When did John Howard become boring?

Tuesday, 26 October 2010 

No one should take Howard’s commentary of contemporary politics seriously. He lost touch with the electorate a very long time ago.

Karlbitar Twitter 25 October

When did John Howard become boring? Not the usual suburban-lawyer-nasal-whine-pseudo-Thatcherite-real-Australian-values type of boring that we all know. But the world-historical passing-of-the-zeitgeist type of boring.

In introducing Howard last night on Q&A, Tony Jones said his memoir was “making waves”. But he was just being polite. It isn’t really. The highlight is supposed to be reliving the Costello-Howard ding-dong. It was tedious enough the first time, it’s hardy igniting the airwaves in 2010.

Something has happened in the last three years. Last night’s Q&A was a dispiriting affair. We had the same old dreary left-right pantomime of the Howard period being played out once again. It was neatly summed up by the shoe-throwing, a derivative and lame bit of histrionics that captured the tone of most of the questions being asked from the floor.

Howard called his book Lazarus Rising to refer to what is the most mystified aspect of his career that spellbound his followers, and most of his opponents, all the way to his defeat – his seeming unending resilience. Yet there is very little discussion about how it actually was that Howard, a second-rate and fairly unsuccessful politician of the 1980s, managed to return in the following decade to dominate the political scene. Some people talk of his changed language, his toning down of his right-wing views, even his clipping of the eyebrows, to explain how much he had changed. But he hadn’t much, the Howard of 1996 – 2007 was pretty well the same one of the previous decade.

What really allowed Howard to rise from the political dead after the 1980s was not any change in Howard himself. The real thing to change from the 1980s to his period in office after 1996 was the decline in the Labor party and the exhaustion of its programme. It was the ability to take political advantage of this that was the secret to his success and we saw it again last night.

The myth of the Howard battlers, those supposed normally Labor voting skilled manual workers who were switching to Howard (but who curiously never seemed to live in traditional Labor seats), encapsulated the way Howard could play with the heads of a Labor party becoming increasingly insecure and detached from its traditional base. Even if this was more a ruse than electoral reality, and Labor held on to its core seats pretty well during the Howard years, especially after 1998, it helped to undermine an increasingly self-absorbed party struggling to answer the question, what is it for?

It became mutually reinforcing. To answer the question what is it for, the left ended up finding only one answer, not Howard! Being anti-Howard became a useful substitute for standing for anything particular on its own, and Howard the right-wing bogeyman was born. Howard of course loved it, because it made him seem like he stood for something. It was something he played up to the hilt in the 2007 election when he said “like me or loathe me at least you know what I stand for”, without ever having to explain too hard what exactly that was.

The favours the left do for Howard was repeated last night and gave an opportunist politician a veneer of someone principled enough to bear the slings and shoes of whatever his opponents could throw at him. For the left to do this of course, it involved a highly selective memory with the time span of a 12 year old. So we had innocent sweet things being ashamed about the anti-refugee legacy Howard left, blissfully unaware of Keating’s legacy of mandatory detention camps that he left. We had some attempt at ancient history with questions about Howard growing up with the White Australia Policy, something Howard could easily bat away given that the Coalition dumped it well before Labor and those “cheap labour”-hating unions did. They even put him up against the dumbest cause célèbre of the Howard years, our hometown boy who bravely went off to Pakistan to fight the international Jewish conspiracy. In that little world of Q&A, Howard ended the night looking more relevant than ever.

But meanwhile, outside in reality, that is not the case. Where Howard was finally caught out was when Rudd broke away from the old left-right framework and, being uninterested in the left’s project to save itself, was able to call a halt to the pretence (helped of course by the international pretence running its course as well). While Rudd was portrayed by the press as a mini-Howard, it was only because they thought there was content to the areas that Rudd changed tack to align with Howard. So on areas like the economy, the US alliance, even on the racially different treatment of indigenous communities, which always lay behind Labor’s support of land rights, Rudd drained the disagreements of any pretence of substance. What Rudd did do that was counterposed to Howard, was to undermine and expose the hollowness of Howard’s symbols, most notably on the apology and climate change.

The Rudd experiment of running against his own party is over, but there has not been a reversion to the past. If anything that tension against Howard has completely gone because Gillard Labor accepted the premise of Howard’s argument and Labor has accepted that the left is dead.

The Labor left are being cannibalised by the Greens just as the Nationals are being eaten away by the independents at the other end of the spectrum. Cameron’s call for Labor MPs to be allowed the freedom to break from the party line, which used to be insisted on by the left to keep right-wing “rats” under check, just shows how bad it is for the left to get their agenda across inside the party. Their state is probably best summed up by the argy-bargy the most senior member of the Labor left, their leader, is having with the right-wing ALP to water down worker health and safety standards.

Yet there is no resolution here. Karl Bitar says that Howard’s agenda has little relevance to the electorate today. He should know. He spent the last few months trying to re-run Howard’s agenda and it got him and the Labor leadership nowhere. In being terribly right-wing and “real” they have taken on all the delusions of the left over the last decade, i.e. that Howard had a grip on the Australian electorate and its values. Having tried that, Labor is left with not very much at all and now has to sit and watch its primary vote slowly melt away.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 26 October 2010.

Filed under Political figures

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8 responses to “When did John Howard become boring?”

  1. john Willoughby on 26th October 2010 8:21 am

    Howard still thinks he’s the embodiment of all things Australian and the sad truth is on the strength of the last
    electoral showing and the cringeworthy Q&A last night he may be right. Lazarus didn’t rise he was a latter day zombie.

  2. James on 26th October 2010 11:02 am

    Shrike, if it’s melting away for Labor then where is it going to wash up for them? Will it result in the Coalition returning to power for another long time or will this so-called new paradigm actually create a lasting legacy that sees the two-party system permanently dissolve? If so, what will we be left with?

  3. DrFriendless on 26th October 2010 3:41 pm

    The two party system has already melted away, as Labor and the Libs have decomposed into a big pile of mushy sameness. With any luck, yes, this system will dissolve. Labor’s left is itching to be represented, the Nationals must be sick of wearing suits and ties, and Julia and Tony really want to be in the same party anyway. The people are turning to the Greens as the only real left party going. Something’s got to break, the old dividing lines are fading away, new ones are appearing, and the old parties can’t react to the change.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 26th October 2010 8:47 pm

    This is the culmination of a long process, temporarily suspended by the War on Terror. So although it has taken a step change with the defeat of Howard and the fall of Rudd, both adept (in their own ways) of propping it up, I don’t think it is going anywhere too soon.

    One benefit is compulsory preferential. The other is that both parties have an interest in seeing the other propped up, as does the media. So I think Hartcher’s comments on Nielsen were running too far ahead.

  5. adamite on 26th October 2010 8:49 pm

    ‘Gorge rising’ would be a better description of the effect of seeing ‘little Johny’ on the box again – a mediocre leader who sacrificed any real political achievement to empty, populist driven politics. His criticism of Costello just draws attention to the fact that the Howard Government in general largely failed to achieve any significant reforms comparable with those realised (arguably to its own electoral cost) by the preceding Labor Government.

  6. Al. on 27th October 2010 12:10 pm

    Aagh ! ‘Coco the clown’ (why doesn’t he either get a wig, or shave those side chops off ? ) … his nasally voice, the snivelling little …… he’s now (currently) promoting his book / legacy at the National Press club.

    Will they present him a pair of shoes two (I doubt). Interestingly, somebody had ‘tweeted’ throw some shoes NOW …. on that Q& A just some minutes before that happened. Did the audience have access to that, I wonder ?

  7. Al. on 27th October 2010 12:18 pm

    Oops .. that should have been ‘shoes too’. ^

    Interestingly, he started off saying something like he was dismayed how the public hold pollies in low regard, when he sees it as a ‘noble profession’. I think his ‘never ever’ statement, is just one of many reasons why …

  8. James on 29th October 2010 9:07 am

    The shoes provided great publicity for his book, as did Costello’s latest attack. The thrown shoes evoked the weakness of the mainstream media: their pack struggles to move beyond the one narrative regarding an issue or person at a given time. They justify it with “but that’s the story”, which reflects a limitation of thought and work culture, to the nation’s loss.

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