Howard’s gone to water

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

Posted Monday, 12 February 2007

The Howard Government will be remembered for progressive gun control in the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre, helping to liberate East Timor from Indonesia, drawing Australia into the Iraq morass, the expansion of Federal control (particularly in the area of WorkChoices), balaclavas on the wharves, attacks on the welfare state (particularly its crackdown on single parents, disability support pensioners and unemployed people), repressive treatment of asylum seekers arriving without visas, paternal intervention in Indigenous affairs, neglect of David Hicks’ rights as an Australian citizen and taking over of the Murray Darling River system.

The Labor Party, following Howard’s defeat of Paul Keating, will be remembered for the Beazley-Crean failed attempts to install a dynasty of sons of pretty ordinary ex-ministers, Latham’s mad hatter’s tea party, Beazley’s back-downs in the wake of the Tampa, and ten years of factional warfare before the installation of the Rudd- Gillard “dream team”.

For a decade, the Liberals, led by Howard, gave the appearance of being unassailable.
The Democrats were knocking each other down in an attempt to be the first to press the self-destruct button.

The Greens could not translate the warm inner glow emanating from sensible environmental, industrial, social welfare and peace policies into a formula which would deliver sufficient votes to gain the balance of power.

The Left in Australian politics was doing what it does best – disintegrating into the hard-left, the soft-left, the left- behind, the left-right-out-of-it and the left-go-and-have-a-drink groups.

Academics, church worthies, social welfare leaders and others agonised in public forums while mainstream media was so busy reporting stock market prices, interest rates and currency values that it ignored what was happening to those who did not live on Sydney’s North Shore.

While many commentators referred to the basic decency of Australian people, Labor acted as though one day the voters would, like a computer, revert to the decency default mode if only they could be turned on.

Howard, however, was on top of the debate. He declared again and again that Australians were humane and compassionate towards refugees, disabled people and the poor. The press never properly challenged him to demonstrate how his policies could be adequately described as decent. He was simply allowed to get away with bland assertions.

The Democrats and the Greens sensed that the inherent decency of Australians simply required people to be shown the unethical nature of the Howard Government’s policy directions. It was a very long wait indeed before the citizenry started to question what was happening.

But inexorably something altered. Climate-Change was no longer about why the Kyoto agreement, signed by most countries of the world, could not be signed by Australia and the United States: Climate-Change and greenhouse emissions became “the Drought”. The war in Iraq had not become the political issue in Australia that it was in Britain and the Unites States because we had not lost any troops. Then came Brendan Nelson and the Private Kovco saga. Voters started to realise what a sordid and messy affair the Coalition of the Willing’s invasion of Iraq had become.

Refugee support groups who had doggedly waged campaign after campaign started gaining traction and, as the number of boat people arriving dried to a trickle, “the children overboard” fiasco and the “Pacific Solution” started to be seen as racist political opportunism.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions organised effectively against the industrial relations changes which the Coalition Government foisted on Australian workers. A series of entertaining rallies were held right around the country against what the unions called the “WorstChoices” legislation. Day after day, examples of unscrupulous employers’ actions were reported in the mainstream media. Labor’s traditional blue collar supporters started to drift back to the fold once they saw the emerging need for greater industrial protection.

The Rudd-Gillard team stayed on the job over the long Christmas break. They rightly sensed that Beazley had lost a lot of ground during the previous holiday period. In addition, they realised that they desperately needed to shed the maverick image Labor had acquired during the Latham period.

They started reaching out to business and some of the other alienated or disillusioned constituencies who had walked away from Labor in the previous decade. The factional debacle which had helped keep Labor from gaining electoral appeal was massaged to the point that it was down to a dull roar.

Howard realised for the first time since gaining office that he had a fight on his hands. He metamorphosed from a Kyoto-opposing Climate-Change-sceptic into a “Climate-Change-realist” and simultaneously dragged the debate back to water and the drought (Madigan 2007).

Malcolm Turnbull has been appointed water impresario. In many ways this will be last really new policy likely to emerge before the next election. Rudd has wisely accepted that the best thing he can do is go along with the policy; after all being against supplying more water would be akin to standing on a platform against motherhood.

In political terms, it matters not one jot whether Howard’s plan delivers more water, better environmental outcomes or more secure water supply to irrigators. The next election will be well and truly over before the outcome of the Howard plan can be assessed. So Howard is running on water and Rudd’s joined the swim.

Howard will try to distract and divide the electorate on issues like secondary education policy but he will not be successful. Labor’s revamped schools policy is more straightforward and less cluttered by ideological baggage. The Liberal’s education policy is weighed down by Howard’s continuing culture wars.

Clever, consistent politician that he is, nothing will save Howard from losing the next election. The Government, even with its new faces, looks tired and all the spin in the world won’t be enough to hide its 2007 use-by date. There are just too many people who have woken up to the fact that they have been conned by clever words and half truths. They want a change and will turn to the dream team to provide it.