Eleven years in power: Downer, Howard, Costello.
[UPDATE: John Howard's Liberal-National Coalition lost the Australian election on 23 November 2007. In a particularly satisfying result, Howard lost his own seat of Bennelong. Treasurer Peter Costello has stepped out of the new opposition leadership race. The end of a dark era in Australian politics.
Below is a pre-election recap of John Howard's long reign in Canberra]
The Howard government drastically accelerated the “free-market” reforms that were begun by Labor during the Hawke (1983-1991) and Keating (1991-1996) governments. This meant mass privatisation and deregulation, as well as the destruction of the existing Industrial Relations system. Union power has dwindled to the point where ‘union’ is now a dirty word to throw at the Labor Party. Howard’s economic model is essentially Thatcherist. Like Thatcher, he has had the long-time support of Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd. The difference in Australia is that we have an extremely concentrated news media; just one major daily newspaper in Sydney (the Herald) is not owned by Murdoch.
Socially, Howard has assumed the persona of a conservative traditionalist. He has interminably invoked a mythical Australianness through the imagery of Gallipoli, Don Bradman, and vague concepts such as “mateship.” He has adopted Geoffrey Blainey’s contemptuous expression “the Black Armband view of history” to attack those undermining the glory of Australia’s colonial past for its racial atrocities. This ‘man-of-the-people’ image has proved popular in contrast to Paul Keating’s perceived persona as a snob in favour of multiculturalism, the arts, native title rights, French clocks, etc. There is a widespread hatred in the community for what are called urban ‘latte-sipping’ or ‘the chardonnay-swilling elites’ (these days, those are the ‘elites’ with no power and no money). See Marian Sawer’s Financial Review essay on this phenomenon.
Much of Howard’s political success came in his response to the unexpected popularity of the independent MP Pauline Hanson, whose maiden speech in federal parliament was the big political story of 1996.
Hanson ranted about the supposed “privileges Aboriginals enjoy over other Australians.” She also said:
“I and most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed and that of multiculturalism abolished. I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1995, 40 per cent of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate. Of course, I will be called racist but, if I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say in who comes into my country.”
While much of the public was disgusted by Hanson’s fascistic politics, it turned out there was a large community of disenchanted working class voters receptive to such ideas. Another of Hanson’s appeals was her image as a renegade politician free of the spin that had made Australian politics entirely removed from everyday voters. Hanson launched a political party, One Nation, that did very well in the Queensland state election of 1998 (11 seats or 25% of the vote). It claimed 8.43% of the House of Representative vote in the 1998 Federal Election, although this did not win it any seats (the party won a single seat in the Senate).
Howard’s views on race and immigration had been controversial in the 1980s, and in the wake of Hanson’s success, his policies were able to explicitly capitalise on this apparent racist and xenophobic sentiment among some working class voters. We saw the freezing of the Aboriginal reconciliation process until it essentially disappeared from the public sphere. Asylum seekers were held in detention centres for years as their claims were (and in many cases are still being) ‘processed’. In the lead-up to the 2001 election, Howard refused to allow 400 Afghan refugees rescued by the Norwegian ship Tampa to land on Australian soil to claim asylum.
Refugees onboard the Tampa, 2001
Just after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States, Howard defamed another group of refugees by claiming they had thrown their children into the sea in an ruthless ruse to be rescued by the Australian Navy. Although this claim was highly dubious at the time (and later proven to be a complete fabrication), Howard’s hard line on “queue-jumpers” was a major component of his election victory. A Liberal Party slogan was: We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come. Howard’s explicit race politics effectively rendered One Nation an obsolete political force.
Of course, it makes no economic sense for the working class to have turned to Howard. But putting aside the racially-motivated vote of the Hansonites, the religion of aspirationalism has taken hold in much of the public imagination. People think of themselves on an even playing field that simply rewards hard work with material success. So it has been easier in this climate for Howard to push through his anti-worker reforms. In 1997 the government introduced a ‘Work For The Dole’ scheme (playing on the great Australian myth of the “Dole Bludger”). A regressive Goods & Services Tax (GST) was introduced in 2000. A “Welfare To Work” package in 2005 made it much more difficult to access welfare. A “Voluntary Student Unionism” bill was passed to destroy union-funded political activism on campus (VSU also had other, detrimental, consequences for students). And the radical “Work Choices” legislation undermines many decades of struggle to now favour the rights of employers over employees. It may be “Work Choices” that has finally lost Howard the working class swing votes he needs.
Howard and Bush, 16 May 2006
Perhaps the most shameful aspect of Howard’s reign is his complete concord with President George W. Bush on the so-called “War On Terror”. This led to our military involvement in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the basis of fradulent “Weapons of Mass Destruction” propaganda. The massive anti-war demonstrations of February 2003 signalled widespread public dissent but Howard managed reelection in 2004, surely in part because of Labor’s unpopular candidate Mark Latham.
Howard is the only Prime Minister in Australian history to run a campaign promising not to stay for a full term. If he wins tomorrow he will hand over to Peter Costello mid-term.
Deception and outright lies have been a constant in the Howard years. Right now the Liberals are under attack for a shameless attempt at ‘ratfucking’: distributing fraudulent political leaflets from the fictional ‘Australian Islamic Federation’ in one Sydney electorate “implying the Labor opposition supports terrorism” (BBC News Story). Here is a PDF copy of the leaflet itself. David Marr at the Herald writes of this event in the content of the Howard Government’s long-term race politics.
The polls are showing a Labor victory. I’m cautiously optimistic this is the end of Howard. Kevin Rudd has played the campaign very safe and boring. He’s socially and economically conservative. Perhaps that is what is needed to win. But I have some worry he will ape Tony Blair and lead the Labor Party further to the right to trample all over the Liberal’s ground and render them a spent political force. Why shouldn’t I be worried? Even Murdoch’s philistine Daily Telegraph is now backing Labor.
Still, my recommendation is to vote Labor in the House of Representatives and Greens #1 above the line for the Senate: (Greens Website).