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Last Saturday, the drama of the Australian elections was played out. By the evening’s end, the result was clear: John Howard) had been steamrolled by Labor’s Kevin Rudd. The Howard era in Australian politics had come to an end. One government minister, Senator Minchin, ventured an idiosyncratic hypothesis: the Australians had shown their gratitude for Howard’s reforms by voting him out.
The last eleven or so years will be remembered as one of the more reactionary, consumer-driven periods in Australian history. Australians pride themselves on the ‘fair go’, an admirable sentiment that if more often intangible than not. Under Howard, ‘fairness’ usually meant more money for private schools, more mobility in the labor market by attacking unions and stripping award protections, and more restrictions on asylum seekers and a curtailing of civil liberties. It also meant the introduction of a Goods and Services Tax.
Howard contrived to play the blue collar voters against their traditional Labor base. Labor was aghast. Surely their traditional voters would remain loyal? They didn’t. Howard became a paternal figure, decent, and protective of Australia in times of world crises. The Australian ‘battler’ came into being.
At one end, Howard risked fanning the flames of agrarian populism. A free market threatened, amongst other things, local industries. Some voters punished him by voting for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Fortunately for Howard, the global economy had started to speed up, delivering growth, albeit unevenly, that even he could not have predicted. The hope was that keeping Australians wealthy would silence both Hanson and their conscience.
This worked, in part. When a Norwegian vessel came within sight of Christmas Island in August 2001, Howard’s response was to deploy the famed special forces to stop it. There were no terrorists on board, nor was there a security risk of any consequence. The reason: over four hundred asylum seekers had taken liberties by entering Australian waters. They had ‘jumped the queue’ of UN refugee camps in Southeast Asia, where decency demanded they stay. Good refugees needed papers and documents, a verifiable identity.
The term ‘asylum seeker’ was scratched from the human rights lexicon. These ‘queue jumpers’ were ‘un-Australian’ brutes who threw their children into the sea, sewed up their children’s mouths in detention centres, and followed the dictates of Islam. Far better keep them in a network of detention centres across the Pacific in places more known for their guano than human resource management the blessed ‘Pacific’ solution.
The terrorist attacks in the U.S. that September added grist to Howard’s political mill, and suddenly, Osama bin Laden’s helpers were said to be taking rides on leaky boats towards Australia’s vulnerable shores. Without blinking, Australians, as they had in previous wars, followed an empire into battle in countries they could barely locate on the map.
Howard’s success, much like Thatcherism in Britain, was to narrow the field of political debate. The economy dictated the world view. Everything else was incidental. Opposition leader Kevin Rudd became an astute political copycat, and ‘me-tooism’ was born. What Howard did, Rudd could do, and do better. Both threatened to spend the government surpluses into oblivion should they win office, though Rudd assured voters that his spending spree would be modest in comparison.
Howard’s weakness lay in an area his government had staked their political lives on. Industrial relations proved to be the true vote turner. Work Choices was that bridge too far even the blue collar voters started to twitch. Dismissing workers had never been easier. Suddenly, the prosperity readings were suffering a fall. An interest rate rise during an election campaign also sent the Coalition government into a nosedive.
Howard will pass into history as the second-longest serving Prime Minister after Gordon ‘Ming’ Menzies. Both periods prove similar. Where the making of money is coupled with that perennial fear of national security, governments rarely change and the opposition simply warms the benches. As the voting figures still come in, it looks like Howard might even lose his own seat, one he has held for over thirty years. There is only one precedent for this: Stanley Bruce in 1929. And, demonstrating why history lessons might be useful, that loss was due, in no small part, to industrial relations.
BINOY KAMPMARK is a Commonwealth Scholar from Selwyn College, Cambridge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org