Friday, March 03, 2006

James McConvill: Legacy of fear and loathing

New Zealanders may have missed that John Howard this week celebrates his 10th anniversary and is now Australia's second-longest serving prime minister.

I was initially reluctant to comment on Howard's anniversary. I have never been a Howard fan, but it seemed a bit ungracious to have a go at the man responsible for such a significant political milestone.

It should also be remembered that Howard has presided over a successful economy which has defied the odds in running for more than a decade without succumbing to technical recession (two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth).

Unemployment is low, interest rates are contained, and inflation is benign.

It is important to give credit where credit is due, and Howard deserves enormous credit for steering the Australian economy in the right direction while he has been in charge.

So why do I continue to feel such unease towards Howard? Given that I have an appreciation for sound economic policy, surely I would have been won over by now?

In pondering whether to comment on the 10th anniversary, I toyed with this question for some time. It was more difficult than I thought to pinpoint exactly what makes me so concerned about the country that Howard has presided over and shaped for a decade.

But lightning finally struck watching Australia's political analysis television programme, Insiders, over the weekend. The main topic for discussion was, of course, the 10th anniversary.

In discussing the Howard legacy, journalist David Marr of the Sydney Morning Herald summed it up nicely when he said that Howard has remained in power largely because he is a brilliant architect of fear.

According to Marr, a major reason Australia's voting public continue to back Howard is the belief that Howard will protect them. But protect them from what? Protect them from what Howard has built up to make them fear.

I believe the result is that the present majority of the voting public fears and loathes the present minority of the voting public. This is obviously devastating for Australia as a nation, but helps to fuel the continued operation of the Howard juggernaut.

Over the past 10 years, Australia's culture and attitude has shifted to match our geographic location. Australia has become a backwater.

The majority of Australians have been given a licence to fear Aboriginals, Muslims, refugees, the unemployed, university students, and the list goes on.

And I thought Howard was supposed to govern (according to his 1996 election slogan) "not just for some, but for all of us".

This does not take away at all from Howard's economic credentials. But governing a nation requires more than just steering the economic ship. The ship has to be heading somewhere.

If we were to endorse Margaret Thatcher's statement that "there is no such thing as society" and just ride the wave of economic prosperity, I would be glad to lend Howard my board. But beneath the wave lies an undercurrent of uncertainty and lost hope that needs urgent attention. There is such a thing as society, but it is slowly being washed away by self-interest and smart politics.

If the economy was all that mattered, why not just have a Department of Treasury and Reserve Bank, and toss out the rest of the Australian Government?

Beyond the Treasury are 15 other government departments. The reason for this is that governing cannot be so narrowly focused. Governing "for all of us" extends to health, education, indigenous affairs and a host of other things.

Under Howard, I believe Australians have lost a rich sense of government in the race for a richer economy, and as a result we have a weaker nation with a poorer perception of itself. At the same time, Australians have satisfied Howard's dream of becoming increasingly relaxed and comfortable.

I believe that is certainly something Australians should fear.

* James McConvill is a senior lecturer at La Trobe University, Melbourne. These are his personal views.


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