Many of us sniggered when John Howard said he wanted Australians to be ‘relaxed and comfortable’. But Howard has achieved his aim – in the eyes of a majority of electors. Let there be no mistake: John Howard is what most Australians think they want – or are prepared to accept.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
An acquaintance of mine – he works for a bank and arranges mortgages for his clients, a family man – told me recently he thought ‘little Johnny Howard was doing a good job.’ This fellow – kindly, reliable, honest, with two children both attending Melbourne University (one is undertaking an engineering degree, the other a course in business management) – is, perhaps, a typical Howard voter. He lives in an outer suburb in a modestly appointed house. His life is relaxed and comfortable. Or he would want it to be so. I don’t think he considers detention camps, foreign policy or Aborigines too much. If you want a housing loan at competitive rates, he is the man to see.
In the eyes of many people, politics are vaguely uncomfortable and, at times, dirty and unpleasant. But someone has to do it. The only time many people think about politics is when the elections come rolling around, every three years or so. In the meantime, there is football training, the Commonwealth Games and Warnie’s sex life. And there is the household budget and interest levels – they have to be watched all the time.
As we all know, there is something depressingly 1950s-ish about John Howard. It is not only his reactionary politics – it is his wife, Janette, (who, a friend of mine says, makes all her own clothes), the family, the church-going, the mien of the Howards. Janette reminds me of my mother, who specialised in hooked rugs, made from bits and pieces; and who was at her happiest behind the Singer sewing machine. It’s the world of regular church-going, the Lions’ Club and Freemasonry. It’s the world of the permanent wave, the shandy, the Women’s Weekly and the Royal Tour.
For all the gloom – the control of the Senate, Family First, the proposed IR legislation, the increased powers of ASIO, the detention camps, the demise of the Labor Party (it is well and truly dead, an embarrassment) and so on – there may be light at the end of the tunnel.
When I first came to Australia in the early 1960s, it was Robert Gordon Menzies, censorship, the carthorse leader of the ACTU, Albert Monk, early-closing, steak egg and chips, deathly-still Sundays: the world of Barry Humphries and John Brack. It was Sandy Stone country.
A lot has happened since then. We’ve had rock music, student revolt, Vietnam, the women’s movement, the environment, an influx of ‘foreign’ people, changed food habits, the gay Mardi Gras. Maybe it’s too late to go back, as John Howard and his apparatchiks would want us to do. Maybe the Liberal triumph and the demise of the Labor Party are the last twitches of a dying creature.
(A dreadful mistake would be trying to breathe life into the ALP. Beazley, with his fluttering hands and fixed smile, has gone for all money. If Howard belongs to the 1950s, so does Beazley.)
But the light at the end of the tunnel is a long way off. We’ll have to be patient and tread very carefully.
John Howard’s world will be beguiling and for many of us, the white middle class, life will be relaxed and comfortable – if we are content to dig in the garden.
The ABC – a potential arm of government spin, if it is not already – is crumbling into social and political irrelevance. For instance, Peter Cundall, the ABC’s gardening man, had the temerity in a radio interview to criticise the establishment of a wood-pulping facility (i.e. Gunns) in Tasmania’s Tamar Valley, where he lives. The interview never went to air, because the manager of ABC Tasmania deemed it inappropriate for Cundall to comment on a ‘controversial’ subject. Cundall said, ‘What can they do to an old bugger like me? Sack me? I’m almost 80.’ It was Peter Cundall who, in an interview with Andrew Denton on Enough Rope, said we were all living in a fool’s paradise – a paradise created by John Howard and his colleagues, and the Labor Party whose role has become pathetic.
The ‘paradise’ will be that of Desperate Housewives; of the football finals; of ABC TV promos; of talkback radio; of the Commonwealth Games; of ‘quality’ entertainment like Outback House; of ‘cricket on the radio’. Commercial benchmarks will increasingly be applied to education, and the Hillsong Church will have a field day. The wet dream, which Australians will have, will owe as much to Ned Kelly and Eureka Stockade, as it does to Don Bradman and Gallipoli.
But the changes to Australian society and politics are there. (One could argue that the Howard government is in power by default: inertia, fear and angst – and the collapse of the Labor Party.)
From 1972 to 1975, Australians had the intestinal fortitude to embrace vision and liberative social change. Maybe they can do it again.
In the meantime, any discussion of policy denies the reality of the satrapy of the Howard government – and the so-called Opposition. ‘Policy’ has no appeal to the disaffected, the under-40s, who have given up on politics, as we have come to know them. People do not vote for policies; they vote out of angst, or they vote for change.
John Howard has made life in Australia relaxed and comfortable – such is the perception of the mortgaged middle class. But, in the long run, relaxation and comfort may not be enough.
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