Tonight we do have to answer an important question.
What explains the Howard decade of success and what will cause him to fail?
Answering this question requires us to be clear eyed, at our most analytical.
Much of the conventional progressive analysis of Howard and his success has lacked clarity.
It was hoped if we derided John Howard as a 1950s throw back, Australia would reject him.
It was hoped if people woke up to his use of the politics of fear, Howard
It was hoped if Howard was derided as divisive, that he would be repudiated.
But these strategies have failed.
Our analysis needs to drive deeper and that is our task tonight.
To say John Howard wants to turn the clock back to the 1950s is to misunderstand him and to underestimate the damage he has done.
Stultifying as many found the fifties to be, it was a decade when Australia began to embrace the vibrancy the wider world had to offer. Record numbers of immigrants enhanced the complexity of our cultural lives.
Work started on the Sydney Opera House, with its radical – even revolutionary design. It was a decade of public works projects embodied in the Snowy Mountains Scheme, and a decade of militancy from organised labour. And it was the decade when Australians rejected cold war fear-mongering and refused to ban the Communist Party.
This is not John Howard’s 1950s.
Howard’s 1950s is a two-dimensional vision, as simplistically coloured as a child’s picture book, of the white knights of benevolent businessmen battling Howard’s childhood bogeymen – unions and organised labour.
John Howard is busy harming Australian workers as he fights the ideological battles that occupied the toy soldiers of his childhood.
Certainly, John Howard hankers for the mono-cultural world he remembers, of white picket fences shielding white families. But he is too smart to believe he can recreate this Australia.
However, he is smart enough to understand the political potency of this image, this stylised representation of security and simplicity, for change weary, anxious Australians.
I suspect John Howard pursues the culture wars with such vigour because he it enables him to parade this image again and again with his name up in lights next to it.
Fear and Division
John Howard once famously said the times would suit him.
Indeed they have.
He has left his mark on our times and our times have left their mark on him.
Today’s John Howard is not the error prone Prime Minister who in his shaky first term lost 7 Ministers in various scandals, while Pauline Hanson flamed across the political sky, stirring up simmering resentments about race and welfare recipients.
Indeed, John Howard went close to being a one term wonder with his competence in question and division on his right.
Today’s John Howard is not the same John Howard who spent the first half of 2001 clawing back after the Shane Stone ‘mean and tricky’ memo.
Today’s John Howard has learned the lessons of these times.
And today’s John Howard has gained the advantage given to incumbents when the world is plunged into insecurity.
But the spectacular degeneration of the global security environment gave John Howard something more than other incumbents.
First, it increased the number of trump cards in his strong suit of fear and division. Secondly, it allowed John Howard to portray himself as a ‘father figure’, above and beyond politics, as he led the nation in mourning at the time of the Bali bombing due to the weakness of Peter Hollingworth as Governor-General.
This has been a potent mix and it has been no answer for us to chant ‘don’t be afraid’.
In an age of fever pitch change in everything from the economy to technology to cultural composition and norms, in a world of terrorism, a hankering for simplicity and certainty, a clutching for family and friends and a tendency to fear are all understandable.
Labor and progressive forces have sometimes derided the fear of change and sometimes embraced it.
Neither reaction is right.
Our world will continue to change. But unlike John Howard’s simple white picket fence imagery and tendency to tap the well of fear, Labor can offer a vision of the future that embraces change but moderates its harsher and most destabilizing impacts. A vision of the future based on values that endure, despite change.
Fighting on Values
To end the Howard Government, we have to understand the reasons for its success to date and the underlying attitudes of our community.
Then we have to stand and fight for our values. We cannot shy away from the so-called “culture wars” out of fear of being “wedged” by right-wing caricatures of Labor values.
While fighting for our values, we have to expose the true values of the Howard Government, the values it lives by as opposed to the values it spruiks.
At his recent Australia day address Howard declared the importance of what he called “the common values that bind us together as one people”, that provide “social cohesion”.
Among those values he listed “a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need” and “respect for the rule of law”. He also spoke of the importance of all Australians being part of the mainstream of our national life.
Yet in breathtaking irony, that very praise of tolerance and cohesion was framed as a corrective to too much “ethnic diversity”.
My first thought was, how dare he? How dare he imply that not being Anglo-Saxon casts doubt on an Australian’s respect for the rule of law or compassion for those in need? How dare he take the great Australian value of a fair go and twist it to serve his rhetoric of division?
How dare he?
He dares because the decade he has been in power has been a decade in which the values John Howard praises, the values his simple imagery invokes, have been uncoupled from the policies he puts in place.
How else could a Prime Minister who has presided over a widening gap between rich and poor praise egalitarianism?
How else could he talk of the importance of respect for the rule of law from the middle of the AWB scandal?
How else could he talk of compassion after his then Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock, referred to a child suffering psychological disintegration in detention as “it”?
How else could he talk of fair play while watching basic health and dental care slide further and further out of reach for needy Australian families?
And when breadwinners can be sacked for no reason, all working families are at risk of being in need.
And how else could John Howard talk of the importance of social cohesion and participation in the mainstream when his government’s policies make participation a pipe-dream for many Australians?
There is a huge gap between the values John Howard claims and the values his government’s policies demonstrate. Values aren’t something you put on a badge and pin on your lapel. Nor something you put on a sign that sits on the lectern from which you deliver your speeches.
We show our values in our actions. And the gap between Howard’s claimed values and his values in action is a chasm.
The chasm shows in the Howard Government’s Medicare Safety net. The rhetoric was “Strengthening Medicare”, delivered through the highly stylised multi-million dollar campaign design to convince us that John Howard cared about a universal health system.
The policy was meant to help people struggling with their out of pocket health care costs, people who have high health care needs, people with a chronic illness who need to access care on an ongoing basis.
But the reality is a very stark contrast. The policy has fuelled heath inflation, particularly in the areas of obstetrics, which accounts for almost 40 per cent of the Medicare safety net expenditure.
And the safety net has provided very cushy comfort for those with better health outcomes and higher incomes who are getting greater access to the safety net rebates. Just ask Malcolm Turnbull, Brendan Nelson and Joe Hockey – not to mention Tony Abbott’s own constituents, who have raked in millions of dollars of safety net payments while the poorest have missed out.
So while the rhetoric was designed to placate the electorate’s concern about the erosion of Medicare, the reality is that the majority of safety net rebates are going to the worried well, the well paid one-off health consumer, not the middle or lower income chronic illness sufferer, trying to manage their diabetes, or asthma, or arthritis or depression.
The values that support John Howard’s so-called safety net are values of unfairness, division and exclusion.
The Howard Government rhetoric on health has set up a fake division between the public health system and the private health system when the country needs both. In undermining our public health system, he undermines the idea that there are some institutions in society which are important to each of us and about which we all care. Every policy aimed at splitting Australians into ever smaller groups, sharing neither hospitals nor social services, is a policy that weakens our community and our nation.
Where is the egalitarianism, the social cohesion, in that?
I am angry at John Howard’s hijacking of the Australian values that are at the heart of the labour movement, the values that have shaped my life and my work.
But I am heartened by the fact that, wily politician as he is, Howard feels the need to disguise his real preoccupations with terms like “egalitarian”, “fair play”, “compassion” and “tolerance”. A decade of effort, and John Howard and his government have not managed to eradicate the fundamental fairness in the Australian character. The fair go is still at the heart of who we are.
Wrapping himself in a rhetorical flag is a useful weapon for the Prime Minister. It lets him caricature his opponents as unAustralian. And for those of us who live in the sound-bite news-cycle, it makes it seem safer to play a dead bat on the culture wars.