Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Howard Decade

Well I’ve left my Howard piece a little late, and there’s not a lot left to say that hasn’t already been said over the preceding ten years in many respects. Nonetheless, I may as well throw down my views for the sake of posterity.

From a personal perspective, ten years ago I was in year nine at high school. The political issues that captured my imagination included native title, the continuing reconciliation dialogue, a treaty with indigenous Australians, the republic and a view of a multicultural Australia becoming more involved in our region both economically and culturally. The 1993 election victory had been the ‘sweetest victory of all’, and Australia was moving forward confidently after the heartbreak of the recession in the early nineties. There were many reasons to be proud to be Australian, and confident about the future direction of the nation.

But there was growing disquiet that Keating was out of touch, and was pandering to elites, (which of course meant Blacks, immigrants, the artists, academics, internationalists etc, etc), and that it was time for a change. The appearance of Pauline Hanson on the political scene in regional Queensland was prescient of the growing backlash towards the multicultural and progressive agenda that had come to symbolize the Keating years. Howard ‘suited the times’, because his White (picket fence) Australia conservatism naturally appealed to the disaffected mob, those whose fortunes had been tossed and turned by over a decade of microeconomic reform and upheaval under Labor. Ironically, it was largely this economic revolution that has kept the Liberal party in power for the last ten years.

I reckon the Howard governments economic record is overblown, and much of what it has done is sit on the prosperity delivered by Labor’s reform efforts of the 80’s and early 90’s. Monetary policy has been left almost exclusively to the RBA, a fact you couldn’t have possibly discerned from the Liberal’s campaign at the last election- ‘who do you trust to manage Australia’s economy and keep interest rates low’- as if it were the government that were solely responsible for the recent extended period of expansion. In comparison to Labor’s grand efforts of reshaping and modernizing the Australian economy, the government’s attempts at microeconomic reform have been clumsy affairs with waterfront reform, IR and tax reform being prime examples. Howard has focused on completing outmoded Thatcherite free market reforms, and reforms that don’t score political or ideological points have been ignored.
The government has displayed a complete lack of interest in combating unemployment. Nothing reflects this more than the tendency to hide long-term unemployed persons on disability pensions. The Job Network, work for the dole, and weakening protection against unfair dismissal under the IR reforms have done and will do little to improve the employment prospects of Australia’s unemployed.
In relation to fiscal policy, the government has also proved itself to be fond of pork barreling in rural electorates rather than seriously addressing the infrastructure needs of the economy. The mining boom has exposed the government’s lack of foresight with regards to investment in infrastructure, and nation building.

Ten years ago I would have thought that it would be highly unlikely that Australia could be dragged into a foreign war on the basis of lies and deception. No single act has undermined the legitimacy of right wing thinkers than the growing quagmire in Iraq. It is a testament to John Howard’s political skill that he has been able to manage this catastrophe, up until now, in a successful manner. Again, as with the economy, you can argue that he has been incredibly fortunate in this respect. What if Australian soldiers become victims of terrorist attacks; what if there is a Madrid style attack in Australia- So long as Australia pays no obvious direct price for the conflict, the general population is prepared to carry on business as usual.

The Howard years have seen Indigenous Australians fall off the political map entirely. The ten-point plan drastically limited the rights of native title claimants in the courts. ATSIC has been destroyed as an independent voice for indigenous Australians in the political debate (although partly due to its own mismanagement and corruption). The government’s response to the stolen generation report ‘Bringing Them Home’, most notably the failure to apologise, was insensitive and heartless. Overall, the Howard government has refused to face up to Australia’s historical treatment of indigenous people, a history that the culture warriors of the right have attempted to obfuscate and deny.

Another feature of the Howard years has been the Prime Minister’s distaste towards multiculturalism (he can barely bring himself to use the word), and the harnessing of Hansonism and xenophobia to win elections. Tampa and children overboard were the wedges that delivered Howard the 2001 election. The ‘pacific solution’, vilification of refugees and adoption of One Nation’s Temporary Protection Visas represent, I think, the greatest sell out of Liberal ideals by the Howard government. There is also the tragedy, and mystery of SIEV-X and the ‘interference’ campaign to prevent people smuggling in Indonesia. For the truth in relation to these matters we will have to wait 25 years. The current expression of the Howard government’s underlying racism has been the almost constant vilification and harassment of Muslims in the wake of September 11. In recent weeks Costello, Howard and even the slightly confused Dana Vale have all rolled out to criticize ‘Muslim extremists’. Their message has been that Western values are culturally superior to Eastern values, and that newcomers should assimilate or go back to where they came from. Under the Howard government, bigotry and intolerance have been allowed to flourish, intercommunity dialogue has been stifled, and national solidarity has ultimately been weakened.

Why has Howard been so successful? He has successfully marketed the Liberals as the natural party of power and authority in Australian politics. I think that this has been achieved through a combination of successful branding, perception management and spin rather than through excellent performance. Liberal politicians are primarily drawn from the professional classes, and he has used this to portray the party as the best managers of the Australian political economy. Despite this image of professionalism and accountability, the governments record in relation to ministerial behaviour, with examples such as the travel rorts, children overboard and AWB affairs, doesn’t really point to accountability and good government.

At the moment Australians seem broadly disengaged, and cynical towards politics and politicians. I think with such a prevailing mood, the managerial/ patriarchal style of politics fostered by the likes of Howard and Bracks has been ascendant. It’s all about trust, there’s no real vision for the future, just a promise to manage what we already have. Ultimately the prevailing attitude towards government that can’t see beyond balancing budgets is unsustainable, and will be disastrous for the nation in the long term. Recently we have been fortunate economically, but not enough has been done to lay the foundations for future economic strength. In the Howard decade politics has been captured by the daily cycle, and a vision for the future strength and prosperity of Australia has been lost.


Anonymous Cam said...

There is a vision for the future out there, Timboy: Little Johnny's 'Aussie Battlers!' Two new cars, a flat screen tv with surround sound, and enough money to ease their way into an early retirement in their concrete jungle. What a life - I can't wait for it!

11:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Timboy you are so gay!

1:48 AM  

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