This week


It comes with about the same frequency as Halley’s Comet, and it’s coming this week: before our very eyes “ and most poignantly a helpless Labor Party’s “ a revolution will be completed. That the revolution was begun by others is unlikely to detract from John Howard’s pleasure or distract the press from the story of his personal achievement. To be accurate, it will not be quite complete: trade union protests against his IR legislation are yet to play themselves out, and the States will kick up about the encroachments on their territory. But the Coalition WILL have both Houses, the IR Bills WILL sooner or later pass, John Howard WILL see his oldest dream come true and historians will say that this was the time when Australia ceased to be the Australia of Deakin, Curtin, Menzies and Hawke and became the Australia of John Howard.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

What the government does with its power after the IR legislation is anybody’s guess. What is just as alarming is that what Labor does with it is almost immaterial. As Kim Beazley’s stalwart offsider, Mike Costello, bitterly pointed out this week, the media seem to have already decided that resistance is futile and Kim Beazley is a fool for trying it. It’s possible that just now they also think resistance is boring. More interesting is how far Howard will go, and how far his own party will let him. After all, what caused Howard to change on the detention centres? Not Labor’s timid, hopelessly compromised objections and not public protests. The concessions were won by the tiniest handful of wets in Howard’s own party.

The Federal Parliamentary Labor Party will have to sit in the National Parliament and watch as its old dream is replaced by Howard’s even older one. They will have to watch as the cast of 21st century Australia is defined without their participation, and defined even more emphatically than their forebears defined Australia in the 20th. Kim Beazley will be among those who know that this is not just about awards, unions and the rights of workers: it’s about the passing of a whole epoch, a spirit, a whole world view. The IR legislation will be real enough for Australian workers and employers (though no more real than much else they’ve been through in the past fifteen years), but for the Labor movement it will also be inescapably symbolic of failure, exhaustion and the prospect of irrelevance. Beazley and his colleagues can try to comfort themselves and their supporters with the fact that Labor presently manages all the States, and that some State Liberals are not happy with this Canberra power grab – but they will know in their hearts that the game might be over for the dear old Labor Party.

Twenty five years ago it was unthinkable. But twenty five years ago was another country; one that happened to be led by a conservative who believed not only in regulated economies, including their labour markets, but government funded multicultural television stations and open, generous immigration policies for Indo Chinese refugees. Twenty five years ago the most popular person in Australia was a trade union leader. Twenty five years ago Australians were different.

Even fifteen years ago it was unthinkable. The trade union leader was the Prime Minister. There was an Accord with the unions and Labor won elections, even in recessions, by appealing to the principles of fairness and cooperation it embodied. Fifteen years ago the Internet was just beginning. The global economy was just gathering momentum. So was the longest wave of economic growth in the nation’s history.

John Howard’s opponents might say that his success rode on this wave. It is true that he has only led the revolution in its last stages. Labor began it with financial deregulation in the eighties. For that matter, his triumphs are the fulfillment of New Right ideology that began with the H.R.Nicholls Society and Geoffrey Blainey’s pamphleteering. For much of that time it was more than John Howard could do to beat off a soufflé from Kooyong. The IR legislation is more than John Howard’s dream “ it is the New Right’s dream. Control of both Houses is more than a parliamentary triumph “ it is final victory in the culture wars. That’s the stunning part, and the worst thing for Labor to swallow: the completeness of the ideological victory. That’s when you know what it meant to lose in 1996; and go so close at the next one, and be ruthlessly outsmarted “ and outspent – at the next one; and all the time the people were slipping further from your grasp and your understanding.

The unions will march in the streets, but people marched in the streets before the invasion of Iraq. The unions will fail partly because there’s not enough of them any more and partly because trade union types shouting, ‘What do we want..? etc.’, just don’t cut it in a celebrity culture. Nor do the things they stand for. We’re all in it for ourselves now, stupid.

The glory of Howard’s position is beyond measure: unlike his avatar, Mrs Thatcher, he is working with a population that’s already at least half persuaded he’s right. She went for the jugular of a union movement whose power was intact. Howard’s going for unions already on their knees. Not that this will make him go easy: the horrid part for the labour movement is that the nearer they get to a full blown showdown the more likely he will indulge his Thatcher fantasies and the nastier he will get. Resistance is just what he needs to enlarge the moment and galvanise him.

If Kim Beazley is thinking along these lines who can blame him for looking depressed. Who can blame him whatever he’s thinking? Luck is the biggest player in politics and Beazley’s had none while Howard’s had more than anyone deserves. And then along comes Mark Latham like a blowfly buzzing round a man in quicksand. You can’t help bad luck, but leadership is another matter. No doubt it has occurred to Kim Beazley that John Howard got there after being written off a dozen times. In that much at least he’s the right man for the job: he has patience and a brain to keep him amused while he waits for salvation. But it must also have occurred to him that Bob Hawke in his prime would likely have won at least two of the last three elections. In the absence of anyone else, Federal Labor has to hope that their leader has not just Howard’s stubbornness and sticking power but some of the mettle he kept hidden for so long. And, like every good leader, something all his own as well.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.