Just finished watching Episode 2 of the SBS series “Liberal Rule” entitled “Hearts And Minds”.
The story of this episode was how Howard tried to remake Australia into both an expression of the mythic Australia living in Howard’s own consciousness and to implement cherished Industrial and Economic reforms dear to Howard’s philosophical heart. In sum the episode was about how Howard attempted to make Australia into his personal paradise; where Australians would believe the things about Australia that Howard personally believed and work in the economic framework Howard personally believed was best.
It was a story about how one man attempted to implement a personal vision for a nation.
‘Hearts And Minds’ was very effective in showing how the Liberal Party became a vehicle for Howard’s personal beliefs and philosophies. As disturbing as it is that Australian politics could be so totally dominated by a single person, that every proposal of government for a decade in a supposed democracy emerged from a single mind, there are simple reasons to explain how this came to be.
Howard The Messiah
The first is the credibility and power of success. The Liberal Party in particular is a ‘messianic’ party, to use George Megalogenis’s characterisation. It believes its only business is to rule, it does not function well in opposition and while in opposition casts about for the messiah to bring them back to the promised land of power.
When Howard won the 1996 election, he gave the Liberal Party power after 13 years of Labor government. Those 13 years were like eons for the Liberals. Marooned like Marvin The Paranoid Android at the Restaurant At The End Of The Universe for 20 billiion years, it was the first 10 billion years that were the worst with the second ten billion years also being the worst.
When Howard delivered power, his was the leadership for ‘as long as he wanted it’ as Nick Minchin said on the night. Delivering victory and power after such an elongated time in opposition, Howard also won the right to set the agenda for the Liberal Party.
Building on this, Howard’s personal machiavellian streak led him to progressively purge the Liberal Party and public service of dissenting opinion. One of Howard’s first acts was to sack any Departmental Heads he felt did not think like him, establish his alter ego Max Moore-Wilton as head of Department Of Prime Minister and Cabinet and direct all of the public service through his Maxness. ‘Tempered’ as Howard said, by his long and personal rejection by his own party for more than a decade, Howard bought a disposition 50% cold poison and 50% colder poison to the leadership. The only way to survive in Howard’s government was to toe the line. Thus the Liberal Party under Howard almost exclusively contained yes-men, toadies and like minds to Howard. Nothing else (Peter Georgiou a significant principled exception).
As Don Watson noted of the Keating-era view of Howard in opposition, ‘Howard was shrewder than his colleagues’ but the depth and brilliance of Howard’s finely tooled strategic mind to the end of securing personal power became a thing of marvel. Australia had no idea how superbly Howard would and could manipulate and wield power until we had seen ten years of his government.
Mungo MacCallum calls Howard ‘The Stonefish’: nothing to look at, unassuming, easy to underestimate, but absolutely deadly, vicious in the strike and a superb hunter of incredible rapidity when it counts.
Howard’s prestige and power was magnified by bringing home the 1998 GST election, which he bought home assisted by Beazley’s failed ‘small target’ startegy. Winning that election, on a new tax of all things showed again Howard’s strategic brilliance. He became not just party leader but Liberal Emporer. Two more election wins against crippled and untalented Labor opposition made him a demi-god. His word was law.
‘Hearts and Minds’ effectively illustrated how the Liberal Party was Howard’s personal vehicle in the conclusion of the episode by playing numerous excerpts of Howard speeches where he said “I have always believed…’ followed by a policy pronouncement. The government belonged to Howard and he intended to reinvent or – I think Howard would say ‘return’ – Australia into a John Howard utopia after 13 years of leftist Labor vandalism.
Correcting The Record
One of the most interesting parts of the doco. for me was Howard’s view of the ‘Culture Wars’ which he described as ‘correcting the record’. The record that Howard wished to correct was what he viewed as a treacherous, unfair, immature, damaging view of Australian history promulgated by Keating’s coterie of leftist elites, the ‘black armband’ view of Australia’s history, that Australians had something to be ashamed of in our past.
In particular, Howard nominated Keating’s 1992 Redfern Speech (here on video) given for the Australian Launch of the International Year for the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Here is the content that Howard found objectionable:
it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me?
As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.
Now, Howard says that he agrees and recognises that Australia’s Black History is a ‘blemish’ on an otherwise great history, but he also said during the doco that Keating’s remarks ‘did great damage’ and that one of his great goals as Prime Minister was to ‘correct the record’.
In my view this shows that Howard cannot reconcile what he intellectually recognises to be the truth about Australia’s race history with hi semotional need to believe in a heroic settler myth. In truth he prefers the truth about Australis race relations history to remain untold, hushed, swept over. Just speaking the truth makes Howard’s imagined record incorrect. And speaking the truth needs correction, namely Howard’s chocolate-box version of Australian History.
Howard cannot face the truth on this issue. It is too personally confronting for him, because he personally identifies with the supposed nobility of the British settlers and pre-war Australians who were happy to hunt and kill Aboriginals, to steal their children, and made plans for the Aboriginal race to die or be bred out.