New myths for old

Friday, 24 July 2009 

Liberal Rule is a shocker and a disgrace.

Gerard Henderson 21 July 2009

Hopefully SBS slipped Gerard Henderson a bundle for the promo, as surely the nation rushed to their TVs on Tuesday night to eagerly lap up the first instalment of anything he would find a ‘shocker’. According to Henderson, Liberal Rule showed that left-wing pundits had won the cultural war during the Howard government, which is funny because anyone who read Henderson during the Howard government would have thought the left had lost it. How else to explain the Man of Steel’s equally steely grip on the nation?

Henderson thinks it is likely that the Liberals who participated in Liberal Rule might have thought it was going to be similar to Labor in Power, also by the same makers. But why should it? The Hawke/Keating government was one of high drama as the party set about dismantling the core of the party’s programme to save the economy in the ALP’s last service to the nation. The Liberals in contrast rarely ascend above farce whether in opposition or government. Blessed with one of the western world’s weakest right-wing political agendas, it has always historically been left to Labor to do the business.

Unlike the dreary The Howard Years, Liberal Rule did at least give us the perspective to appreciate that. So we had Fraser, breaking every political convention to gain power and then with no ability to do anything with it. This was followed by years of shoulda-woulda-coulda while the Liberals watched Labor do everything they dreamed of, and then when the dreg of the 1980s Liberal leadership merry-ground did finally have his turn, once Labor had burnt itself out, there was nothing left to do. As we were again reminded, Howard had to do a back-flip on the GST to fill the gaping hole, something they got away with once everyone found that Labor’s scare campaign was exactly that, and that what would turn out to be the Howard government’s biggest economic reform was, in the end, no big deal.

That the GST saved Howard by filling an empty agenda, rather than threatening his government, is now generally accepted. But it was only few years ago that the GST was seen as just one example of why Howard was a conviction politician. Liberal Rule shows how much of the myth of Howard as a conviction politician has begun to unravel in the last couple of years. With the help of his former Treasurer, Howard is being increasingly viewed as someone who took the easy decisions at a time of economic boom.

While The Howard Years largely perpetuated the Liberal myths of the Howard government, the idea in Liberal Rule that Howard sat on his hands while the mining taxes rolled in, is mostly Labor’s and it is understandable that Henderson might be upset (plus the fact that the editors seemed to think he was fit to appear only once in the first programme). Then, somewhere near the end of the first episode, something else started to creep in.

The second half of the program emphasises how much Howard benefited from the mining boom to keep him in power. The only problem with that thesis is that it has to explain why he lost it in 2007. So what we get is the idea that there began to be something ‘rotten’ about all the prosperity. Fade up ominous sounding music as we tour large newly built houses with their eaves touching, a sure sign that we are looking at lower middle class Australians spending beyond their means. Naturally each house has that dreaded symbol of the arriviste, the plasma TV. With Australians up to their eyeballs in debt, the interest rate rises in 2007 spelt the government’s doom.

What a lot of nonsense. Using crude economic determinism to explain election wins doesn’t work for Howard’s first two election wins in 1996 and 1998 for a start (nor Keating’s win in 1993). Secondly, it doesn’t explain what happened in 2007. The rising interest rates had less impact on the electorate, where support for Labor remained remarkably strong and stable from the moment Rudd took the leadership, and more to do with a media slowly getting to grips with the defeat of the government during an economic boom. Polling at the time showed that the percentage of voters who thought rising interest rates were Howard’s fault barely reached double figures, with the vast majority believing it to be out of the hands of any government, a hollowing out of the economic debate that has surely been confirmed by the way the current government has avoided any fall-out from the economic downturn. The interest rate issue was always more a focus for anti-political claims the government was out of touch than a real issue in the electorate.

It is not just the media who had an interest in pushing this line, however. It is possible some Liberals might find it a more palatable reason for explaining the 2007 defeat than the more disturbing conclusions exposed by the chaos that has engulfed the Liberals since then. Howard’s former Chief of Staff Arthur Sinodinos tried it on, but kept getting tangled with the simple fact that Australians had still never been better off:

In the government’s final years, there were so many stresses and strains around, rising costs of living, emerging debt pressures. People did feel that even though they were much better off than they had been in, say, 1996, they were really feeling the pressures of coping with every day life.

But other commentators on the program clearly revelled in the theme of the evils of rising debt, The Age’s Ross Gittins, for example:

Politicians on both sides stood back and said this is great, this is what’s supposed to happen under capitalism and they weren’t really looking down the track that says maybe this will end in tears for a lot of people. We’re starting to see the tears flowing now.

This gets to the real point of the series. It is not about the past but about now. The difference between the Howard myths in The Howard Years and their unravelling under Liberal Rule is not new archive footage from the time but the global financial crisis in the meantime that has led to a moralising of the economy and re-think of what happened under the Howard government. The clear implication is that Australians have been living beyond their means. Take note, when you hear Donald Horne’s Lucky Country being invoked, hold on tightly to your wallets, it usually means that someone thinks you haven’t deserved what you’ve got and going by the program, clearly some of our brightest don’t.

The program has some good archive footage. It was nice to be reminded, for example, that Howard called Labor’s last hugely popular Prime Minster a phoney as well. Of course, this flatly contradicts what he said in the extended interview for the series when he pontificates that for any PM to survive for any length of time they must have conviction (who? Whitlam? Keating?). The reality is that to survive, no Australian politician can reveal his full hand. Hawke couldn’t spell out what he really had planned for those working people whose incomes stagnated under his watch, nor could Howard reveal that he didn’t really have any plans at all. Now both sides are being forced to manage the fact that they are running on empty and that Rudd is left with nothing but a morality play to fill the gap where a counter-crisis strategy should be. It might be that it doesn’t matter and we are not in a lull between the global banking crisis becoming a global fiscal crisis and that indeed the worst is now over and growth will resume. If so, why are some of our brightest talking austerity?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 24 July 2009.

Filed under Media analysis

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3 responses to “New myths for old”

  1. Steve on 24th July 2009 10:24 am

    As I said on another website, until people understand the 2007 result we can never understand the political narrative between 1996 and 2007. Maybe John Howard was never really popular or a conviction politician. Maybe he got a bit lucky and he managed his hand well. As Labor has moved to the centre, the voting demographics have also been moving towards them as well. Maybe people voted to get rid of Keating in 1996, maybe people voted down the GST in 1998 but didn’t trust Labor to Govern. Maybe the electorate moved to the right in 2001 after September 11 against the trend, and maybe Labor moved too far to the left in 2004. Maybe Labor won in 2007 because they moved back to the centre, Rudd is actually a popular leader, and Howard actually tried to implement his rightwing agenda and the electorate rejected it.

  2. RalphC on 24th July 2009 11:04 am

    Another interesting analysis, as usual. I suspect that it may be a little while yet before the Australian public can digest what took place in the Howard years and what it meant to them. In the meantime, it’s pretty clear there is no real agenda going on, except for perhaps climate change. This is where I find it interesting. Labor has a chance to run with the cause of climate change and make it their own. I suspect the nation is just sitting back and waiting for them to do it. But Rudd & co can’t figure out how to do it or who they really want to please. So as a result we get what looks like a limp-wristed government with absolutely no conviction. Fortunate for Labor that the Liberals look even more so.

  3. Ricc on 25th July 2009 10:12 pm

    Two great developments today:

    Rudd does a six page essay for Fairfax (and lets it be known he hates News) on the evils of neo-con capitalism. Annabel Crabb does an ironic piece on how Rudd is doing her out of a job – her thesis might be more true than she realises.

    Turnbull’s lackeys put it about that it will be wonderful thing for Tuckey and other coalition people to cross the floor against him. I love it – its a good thing for a leader when his party won’t do as they are told.

    The Libs in Opposition: the gift that keeps on giving.

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