a summoning up of the same debate in a way that broke the bipartisan convention that had persisted for two decades. It was 1988, and Howard’s best shot at the top job seemed to involve laying into an ALP government still struggling with the monumental task of modernising the economy without making whole sections of the community redundant to requirements.

Howard was increasingly attracted by the socially conservative-economically liberal combination of the Thatcher–Reagan revolution. Having announced himself to be ‘the most conservative leader the Liberal party has ever had’, he did not wait long before ploughing into the issue of race, saying on the topic of the rate of Asian immigration:

I wouldn’t like to see it get greater … I do believe that in the eyes of some in the community it’s too great, it would be in our immediate term interest and supportive of social cohesion if it were slowed down a little, so that the capacity of the community to absorb was greater.

The presentation of this idea – which had been first suggested by Howard’s favourite historian Geoffrey Blainey at a dinner of the Warrnambool Rotary Club in 1984 – was craftily double-jointed, expressed in the manner of social engineering to avoid being tagged with the ‘r’word. National Party Senator John Stone was happy to play the bad cop in all of this, telling the 7.30 Report that ‘Asian immigration has to be slowed. It is no use dancing around the bushes.’Howard went further in his repudiation of bipartisanship, coming out against ‘multiculturalism’. The move anticipated the Tampa manoeuvres 13 years later, with otherwise sympathetic major opinion makers aghast at the damage being done to the carefully constructed common policy by which political leaders on both sides of the House had been selling a certain vision of modern society – multicultural, global – to a far from convinced electorate.

The ludicrous Joh-for-Canberra push then put paid to Howard’s ambitions – in conjunction with a widely expressed view that Howard did not have the personal qualities to be a strong leader. Nor could Howard make any ground on the ‘common Aussie’image with Bob Hawke occupying centre-stage.

At the time, too, the reactionary culture of the shockjock and the headkicking U.K.-style tabloid was not nearly as well entrenched as it is now. Whether people were less racist than they are now remains to be seen, but the public sphere in which they could express such thoughts comfortably was less well developed. At the time it looked like Howard had made a terrible blunder.

In fact, it was a turning point in Australian political life, for it was a final assault against what remained of the ‘left’ wing of the Liberal Party, the small group who had found themselves christened, public-school style, the ‘Wets’. This endangered and largely herbivorous species – Ian McPhee, Peter Baume, Steele Hall, to name the most visible – was all that remained of the ‘social liberal’ stream that had been a major – perhaps a key – element in the Liberal Party from its founding at the end of World War Two. The social groups they had appealed to had defected in turn to the Australia Party, the Whitlam ALP and then the Democrats, and they had lived on in the 1970s Liberal Party largely by the grace of Malcolm Fraser, who had given them some protection as political insurance, and because he shared some of their ideas. Those more attracted to the ideas of the New Right were determined to do them down.

The penultimate battle was over the ALP’s Equal Opportunity Bill, much of it based on drafts and proposals floated by McPhee. Howard’s wholesale rejection of it was a clear statement that any form of liberalism with a critical position on society’s capacity to steer itself towards freedom and equality of opportunity – a liberalism that believed ‘choice’ could be defined as collectively choosing to change the framework within which individual choice takes place – no longer had a secure place in the party, and that the social policy terrain would be carved up between a small band of consistent liberals who believed in the primacy of the social contract and conservatives who favoured the continuance of fixed social roles. Hall voted with the government, Baume resigned from shadow cabinet and McPhee – who was in Melbourne at his dentist at the time of the vote – called to say he would have abstained if he had been there, and that was the end of Liberal Party I. Liberal Party II was kicked off by the repudiation of bipartisanship on immigration policy, a move that got out of control and knocked Howard himself out of contention. The return of Andrew Peacock – once the candidate of the Wets, now fresh from playing Cinderella to Joh’s fairy godmother – seemed like the ultimate repudiation and caused Howard to make his one recorded contribution to Australian political wit, the ‘Lazarus with a triple bypass’ observation of his own leadership chances in the ’90s.

In fact, it was the eventual making of him, because it was only in the context of such a narrowed party that he could eventually succeed as leader. The remaining stray Wets were seen off – Chris Puplick was dumped to an unwinnable spot on the NSW Senate ticket in favour of North Shore ice queen Bronwyn Bishop – and by the mid-1990s, the party was consolidated to such a degree that the definition of Liberal moderate now covered people such as Philip Ruddock. It was all a long way from the Menzies Liberal Party, which had been founded by people who are forgotten today – businessmen and ex-servicemen such as E.K. White and M.H. Anderson, who did much of the groundwork and party-building to create the organisation that is now widely believed to have emerged fully formed from Sir Robert’s brow. The idea of a Liberal party that motivated them and – to a lesser degree – Menzies himself, was one that distanced itself from its more narrowly defined predecessors such as the United Australia Party. It was unashamedly a party of social reconstruction, sharing with Labor the idea that there was a thing out there called ‘society’ to be grasped and moulded; it merely differed about what was to be done with it. Admittedly, Menzies, the political street-fighter and prime mover of the Communist Party Dissolution Bill, has always got more credit than he deserves for being a genuine social liberal, but there was that element in the party he led. But Menzies the adept political fixer was not the Menzies of today’s conservative mythologies, the ghostly embodiment of a pluralist centre-right party.

It is to this latter Menzies that John Howard swears fealty, and with whom he believes himself to be continuous. In pursuit of this link, Howard has described himself at various times as a liberal, a radical and a Burkean conservative. He argues that in attempting to fuse free-market economic liberalism with social conservatism he carries on the Menzies tradition.

In fact, he has been the disposer of it. The welcome departure of the Wets in 1988 gave Howard the sort of party he thought he really wanted – one much closer to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. With it, he eventually won power as a burnt-out and distracted Paul Keating stumbled to his end in 1996 – Howard’s victory was one practically no one could have failed to win. In five years he has pursued a virtually identical macroeconomic policy to that of his predecessor, while relentlessly hammering in an illusory picture of big-spending Labor. He has spoken incessantly of mateship, egalitarianism and unity while presiding over a widening of social divisions, both of outcome and opportunity. He has proclaimed the need for a unified and pluralist party of liberal-conservatives, while allowing a reactionary force to emerge to his right, laying waste to his Coalition partner in the process. He has alienated swathes of those liberal-minded high-income earners who might have been attracted to a pluralist party by dabbling with censorship, family boosterism and naive excursions into hard-wired citizenship such as the doomed preamble to the Constitution. He has held himself to be the champion of the ‘battler’ while introducing a tax that uniquely disadvantages small businesses in relation to large ones. He could have seized the moment – as, at crucial times, conservatives such as Nixon and Churchill did – to make an imaginative leap beyond the narrow confines of his own settled prejudices about race relations and the Republic.

In consequence of all of this, at the end of a sustained period of economic growth, and at a time when the Australian economy seems to be holding its head up rather better than comparable economies, he has brought his party to a point where only the bullying of a boatload of stateless people has allowed him the chance to retain power. In his era, his party has lost office in all but one State, and that is expected to fall as soon as its government goes to the people. It is a pretty stunning anti-achievement – less defeat from the jaws of victory than a political tracheotomy. He has retreated into his own ideology, his dream of Australia, forgetting – as Menzies would never have forgotten – that it was, in the last analysis, something for the punters. Like all conservative dreaming carried far enough, it has ended in reaction. That may yet save him. If it does, the Right will regroup and further transform itself. If, against the odds, the Liberals do go to the opposition benches, anything is possible, up to and including the greatest reconfiguration of conservative politics since the founding of the Liberal Party in 1944.


This is an extract from Guy Rundle's Quarterly Essay, The Opportunist: John Howard and the triumph of reaction. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


Guy Rundle is the author of the Quarterly Essay, The Opportunist – John Howard and the Triumph of Reaction. He as a co-founding editor of Arena, a magazine of political and social comment. Formerly a theatre critic for the Age, he has written and produced a number of TV programs and stage shows, and contributes regularly to the Age, the Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald and Spiked, and is currently a Crikey’s global correspondent-at-large.


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