If a week is a long time in politics, how long is eleven-and-a half years?
Long enough, I’d say.
Long enough, almost, to forget there is another way of governing; that holding sway is not the same thing as leading a people; that without a vision, the people—not to mention the rivers—diminish, no matter how flush.
And it’s long enough to start to forget, under the anodyne influence of a lucky prosperity and the anesthesia administered between shocks of fear by the selfsame government, the many acts of barbarity and meanness and sneakiness and self-gratification and xenophobia and grandiosity and bullying enacted over those interminable years by this regime amid the boredom induced by a government that has resisted all but the least necessary change.
Many times in eleven years, we’ve witnessed political events that left me outraged, and each time—children overboard and the AWB scam, to name just two—I thought, now the government falls, or someone in it falls; and each time they tided it out, and it speaks ill of us that we let them.
So as we make our way toward the only poll that counts, with our higher standards of living jangling in (some of) our pockets, let’s remember the moral record of John Howard’s government; let’s recall the way they’ve managed, if that’s what you’d call it, other things than the books.
We get the governments we deserve, they say. This regime has represented perfectly the least aspects of our Australian selves—the parsimonious, the insular, the shallow, the doubting, the bloody-minded, the small-minded, the self-interested, the tin-eared, the myopic, the tongue-tied, the rude, the ungenerous—and few of the best. Because our lesser selves have recognised themselves in Howard, my psycho-political theory runs, we have kept on, shamefacedly, voting him back. Like ground-dog day; like some hopeless cycle of dependence. Admittedly, the drug-free alternative to our addiction has not always seemed palatable, but because we’ve kept choosing Howard and the team, they’ve kept on doing what they do, unable, one suspects, to believe their electoral and economic luck; and by taking the kind of ethically bereft but always, almost purely, pragmatic decisions they’ve taken, they’ve diminished us until we were the kind of people who’ll settle for this kind of government.
For we are better than our government, and I think at last we’ve worked that out; we’ve just not been ourselves for a decade. And like the alcoholic who keeps on drinking to cover his shame at the way he keeps on drinking to cover his shame, we’ve reached a moment of sudden sobriety—the young, especially, the most sober among us, at least in this respect—and we seem to have decided that eleven years is too long, really, to have spent misled and half-hit, slouching toward ecological crisis and an impoverished kind of prosperity.
Last week I said to friends that if this election doesn’t see an end to this prime minister, it might just see an end to me. They didn’t seem to me sufficiently concerned—at my plight, or ours. I tried to explain that it wasn’t the look and the sound of the man or anything so personal. At least not only that. It’s not the man I can’t stomach; it’s not even his party-politics. There have been—there are—good conservatives. When I hear Howard, I hear, more than is usually the case with politicians, a hectoring, passively aggressive, defensive, belligerent man of power. I always did, notwithstanding his beguiling, blundering, seemingly well-mannered ordinariness, which has fooled too many of us for too long. I hear a man both dull and dangerous—and so his record shows him to be—denying the undeniable, arguing the unarguable or defending the indefensible, mistaking his prejudices for our necessary truths.
When I mentioned to my friend, meaning all of the above, that I have to turn off the radio every time I hear the PM’s voice these days, my friend, said, “So this is a rational objection then?” and I had to laugh and acknowledge apersonal animus; the man gets my goat. “I have some reasons, too,” I added.
Because it’s easy for others to characterise one’s repugnance as personal animosity or party chauvinism, here’s a list of reasons why this government must go. Here are some things this government has done or left undone—eleven-and-a-half items (there were more, but these will do) that came to mind in ten minutes when I sat down and thought about it the other day. Here are some reasons to unseat a government. Any one of them would have done. And it’s a wonder to me it didn’t.
1. Gay bashing
Under pressure for his error of judgment in replacing William Deane, a man of wisdom and grace, with Peter Hollingsworth, a man with less, Howard tries a diversion. This is, from memory, late 2002 and early 2003. The government goes public with an allegation against the one progressive justice on the High Court, coincidentally also a publicly gay man, Michael Kirby. The allegation is false, a thing the government knew or should have, but, once it has used the lie to draw fire from itself, it withdraws the allegation. A cheap and brutal play, to follow a bad appointment. But did we care? Not as much as we should have.
2. Please explain
Remember Pauline Hanson? Howard didn’t invent her, but he didn’t condemn, either, her frocked-up bigotry. Not for a very long time and not unambiguously. Not even a “please explain”. He did not name her narrow-mindedness for what it was because he knew he could profit from the lurch to the right, toward fear and greed, that Hanson sniffed in the zeitgeist, embodied and inarticulately articulated. Howard let Hansonism run. This was a sin of (strategic) omission; a failure of moral leadership. And what Hanson began on the culture wars, Howard has carried forward more cleverly, but just as divisively.
3. We’ll decide who comes to this country
There were border-protection moments when it was hard to distinguish government policy from Hansonite extremism or something worse: remember the children the government alleged had been thrown overboard (when they knew they had not been) by their manipulative refugee parents from a sinking boat; remember the boat that sank after our patrol boats, on government orders, forced it out of Australian waters, drowning three-hundred-and-fifty-three asylum seekers; remember the Tampa and its suspect cargo of dangerous refugees, all but one or two of whom where ultimately “processed” offshore as legal refuge-seekers; remember the generosity of the Ruddock-Howard policy of forced detention of all refugees, whom they took to calling “illegal immigrants” and queue-jumpers, as though there was ever a queue to jump; remember the excision of hundreds of kilometres of Australian sovereign waters to keep illegals from landing and finding safety?
“We’ll decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come,” said Howard, like some caricature of Mr Burns, like the kind of red-neck any person with decent parents, a moral compass, a Christian education, or indeed any religious instinct, had learned to pity by grade three or four. And the relevant circumstances were not to include, by implication, the kind of desperation that forces refugees to risk their lives across the oceans in small boats often at great cost.
4. The first casualty
I’m not sure Howard lied us into Iraq; he was just a soft touch. He was all too willing to be misled and to mislead. Because he knew enough history to know that war, like fear (economic or racial), keeps governments in. So he convinced himself—on evidence that seemed flimsy at the time to many minds less suggestible, and which proved to be not just thin but fraudulent—that it was both right and necessary to go (albeit moderately) to war. There was no legal—let alone a moral—case for a war that has escalated violence in Iraq and the Middle East; Howard, like Bush, conflated several reasons, some specious, some worthy, but none amounting to a casus belli: Iraq harbours terrorists (well, it sure as hell does now); Iraq is making WMDs (evidence?), Iraq has a murderous tyrant for a leader (yes, but so does Zimbabwe), Iraqis—or was it the Middle East and the US—want regime change (yes, but so do we), the Middle East will be stabilized by the toppling of Saddam (yeah, sure).
So war it was; and blow me down, if it didn’t engender just the outcomes that cooller assessment predicted at the time it would, including prolonged incumbency for a regime good at buying votes with fear.
5. Absolute power corrupts absolutely
Which brings to mind the Australian Wheat Board. You can insist, if you like, that John Howard and Alexander Downer didn’t personally sign the contracts that put millions of dollars into the treasury of the selfsame tyrant we went to war (I think that was the reason) to topple, but you’d have to say it doesn’t look like a good thing to have happened on your watch. If the government didn’t know what the national wheat monopoly was up to in Iraq at a time like this, why did it not? Where was its fabled management proficiency, where were its acuity and probity on this occasion? Complicit or negligent, take you pick. In the Westminster system of government I grew up in and studied, ministers and prime ministers walked for such bungles. Not in this regime. Where the rule is: all power, no responsibility.
6. A rising tide lifts all boats
While I’m on the big issues—the biggest. Al Gore was convinced about global warming in the 1980s; that was early, to be fair, even compared to environmental activists like David Suzuki. Like a good conservative, John Howard ignored the science and denied the evidence written in the landscape until it was already too late. All of a sudden, late in 2006, he got it. He got it then because his polling told him the voters had got it the year before. To do nothing about global warming will cost us (and the earth) incalculably more than doing something about it, concluded the very sane Professor Stern mid 2006. “Don’t be seduced by Stern” said Howard. Seduced? To what? To action from inaction? To defence of our children’s lives? In the long run—if we get one—we’ll look back on Howard’s environmental denial as the gravest and costliest failure of imagination and courage of these pitiful and pitiless years.
7. Tough love
If one of the communities that make up your society is, for whatever reason, neglecting and abusing its little ones and its women, you must do what you can as a government to help. If leaders in that community have been trying to tell you, increasingly urgently, for eight years, that this is going on, and you have not listened, then, when at last you act, you might have the grace to acknowledge your prolonged neglect and inaction. Act, then, with mercy and compassion as well as decisiveness. And spare us and the troubled community your sanctimony. When you act, do what you can to preserve the dignity and the rights of the people you step in to help—even when what has happened among them offends common decency. For are there not such abusers among mainstream society, too? And do we strip them and their families of land rights and fundamental rights?
If you can find the money for police (that would be a good thing, too) and medical officers and bureaucrats, find as much again for teachers and for leaders among those communities who can, together, create the conditions for healing. And, above all, listen; above all, balance your sudden urgency with some contrition for how long it took you to get urgent and with some respect for the ancient humanity and intelligence of people who had beautiful social mores millennia before Europe was an idea among warring tribe; balance justice with mercy.
Or you could do what this government has done, which is not to listen for a decade and then to act without listening again all in a moment, to curtail civil liberties and punish the innocent along with the guilty and to wind-back land rights and to generally to conspire to help—and the helping is good, if very late—in a way that clearly feels less like help than a paternalistic invasion to many of the people its meant to be saving.
8. My road or the high road
The intervention in the Northern Territory instances the modus operandi of this regime as we’ve endured it in many other areas, notably the referendum on an Australian Republic and the national water plan. The political journalists call it wedging. I had a boss who thought he was pretty good at it, too, and that it was somehow good for us. He’d set managers against each other, or just let tensions rise, and then he’d get cross and jump in sternly, as if to say, you see how you people need me. Take a serious issue; ignore it; if it won’t go away, bang together a solution that suits your ideological position; offer it as the only solution on offer; paint all critics of your particular plan as opponents of a solution. You want a water solution; here’s one (meager and hasty); don’t buy it, you’re an environmental vandal. You want a republic, try this one; you don’t like it, you don’t really want a republic (and nor do I). This strikes some commentators as being in some way smart, even an essay in leadership. I saw smarter plays at school. It’s just low-grade thinking, a mania for control, discomfort with uncertainty, determination to be right, and bullying.
9. Irreconcilable difference
Speaking of discomfort with uncertainty, almost the first act of this government was to extinguish native title. This was Howard’s swift response to the Wik decision, which had overturned the fiction upon which Australia was settled, that indigenous people had no title to this land; that they were not in fact here. Wik determined that two systems of title coexisted in this land yet, at least on lands not yet alienated from the Crown, and Wik implied that such coexistence might go on. One spiritual; the other bankable. Imagine how that might have played in wiser hands; imagine what a people, what a nation, that might have made of us. Imagine how reconciliation might have proceeded from there. But without a second thought, Howard stepped in to legislate certainty. To enact one of the largest land grabs in history. He extinguished native title—think for a moment about those words, about that act, the finality of it. The presumption. And he claimed all Australia for certainty—presuming, one notes, that certainty matters more than truth—without even a bow of respect to the spiritual titleholders whose physical and imaginative tenure had so intelligently been acknowledged, so recently at last by the courts. He acted without compunction or grace. Without a hint of dignity.
If that’s your first act as a government; and soon you stand and do not know how to express the sorrow and remorse of a people (even those who are not feeling any, for this is what leaders do) for government policy that stole a generation of aboriginal children from their families; and then you set upon ATSIC; and then you start the history wars and defame the historians who have had the courage to add dispossession and frontier struggles to the happier myths the prime minister prefers; and so it goes on until you cannot think of a way to help aboriginal communities in crisis in the Northern Territory except with troops and the further erosion of aboriginal autonomy—what does your record on indigenous affairs look like? If your gallows conversion is genuine, then good for you, but it’s come about eleven years late; if all along you were, as you’ve said, committed to reconciliation, I’d hate to see what you’ld have done if you’d been, say, cynical about the whole idea.
Twelve years ago there was the Redfern Address, a speech as important to this nation almost as the Gettysburg Address was to the States, a speech that might have healed and remade a nation. Now we have the Northern Territory intervention. Howard has scuttled reconciliation; he lacked the heart and imagination for it; he lacked the nobility of spirit.
10. Doctoring the truth
One suspects that the expulsion of Dr Haneef was meant to be the children overboard for this election. To set your relevant minister about scapegoating a foreigner, in this case to trial and justify your terror laws, and, in the process, convince the people how much they need your firm hand in this fearful world—we’ve seen this kind of thing before. Nor was it new for this government to be sparing and selective with the truth and to prosecute its case in the media. But we’re wising up to this old dog’s old tricks, which aren’t tricks so much as abuses of power and insults to national intelligence. The failure of this classic Howard gambit—shabbily executed, but no more so than other such episodes on the high seas and in the press—gives me most hope that we’ve recovered our perspective and moral courage as a people.
11. The presumption of guilt
Once upon a time, or am I dreaming, one was presumed innocent in this land until proven guilty in a properly constituted court against a difficult standard of proof. For many years, until the weight of public pressure and a looming election and the overwhelming distaste for the whole misguided war against terror told on him and he did a deal with his powerful American friends, our prime minister set that principle aside in the case of David Hicks, whose guilt for that amorphous and catchall crime “giving aid to terrorism” the prime minister, once a smalltime lawyer, was prepared to take on faith. I don’t want to make a hero of David Hicks; he gives me the impression he doesn’t see himself as one. He pleaded guilty to those rather inchoate crimes he was charged with, so one must assume he erred. But he is no more a mass murderer than John Howard is a union boss. And regardless of Hicks’s guilt, we are a people who believe in the rule of law not of prime ministerial fiat and cant. No matter the times or the political climate, one is innocent till proven guilty, and one is entitled to a fast and fair trial. A prime minister who doesn’t champion those principles when it doesn’t suit his political agenda is a prime minister who doesn’t believe in them.
“The focus must be on outcomes not systems,” I heard the same prime minister announce on the radio one day back in August. I believe the context was the intervention in the Northern Territory. The sentence struck me, and I wrote it down. Apart from its inherent bureaucratic ugliness, it says, in effect, that what counts is ends, not means. The man’s words betray him. The pragmatist, for whom the end justifies pretty much any means, no matter how hasty, no matter how ugly, no matter how it breaches sacred and secular first principles.
11.5. Bad language and its consequences
Forgive me a West Wing moment, and let this be the 11.5th item. Just this week I found “program”—spelled thus, without the redundant suffix “me”—in a Federal Government report from 1973. I found it again in other government documents from the 1980s and mid 1990s. In our style guides and public sector documents and increasingly elsewhere, we dropped “me” years ago. But this government has stuck it back on and insisted upon it pedantically, unconcerned to be in such error, and now it abounds, in public sector prose, where, alas, “program” is a thing one gets to say a lot.
“Programme” was a late nineteenth century affectation; the “me” was a bourgeois flourish added to a word that had gone without anything but itself since it evolved out of Greek (they added “ma” to the end, but then, they pronounced that syllable). “Program” is both the older and the more modern usage. Certainly, it is the more elegant and democratic. Less is generally more in modern English. I have it on excellent hearsay authority that the spelling changed in Canberra because the prime minister and his one time education minister prefer it and regard “program” as a newfangled lefty corruption of the Queen’s English. But why would these men, mere politicians, mistake themselves for experts on English usage? Why would they disregard, or expect intelligent grownups like us to ignore, style manuals around the English-speaking world, including England, that have endorsed the simpler spelling for decades? Well, bugger them; look who’s holding power.
To add “me”—think of it; me—to a perfectly serviceable shorter word tells me how self-concerned and petty this government and its head man have been. Here we have a tiny manifestation of a larger habit, characteristic of this regime: to make change on the fly, very often to turn back to older, dilapidated forms, to wind back evolutionary change, on the basis of personal and ideological bias. Prejudice, in other words. This regime has been, itself, such a reversion. Regrettable, errant and redundant.
Look, I had a longer list—the increased politicisation and demoralisation of the public service, the constriction of the Freedom of Information process, ministerial interference with academic freedoms (okay, some research projects are a manifest waste of money and time, but it shouldn’t fall to education ministers to veto them on personal and ideological grounds), the sedition laws at the centre of the terrorism legislation, to name a few more—but eleven’s a good number to stop at. One for each year of the Howard incumbency.
My point is: all these items instance a pattern; this is what happens if you govern without reference to ideas bigger and older and sounder than your own. This regime has been pragmatic and craven to the point of moral bankruptcy. We, the people, who are better than this, are demeaned by such governance. Democracy, though, is hardy, and has survived this affliction. So let’s put democracy to work; let’s vote out a regime that’s governed with disdain for common courtesies and larger virtues. Let’s choose the other crowd, and let’s put them on notice, too. We want a government that represents and articulates and even schools our better selves. That’s what leaders do. Give us leadership, or get out of office.
This term—and if there’s any justice, this regime—ends in profligacy and drought. In unsustainable and unequally distributed, largely illusory wealth, and in rivers running as low and dirty as what passes for public discourse under this mob. This government ends, up to its knees in the consequences of what it has insisted upon—out of a narrow ideology of self-interest (its and ours)—and what it has denied or neglected and now purports to know how (cheaply) to mend (water, energy, climate change, federalism, hospitals). Time’s up.