Every so often, Fairfax and ABC Radio opinionista, Gerard Henderson has a spray at what he calls the ‘Howard haters’. This is certainly an evocative phrase. Images spring to mind of roiling mobs baying for blood, with pinprick pupils for eyes, foam-flecked mouths and handshakes like Mark Latham. In a word: scary.

I suppose it’s been a slow news week (Burma, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, melting polar ice caps, disastrous opinion polls for Howard), so Gerard’s dusted off the column.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

But imagine my shock as I read ‘Critics Face Loss of Raison d’Etre’ to find that I and the rampaging hordes at NewMatilda.com — yes, you — are part of that roiling mob of Howard haters along with media institutions like The Guardian, the New Statesman, the Quarterly Essay, The Monthly, The Age, The Canberra Times, the ABC; and individuals like Richard Flanagan, John Pilger, Julian Burnside and Julianne Schultz.

It would be too easy to ridicule Henderson. For instance, there’s a pretty broad range of opinion represented just by the names mentioned above, and to try and treat them more or less monolithically, as Henderson does, is either pointless, disingenuous or downright misleading. But I think there’s something at the bottom of what Henderson says that is interesting and so, for the sake of debate, I’m going to try not to be too dismissive.

And, in fact, what Henderson does in his recycled ‘Howard haters’ columns is quite representative of what the Right-wing commentariat in general does but usually more offensively and bombastically. So, it will be instructive to take Henderson seriously for a moment. And just to show that it’s not personal, let’s call him and this tendency ‘GH’.

I can’t speak for the serried ranks of opinion writers at The Guardian, the New Statesman or the other publications GH mentions, nor can I speak for everyone who’s ever written for NewMatilda.com, but I certainly don’t hate Howard. I just think he and some of what he stands for is wrong.

Sure, I’m on the record saying a couple of unkind things about him, viz:

Let’s just say that Howard is pretty average among a fairly average lot. To use a cricket analogy: as the captain of Australia, he’s no Benaud, Chappell, Taylor or Waugh, and he can’t ever be Bradman because his front bench aren’t that good. He’s more your Graham Yallop.

To declare my own hand, I agree with Robert Hughes’s assessment:

Howard is the ‘hamster version of Menzies’.

As we relax into Howard’s second decade as PM, it’s also clear that he doesn’t stride across the Australian political landscape like a Colossus as some of his elite, booster commentariat would have us believe. Rather, he’s a limited politician who has managed his limited talents beautifully, and who has had the immense good fortune to be Prime Minister at a time when his rivals have been nothing more than dwarves and pixies.

But that was in the context of a week-long panegyric of love seeping up from the pipes at News Ltd last year, praising Howard as the greatest Australian Prime Minister EVER(!!) on the occasion of the anniversary of his 10th year in office. Easy stomach. (Remember those heady days, GH?)

And yes, over the years, there have been many pieces in NewMatilda.com venting everything from impatience to anger at John Howard’s policies.

But hate?

Howard’s just not that hateworthy.

Let’s try to get past the emotional language and see what GH’s really on about.

For the ever-optimistic GH, "Modern Australia is an efficient, accepting, tolerant society with a very strong economy. Compared with like nations, that is. Consequently, Australia is not very newsy on the world scene." And therefore, the Howard haters exaggerate and ‘egg-up the message’ so we can sell it to all those poor gullible fools who only want to hear doom and gloom. (I assume, fair NewMatildans, that means you.)

Basically, for GH, Howard haters are whingers. Like Hanrahan moaning that we’ll all be ‘rooned’, or Dr Smith in Lost in Space screeching ‘we’re doomed!’ or Chicken Little panicking that the sky is falling, Howard haters according to GH just don’t appreciate the fact that:

Australia is neither complacent nor fearful. Rather it is one of the most enterprising nations in the world due primarily to a quarter century of economic reform initiated by Labor under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and continued by the Coalition under Howard and Peter Costello.

OK. Let’s agree to agree. Firstly, there have been many instances where arguments have been ‘egged up’, where it’s been said that the world as we know it was going to end and it hasn’t. But GH, that’s a function of living in an over-hyped, media-saturated world. And it’s certainly not the exclusive province of one side of the political fence or the other. A little like calling anyone who doesn’t agree with the Coalition Government’s policies a ‘Howard hater’, I’d say.

Secondly, many Australians are well-off. Maybe even the majority. But some are not and through no fault of their own. GH (wilfully?) misses the point here. I would say that it’s the relative prosperity and stability of Australia that makes it more outrageous that some Australians don’t have a ticket for the gravy train.

GH wants his readers to think that all this criticism of Howard is either personal, frivolous or, worse, inconsistent:

Even if the Pilger/Flanagan/Schultz analysis be essentially correct, Australia is unlikely to change much under Labor. Rudd and his frontbenchers have indicated that the ALP broadly supports the Coalition’s policies on a range of social, economic and foreign policy issues, including the Australian-American alliance.

So there you have the crux of GH’s argument (introduced by a nice use of the subjunctive in the opening sentence). First, there should be an equal quotient of hate for both sides of the political seesaw — Howard haters should also be Rudd haters. And secondly, and this is the real emotional base for everything that GH believes and argues for, Rudd’s just like Howard, there’s nairy a skerrick of difference between them. And this, according to GH, is good. This is why Rudd’s acceptable (and Latham was not).

The conservative ascendancy will roll on, no matter what the result at the forthcoming poll.

What’s most striking about GH’s position is his model for historical change. The only acceptable change in this country (because we’re comfortable/successful/enterprising?) is the mere appearance of change: a purely formal, ceremonial handover from Howard to Rudd is the best we can hope for.

But if there’s nothing left to criticise Howard/Rudd about, then either we’ve reached the end of the road and no change is desirable/possible from now on, or change happens only by some strange, inexplicable and incremental magic down at Liberal, National or ALP Party HQ. We, the benighted but grateful beneficiaries of this mysterious change bestowed upon us from above, should just shut up and let our political masters get on with it. They know best. They always have.

What GH is most grumpy about is all this questioning and criticising and carping. Apparently it’s pointless. Apparently, the sectarian, homophobic, wife-bashing, racist, beer-swilling Australia of the 1950s and 1960s changed into the paradise most of us know today (‘an efficient, accepting, tolerant society with a very strong economy’) without anyone outside the Parties’ policy silos thinking or complaining about it much.

And certainly, no one agitated, or criticised, or organised, or marched, or protested, or ever went too far in their criticism, or egged it up, or got emotional. Never.

I’ve met the PM. I don’t hate him. He has a good, firm handshake and he believes he’s doing the right thing. So what? So does everyone. I disagree with him on many issues. Agree with him on some. And don’t care about others.

It’s not personal, GH.

I believe that Australia’s prosperity over the past quarter century has been built on the back of a resilient, flexible and hard-working people who have had the enormous good luck to be sitting on a very large lump of rock with many, many minerals in it.

We’ve taken the good with the bad of Hawke, Keating and Howard and some of us reckon that the current mob are in the process of frittering it all away in advertising and pork barrels and ‘special circumstances’.

I believe that Howard’s in the process of squandering the prosperity you point to, and that, like many State Governments, he’s not good for sustainable capitalism or, in the long term, for the public’s trust in government.

I believe Howard’s Government is wrong about many issues, and I think that, given the billions of taxpayers’ dollars that it’s rolling in at the moment (some of which are mine), Howard could have done more over the past few years about the education of my children, and the hospitals we all end up in, and the infrastructure we all use. And yes, I know that all these are States’ issues but I believe that Howard should have done more about that relationship over the past 11 years, too, not just swanned in off the street and taken over the Mersey Hospital because it felt like a good photo-op.

I believe that Howard could have done more to stop the abuse of Indigenous people wherever they live and not just in the NT, and that it could have started by treating them like human beings and not like stats or encumbrances.

I believe he should have kept us out of the invasion of Iraq, and after we were there, he should have got us out. Why? Because it hasn’t made us safer, it hasn’t made the world safer, and every day we’re there we become more inextricably mired within a corrupt, indefensible disaster.

I believe that Howard’s so-called ‘anti-terror laws’ do not increase the probability of catching any evildoers (actual or potential). I believe these laws, in fact, increase the probability of inept, corrupt or ham-fisted ‘operatives’ hurting me or another innocent Australian. If you don’t believe me, GH, I have four words for you: Amanda Vanstone, Kevin Andrews the Laurel and Hardy of immigration and security issues who together give ‘hapless’ a bad name.

I believe that this Government’s policies and behaviour towards Muslims, especially, have been reckless at best and cynical, opportunistic and politically motivated at worst.

I think all of these issues are worth protesting and writing about. And you’re right, GH, if Prime Minister Rudd behaves no differently, then, I expect the writers who make up NewMatilda.com will criticise him and his Government just as much as they have Howard and his.

And we’ll continue to do it, because that’s how change happens. It’s not about hate, GH, it’s about hope.

Thanks for your time
José Borghino

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