Thursday, September 11, 2008

A different take on the Howard legacy

'Politics is not a bad profession. If you succeed, there are many rewards; if you disgrace yourself, you can always write a book.' - Ronald Reagan

Australia's interest in Peter Costello will peak this week, after two decades in the national spotlight. Interest in the man and his views may have been higher in the past when the Liberal/National coalition was in office, but it will never be higher again than they will be this week in September 2008, with the release of Costello's political memoirs.

As the co-architect of some of the Howard Government's most important economic reforms, Peter Costello deserves respect. Perhaps the hysteria about his "will he/won't he" attitude towards the Liberal leadership springs, in part, from a legitimate nostalgia borne of the realisation Australia was a more competently run place under the Coalition; also, from the fact that the Government of which he was a member from 1996 to 2007 really did better represent the mores and natural conservatism of the Australian populace than the clowns who are wrecking the place now.

Since he has now redeclared his intentions more emphatically, that he is not interested in the Liberal leadership, this essay is not concerned with that matter. But since, along with this declaration, there are the reports that Costello has picked out the three biggest failings of the Howard years as themes for his political bildungsroman, I think there are a few things worth saying.

Costello "lists the Republic, Reconciliation and the rise of Hansonism as the major challenges John Howard failed to meet." I was indifferent on the question of whether Costello would choose to become leader until I read those words. Now, a flood of half recalled memory snippets are re-assembling themselves in my brain, and they are causing me to see the man in a different light. Why? I would single out those very three issues as the triumphs of the Howard years.

Under Howard, the Republican charge was stopped cold. Howard, an avowed defender of the current constitution (like myself) delivered a master-stroke by bringing the Republican question to a head under his watch, rather than try to bury the issue. We had the whole three ring circus, a Constitutional Convention (only the fourth to be held in Australia in over a century of Federalism), a spirited public debate, and a referendum which the republicans lost comprehensively. Did Howard fail the Australian public by denying them their say? No. Did he hobble the process by endorsing a half baked process to resolve the matter? No; Of the 36 delegates appointed by Howard to the convention, only ten were avowed monarchists. Howard did not rig the convention. Was the will of the Australian people reflected in the result? Overwhelmingly; Republicanism is now a moribund pursuit in Australia. Australians, regardless of their position on monarchism per se, gained a re-awakened sense of pride in the stability and effectiveness of their constitution, even when tested to its limits by the necessity of dissolving corrupt and failed Governments. Wisely, they fell back to the Aussie maxim "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

On the question of Reconciliation, John Howard's instincts were also right. Support for the 2007 Northern Territory intervention isn't anything a Liberal should be ashamed of, and its continuation under a Labor government must surely be an affirmation of its bipartisan and obvious rightness. Like the motivation of mission schools into the 1930s, the act was designed to address a human tragedy; appalling abuse and dereliction of social responsibility in dysfunctional communities.

Remember that in 1996, the incoming Aboriginal Affairs minister raised the issue of endemic domestic and sexual violence against women and children with the ATSIC board and met with "total denial'. He recounted: "They said: 'What are you talking about?' There was only one female board member and I said to her 'Why didn't you stand up to them?' and she said 'I'm too afraid'."

And since my views on reconciliation are fairly clear, you can ditto me on Howard's approach to Hansonism. Although Howard was muted about Pauline Hanson herself, I suspect his sympathies were more with One Nation than against them. The problem, of course was the erosion of the conservative vote from the Right; a danger that Tony Abbott identified and attempted to short-circuit. Abbott saw this as a threat, and rightly so. Ironically, the ALP are now mired in the same problem from the left with the Greens and seem incapable of addressing it as decisively. But when Howard embraced Hanson's politics it was always to his advantage in the electorate (this analysis holds regardless of your views on Hanson herself), especially on the questions of abolishing ATSIC, and in enforcing better minimum English language and cultural literacy standards for immigrants. Let's be clear; none of us should rue the departure of One Nation from the political stage. In the end, they were inept and disorganised. But John Howard instinctively knew Hanson had correctly read the zeitgeist.

Peter Costello helmed a decade of unprecedented economic growth and reform, and deserves enormous respect for that achievement. But if Costello's recollection of that decade in power is going to focus on these areas as "failings" then I'm afraid he's got it wrong.

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