The Politics of Meanness


In France in the 1950s, there was a politician called Pierre Poujade. Poujade founded the UDCA – the Union for the Defence of Tradesmen and Artisans. The ideology of the Poujade movement was the defence of small business, anti-government, lower taxes, nationalism (Poujade regretted the crumbling of the French overseas empire), anti-corporatism, anti-welfare and, of course, anti-socialist and anti-communist. Some 40 years later, Poujadism has come to mean all that is disagreeable in French life. And the right-wing, fascist party, the Popular Front, came out of the Poujade movement.

For a mercifully short time, Poujadism was popular, and in 1956, the party won 52 seats in the French National Assembly. It was the party of small business, the discontented soldier and the self-made man. It was the party of chauvinistic meanness.

During her time as British Prime Minister, it was common to compare Margaret Thatcher with Pierre Poujade. There was the same small town tightness; and the same xenophobia. I don’t think they ever met, but Poujade would have warmed to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. And he would have had much in common with John Howard.
(The meanness typical of Poujade and Thatcher can be found in characters, for example, in Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, or the short stories of Guy de Maupassant.)

Pierre Poujade

Pierre Poujade

Poujade’s father was a poor draughtsman with extreme right-wing views; Howard’s father ran a petrol station in the (then) lower-middleclass Sydney suburb of Earlwood. Poujade’s mother scrimped and saved to bring up the family. Howard’s mother was a widow – but I should think the Poujade family was, by far, the poorer of the two.

In 2000, a reporter from the English Guardian newspaper flushed out the 79 year-old Poujade and found him ‘just as nasty as ever’.

Pierre Poujade, Margaret Thatcher and John Howard all represent what might be called the ‘politics of meanness’. All three hate(d) the welfare state and all it stands for; all three stand for a kind of social Darwinism; and all three bring to politics the narrow, and often bitter politics of small business. The details of Howard’s forthcoming industrial legislation have yet to be revealed; but on the face of it, the new IR laws will reflect his beliefs in the survival of the fittest. Howard is the Poujade of Australia.

Another thing the three politicians have in common is xenophobia and a belief in military conflict. For Poujade, it was the defence of the French empire in Algeria. For Thatcher, it was the Falklands War. And for Howard, it is Iraq. (For Howard’s sentimental glorification of war and Australia’s military past – and Beazley’s – read Tony Kevin in the Melbourne Age of 17 August, or on his website (

There are men and women around Howard who have the same mean, xenophobic values. They are, for example, Abetz, Minchin, Andrews, Abbot, Ruddock and Vanstone. Costello presents a slightly softer image, partly because of the work of his brother; but Costello has some hard-nosed friends at the top end of town. And he was once a Young Liberal. We all know what they are like.

With meanness goes humourlessness. I have never seen, or heard, John Howard laugh. I have seen him smile – he does it frequently to project confidence. (‘All is well,’ his smile says. ‘I’m in charge.’ Howard is at his best in old folks’ homes.) Howard’s smile is pasted-on and slightly menacing. The Melbourne Age’s cartoonist, Ron Tandberg, has got Howard’s smile down perfectly – it’s a grimace, with malice aforethought.

The meanness of John Howard and his government is contagious. You could go so far to say that it has infected the entire contemporary culture – and, if we are unlucky enough, an entire generation. For example, the concept of public service has all but disappeared; and the concept of the welfare state has disappeared. All is now user-pays. You have to work for the dole. There is a crack-down on ‘dole-cheats’, and so on. It won’t be long, before we have workhouses. There is, in the culture, an air of moral judgement. Single women, for instance, have no business getting pregnant – let alone applying for welfare. It’s now the school of hard knocks.

Meanness and moral judgement have something to do with class. In the 19th century – and even today – the working class was regarded as being childlike and profligate. They spend their money on trifles – beer and cigarettes – and breed like rabbits. (Two examples of commercial holier-than-thou morality might be This Day Tonight on Channel 7 and Ray Martin on Channel 9. And we have, of course, the ever-popular Alan Jones on the radio.) Dole cheats and promiscuous layabouts must be exposed.

Like Poujade’s and Thatcher’s, Howard’s is an essentially middle-middle class view of the world. It is cramped, penny-pinching and humourless. It is also fawning, if needs be. Hence his relationship with George W. Bush. God knows what Bush and Blair think of Howard privately, but one must, I suppose, be grateful for small mercies.

Pierre Poujade was on the French centre stage for only a couple of years; we’ve got John Howard, I’m afraid, for somewhat longer. Perhaps in the future, John Howard – like Pierre Poujade in France – will be remembered for all that is disagreeable in Australian life.

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.