An overview of the legacy of the Howard governments – Book Review

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Wednesday, 7 April 2004

This timely book houses a collection of 12 essays that analyse Howard’s contribution to the Australian body politic. The book has become available at a time when the scales have fallen from the eyes of many Australians. For the second time since 1996 Labor looks likely to assume the Treasury benches. This book provides an ideal viewing platform to reflect upon the contribution that John Howard has made to the nation.

Those citizens who have bought Howard’s socially conservative, economic-liberal ideology lock, stock and barrel would, if they read such texts, claim Robert Manne’s edited collection to be biased in favour of left-wing elites. The book should come wrapped in a heavy plastic cover warning such citizens to stick to magazine stories of the life and times of Pauline Hanson, stock market summaries, and illustrated coffee-table books on social etiquette.

Ten of the 12 contributors to the collection hold professorial-level appointments, one is a visiting fellow at ANU and the 12th is a leading political journalist. It is not a book written by left-wingers for left-wingers.

The book thoughtfully surveys a broad range of issues including Australia’s politics, economics, education, ecology, social welfare, foreign policy and the treatment of asylum seekers and Indigenous people. The book starts with Manne’s substantial overview that encompasses many of his recent preoccupations: stolen children, refugees, the politics of race and foreign policy in our region.

Judith Brett and Helen Irving provide interesting but different perspectives on where John Howard sits on the conservative/liberal ideological spectrum. Mick Dodson revisits many of the struggles that Indigenous people have had with Howard and his Ministers since 1996. Dodson recalls the half to three-quarters of a million Australians who marched for reconciliation in 2000.

John Quiggin provides an excellent overview of the economic situation since the Howard ascendancy. Quiggan’s analysis is accessible to those without economic training and his writing style is far less convoluted than much of his academic writing. He writes with authority on unemployment, privatisation and public debt. Julian Disney’s account of the Howard government’s retreat from adequate social provision is overly even-handed: “on this side blah, blah but on the other hand blah, blah”. He does marshal a degree detail and some readers would probably call it a balanced account. For me, it was the most boring chapter in the book.

Simon Marginson also supplies the reader with a wealth of detail on present challenges faced by the higher educational system. His writing is lucid, succinct and enjoyable. His analysis adds to the current “user pays/public good” contest in higher education. Ian Lowe gives an insider’s account into some of the major ecological debates from Kyoto to the increasing salinity of arid Australia.

Tony Kevin provides an overview of some of the current foreign policy debates. M.C. Ricklefs analyses the Australian Indonesian relationship in considerable detail and makes numerous insightful remarks about some of the complexity that surround communications between these two nations.

There are two chapters that are a delight to read for two very different reasons. The first is William Maley’s thoughtful essay on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Maley writes in the finest tradition of polemical essayists blending the historical literature with contemporary detail. He links the horrendous outcomes faced daily by asylum seeker adults and children to:

  • the Howard government’s treatment of asylum seekers;
  • the government’s obsession with hiding asylum seekers away from the view of the public and the press; and
  • the failure to live up to the United Nation’s refugee convention, which Australia has signed, ratified and previously honoured.

He explains how we came to run detention centres in places as remote as Woomera and Nauru, how (until recently) asylum seekers (including children) were referred to by numbers not by their names. He discusses concepts such as the “banality of evil”, “ordinary vices”, “moral cruelty” and their relationship with Australia’s refugee policy.

Maley’s essay deals with a chilling chapter of Australia’s recent history. This is a must-read section of the book. He quotes Phillip Ruddock and Michael Wooldridge, Ministers in the first Howard government, proclaiming the cruelty of creating uncertainty in the minds of those granted refugee status that would occur if refugees were given only temporary protection visas. In 1998 Wooldridge said: “creating insecurity and uncertainty … is one of the most dangerous ways to add to the harm that torturers do.” Maley also notes that in 1999 Howard adopted Pauline Hanson’s suggestion that people arriving in this country without visas would, at best, be offered a three- year revolving Temporary Protection Visa.

Mungo MacCallum’s essay gets down and dirty. It is classical Mungo. He describes reasons why the “little Aussie battlers” are walking away from Howard, having realised that the only “little Aussie battler” Howard is interested in is himself.

Mungo details some of the duplicity in which the government has engaged in an attempt to prop up voter support. My favourite paragraph in his essay is:

Howard’s deferential biographer, David Barnett, states correctly that his hero has the memory of an elephant and the hide of a rhinoceros; what he fails to add is that Howard has the breadth of vision of a blindworm and the imagination of a damp lettuce. The man knows nothing but politics. Beyond a Ginger-Meggs devotion to sport and its (politically useful) stars he has no known outside interests. Intellectual pursuits are a waste of time – indeed, faintly suspect, as his attacks on the elites and the intelligentsia make clear. One suspects that the last non-political book he read was the Boy Scout’s Guide to Knots and the last time he was in a theatre was to have his tonsils out. (pp.60-61)