Liberals lead by looking backwards

Judith Brett, La Trobe University

Donald Horne, Looking for Leadership: Australia in the Howard Years, Penguin Viking, 2001 (286 pp). IBSN 0-670-91237-9 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

J. R. Nethercote, Liberalism and the Australian Federation, The Federation Press, 2001. IBSN 1-86287-4026 (paperback) RRP $44.00.

‘Thank God for old men with good memories and clear minds’ was my first thought on completing Donald Horne’s Looking for Leadership: Australia in the Howard Years. Not that this reads like the work of an old man—it is witty, passionate, and full of sharp observations that pierce the many balloons of journalistic cliché filling our media, floating just before our eyes, bumping into each other pretending to exchange ideas and generally obscuring the view. It is written by an astute observer with a detailed memory of the past seventy or more years of our national life and is full of wise common sense.

Horne’s is a past of ordinary Australians: his grandparents’ lower middle class suburban home in Denbigh Street Kogarah, and the Hunter valley small town of Muswellbrook in the 1930s, the setting of The Education of Young Donald. These two pasts, and his adult working life as a journalist and writer, provide Horne with touchstones from which he can challenge Howard’s various mistaken pasts: his Dreamtime Fifties, his World War One and Anzac myths, his white blindfold history, and his Bush, in which he strides around in his parodied Bush attire: ‘what he seemed to see as the ethnic dress of rural areas—grey flannel trousers, sports jacket, sports shirt and tie, and on top of his head a mini Akubra.’

To Horne, Howard’s failure is not just that he gets the past wrong, seeing it through a pinchingly narrow set of preoccupations and experiences, but that he is unable to convey to Australians any sense of their shared future, as his notoriously empty Federation speech showed. (This speech is reproduced at the back of the book, along with other markers of the rhetoric of the period, such as Pauline Hanson’s first speech, John Howard’s aborted preamble to the Constitution and the other John Howard’s apology to indigenous Australians made on ABC Television’s The Games.)

Horne judges leaders by their words: ‘A minimum to be expected from a political leader is the ability to make a few memorable remarks that seem to sum up what the leader and the party stand for, and the kind of meaning we might find in existence.’ Quite a minimum! And the only two leaders he sees as meeting it since the Second World War are Chifley and Menzies. Leaders should talk to the people, explain to them why certain things are happening, help them to understand change, sympathise with their predicament and appeal to their better natures, to their hopes and generosity not just their fears and mean mindedness, give them expansive views of themselves and their societies, and tell them the truth. In a small, not very powerful country like Australia, this may mean telling them about their government’s limited ability to control the effects of the world economy, something no recent leader has been able to do.

The book ranges more widely than the Howard years of the subtitle but Howard is the focus of its scorn—a mean leader who has aggravated people’s anxieties about multiculturalism, race, indigenous Australians and most recently refugees. He is not, however, the only leader to have failed Australians in recent years. Hawke made little use of his empathy and capacity to communicate as the economy headed into unchartered territories in the late 1980s with Australia’s manufacturing capacity melting away before our eyes. ‘In the period of the Economy turned upside down, no leader showed credible sympathy for the people who, through no fault of their own, had suffered pain from economic change.’ And neither leaders nor commentators have had the capacity to talk economics in ways that made sense to ordinary people. The economic backlash of Hansonism was, according to Horne, the result of this political incompetence.

If Howard is unable to convincingly project a shared future, and gives only a narrow and distorted view of our shared past, how does his party fare when it embarks on a major historical retrospective? Liberalism and the Australian Federation is the result of a grant to the Liberal Party from the National Council of the Centenary of Federation to prepare and publish a major account of Liberalism in the first century of the Australian Federation. It is a handsome volume, and it includes some very valuable essays, but it does not add up to a tangible or coherent story.

The problem is that Liberals don’t really believe they have changed in any fundamental way.

It has been observed often that in comparison with Labor’s energetic historicising, the Liberals have been bad at projecting their history, and various explanations have been put forward. The left wing bias of Australian intellectuals is the chief one, and we can add to this the organisational discontinuity that has fragmented the Liberals’ archive. As the Liberal Party became the Nationalist Party became the United Australia Party became the Liberal Party again, records were lost and destroyed, or dispersed into private papers. In comparison with the ALP’s well organised archive, scholars of the prewar parties must piece their stories together from fragments scattered across the country, particularly once they move from leaders and policies to the history of the party organisations, and few have had the energy or the resources to do this. An exception is Clem Lloyd, whose 1983 PhD on the UAP is a monument to scholarly persistence and for me one of the highlights of this collection is his chapter on the 1930s.

Lloyd’s chapter is one of a sequence of historically based chapters, which form the core of the book. On the whole these are straightforward political history which, read sequentially, give a good overview account of the parties, leaders and governments since Federation. Ian Hancock puts the case for the creativity of Gorton’s government, arguing that Gorton pre-figured Whitlam in his commitment to using Commonwealth powers in the areas of the Arts, Aboriginal Affairs and education. Gorton’s reputation may be in for something of a reviva—Horne too sees him as setting Australia on new directions in the late 1960s and gives him the credit for the first articulation of the vision of a multi racial Australia. The sequence runs badly off the rails, however, when it gets to Andrew Norton’s chapter on the Howard government, which is not straightforward at all but rather a confused and tendentious attempt to rewrite the preceding history of Australian liberalism to make the current government its truest exponent since Deakin and protection defeated free trade in the few years after federation.

Norton’s chapter continues a line developed early in the book by Greg Melluish, that protectionism and the Deakinite settlement were the selfish and illiberal products of a morally bankrupt statism in which the Victorians appropriated the term ‘liberal’ from its rightful bearers, the New South Wales free traders. Norton and Melluish see true liberal values as only beginning to reassert themselves towards the end of the twentieth century when increased individualism combines with free market economics to defeat the old inward looking white nationalism. It’s a bizarre argument, at odds with the rest of the book which clearly wants to claim Deakin for the liberal tradition, but its bizarreness is instructive of another, deeper reason for the Liberals’ inability to produce convincing histories about themselves. Norton and Melluish shift their commentary on Australian liberalism from historical analysis to political polemic about the true nature of liberalism. Such polemic is of limited value in understanding the nature of the political tradition to which the Liberal Party is heir, and gives no way of understanding how this has changed across the century in response to changes in Australia’s economic, social and international circumstances.

The problem is that Liberals don’t really believe that they have changed in any fundamental way. As Howard says in the Foreword, ‘At the heart of contemporary Australian liberalism are [sic] a set of values that have guided Australians for more than a century’. Other Liberals talk in terms of philosophies or principles. Their main interest is to assert the continuing relevance of their values, or, as in the case of Melluish and Norton, to argue that the party has for a time been following the wrong ones. History is conscripted to such purposes and can thus only ever be illustrative. The resulting historical enquiry is severely circumscribed. As the values exist in the timeless realm of truth, there is little interest in probing the social bases of these values, or asking when, how, and why they have changed across the century. This brings me to the last and most fundamental reason for the lack of historical writing coming from within the Liberal tradition. When exercised at full stretch, the historical imagination starts to look a little like the sociological; it puts values into social contexts, attaches them to people and experiences, to particular socio-economic locations and interests, and so suggests that there is more to their survival than their self-evident truth and that society is more than a collection of right and wrong thinking individuals. Of course the essays of historical narrative more or less recognise such self-evident truths, but they do not frame the book’s enterprise and one is left with no big clear picture of the place and meaning of the Liberal tradition in twentieth century Australia.

Judith Brett is Reader in Politics at La Trobe University. She is the author of Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People (Macmillan, 1992) and is currently completing a book on Australian Liberal and the Moral Middle Class. She is very interested to talk with people interested in undertaking postgraduate work on the Australian Liberals..