Politics is a messyanic business

Patrick Brownlee, The University of Sydney

Paul Kelly The March of the Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2009 (720 pp). ISBN 9-78052285-619-4 (hard cover) RRP $59.99.

Politics and religion are idealised as separate domains in secular western democracies. Indeed, this division has come to represent the definitive ‘good’ in the so-called clash of civilisations between the Christian west and the Islamic non-west. The practice of western democratic politics, however, relies heavily on competing faiths, on card-carrying followers, and yearns cyclically for a messiah to lead its true believers (and the rest of us political heathens) through the valley of death, parting or riding the flood waters of change as they go. Governmental politics, ironically, is a very religious practice.

Governmental politics in other words are very tribal, and as journalist-author Paul Kelly’s recent book The March of the Patriots testifies, Australia’s last two prime ministers Paul Keating and John Howard, were tribal warriors, perhaps the last of their kind. Comparing the Keating and Howard prime ministerships is compelling stuff, especially if you suggest, as Kelly does, that these Labor and Liberal leaders were somehow cut of the same cloth—both 1950s suburban Sydney boys of white Christian background, both administered a healthy dose of work ethic by their small business parents, both having entered parliament by the mid-1970s, etcetera. ‘Paul and John’, Kelly proclaims, ‘were more united by shared experience than virtually any other contestants in a Western Democracy’ (p. 9). Nevertheless, they were of different tribes—one Irish Catholic, one Anglo Protestant—so while they may have shared some formative experiences, their tribal filters were different.

The comparison should end there, but The March of the Patriots attempts a clever manoeuvre in suggesting that neither Keating nor Howard were wedded to their respective party’s ideology. Indeed, throughout the 1980s many thought that Keating, Hawke and the rest of the ALP leadership had abandoned working class ideology, so there may be some truth in Kelly’s contention viz. Keating. Other reviewers of The March of the Patriots have pointed out the limitations of the Keating-Howard comparison, including Robert Manne in The Monthly (2009). Manne rightly suggests that economically both leaders embraced neoliberalism, but that socially and culturally, Keating and Howard were worlds apart. To be fair to the Keating and Hawke years, Labor’s approach to the market did not come with the political jackboot of Thatcherism (perhaps with the exceptions of the use of the military during the airline pilots strike of 1989, or of specific legislation dogging Builders Laborers’ Federation members). Instead Keating’s neoliberal economics were somewhat staggered and subsidising in their approach to changing Australia from a protected, rural and heavy industrial economy to a more lithe, value-adding export economy. What Kelly asks us to understand is that because neither Keating nor Howard (nor Hawke before them) were neoliberal ideologues, they were patriotic tribal warriors for a new Australia in a globalised world.

Socially and culturally, Keating and Howard were worlds apart.

Linking Howard to Keating by asserting that neither was neoliberal helps Kelly’s purpose as an apologist, absolving Howard of his sins in Indigenous affairs, the sham republic (where Howard presented the least popular model as the only choice in a referendum), mandatory denunciation of refugees (as queue jumpers, terrorists), climate change denial, conspiratorial union-busting (with balaclava-clad troops on the waterfront), and ‘middle class welfare’ (through the diverting of public funds to private health and education, thereby subverting pesky state Labor governments in the process). These are signature issues of the period, which highlight that Keating-Howard was an axis of ideological struggle, not a patriotic alliance to establish the new, modern Australia. What is of interest is distilling their ideological difference in the common experience of leading Australia through globalisation. What Kelly presents is a fascination with political style.

Current political debate is also exploiting the linking of Howard, Keating, and Hawke as economic ‘reformers’. The line is that Howard continued the economic business of his prime ministerial predecessors, and that the current Rudd Government is merely the recipient of all the hard work done by others (Abetz 2010; Hawley 2010). Throughout the global financial crisis, claims were made that the only reasons Australia was protected from the worst of the crisis were the policies of John Howard and his treasurer, while Labor claimed that Keating and Hawke laid the foundations for our economic good fortune. However, as recently as 14 January 2010, Liberal Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, stated that Howard and Keating policies were together responsible for Australia avoiding recession, not the Rudd government: ‘Kevin Rudd is incredibly lucky that he inherited the benefits of 25 years of reform that was begun by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating then magnificently continued by John Howard and Peter Costello’ (Uren 2010). Coupling Howard to Keating as a consistent historical legacy serves a contemporary political tactic to neuter Kevin Rudd’s legitimacy. While Rudd has come out shadow-boxing against neoliberalism, the pugilistic Abbott is probably only too pleased to try and separate Rudd from anything that has gone before.

Kelly is right to see his subject matter in epochal terms.

The March of the Patriots, according to Kelly (2008b), is about legacies; historical legacies, and he is right to see his subject matter in epochal terms, from the beginnings of the Labor government under Hawke in 1983. The last 25 or so years of the 20th century mark the beginnings of modern globalisation and this period affords Kelly the minting of Keating and Howard as patriots, each determined to steer the good ship Australia through the flood tide and establish a new settlement in their image. We should be reminded that Keating was a lean and hungry political animal, prepared even to challenge his own leader as much as the gaggle of flying geese on the Opposition walls. Keating famously savaged his own Party’s alpha lion in 1991 only to become the backbench hyena dogging the pride until he out-manoeuvred the silver-maned Hawke to take the prime ministership later that year. Keating’s prime ministership, just like his stint as treasurer, came with some salivating pronouncements about being lean and competitive, about the challenges facing Australia, and with an urgency that victory was just around the corner. We get a better picture of this from Kelly’s previous work of similar magnitude, The End of Certainty.

On the other side of the political Serengeti, John Howard had suffered many a mauling by friend and foe alike. Often flying north instead of south for the winter, the Liberal Party was a confused and unhappy gaggle in opposition. Little wonder, then, that after he was crowned PM in 1996, Howard spoke of being ‘relaxed and comfortable’: he must have been worn out after more than a decade of Keating’s vitriolic taunting and the Liberal Party’s internecine insurrections. And so his vision for Australia was not a hunger for more, but for less. Australia could be (at best) tolerant, he thought; and in government, Howard transmogrified from the old gander protecting the picket fence to an ostrich, often burying his head against the winds of social and cultural change, against right-wing Hansonism, against the desperate need to reconcile first the ongoing psychological, emotional damage to Aboriginal Australia, and against the geopolitical realities of globalisation and Australia’s economic and partial political assimilation within Asia.

I’d like to turn to some of the themes that pock the mantle of a neoliberal, globalising Australia and which come up in Kelly’s book. One is ‘middle class welfare’, a phrase both tribes have used to criticise each other at different times, although Howard’s government made itself an easier target with its support for private schooling and private health insurance, eradication of means testing for certain government grants, extreme salary sacrificing and reductions in progressive income tax arrangements. The privatisation of education and health are dear to a neoliberal heart, where quality service is provided to those who have; while the idea that funds be collectively held and distributed by government for any such service causes at least mild reflux in your average neoliberal stomach. The term ‘middle class welfare’ is, to borrow one of Keating’s famous expressions, obscurantism. Howard’s subsidisation of private health and education should never be rebadged as middle class welfare. Rather, such policies should be recognised as part of the desiccation of the social contract that is transforming a collectivist to an individual incentive model of service delivery. Howard’s targeted handouts may have created or pandered to a faux middle class sensibility, but no real trust or communitarian action is likely to gel from policies that conjure individual monetarist behaviour deep in our psyche.

The Liberal Party was a confused and unhappy gaggle in opposition.

Another theme pregnant in the period is populism. The advance of populism, notably under Howard, was self validated by the straw man of ‘political correctness’ he and fellow conservatives wheeled out for easy demolition. A more perverse and pervasive example of populist doublespeak during this period was that of ‘balance’ in the public sphere, especially in the media, and even more especially at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Howard and his coterie made much of this idea of balance, to the point of stacking the ABC Board and directorship with influential fellow travellers, and initiating complaints and reviews of the ABC’s news coverage to ensure the Coalition government was not maligned and received ‘equal’ coverage. The ABC was, according to one of Howard’s minister’s ‘the enemy’ (Schultz 1998, p. 6), and subsequent attempts to force the ABC to become more commercialised were also part of the strategy to shift any bias away from the broadcaster’s reputation as a critical investigative newshound. Such intervention in publicly owned media threatened not just the integrity of news coverage, but over time has neutered expectations of critical journalism (Posetti 2007; Ellingsen 2006; Schultz 1998; see also Friends of the ABC, various dates). Through the Howard era of political re-correctness we came to expect that, even in our major print dailies like The Sydney Morning Herald, anti-leftist polemics of columnists such as Miranda Devine and Gerard Henderson would sit comfortably alongside their anti-matter, in form of the critical opinions of, say, David Marr, Anne Summers or Hugh Mackay (see also ‘Critical voice gets keys to citadel’ 2005). This is truly a balance on paper only. The legacy of Howard’s populism is, strangely, a polarisation that tolerates not a balanced opinion, but a balance of opinions; an acceptance of tribalism despite a yearning for unity. Uniquely for a journalist, The March of the Patriots does attempt to balance an opinion, but unfortunately Keating and Howard were not soul mates nor tasked by the same psychology.

Overall, what’s indigestible through Kelly’s superlative chronicle of the Keating-Howard axis is the feeling that the Australian population was completely malleable through its insignificance to political decision-making. I suppose that concern is best left to a social historian. Kelly, as political journo, gives us a spyglass into the political transactions of our elected leaders. But it’s a bloated hagiography that falls short of making this the political thriller its title suggests. From such a close scrutiny of the governors, however, we can be cynically reassured that political decision-making is the practice of an animist religion. Instinct, nerve and spirit underpin the faith that binds the political ecosystem we know as ‘Canberra’. Kelly serves it up in biblical proportions.


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Patrick Brownlee is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong and Research Manager at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. He has co-edited a number of publications on migration and multiculturalism, has worked as a freelance journalist, and is currently writing his dissertation on the political economy of multiculturalism in Australia.