With apologies to Sam Kekovich


With apologies to Sam Kekovich, it was just too darn hot, not to mention illegal, to fire up the barbie in Melbourne on Australia Day, so those lamb chops stayed in the fridge.

And with apologies to the Prime Minister, we ate, instead, the most gloriously multicultural, and definitively Australian cold feast, made up of dishes from no less than 15 cultures. In fact, it was hard to come up with a dish that was invented on Australian soil I’m not skilled in bush tucker. Thank goodness for the dessert created in honour of a Russian dancer pavlova to the rescue!

Of course, multiculturalism is about much more than enjoying a wonderful variety of foods, but our Australia Day feast was a nice indication that, no matter how much our leaders try to undermine Australian multiculturalism, it’s now a self-sustaining, virtually indestructible part of the Aussie character.

And a good thing that it’s so hardy, because none has been so determined to destroy it as our current Prime Minister.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, one of the central tenets of Howard’s politics is his belief that Western, English-speaking cultures are inherently superior to all others. His career has been shaped by a life-long anglophilia, inherited from his father, supplanted recently by an even more sycophantic worship of the USA.

His almost-ten-year reign as PM has seen him fervently, almost evangelically, pursue a cultural agenda that seeks to return British and colonial history to the centre of Australian identity, to undermine regional relationships in favour of cosying up to Western superpowers, and to undo, by a process of destabilisation and sneering cynicism, more than a quarter of a century of community and government work that created what was arguably, until recently, the most harmonious multicultural society on the planet.

Thanks to Scratch!

John Howard might deny it but, in fact, he has never made any secret of his desire to undo the advances made in Australian society since the 1970s returning us to a semblance of his imagined 1950s ideal.

His 1996 election campaign appealed directly to the most jingoistic elements of Australia: those people, like him, who were unable to move with the times and thus found themselves drawn to the regressive, divisive statements of the then Liberal candidate for Oxley, Pauline Hanson. Howard said he wanted to govern ‘for all of us’ and wished Australia could be more ‘relaxed and comfortable’ in its view of itself. Paul Keating warned us that electing Howard would ‘change the country,’ but people didn’t seem to realise how much not how sneakily that change would be made, nor how soon it would seem irreversible.

For the first four years of his time as PM, Howard did not once utter the word ‘multicultural.’

His disdain for other cultures is clear. He was probably the last Australian politician from a mainstream party to give up on open appeals for a return to race-based immigration policies, arguing in the late 1980s that Australia should restrict its intake of ‘Asians.’ And during the early 1980s, as Treasurer in Malcolm Fraser’s Government, he was a vociferous opponent of sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Those of us who can’t remember Australia before Whitlam, and who have no knowledge of British or American culture in the 1980s, might honestly believe that Howard has some original ideas and is a proponent of both liberalism and conservatism in the pursuit of human happiness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Howard is a reactionary, who understands politics in terms of the ‘us and them’ mentality of the Cold War and is unable to conceive of, let alone accept, the pluralism of a globalised, 21st century world.

Even his greatest admirers, like The Australian’s opinion writer Janet Albrechtsen, are unable to point to one truly innovative achievement, or identify the smallest element of original vision in Howard’s years in office. Writing on the 28 December last year (‘An excellent year for conservatives and the country’), Albrechtsen gushed that:

Looking back on 2005, Howard has put serious runs on the board [and]has become for Australia what Ronald Reagan was to the US and Margaret Thatcher to Britain.

In other words, Howard is consciously taking us backwards. Only the most elitist, far-removed from everyday life, ideology-driven, reactionary neo-liberal could argue, with a straight face, that 1980s US or UK social and economic policy is relevant to, let alone useful for, the challenges of 21st century Australia and then, only to an audience made up entirely of people like her.

Albrechtsen and her supporters need to stop by Detroit the next time they’re doing the New York-Washington-Boston trip, or venture as far north as Liverpool or Manchester when they’re next in the UK, to see how, after years of Clinton and Blair reforms, lives in these working-class cities are just now or were, in the US beginning to recover from those social policies of the 1980s that sought to control people by exploiting envy, and maintaining a state of constant fear.

While all this was going on, Australia, by comparison, seemed to be forging ahead in the 1980s. We bit the bullet on economic reforms and, despite the ‘recession we had to have,’ fewer people were hurt here than in the US or UK.

What’s followed, is a record run of economic growth. At the same time, the Hawke and Keating Governments provided real social leadership: moving Australia confidently towards being a leader in its own region, pursuing real reconciliation rather than some vague notion of ‘harmony’ with our Indigenous people, and strengthening our cultural diversity, allowing ‘Australian-ism’ to be defined by the best of any cultural element found within our shores, while rejecting the worst of any tradition, regardless of its origin or longevity.

Almost ten years since he saw off the ‘arrogant’ and ‘out of touch’ Keating the last Prime Minister to have any vision for, or faith in, his fellow Australians it’s clear that our current PM feels his work is done. One only needs to read his Australia Day address last week to find the proof that this Prime Minister set out to remake Australia’s culture in his own, narrow-minded and hopelessly old-fashioned, image, and is now crowing triumphantly about a job well done.

Howard spoke of ‘the balance in our national identity between unity and diversity’ and ‘the balance between history and geography in our global strategy.’ Read: I’ve reclaimed our White colonial history and our rightful place as a British colony, replacing that stupid, postmodern idea that we were somehow a multicultural, modern and independent nation of the Asian region.

He celebrated the fact that ‘compared with a decade ago, fewer Australians are ashamed of Australia’s past. I welcome this corrective in our national sense of self.’ Read: we’re more relaxed and comfortable, now, about what we did to the indigenous people. It wasn’t actually us, after all, and why should we nice White people waste our emotional energy feeling bad about what was a natural force of cultural imperialism?

Howard was obviously delighted that:

We’ve moved on from a time when multiculturalism … came to be associated with the transformation of Australia from a bad old Australia that was xenophobic, racist and monocultural to a good new Australia that is culturally diverse, tolerant and exciting. Such a view was always a distortion and a caricature.

Such a view was, in fact, the opposite o
f Howard’s most deeply held beliefs, and he cannot help celebrating its demise, despite the fact that he presents nothing positive to take its place. He offers no proof that the ‘bad old Australia’, to which he seeks to return us, was not xenophobic or monocultural, but seems to believe that repeatedly denying any such accusation is answer enough.

Of course, the PM would never present himself as openly against diversity: he’s far too canny a politician for that. So he lamented the Cronulla race riots, saying that ‘These events brought shame on all involved. Australians, whatever their background, deserve to be treated with tolerance and with respect.’

Key word here: tolerance. Most Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds want, and need, a lot more than mere ‘tolerance.’ ‘Tolerance’ implies that the superior culture (White Anglo Australia) is good enough to put up with the presence of inferior cultures (everyone else). Multiculturalism calls for much more than mere tolerance it demands that we all take an active interest in creating Australian culture from the best elements of all cultures, that we learn from one another and forge our community together as equals.

Howard also said that,

The criminal behaviour of last December should be met with the full force of the law. I do not believe it calls for either national self-flagellation or moral panic.

In other words, don’t look too closely at this at what I’ve done to our nation. It’s just a law and order matter there’s no need to consider the circumstances that have led to the frightening disenfranchisement of a section of Australian society that feels it has not been welcomed into the mainstream. Just as there’s no need to examine what underlying attitudes might have arisen over the last decade that made young White Australians think it was acceptable, or even cool, to use the Australian flag in the same way as neo-Nazis use the swastika or the British National Party uses the Union Jack.

Howard professes to be glad that the ‘divisive, phoney debate about national identity and what it means for our influence in the world has been finally laid to rest.’ He has always maintained that such a debate was a sign of immaturity in our nation.

Surprising, then, that leading British politicians have just participated in a two-day conference on ‘the future of Britishness,’ and that the USA persists with that anachronistic indulgence, the State of the Union Address. If Howard’s beloved Mother Country and his best (cowboy) friend are able to engage in a debate on national identity, why have we laid ours to rest? Is it because John Howard has all the answers, and has decided that no opposing views need be further indulged?

A fish rots from the head. It’s hardly surprising that the leadership of such a man has seen a return to a ‘funny looking foreigners’ mentality in the Department of Immigration, one which allowed a bureaucrat to assume that a confused Filipino woman must be a sex slave. Nor should we be shocked that on the watch of the man who saw nothing worth protesting against in the apartheid regime, visiting South African cricketers have found Australian crowds to be so racist that they might now consider boycotting us.

Howard can be proud indeed. Those progressive fools who held cultural power until he came along who were engaged in creating a society that had more to look forward to with hope, than it did to look back on with pride have been well and truly put in their place.

He feels ‘we have great cause for optimism, if we keep our balance.’

I feel we have great cause for despair if we keep this man in power.

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.