Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Dredging up John Howard's legacy

Drawn to it by professional whinger and nitpicker Gerard Henderson, I watched the final part of the SBS series Liberal Rule, on the nature of John Howard's Prime Ministership.

After living through those years, dredging the past may seem too academic. Still, the documentary (of mainly talking heads) drew together some narrative arcs of the time, and made some connections that are clearer with hindsight.

One point was the effect on Australia of the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center. Howard was in the US at the time, and the personal effect on him both solidified his commitment to US interests ("This would lead to war - the only question was, who with?"), and reinforced his approach to the divisive politics that was a hallmark of his tenure.

The Australian election took place a scant two months after that. This was the Tampa campaign, where a premature conjecture that refugees were throwing their own children overboard was turned into a political football that was deliberately carried by Howard's coterie (particularly the smarmy Peter Reith) far faster than the truth could chase after it. This was the flipside to Howard's consistent efforts to bend Australia to his own mould of uncritical nationalism. An election ad extolled Australia as the greatest country on earth, and "we must do more for border protection and defence to keep it that way".

Footage was shown of refugees from persecution in Afghanistan, who were patently pleased to disembark their boat for a safe shore, not knowing they were being corralled straight into a prison.

We know that Howard deliberately dissembled about his intentions to send troops to Iraq if asked by Bush. But we may remember the footage that showed Howard personally perpetuating the baseless line that Al-Qaeda was influential in Iraq - with even less backup "evidence" than Bush.

This confluence of forces global and local ended up benefiting only Howard - but it wasn't a zero sum game, as the refugees and Australian muslim victims of racist attacks would bear witness.

As the narrative of Howard years drew to a close, one reason for the end was his very politics of fear: "fear runs out if the threat doesn't eventuate" - so Howard's message ultimately fell out of step with the electorate.

That was not before his ideology had taken its toll on the Australian political landscape. Despite Australian muslims being forced to vociferously declare their Australianness, Howard's dogged campaigns at one point had resulted in 50% of high school students believing "muslims are terrorists".

Another stark piece of footage showed Howard responding bluntly to a journalist's question: "I always tell the truth". Yet pollsters found through most of his tenure that the electorate's response to the uncovering of his lies was "tell me something I don't know". Despite a majority believing him to lie, of themselves those lies didn't stop him winning elections until 2007.

Career diplomat Richard Woolcott, who served extensively under both Liberal and Labor, had the final word when he said that when the history books are written, "the legacy... will not be substantial". That could be said to be a truism for a conservative leader - but it needn't be, for anyone. Yet such is Howard's ultimate mark.

PS Answer to yesterday's puzzle: dreamboat (no, it's not boardmate!)

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