Howard’s Golden Age

Monday, 20 August 2012 

Who thinks Howard was right all along? Is division seriously required?

You do have to wonder why Abbott is talking about reviving Howard’s Golden Age. Aren’t we there already? After all, when was there ever less criticism or scrutiny of Howard’s agenda?

A bizarre complacency has descended on the media after the government’s adoption of (some of) the proposals from the committee of “experts” on asylum seekers. It is true that the government has finally got House agreement on a policy. But it is hardly “resolved” as the media claims. It may have been on the floor of the House, but meanwhile back in reality, both sides of the House have now descended into a fantasy land that leaves them even more detached from the political reality they both find themselves in. Labor remains very much in the firing line, but the Coalition is not far behind.

Just how much fantasy the political class is now wrapped up is summed by an article published on Friday bemoaning the decline in Australian governance by, er, Godwin Grech. Grech’s call for Howard to return as G-G, with Abbott as his parliamentary consort, is naturally framed almost wholly in terms of what would be best for the Coalition, something to be expected from an archetypal beltway insider whose internal machinations on behalf of the Liberals consisted of making up conspiracies and emails to bring down the Labor government.

But the premise of the internalised fantasy world of Grech has now become orthodoxy as shown both from Abbott’s speech in Adelaide on Saturday and the belief by the government, and the media, that the adoption of Howard’s Pacific Solution will somehow solve anything.

It’s worth recalling that if it wasn’t for the War on Terror there was no Howard Golden Age, at least politically. Howard came in with no agenda and then found out, as politicians do, that what seemed a tactic was actually unpleasant necessity, with his first term being such a flop that he ended with what was the lowest first term vote since Scullin (and still is). The first term was when the malaise in both parties took its most tangible form in the rise of One Nation from the state where the two-party system has historically been weakest.

In Howard’s second term , his government sunk even further to clock up the worst ever polling recorded for a Coalition government. The claw back from the lows of early March 2001 against an uninspiring opposition was helped by back-flips for which the Man of Steel was becoming adept, but what swung it decisively the Coalition’s way was, of course, 9/11 a few weeks before the 2001 poll. As with governments around the world, a panic about security naturally benefited the incumbent government that could best provide it. Even though, Howard’s re-election with a less than a 2% swing and only two seats changing hands from the lousy 1998 base was hardly a landslide compared to what other governments were getting at the time.

Despite the obvious impact 9/11 had on the 2001 election, as any glance at the polls of the time will show, it will be forever air-brushed out and known as the Tampa election instead, because it suits both sides of the political class to think of it that way. Labor will want to believe it was because of a high-minded attitude to Tampa, despite not having it (Beazley fully backed Howard’s SAS storming of the ship) and that Howard had irresponsibly touched the dark side of the electorate. The Liberals, no doubt with a more flattering spin, would also like to think so.

Likewise national security was air-brushed out of the 2004 election as well and to be all about interest rates; forgetting that Howard’s “who do you trust” election launch started with national security and that the turning point down for what had been until then the most popular opposition leader in decades began in March 2004 with Latham’s unilateral promise to bring the troops home by Christmas. While Labor could console itself by putting the 2001 loss down to racism, the 2004 loss could be put down to greed (Latham’s subsequent crack-up was also reassuring).

Howard’s electoral success in 2001 and 2004 then, have been totally framed not by what actually happened but what is most comforting for both parties in decline, especially Labor, but also an insecure right that could believe it still has a hold on the electorate. The re-writing of the Pacific Solution has occurred for pretty well the same reasons.

There is nothing from the experience of the Pacific Solution to suggest that it will either prevent deaths at sea nor stop the boats (how did the 1600 plus detainees at Nauru and Manus get there? Fly?). But then it was never meant to. Howard’s Pacific Solution was not about stopping the boats (in fact TPVs probably did the opposite) but to show that “we will decide”. It was an act of bravado by a political class at a time of national security panic to show that it was still in control by being able to divert boats away from Australia’s shores. Never mind that most of their occupants eventually ended up in Australia anyway, and that it only just served to add to the misery of those who came. As long as the political class felt good about themselves, that was the main point.

When it became about saving lives and stopping people smugglers was when the bravado faded with the War on Terror and it was depoliticised under Rudd and Evans into the humanitarian charade it is today. But that this humanitarian angle required its depoliticising has been totally forgotten. It’s why we have a policy that only as a piece of political bravado at a time when it was possible, now pretending to be something it is not, a humanitarian measure. No wonder the Coalition is already distancing itself from the results.

It’s an example of how, if the 2001 and 2004 elections have been air-brushed out of history, the 2007 election and the immediate years following seem to have totally dropped out of the national narrative. Did Howard really lose the election and even his seat? Not only that, did he really lose to someone who proposed to water down the asylum seeker regime, along with over-turning and de-politicising all those other totems with which Howard was supposed to tap into the electorate: by apologising to the stolen generation, signing Kyoto and threatening the hip-pocket nerve by ending “reckless spending” and proposing an ETS that people were then prepared to pay for? Not only that, did the Prime Minister who did all these things end up being so popular that it forced the Coalition to do the same, even abandoning the Pacific Solution? Can anyone remember that?

The de-politicising during 2008-2009 has been forgotten as much as the reason for the popularity for the man who did it. The agendas of the major parties, and its acceptance by the media, that remains in their thrall, has turned back to the orthodoxies of the Howard period because it gives them the best way to carry on their argy-bargy now. It has not restored their popularity of course, nor let them relate to the electorate at even Howard’s level, let alone the one who replaced him. Indeed they are now looking to be more detached than ever and, if the current Punch and Judy show carries on, as it looks as though it will to the next election, the public will likely get an outcome even more unappetising than what they got at the last. But then, it doesn’t really matter what the electorate thinks, as long as the parties feel good about themselves.

And isn’t that the main thing?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 20 August 2012.

Filed under State of the parties

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16 responses to “Howard’s Golden Age”

  1. dedalus on 20th August 2012 6:23 pm

    It’s the main thing for a cynic, but if we’re being serious the way the electorate thinks next year is pretty damn important. Of course all partisans would say that.

    But I’m glad you pointed out that the residents of Nauru didn’t get there by Qantas. This is such an obvious refutation of Morrison’s “we stopped the boats” baloney that it’s amazing it hasn’t been pointed out to death by Bowen. Of course he couldn’t, seeing that Labor is addicted to acquiescing to Liberal myths.

    Totally agree that the war on terror saved Howard’s bacon. You didn’t mention why he won in the first place though, or why he lost at the end. The “it’s time” factor. Gough Whitlam’s old slogan – the truest cliche of them all.

  2. kymbos on 20th August 2012 8:11 pm

    Despite the fact that you’ve been banging on about this for years now, it is still refreshing to read your take on this. That is probably due to the dearth of objective analysis in this space outside of a few lonely voices in the blogosphere. What. The. Fuck.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 20th August 2012 8:57 pm

    I always think “It’s Time” is one of the more ironic reasons given for a change of government, given that the original one came after 23 years of Coalition rule. That’s a pretty wide swing of the pendulum! The exhaustion, and desperation, is almost palpable in what must be one of the most defensive campaign slogans of all time.

    No, I think what did Howard in was the fading effect of the War on Terror, as shown by his disastrous remarks on Obama and the Haneef affair. It robbed his cultural war of the little content it had and, while even Beazley could have won in 2007, there was no one better to take advantage of the end of the argy-bargy than an anti-politics technocrat like Rudd. Still isn’t.

    I think the electorate is counting increasingly less in the political process. Neither of the main parties would have the leaders they currently have if that wasn’t the case. Both the leaders and the policies they came in with were less popular than the ones they replaced. They look increasingly likely to stay not because the public wants them but because they have become adept at making the parties feel (reasonably) good about themselves and, in Australian politics in 2012, that really is the main thing.

  4. dedalus on 21st August 2012 8:09 am

    Fair enough, Pipe. The long Menzies reign may seem like a refutation of the “it’s time” theory, so I’ll concede to your argument on that – but only to a degree. For that unduly long stint still conforms to a pattern of sorts.

    Consider: labor ruled throughout the forties, and Menzies’ ascension would fit in with an electorates intuition that it was now “the other’s” time.

    So why then would the liberals reign for over twenty years?

    This has been explained by many as the result of the communist scare and the DLP split.

    Eventually these ran their courses, and Whitlam’s victory in 72 re-established the cyclical nature of 2 party power sharing.

    The real anomaly, in my view, was Fraser’s victory. But manybe it was not so much an anomaly as the result of a dirty trick. Certainly, unique circumstances were at play.

    In any case the main pattern then reimposed itself. Hawke/Keating followed by Howard/Costello is, no matter how you look at it, a classic tweedle dee / tweedle dum scenario in terms of dumbed-down voter perceptions. Bit similar to GOP/democrat my turn / your turn politics in the US.

    On my back-of-the-table-napkin analysis, Gillard’s team is due for a third term next year.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 21st August 2012 8:33 am

    Hold on to that napkin. They may need it.

  6. dedalus on 21st August 2012 5:38 pm

    The libs can get their own napkin.

  7. Graeme on 21st August 2012 11:18 pm

    Wot, no one has quoted U2 on Golden Ages and the Wars we Wage?

    I admire your insights into the under-spoken influence of global affairs on local politics.

    For me though the irony of ‘Howard’s Golden Era’ (aside from the obvious bankrupty it reveals in ‘Abbottism’ as well as the modern Howard lite Labor party) is that we are now living the economic subduedness – and globally the economic stuntedness and recession – of that fake gold of cheap credit and asset bubbles. Though Australia missed the bullet the US and Europe are paralysed by, we still have such high household debts that there’s no miracle way out of it bar a slow generational aversion to debt and credit and the difficulties for growth an overeaction brings.

    ps – I have to cavill with the cynicism about ‘It’s Time’. You can’t divorce that slogan from the vibe, the songs and the platform. Labor 72 had a broad and regenerative mandate. Other variants on the theme have merely been ‘It’s My Turn’.

  8. James on 22nd August 2012 1:04 pm

    I never thought I’d say this but a 47-53 tpp 14 months out from an election must give the Gillard Government realistic hope that they can make a comeback.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 22nd August 2012 5:08 pm

    Think Mumble summed it up: good news for Julia means bad news for Labor and good news for Tony.

  10. Political Animal on 22nd August 2012 6:41 pm

    Grech’s call for Howard to return as G-G, with Abbott as his parliamentary consort, is naturally framed almost wholly in terms of what would be best for the Coalition, something to be expected from an archetypal beltway insider whose internal machinations on behalf of the Liberals consisted of making up conspiracies and emails to bring down the Labor government.

    Nah, it was designed to get rid of Turnbull.

  11. The Piping Shrike on 22nd August 2012 8:40 pm

    Think I might have speculated that at the time as well. But anyway, his latest piece doesn’t suggest someone, er, fully in control of the broad political realities.

  12. Craig Colin Lawton on 22nd August 2012 9:57 pm

    Always love your thoughts. Many thanks…

    I also read this guys blog and this latest made me think of your writing….

    Thoughts of politics, legitamcy and evolving agendas and politics relation to tech.

  13. D Riordan on 22nd August 2012 11:30 pm

    I may not fully understand all that has been said but the reality is that 130 Australian troops land in Nauru tomorrow and the kids there that have been using the defunct detention centre as a school since theirs burnt down are about to be thrown out.

  14. Doug on 23rd August 2012 6:43 pm

    It is unlikely that the current policy flip flop will solve anything – the issues driving refugees are out from under the control of the australian Government.

    What i notable about the entire exercise is the outsourcing of policy to “three wise people” as though that somehow removed it from the political arena.

    I can’t believe the naivety of Houston et al – they are now surprised and disturbed that the longer term recommendations they made are likely to be totally ignored.

  15. Adamite on 23rd August 2012 11:11 pm

    Next thing you know we’ll see Grech working as political journalist for the Australian – a perfect match!

  16. Marilyn on 24th August 2012 5:33 am

    To show how deranged they are we have foreign aid being stolen from starving children so the army can build illegal prisons on foreign soil for the victims of two wars we started while the poor Indonesians who were demonised as evil scum of the earth will be sent home.

    And the cost of trading asylum seekers who ask for help for refugees who have no right to that further help shows that Bowen has no idea what he is doing.

    Meanwhile millions in Mali are starving and being forced out of their country, Syrians are fleeing in their hundreds of thousands, Pakistan is kicking out 3 million Afghans and we think we are marvellous for accepting 20,000 refugees a year.

    What a stupid nation we have become when even our stupid media think we have the right to order refugees to stay where we tell them to and that we can control movement on the seas.

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