Once upon a time, in a country far, far away from his spiritual home in the great British Empire, a conservative lawyer rose to the coveted position of Australian Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister was a canny old Tory and, despite predictions that larrikin Aussies wouldn’t warm to such an old-fashioned anglophile, he succeeded in leading a strong Coalition Government for many years. At a time when the Australian economy was roaring, his policy focus was men, money and markets.
He ruthlessly exploited fears of foreign radicals and militant unionists to maintain his grip on power, and this strategy worked beautifully for the best part of a decade. He attacked those who spoke out against him as ‘un-Australian,’ tried to stare down Melbourne’s wharfies during a nasty waterfront war and, after unexpectedly crushing the Labor Opposition at his penultimate election, set about introducing a nationalised system of labour market deregulation.
After a few years in the job, this Prime Minister, always prone to hubris, came to believe himself invincible. But his uncompromising stance on Industrial Relations proved a bridge too far and, in the Labor landslide that followed, his Government was annihilated and the Prime Minister lost his own seat.
Am I jumping the gun? Is this a too-bold retrospective of the career John Winston Howard?
No. In fact, it’s the story of Stanley Melbourne Bruce, Australia’s eighth Prime Minister and, so far, the only one to lose his seat while holding that office.
There are some obvious differences between Bruce’s and Howard’s stories not the least of which is that Bruce was forced to the polls in 1929 when dissent within his own ranks over the Maritime Industries Bill brought down the Nationalist-Country Party Government. No chance of that in the tightly controlled, ‘disunity is death’ culture of today’s politics. I’ve been selective with the account above in order to paint this parallel and I’m not an historian.
But that’s kind of the point. For a man who speaks so passionately about knowing Australian history, John Howard seems unaware of the lessons that history might contain for him. I found everything I needed to know to write the above passages by googling my way to Government-funded websites, including those of the National Museum and National Archives which leads me to believe that Howard’s ignorance of this parallel with Bruce is more willful than blissful.
Over the past 11 years, Howard and members of his cheer squad, from conservative think tanks and in the conservative press, have been trumpeting the line that Australia is a conservative country. It’s a lie that won’t become true no matter how often they repeat it.
Despite the calls from organisations such as the H R Nicholls Society to take the extreme industrial relations legislation even further, Howard has had to swallow the bitter pill that, no matter how much he spends on spruiking it, WorkChoices is wildly unpopular in a country that was built by working people and has always prided itself on fairness and equality.
Howard’s deep ideological opposition to the empowerment of working people his belief in the superiority of the old capitalist class over the rest of us, who actually make the money that such capitalist overlords invest has, as Paul Keating pointed out last Tuesday, been the driving force in his career. It is Howard who is out of touch with modern Australia when he insists on setting up this out-dated and false opposition.
Australia was once known as ‘the working man’s paradise.’ It was this reputation that anyone, with hard work, could get ahead in Australia that drove the waves of immigration of hard working people from class-ridden countries of the old world, and built a prosperous, fair and, yes, wealthy nation with a standard of living envied the world over. Australia was known as a classless society not, as some conservative voices would have us believe, because we didn’t talk about economic inequality, but because we did everything we could to minimise it.
The Hawke and Keating Labor Governments, recognising the restrictions of our old protectionist system, modernised the Australian economy and, by introducing compulsory superannuation, provided the means by which all Australians could begin to build capital and reap the benefits of investment in the products of their hard work. The IR structure Keating built, which has underpinned our strong economy for almost 15 years, was both flexible and fair. Howard’s WorkChoices changes have removed both those crucial elements from our industrial relations system.
After unexpectedly winning control of the Senate in 2004, Howard’s pragmatic, everyman mask slipped, and the old ideological war-horse was revealed. Now, staring down the barrel of electoral defeat in his own seat, it may be too late for him to learn the lessons of Australian history. But Peter Costello, one of the four free market radicals who co-founded the H R Nicholls society in 1986, will be waiting in the wings to complete the extreme deregulation of our industrial relations system if he succeeds Howard as Prime Minister.
If, as is the wont of progressive political junkies, I may conclude with a quote from The West Wing: ‘I don’t mind that [Howard] doesn’t know history, I mind that he hasn’t seen a movie.’ Pay-TV channel Ovation is currently showing the 1984 mini-series Waterfront, the story of the 1928 wharfies’ strike that contributed to Stanley Bruce’s downfall. Howard should tape it, for viewing on 25 November.
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