Howard the Un-Australian


Enough already! It’s time the Labor Party took John Howard’s incantations and shoved them down his throat.

Barely a week seems to pass without the Prime Minister denouncing someone or something as ‘un-Australian.’ He’s appropriated the phrase as his own term of abuse, just as he has appropriated the Anzac legend, the victims of the Bali bombings and, now, the Beaconsfield miners as political props.


Howard has manipulated Bob Hawke’s benign patriotism the stuff of America’s Cup victories, test cricket wins and ‘Let’s stick together’ election slogans into an us-and-them nationalism that serves the interests of the Liberal Party. He has tried, and may have succeeded, in redefining Australia as a selfish, me-centred country, obsessed with material possessions over community spirit.

A Saulwick Poll earlier this year found that 50 percent of Australians believed Australia was a ‘meaner’ place and 55 percent thought Howard a divisive leader. In fact, John Howard is the most un-Australian Prime Minister this country has ever had.

It is most obvious in his assault on working conditions. His industrial relations laws are designed to encourage two of the most unattractive and noxiously un-Australian practices you can imagine ratting on your workmates and crawling to your boss.

No matter how he frames it, Howard’s legislation pits employees against each other in a scramble for the boss’s favour. It encourages those loathsome sycophants we have all experienced, while punishing those who speak up in defence of their rights. Howard has said employees who are a ‘disruptive influence may not find it as easy to remain’ in the workplace. Of course, as any smart employer will tell you, it is often the office rebels those who question authority who are the most creative, and ultimately the most valuable, workers.

Australia has never been a nation of work-obsessed automatons. As historian Russel Ward wrote in 1958 in The Australian Legend, the average Australian, ‘though capable of great exertion in an emergency normally feels no impulse to work hard without good cause.’ Few Australians can see any intrinsic merit in ‘hard work’ per se as opposed to working intelligently. Indeed, there is a mountain of evidence to suggest that long and intense working hours are often the least productive.

Thanks to Alan Moir

Unlike in the United States, the vast majority of Australians work to live, not vice versa, and perhaps the best modern commentary on our realistic work ethic is still the bumper sticker that declares, ‘I’d rather be fishing’ (or sailing).

But to bolster his argument or his fantasy the PM has had to rewrite Australian history. In 1999, he told the Queensland Chamber of Commerce:

We’ve tackled the most fundamental challenges facing Australians today by drawing on their own strengths and values: individualism, a willingness to take on responsibility, the desire for choice and opportunity. In conception and practice, our policies have mirrored the Australian character, Australian priorities; in short, the Australian way.

Except that rugged individualism was never the Australian way. The country was built on co-operation. In short, Australia is a team effort.

In the United States, with its verdant prairies and plentiful rivers, a farmer could pull up his covered wagon, stake his claim and start planting a field. But the Australian landscape was too harsh for the loner. Our pioneers stuck together or they died. Collectivism was etched in our psyche from the earliest days of European settlement.

As early as 1825, with the repeal of the Combination Acts, workers had the right to unionise and just four years later Sydney shipwrights formed the first union. The Chartists those radical democrats and socialists transported from England found some of their most enthusiastic support in colonial Australia. Far from being an anti-tax protest by small businessmen, much of the Eureka Stockade rebellion was inspired by Chartist collectivism (although one of the leaders, Peter Lalor, personally disavowed Chartism).

By 1855, Sydney stonemasons were among the first workers in the world to win an eight-hour day, followed a year later by Melbourne builders. By the turn of the 20th  century and especially after the 1907 Harvester judgement setting a minimum wage Australia was envied around the world as a ‘workers’ paradise.’

How it must have grated with Howard and his ignorant former Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, to learn that John Simpson, the heroic Gallipoli stretcher bearer whom they tried to cast as a self-sufficient individualist, was really a trade unionist and socialist.

I have always thought Labor was foolish to satirise Howard as a Sandy Stone-like antiquity stuck in the 1950s, because the 1950s despite much of its paternalism was a golden era of Australian egalitarianism. We had one of the most even distributions of wealth in the Western world, and unions, through collectivism, were building the broad Australian middle class that keeps Howard in power today.

And yet Howard would have hated it all. On his watch, executive pay has spiralled into obscenity, home ownership has become unaffordable to an entire generation, service clubs and community organisations have withered and fairness is no longer a characteristic of the workplace.

How’s that for un-Australian?

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.