Clinging to the wreckage

Monday, 1 December 2008 

It is understandable that Mumble’s Peter Brent has criticised The Howard Years as seeing the past through the prism of the present. Although without the benefit of a time machine, it is hard to see how it could be viewed in any other way. In reality it’s the present, rather than the history, that’s the problem. While the series is undoubtedly letting the Liberals re-write those early years of the government (only because the journalists like Fran Kelly seem to see it that way too), the problem is less how Howard gets away with being a conviction politician then, but how he gets away with being seen as one now.

What has not happened the way this blog thought might is the tearing up of the Howard legacy after he led his government to a resounding defeat. If anything, The Howard Years shows that he is revered by senior colleagues as much as ever. There has been a dumping of some his core policies, like Workchoices, a key idea of a government that had few, but it does not seem to have led to any reassessment of Howard. Howard is still being lauded as a conviction politician despite the way the party has distanced itself from much of what he had a conviction about. In fact it seems the more the Liberals ditch what they stand for, the more they cling to Howard the man, rather than what he was supposed to stand for.

There are probably two areas left now where there is still agreement on the right that Howard’s convictions were correct. The first is national security. It was interesting in The Howard Years to be reminded how Howard initiated the series of events in East Timor by his call to Indonesia for East Timor independence. Howard, whose government at the time was grasping at one issue after another to give the government a sense of purpose, promised to Downer that their letter to the Indonesian President would create a situation that would be ‘big’. But then after Habibie caught them off-guard by calling a referendum on Timorese autonomy, Howard was ready to leave the East Timorese swinging until the US pressured him to sort the mess out. The left may have not liked the interference in the affairs of Iraq and the right’s argument that troops should stay to sort out the mess they helped create in 2003, but they had already ceded both in principle in East Timor four years before.

Yet if Australia’s right to interfere in another country’s affairs has agreement across the political spectrum, there also appears to be unanimity that when it does, it is not with the commitment it likes to pretend. Just as Howard doesn’t like to talk about how the US forced him to commit to East Timor, so one of the Things That Cannot Be Mentioned in Australian politics is that the country’s military commitment to Iraq was never more than minuscule and inconsequential, even when pointed out eighteen months ago by the current President-elect. Rudd’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq is as irrelevant to what is happening on the ground as Howard’s commitment was in the first place.

The Howard government’s national security posturing is made possible by the political consensus. So also are its economic credentials – at least for now. Dennis Shanahan has followed up his earlier reports of mutterings from senior Liberals about Julie Bishop’s performance as the Liberals’ economic spokesman against what is supposed to be the Rudd government’s weak link. But he might also point out that her predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, didn’t exactly shine in the job either. In fact, if Andrew Robb’s performance on Insiders is any guide, her likely successor also doesn’t look much better. If Swan, Turnbull, Bishop and Robb are all floundering in the economic role, might there be a problem these days with the portfolio?

We may soon find out. The Howard government pretended for a decade that the budget surpluses were a result of a political strategy rather than the economic boom. It got away with it because neither side can admit that it is no longer really possible for any major political party to bring about fundamental economic reform. It has left economic debate narrowed down to nothing more than whether a government should or should not go into deficit and that suits the Liberals fine.

Based on the idea that Labor will be hamstrung if things do get worse, wise Liberal tactics would be to keep up their mantra about the deficit and blame Labor for departing from it when things go wrong. The problem is the last few days are raising a doubt that they can do this for long. The Rudd government may not have anything up its sleeve after the money runs out, but it is becoming a bit more obvious that the Liberals don’t either. Contrary to that believed by those who think nothing has changed in Australian politics over the decade, the election of a new Liberal Premier has not broken Rudd’s ‘new federalism’ but reaffirmed it. Last week’s CAOG meeting shows that the state governments have little to rely on than government hand-outs, whether Liberal or Labor. In doing so, Barnett has blown the gaffe on his federal party’s deficit ruse and probably his party’s last chance to score a point over the economy.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 1 December 2008.

Filed under The Australian state

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