The last gasp of old men

Saturday, 27 October 2007 

One of the many fascinating features of this election is to see the return of the former PM’s Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating to kick Howard as he goes down.

Especially amusing was to read Whitlam and Fraser launch an attack on Howard’s undermining of Westminster tradition of ministerial accountability. Give us a break. Didn’t Whitlam start off his government by-passing Westminster tradition, and the ministry, with a duumvirate of him and Barnard to enact some of the most critical decisions of his government? As for Fraser! The start of his government wasn’t even accountable to the House of Representatives, let alone the ministry. There can be no period of Australian history when Westminster conventions were tossed aside than when those two slugged it out in the very busy years of 1972 to 1975.

More poignant was Hawke and Keating defending the role of the union in recent weeks. It was especially interesting to see Keating do so in a launch for Greg Combet only a couple of months after boasting how in his time he got the unions in a headlock and pulled their teeth with the co-operation of the then ACTU chief Bill Kelty. At the launch Keating reminded everyone of Bill Kelty’s role by brandishing a cabinet note showing Kelty’s willingness to help government policy by keeping wage rises down. It was this sort of devotion to the Labor government, rather than the interest of union members, that led to the decline in membership in Keating’s day that was faster than Howard ever achieved. The union leadership was fatally compromised by their role under Hawke and Keating. If Keating is not seen as the great union-buster it is because of the willingness of the union leaders to do the job for him. Keating was less the executioner than the doctor assisting suicide.

There is no doubt that ministerial accountability has declined under Howard. But such accountability comes from below not above. Cabinet and its minsters normally represent real interest in society and it is pressures from those interests that force accountability on the ministers including the Prime Minister. Howard’s problem has been that the Liberals have come to represent less and less real interests in society. It no longer even represents business, as shown by Workchoices, an annoying piece of anti-union legislation that business has little interest in. This lack of representation has been evident in the vacuum in the Liberal leadership and is the secret in Howard’s’ tenure, not only in that a lightweight like Costello can be considered as a serious contender but the party’s inability to get rid of Howard once defeat became apparent.

When those responsible for winding up the union movement like Hawke and Keating and those great crashers through of convention like Whitlam and Fraser join to attack Howard for being mean to unions and not adhering to Westminster tradition, it suggests things are not what they seem. There is some displacement activity going on for sure, they are blaming Howard for things for which they are culpable. But it also reflects a clear difference between Howard and his predecessors. They all belonged to that post-Menzies project of turning the Australian state and government from a post-colonial hangover to a modern political entity that could encourage participation from home and command respect abroad. If there was one thing that isolated Howard in the years running up to taking power it was his lack of belief in that project. It was a view that was vindicated when what was supposed to be that project’s coronation, the republican referendum of 1999, turned into a fiasco. Howard’s problem is that he never managed to find an alternative as illustrated by his attempts to promote ‘aspirational nationalism’ (remember that?).

It was that key distinguishing feature of Howard’s politics that he referred to in his final back-to-the-womb comments in his last debate when he talked about Australians not being ashamed of their history. Unfortunately it had little to do with who was standing at the other end of the stage. The Mandarin is a bureaucrat par excellence, not a politician. He has much less interest in the traditions of parliament than Howard, he treated the Budget ritual with disdain and turns his back on Question Time. He has little interest in the political project that so absorbed his Labor predecessors and is likely to treat issues like the republic and indigenous affairs purely on their technocratic merits. His election will mark the end of a period begun with the ‘modernising’ elections of 1966 and 1969. When it happens, Howard will probably be the first to appreciate that the time when opinions of former PMs were indulged is over.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 27 October 2007.

Filed under Key posts, Political figures

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