Bring back John Howard


One of my best friends used to have a website proclaiming his hatred for our Prime Minister of the time, John Howard. I shared that hatred, as did many other Australians, though of course many did not.

I hated John Howard for the road he took Australia down. We went from being a fair-minded people to being insular and reactive. As part of his political shtick he derided those he called the ‘elites’ – in actual fact the thinkers, the creatives, the people with larger ideas and ambitions, those with ideals: the people who propel culture forward. Nothing was more important to him than his own political survival, and so it was in his interest to kill off anything that might undermine that.

Under his tenure most of the important conversations withered and died in the public sphere, with only a few of the discredited elites maintaining the fight. His manner was paternalistic and conservative, valium to progressive ideals. Effectively he said to the Australian people, don’t you worry your little heads about anything. And for the most part we didn’t – the result being a dumbing down of Australian society, a society more compliant than ever before, the erosion of our liberties, and a country changed to something less than what it was before.

These are fundamental things I can never forgive him for as a proud and engaged Australian. That being said, and excepting some decent sized mistakes, the country prospered economically through his leadership. A lot of that was luck with the economic swings and roundabouts, and the good fortune to inherit an economy transformed by the visionary Labor government preceding his. In Costello though he had a decent treasurer who did more good than harm.

I’m re-visiting this now as a curiosity. I thought Howard was despicable, but he seems benign in light of what we are now stuck with. Much as I disliked Howard and his government there was never much thought of him being irresponsible. Sure, he was in the vanguard of the culture wars, but he was smart enough to understand you can’t upset the apple cart. With one eye on his re-election he was always clever enough not to spook the electorate. He moved slowly, conservatively. When he could he left well enough alone.

Howard compared to Abbott is a paragon of prudence, intelligence and common-sense. Wow, never thought I’d say that – but then that’s a measure of just how bad Abbott is. At least Howard had sure hands. Abbott is a disaster.

Going into last election there was widespread mistrust in the electorate regarding Abbott. Ultimately Labor were voted out, rather than the LNP being voted in. Like most I had my doubts about the basic intelligence and judgement of Abbott. For me they were more than sufficient to vote against him. What is it now? – 8 months? And the worst fears of the public have been realised. And for me I’m amazed to find that Abbott is far worse than I expected.

Right now we face a calamity. The cultural shift of this nation continues under the direction of this government. Even worse than that is the very underpinnings of our society are now at threat.

It’s hard to describe just how bad this government is. I suspect that Abbott is not particularly bright (you’d think the head of state would be brainiac, but look around the world, it’s rarely the case). I don’t know that he’s dishonest, but I certainly believe he’s deluded. The rest seemingly are a combination of the dishonest (Hockey, Morrison), incompetent (Dutton, Bishop, Brandis), cowardly (Turnbull), or evil (Pyne, Morrison, Brandis).

There has been much to be disturbed by in the first 8 months of this governments tenure, but it all came to an ugly head last week. That buffoon Hockey has for months been trumpeting how badly the previous government left the budget position. This is rubbish of course. Australia still leads most western nations on most key indicators. Our government debt is but a fraction of our international contemporaries (despite what Hockey will tell you), and the inefficiencies and expense he makes claims about are untrue in every instance.

Of course it’s customary for incoming governments to blame the government they replaced. You don’t expect anything different now. In this case though I think there is something more sinister afoot. Hockey, and the government, are exaggerating the situation as an excuse to tear everything up and recast the nation in their ideological image.

During the week the government appointed Commission of Audit delivered its report. It’s a radical, divisive document that if adopted would change this country forever. It’s a sham. Tony Shepherd, the author of it, is a right-wing ideologue and second-rate businessman. It’s propaganda, not analysis, created by fascist nuff-nuffs who believe there should be no minimum wage, that people get an easy run with Medicare, and that we should work longer for less while the top end of town reaps the benefits. It’s an evil piece of work.

The government has flagged that they won’t be adopting many of the reforms advocated, but it seems clear that they are ideologically driven along this path. Few doubt that given a free hand that they would adopt much of the philosophy espoused in this report, if not now all at once, then over time. If that were to eventuate then the nature of our society would change, and much of what we have built (and are the envy of many western nations) would be dismantled.

What we face is a national calamity. I don’t want to live in a country made by these select few (elites?). I doubt there are many outside of the very rich who would. Notions of fairness go out the window. Justice, as we know it, comes second to their vision of economic rationalism. Cultural progression is snuffed. Divisions along class lines open up, while the basic services so many of us have come to see as our right are either eroded or dismantled altogether. And this by a government that is a climate change denier, and which insists on locking up refugees.

This is terrible.

Fortunately – perhaps – the government has over-played its hand, and managed the message very poorly. They’ve lost what trust the public had in them, and have alarmed many. There’s talk of unrest within their ranks, which is no surprise. Most of the party are battlers happy to have a seat, and fearful of losing it for the cause of a bunch of right-wing fascist ideologues.

The budget gets handed down this week. It will be an interesting document. It won’t be nearly as extreme as the COA report, but it will frighten. How frightening will depend in part by how spooked the government have been to the adverse reaction to the report. Will they play it down? Or will they go hard? One thing is certain, there’ll be plenty of Hockey’s self-righteous bluster.

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Just rewards


Labor leader :en:Kim Beazley (1996-2001, 2005-...Image via Wikipedia

It was nice to see yesterday Kim Beazley appointed as our next ambassador to the US.

Like most Australians I have a lot of time for Beazley. I think we recognise in him a genuinely good bloke, a rarity in politics and possibly why he never quite made it to the Lodge. While that may be a disappointment to him he has been a great servant to the Australian people, and I'm sure will make a very good ambassador.

He is a decent, kindly, man with the sort of jolly nature we associate with larger men. He is also a man of great intellect, greater than most of his contemporaries. It's a good package, but it just goes to show you need more than that to reach the very top. What Beazley lacked was ruthlessness, and that over-weening belief in self that views success as a God given right.

Years ago in the early days of his leadership of the opposition I wrote a stinging letter to the Labor apparatchiks explaining to them bitterly why Beazley would never be Prime Minister. As someone who despised Howard and whose politics were just left of centre I was deeply frustrated by this. While I admired Beazley for the reasons above, I knew then he didn't have what is need to reach the very top.

Much of politics is managing peoples expectations and their emotions. You can have the greatest policies in the world but if you don't inspire confidence then you're dead in the water. It's not that Beazley didn't have the tools – I'm sure he would have made a fine Prime Minister – the problem was that he was not perceived as being a strong leader.

It's ironic really, because Beazley is no weaky, unfortunately though he felt forced to play a role that was not natural to him. Whether he was poorly advised or he took it upon himself I don't know, but I remember watching his public performances with a seething frustration.

In opposition you have to oppose I guess, and to do this Beazley would wrinkle his brow and put on his stern face and harangue the government. It was totally unconvincing, and the public, as it always does, saw through it. The problem was that is was performance. He was acting the way he thought he should be acting, rather than reacting from his true self. The public will always give you some license to over-act, that's politics after all and much of it's theatre. What it won't cop is this contrived toughness, they'll laugh it out of court. You're tough or you're not, you can't pretend to be.

One of the things that led me to write was exasperation at the waste this represented. This wasn't working, was never going to work and furthermore didn't deserve to work. Yet here was a man universally liked by Australians of all political persuasions, a genuinely decent man of soaring intelligence, and with a nice bedside manner to boot. Wasn't this enough to be without trying to be something else?

I got no response to my letter and Beazley went on to lose the next election and the one after that. He got close-ish in 1998, but was blown out of the water in 2001 after the Tampa affair. That was a deplorable blight on our history, and no-one comes out of it looking good – including Beazley.

One of the reasons I despised John Howard so much is his obsession with power regardless of cost – the cost being to the country. Again and again he changed the political conversation – and ultimately the political culture – not for the benefit of the country he served, but to suit his cheap political needs. He was past master at exploiting things to his own advantage, even to the point of injustice, to dishonourable lengths. The Tampa affair was just another example of that.

In brief a ship carrying illegal immigrants foundered off the north west coast of Australia. A passing container ship – the Tampa – picked up the survivors as they sailed towards Perth. What happened then is the crux of this tragedy. Before they reached Australian territorial waters the ship was boarded by the Australian navy and stopped. Once they reached Australian waters Australia was duty bound to accept the immigrants as refugees. Howard didn't want that.

Leading up to a federal election he leapt upon the incident and beat it up in his inimitable way, claiming that Australia was being invaded by these illegal immigrants, that he was protecting our borders against  people who had no right to be here. He banged the drum hard, playing the fear card, the race card and incited outrage at this perceived 'invasion'. Come in spinner, and the Australian public were duped.

What then does Beazley do? Howard has ambushed him very cleverly. Beazley can either go along with the new rules of the game as set by Howard and join the chorus hoping to look strong on security. Or he could differentiate himself, could stand for what he believes in, could speak out against the injustice, the fear-mongering, the misinformation being spread. This was his chance.

I'm an idealist. That's probably clear. I probably couldn't survive 5 minutes in politics. I believe in things. In principles. In justice. In doing the right thing, in remembering that as Australians, as strong and rich in a world of weak and poor, we have obligations that cannot be denied if we want to be a moral and decent nation. Howard was over-turning all that for his own political ends – this was Beazley's chance to make a stand for what was right.

Unfortunately Beazley blinked. The tide was running one way and he went with it, putting on his stern face to do so. We'll never know what might have happened had he gone with his principles. He might have won the consequent election or he might have been absolutely flogged. We know that his decision made no difference, and was roundly defeated regardless.

I sound like I'm condemning Beazley, and I guess I am. Howard, for all faults was true to himself; Beazley was not. To be successful in pretty well anything you have to act with conviction. This comes from knowing yourself and being true to it. We have a right to expect of our elected representatives that they will stand for something. Once you take the oath you're fair game, it's tough but it's what you asked for. Beazley, an intelligent, good man, failed this test and the consequences were awful – 6 more years of Howard pulling his stunts and taking the country down a wicked road, SIEV X, the children overboard affair, and so on…

That's history now, and history will remember Beazley for his much broader contribution to Australian life. He's done a lot of good and I'm sure he'll continue to as our representative in the states.

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Evil times


Pick up the newspaper most days and there’s something there for the liberal minded reader to cringe at. We live in a time of extreme measures, of sharply defined shades of black and white. Much of this is driven by political expediency, particularly here in Australia, where politics has degenerated under the present government to a cynical degree.

How cynical has become clear in the last few days. The newspapers lately are more than usually full of revelations of the behind the scenes manipulations of some of the big ticket news stories. There’s the children overboard saga for example, and about how John Howard contrived to turn the misfortune of those poor refugees on the Tampa into political advantage. This is typical of him, and no surprise to me – I’ve had him marked for years as a rank political opportunist, where the lives of others and general principle are the currency to be traded to advantage, and no more.

I am wary of John Howard – I may despise him but must respect his hard nosed savvy and his survival instinct – in a nuclear war it will be the bugs and him that will survive (which is strangely apt). Those survival instincts, however, have led him astray lately. He seems to have lost much of the feel for public sentiment and opinion that has served him so well in the past. I am reluctant to write him off, but right now he is looking down the wrong end of the political barrel – and he knows it. It is this knowledge that is making him act in desperate ways, but without his customary judgement. Under pressure he reverts back to old ways, to old methods that worked once – but no longer. The political landscape has shifted a degree or two to the left, and the scare-mongering that once worked so splendidly now appears to be exactly what it is – cynical, nasty and a perversion of justice.

I am talking of Dr Haneef. When I first heard of his arrest I thought nothing of it. As his interrogation continued beyond the normal period I was willing to believe that it was necessary. In times of terror you must be to some degree ruthless. Slowly though one began to smell a rat. That was confirmed when the government, using extraordinary powers, reacted to his release on bail by revoking his immigration status, allowing them to lock-him up again. Justice is at the heart of our democracy. At the heart of justice is the court. If the democratically appointed guardian of justice rules that bail be granted then rightfully we should accept that as justice in action. It is only totalitarian states who then react by throwing the poor bugger behind bars anyway – which is what happened here. By no measure was justice seen to be done.

Now there must be serious questions about the motivation behind all this. Was Howard trying to conjure up the mythical spectre of a terrorist in our midst? By his actions was he hoping – like Tampa – to show the strong leadership that brought him the votes on that occasion?

Then it was revealed that some of the evidence used against Dr Haneef in the bail hearing was false. The case againt him seemed flimsier every moment. When it was mooted he would be deported back to India the question had to be asked: if he is guilty then why not prove it? If he is innocent then why deport him? Fishier and fishier.

I don’t know, Dr Haneef may be guilty of all manner of crimes. We need to be diligent in pursuit of the truth. In these times we cannot afford to leave a stone unturned – but there must be line drawn. It is that line that defines the difference between the democratic and the despotic. From where I sit it feels as if Dr Haneef is being fitted up, the sacrificial lamb on the altar of John Howard’s political career. If this can be true then I am ashamed. This is not the Australia I grew up in.

It would be lame if it were not so serious, for what we are talking about in this latest instance is the misuse of power and a corruption of our democratic values. It comes as no surprise to me that Howard would stoop so low – nothing comes before his political ambition – but it is shocking to think that our political principle has degenerated to such a point that we can no longer feel surprise. We have come to expect, and to some degree accept, that this is the way of things. In part we have become as cynical as our masters. It is what has always angered me most about Howard. He has done terrible things, but worst is how he has cynically warped society to suit his aims. I think the pendulum is beginning to swing back now, but for a time I think we lost some of those values that made us special as a society, and all because of the landscape he created. I’ve always been proud to be an Aussie, but for a time I was less proud than before. This was not the country I believed in, and is yet to return to that ideal that I hold dear in my patriotic heart.

Howard will burn one day. It pleases me to think that he will be ultimately discredited, and the truth about him revealed. In the meantime he has to be gone, and we have to return some way towards what is true about us – if it is still true. I hope we have not gone too far down the path Howard has led us.

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Dire days


irony - vandalisedImage by badjonni via Flickr

Saturday, and it was time to vote. Finally all the hot air and bluster, the wild promises and desperate threats counted for nothing. The die was being cast, and there was no going back, no stopping the cog wheels from cranking over once they had started.

It was a pretty day. The sun shone down on my street, quiet and still. I collected the newspapers as always and as always read them in bed. I expected John Howard to be returned as Prime Minister that night, but there was part of me thinking – hoping – that an upset was possible. It was all in the abstract still though, it meant nothing because nothing was yet concrete, nothing decided. The die may have been cast, but the result of it was still to be determined – and anything was possible.

At about 10 I wandered down to the corner of my street, where a marquis had been set up in the park. As I approached the crowds got thicker, people coming from or going to the long, white rubber tent where the electoral booths had been set up. I turned into the park. At the sight of me a little man in a fashionable anorak straightened up and reached for a pile of how to vote cards. He must be a Lib, I thought. As he proffered the coloured sheets of paper to me I raised a hand flat to him, no thanks mate, I said, don’t need them.

I never take them. Part of me is offended at the thought of all the wasted paper. And I figure if you don’t know how to vote by now you don’t deserve to vote. And there is something in me that doesn’t want to give anything away – if I take one how to vote card, I have to take all, lest it be revealed who I’m voting for – which is strange, because I wear my allegiance like a badge sometimes.

So I sniffily walked by, silently judging the Lib in his expensive coat, a cliché, a stereotype, the haughty Lib with his Range Rover no doubt parked nearby. I felt distant, and strong, and maybe a little righteous. I felt a different breed, tall and casual, laid back against short and buttoned up. As I waited in line inside the tent I smiled at my own prejudice. It was wrong, I knew that, and I recalled a salutary lesson some years ago.

At the time of the Republic referendum I was very actively involved in doing all I could do to get the yes vote across the line. I had been a republican from an early age, almost instinctively, though no doubt influenced by my family – my father famously refused to stand at some wedding in the seventies when God Save Our Queen was played as the national anthem. My Mum was terribly embarrassed, but I understood. She might be a nice old woman but Queen Elizabeth is not my queen, and England not my country. And so come the referendum I was fierce and passionate and violently disparaging of any on the other side.

As it happens I was nominated as the republican scrutineer at one of the nearby booths. I got there early and put up our banner for all to see. I got my pile of how to vote cards ready (ironic that), and waited. Soon after my monarchist counterpart arrived. He was maybe ten years older than me, a nondescript but friendly looking guy. I nodded to him and kept my distance.

People started arriving and we handed our how to vote cards out, spruiking our positions and copping the odd rebuff, but overall it was pretty uneventful. Throughout all this we would occasionally exchange a word or two. Then about halfway through the morning he unscrewed the lid from a thermos of hot coffee he had cleverly remembered to bring, and offered me a cup. For a moment I thought about making a political statement by refusing. Problem was that it was a cold morning, and I fancied a hot coffee. What to do? I did the sensible thing. I accepted a coffee and we got to talking. I found that he was actually in favour of the republic, just not the model proposed – a common problem. I found also that I liked him, that he was a gentle and good man though his beliefs were opposed to mine. And I learned from that how foolish it is to presume anything, and how prejudice so often dissolves when confronted with the human face of our rivals.

This is something I still occasionally forget.

I remembered though, as I stood in line inside the electroral tent. I could not understand the Liberal trying to urge his vote on me, we were of different ilks. It was wrong though to reduce him to a handy stereotype when in all likelihood he was, is, a good and decent person – just different to me.

I voted and marched out, hopped in the car and drove to Coburg. I bought some golf clubs then went in search of a tile retailer somewhere in Sydney road, to buy some tiles for my bathroom half renovated. I never found the place though I drove backward and forwards in search of it. Somehow it didn’t worry me. I had a restless bug in me and was happy to drive through these unfamiliar streets on the other side of town. I slowly began to cruise back, the sunroof open as I took different streets on a whim, arcing through Carlton and busy Lygon street as I approached the more familiar streets of the city, and then by the MCG and across the bridge, and the river, to my side of town. All throughout I played my music, avoiding the radio stations and any news of the election – I didn’t want to know.

That night though I sat in front of the TV to watch as the results began to roll in. I had thought it might take a while before any result became obvious – at 7.15 though it seemed clear that the Libs had won, and with an increased majority likely. This was the worst possible result. I turned the TV off and felt the restlessness of earlier in the day as pent up energy now released in me. I roamed from room to room. I had soured with the realisation that John Howard was here to stay for another three years, and could not rest, mentally as much as physically. I felt gutted, and full of philosophical anger.

I woke the next morning and refused to turn the radio on – I knew what the news was and didn’t want to hear it. I collected the paper and turned straight to the sports section. Overnight I had come to accept the fact though, it did not eat at me as it did the night before, like acid. My state of mind was helped somehow by the bright, warm Sunday morning, and by a round of golf I played, like nothing had happened, laughing and cursing as I do every time I am on a golf course.

Though I continued to avoid the news I remained in that state for the rest of the day. As it happened it was a lovely day, peaceful and serene like Sundays should be. The energy I had felt seize me the night before I now directed to other tasks, and felt at the end of the day some satisfaction at what I had managed.

Then everything changed. I suppose I am drawing a long bow to suggest what happened as being indicative of the times we live in, times changed since John Howard came into power. I suppose what I am about to describe has happened many times before and in different ways. For me though it symbolises in some way what has happened to this country in the last 8 years.

Last night I logged into an internet forum I am a member of. As I have on hundreds of occasions before I browsed the boards and contributed here and there to threads that interested me. Though the forum is sporting based it doesn’t preclude people from posting other topics. And so, predictably, there were threads devoted to the election result. By and large I avoided those. I didn’t want to read what they had to say, didn’t want to be roused to anger or to the need for a response. Discretion is the better part of valour, and discretion in this instance told me to walk on by.

But then I clicked on one, don’t know why. And there I read a tawdry tale, some hero boasting how he had taken a how to vote card from a girl representing Labor and there in front of her had set it alight. I might have accepted that, might have put it down to some limp dick indulging in unlikely braggadocio. What really disturbed me most was the response to him, which was universally positive. ‘Way to go mate’. ‘That’s a classic.’ ‘Wish I’d been there.’ ‘What a legend.’ And so on. This went on for perhaps a dozen posts. I read with a growing sense of distaste. I felt sick to the stomach and turned away.

I tried to watch TV but I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had read. Is this what the world has come too? That people take pleasure in terrorising innocent people doing their job, and are applauded for it? What has happened to our sense of right and wrong? Where has our restraint gone? Our morality?

Somehow I conjured up in my mind a picture like you have seen in a dozen or movies or more. It’s in a bar say, there are a bunch of swaggering males sitting around, loud and hooting. Standing at the bar is a plain girl, or maybe a simpleton, or some guy down on his luck. In any case, and easy mark. And so one of the group makes a remark to the plain girl, the simpleton. He draws from his friends derisive laughter, is encouraged by their remarks and goes on. Soon they all join in, brave boys all joining in this heroic venture.

Of course in all the movies they get their comeuppance. Life isn’t like the movies though.

The longer I thought about it, the longer I festered, the more my anger turned to John Howard. This is the world he has made possible. Once upon a time we were gentler than this. Once upon a time we were big hearted, generous. Or so I remember.

Times have changed because the people leading this country has changed. I guess I shouldn’t blame him altogether – the world around us has changed also. Is that reason enough though? No, it is not.

John Howard has lied to the Australian public. He has exploited the misfortune of others for political gain. He has made everything subservient to his political ambition. That ambition is ruthless – nothing is beyond the pale. And so by degrees this new morality has filtered down into society. We have delegated not just authority but morality to him as our leader, and have ourselves become corrupted by his political will.

I got from the couch where I was sitting. I could not sit still. Much as I would like to turn the other cheek I could not. I was drawn, sick to the stomach, back to my computer and, choking on my bile, I responded. It was wasted probably, lost on mentalities such as theirs. It felt good though, felt cleansing in a way to stand and speak, innefectual as it was.

Today I feel depressed, sorrowful. That incident has revived my distress at another three years of John Howard. I find it hard to live like this, but I do not know what to do – only that I must do something.

It is a woeful feeling. I feel like a father with his favourite son. He has always been the golden one, intelligent and friendly, strong and good. Oh, I have been proud of him. My son! I bathed in his reflected glory, accepted yes, I was so lucky to have such a son, and looked forward to the day when he would come into his own. Except it never happened. Somewhere along the path he lost his away, was led astray. And so the golden haired boy of my heart has grown into a man I do not recognise, arrogant and shallow and selfish, a stranger.

That is how I feel about Australia, though I am it’s son. I have always been so proud of that appellation: I am Australian. It stood for something good, something generous and real. We have lost some of that, though not irretrievably. Right now though I feel kind of broken-hearted at what has happened. My country – with each passing year I find it more difficult to believe in it. Yet it is my country. Like the father with his son, you can’t walk away, can you? It’s your blood.

I don’t know where that leaves me now. I wish I could be less involved, less passionate – but I can’t. I had dinner with a girl last week who told me my passion was an attractive quality, but that she couldn’t understand it. I can’t understand but know I will be drawn into this now, where it deposits me I don’t know.

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