In my view the primal opposition which structures Howard’s thinking is not Australian and un-Australian, but Liberal and Labor. It is this opposition that fuels his aggression, feeds his self-righteousness and moral indignation, and gives him the sharpness of focus to seize on the opportunities which fate presents and exploit them so ruthlessly for political advantage.
Something similar was true of Keating. Both are Sydney boys, in politics from their youth. Politics channelled their adolescent energy and aggression, and they shaped their adult identities around the party polarisations, learning to become successful political warriors. Keating, though, was neither as opportunistic nor as ruthless. While aggression energised him, it could also recede and leave him with a feeling of futility, as if the prize were not worth the fight.
For Howard, if something is championed by Labor, then this is sufficient reason to oppose it, no matter what the merits of the case. To give just one obvious example, what more is needed to explain his sudden abandonment of the Liberal Party’s commitment to states’ rights than that all states and territories currently have Labor governments?
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
And if people are critical of him, then he treats them as in the Labor camp, whether they are or not, and however different their views are from Labor’s. Like Margaret Thatcher, there are only two possible political positions: with us or against us. From this perspective, if you are against us, you are clearly giving comfort to the enemy and so are as good as one of them.
Howard’s world is not dull grey at all, or even beige, as some commentators have suggested, but a vivid black and white, with enemies and supporters, bad and good, wrong and right, all lined up neatly on the two sides of the party divide. Critics putting arguments and reasoned differences are treated as opponents and shoved into the Labor camp. There is no room here for hearing a range of points of view, grappling with complexity, acknowledging uncomfortable facts. Rational nuanced debate about complex and difficult matters of public policy becomes well-nigh impossible.
Howard accused Keating and Labor of making it impossible for certain views to get a hearing, but he has done the very same thing, though to different views, and different people. There has always been an ambiguity in the Liberal Party’s claim to be the party best able to represent the interests of Australia as a whole. Does the party govern on behalf of the interests and welfare of all; or in response to the views and values of the mainstream? Is it guided by considerations of the national interest or by majority opinion?
The answer is that it is and can be both, and the slippage between them has always allowed Liberal leaders a certain room for political manoeuvre. Sometimes they have maintained a patrician distance, arguing that good government in the national interest requires them to take unpopular decisions; sometimes they have stayed close to commonsense public opinion.
The oppositions between national and sectional interests and between majority and minority opinions have the same formal structure of opposing part and whole, but the contents have very different political implications. One connects with the Liberal Party’s patrician traditions of the responsibilities of good government, the other with democratic populism and its powerful new tools of opinion polls and focus groups to take regular soundings of the public’s views, and talkback radio to broadcast them.
On economic policy the Howard governments cannot be accused of populism. They have pursued unpopular taxation reform and remain committed to the privatisation of Telstra despite the opinion polls. They have listened to economic experts and drawn on academic knowledge. In social and cultural policy and more recently in foreign policy, however, it is a different story.
Since Howard became prime minister in 1996 he has played fast and loose with the difference between the national interest and majority opinion, and with the parallel difference between sectional self-interest and minority views. What Howard has done, time and again, is to represent the opinions of people he does not agree with as the self-interested views of a section and then dismiss them as of no account. These are the elites to whom he so often refers and who he believes hold him in disdain.
But if we re-describe the elites as informed public opinion we start to see what is happening, and why so many people feel alarmed, enraged even, by Howard’s imperviousness to views which differ from his on the best way of advancing Australia’s national interest. Those who voice informed opinions which disagree with Howard’s position have been marginalised and then dismissed. Or they have been accused of attacking the mainstream, of being far more hostile and aggressive than they are, as in the for-us-or-against-us images of the culture wars.
Above all else, Howard is a fighter, who has spent his life fighting the chief enemy of the Liberal Party, the Labor Party. And, as the election campaigns of 1998 and 2001 show, he fights hardest when his back is to the wall. Howard is interested in war not just because he sees it as the most profound expression of our national unity and character, but also because it suits the structure of his personality and his own image of himself as a fighter. ‘I am the bloke’, he told David Marr, ‘who ultimately wins the battle, and in political terms that is Churchill.’ He knows of course that winning an election is not the same as winning a war; yet the metaphor is telling.
This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 19, ‘Relaxed and Comfortable: The Liberal Party’s Australia’, by Judith Brett ($14.95, Black Inc.).
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