Australians go to the polls to elect a new Prime Minister on November 24 and — if the polls are to be believed — the country’s second longest serving Prime Minister, John Winston Howard, is a dead politician walking. His opponent, the Mandarin-speaking leader of the Labor Party, Kevin Rudd, is the country’s most popular opposition leader in the past 35 years. “Arrogant” and “untrustworthy” are words emerging from political focus groups to describe the man who won control of both houses of parliament in the last election by promising to keep interest rates low. They rose and a highly mortgaged public is now demanding its pound of flesh. The introduction of new workplace laws, effectively doing away with collective bargaining and lowering wages in the process, has also angered working class Australians. The Iraq debacle — and Howard’s unwillingness to withdraw troops — burns in the background.
Speak to his supports and you will be told that Howard is a man of vision and conviction, never backing away from making the tough decisions — a “man of steel” says fellow admirer George W Bush. A leader who calls a spade a spade and speaks for ‘ordinary’ Australians (whoever they are) and defends Australian values (whatever they are).
A quick glance at the record, however, shows that Howard has always been a pure political animal — one that has never known a career outside of politics. If he ever called a spade a spade, he always made sure he had plausible deniability. He introduced “core” and “non-core” election promises into the country’s political lexicon, the latter (and frequently the former) being pledges that he felt no obligation to keep. Symbolism and the mean stoking of nationalism have been used with great success throughout his career. Everything was up for negotiation — witness his conversion on climate change, finally declaring the science valid when he could no longer ignore it was hurting him in the polls.
Likewise, the 68-year-old’s recent pledge to hold a national referendum to insert a statement of reconciliation into the constitution’s preamble towards Australia’s Aboriginal community smacks of election opportunism. His moment of clarity regarding the government’s recognition of the country’s first inhabitants comes after 11 years spent ignoring their plight and trying to erase some of the most violent acts of white settlement from the history books (dropping the “black armband view of history”). So shameless is Howard’s latest initiative that even he was forced to admit “some will no doubt want to portray my remarks tonight as a form of Damascus Road conversion” during its announcement.
The most important Australian value, according to Howard, is mateship, which he defines as the “unconditional acceptance, mutual and self respect, sharing whatever is available no matter how meagre, a concept based on trust and selflessness and absolute interdependence.” Howard’s sharing of Australia’s long economic boom is evidenced by the fact that the gap between the country’s rich and poor has never been wider. Howard’s Australia is one where 20% of the richest households own 61% of the wealth ($1.7 million per household), while the poorest 20% own around 1% ($27,000 per household). After a decade of robust economic growth, low income households have gained an extra $24-a-week increase in income, while high income households have enjoyed more than five times that with a $139 increase. His latest round of industrial relations reform has lead to a $106 per week decrease in the wages of low skilled workers and a widening of the gap between men’s and women’s wages. At the same time, corporate salaries have never been higher. Over his term, Howard has worked tirelessly to introduce a two-tier health and education system. Rampant greed and materialism — qualities once scorned by the nation — are now praised as evidence of a strong entrepreneurial sprit.
Likewise, Howard’s “unconditional acceptance” was amply displayed in his treatment of asylum seekers, who he imprisoned in detention camps located in the desert or surrounding Pacific islands. The 2001 election was won by appealing to the basest elements of the Australian (or any) psyche: us against them. While framing the debate in terms of border security — postulating that al-Qaeda operatives might float over in leaking ships disguised as refugees — the ugly reality was that he was re-elected by adopting the policies of Pauline Hanson’s racist One Nation party. Howard started his career by working to halt Asian immigration and will end it by frothing at the mouth regarding the country’s Muslim community.
Howard will lose the election. His legacy is a cynical, meaner and more materialistic Australia.