A Post-Moral PM


In a recent address to celebrate conservative Quadrant Magazine‘s 50 years in vituperative print, Prime Minister John Howard said, ‘Of the causes that Quadrant has taken up that are close to my heart, none is more important than the role it has played as counterforce to the black armband view of Australian history.’

Let Quadrant‘s motto, following Howard, now shamelessly read, ‘Hail the blank armband of amnesia.’



In the same speech, the Prime Minister purported to have heroes. It will be a relief to some that the most unheroic of political figures has inspirational sustenance. Howard praised the ‘moral clarity’ of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.

Now, rather than express outrage at Thatcher’s support for apartheid, Reagan’s dance with Latin American death squads and the good father’s sneer at liberation theology and contraception, I will pause a moment and not take the bait.

I don’t believe these are John Howard’s heroes. I think he was pandering to his audience. There are no greater heroes than these three for the Quadrant lot.

In fact, I don’t think John Howard believes anything at all. If not quite our first post-modern prime minister, he is at least our first post-moral prime minister. In the words of philosopher Slavoj Zizek, our times are marked by an ability to keep on doing that which we know to be wrong: ‘They know what they are doing, but still they do it.’

John Howard lives by this post-modern cynicism, even as he critiques it. He can’t fail to notice how the press gallery recasts his mendacity as political sagacity, and he revels in this good fortune.

Those who write history seek meaning, so they invest Howard with intention, purpose and vision, all of which he lacks. The result is that recent Australian political history may well be written as nothing more than a scoresheet of interest rates, export earnings and ad hoc payoffs to the electorate. This does not befit the story of the fall of the social-democratic Australian settlement experienced by many Australians.

John Howard’s own story is a simple one. He saw which way the wind was blowing and set his sails accordingly. He is the clown who saw Australian politics for the circus it was and played to the crowd. There is no grand tale to tell. John Howard sees no nuances. He sees balance sheets and numbers. Those are his ‘values’. He plays the political game on the ‘Right’ simply because that’s where it’s best to be.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Howard’s foreign policy reveals all. He plays Dixie capitalism with the United States and digs our mines for the Chinese Communist Party. He diverts human rights dialogue into secret encounters with the Chinese, and to advance the War on Terror he suspends Western judicial tradition for the US.

He says publicly that he believes there is no inevitable calamity between the US and China, knowing that US foreign policy is predicated on that very thing.

Howard is no Machiavellian statesman. Rather, like any milk-and-bread corner-shop owner, he knows there are rival gangs on the street. Open gang-warfare is bad for business. So he fawns, and placates both sides, wishing for an empire of perpetual peace in which the cash register rings eternal. He knows one day this will not be so and hopes that money can be banked in any case. Amnesia serves him not only in domestic politics.

The Americans made a president out of a B-grade actor. His wooden words ‘the evil empire’ were those of a puppet on a string. Those words became meaningless and irrelevant as the internal contradictions of the Soviet Union brought about its own demise. Like Forest Gump, Reagan will forever be fortuitously associated with historic events not of his making.

The British took an elocution-conscious petit bourgeois as prime minister and reinvented French bread riots. ‘Let them eat the poll tax,’ she said.

We made a prime minister out of a nondescript man who leaves not a single phrase worthy of memory. Instead, Howard will be remembered for what he could not say: sorry.

What Howard lacks above all is sincerity. This is the man of over-board hyperbole; the man who will not sack a single minister involved in the AWB scandal.

I am not shocked by his apparent choice of heroes. Instead I will praise the political genius of John Howard’s amoral clarity: he looked into the dirty little soul of Australian insecurity and has made of it his own political credo.

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.