What damage a dying government did

Wednesday, 10 December 2008 

Whereas the early phase of Industrial Relations Reform, say through to Waterfront, people could see a set of pre-conditions for those reforms existing, that is, yes our tax system is ageing or yes, our ports are grinding to a halt. There was no such, there was no pre-existing set of opinions or ideas like that with WorkChoices. Why are we doing this?

Mark Textor The Howard Years

Howard may have stuck his jaw out and pretended that WorkChoices was a political problem because it was a tough decision, like his other ‘tough’ decisions, but his pollster put his finger on it. The problem with WorkChoices was that it was irrelevant and signalled that the Howard government’s limited program had come to an end.

The last episode of what has been generally an unrevealing series did at least remind that there were two agendas going on in Howard’s last year in government. It was not just that the fading of the effectiveness of the War on Terror again revealed a government bereft of a programme as it was in its first term, but that all the symbols with which Howard had defined his government were turning against it in its core constituency. Rudd’s ascension accelerated not only Labor’s progress in the marginals, but was also eroding support in the Liberals metropolitan heartland.

That was why in 2007 the Liberals ran two campaigns; one for show that looked like the traditional election campaign focussed on the marginals and a less obvious real one to hold onto its heartland. So we had Howard the conviction politician doing U-turns on Hicks, WorkChoices, the Murray and even by the end, on reconciliation, while banging on relentlessly about the one issue that still had resonance with its base, the unions. Combined with a very ordinary Labor election campaign, the coalition’s tactics in the last year prevented a humiliating loss becoming a political catastrophe.

The strategy over the heartland was the only real political substance to the tiff between Howard and Costello, with Costello offering no way to win the election but at least adapting the program to less upset the voters in seats like Higgins and Wentworth. In the end, Howard’s U-turns and his still better popularity with Liberal voters were the political reality that meant Costello would never get support. Nevertheless the Howard Years stuck to the Liberal script that they only really lost because the leader was looking old against Rudd’s fresh face. Well, we have had two fresh-faced Liberal leaders since then and what a lot of good that has done them.

Other than shoring up the heartland, Howard still needed to find an issue to give the government purpose, or a ‘rabbit out of the hat’ as it was popularly known. The politically astute former Treasurer had his own way of putting the problem:

From midyear on we were dancing and skipping and asking the electorate to take a look at us, but they’d latched onto another act and it was the other act that had taken their imagination.

On 18 June 2007 that dancing and skipping by a desperate dying government hit a new low. The government seized on a report commissioned by the NT Labor government that made unproven claims of widespread child abuse by indigenous communities. Enter Mal Brough:

You stand in a community and you hear of 15 men that have committed the most heinous crimes, and there’s only 90 of them in the community. And you go back to that community and you hear of 10-15 year olds raping six year olds. I’m sorry. [Breaks to cry] And people think this shit’s not real.

Now given Mal’s tears, no one would like to claim that he is the lowest order of political hypocrite. It is just that there is this question; why did he not react when the evidence showed that this ‘shit’ wasn’t real? Namely that the 11,000 child health checks conducted in the year after the intervention led to no increase in the number of referrals of indigenous children and not a single arrest. Either the screening was ineffective and he should be up in arms at all those child abusers not being brought to justice or, far more likely, the incredible stories of widespread systemic child abuse that rose up around the Wild report were unbelievable because they simply weren’t true. If apologies are so in vogue, maybe here’s a chance to apologise to all those living now who have had such a slur made against them and clear their name, much like Lateline was forced to apologise to the parents of Mutitjulu over similar allegations that started the whole thing off two years ago.

Of course, no apology will be made because the net of those implicated in what happened last year is spread so wide. It wasn’t just the Coalition that went along with this beat-up, or the Labor party that supported the intervention. With friends like the indigenous communities had, they didn’t need enemies in the government. The high opinion these ‘allies’ of the indigenous communities actually had of them, was summed up in the program by long-time indigenous do-gooder Sue Gordon, who was drafted into the intervention:

You can’t have a community of two and three thousand people, or three hundred, without police. And then there’s anarchy running you know riot in your community. How the hell do you think you’d live?

As though any community, let alone an indigenous one, would start abusing their kids if the police weren’t there.

Under the Rudd government, the child abuse allegations have been quietly put to one side and it has all been turned into just a health and services issue. But the smell still lingers. A little recent whiff has come from the distasteful reaction from some quarters over what will happen when some of the Great Unwashed get their cash hand-out from Rudd’s fiscal stimulus. Not all were as lurid as that loveable maverick Barnaby Joyce:

It’s not going to be a boon, it’s going to be a disaster. With a big amount of money turning up at certain households at a certain day, we’ll see an increase in the effects of alcohol that can turn into assault, that can turn into rape, that can turn into the wasting of money, that can turn into the payment of drugs.

Tony Abbott, who coincidentally happens to be the (reluctant) opposition spokesman for indigenous affairs, put it more delicately:

I don’t begrudge families doing it tough this extra money. But certainly, there are very credible fears that at least some families, particularly in some areas, are gonna be spending this money on booze and gambling and so on, and that’s a pity.

Certain households, some areas. Now, who can they mean?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 10 December 2008.

Filed under The Australian state

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