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Labor's best chance to beat Howard is to re-invent national politics

By Peter McMahon - posted Thursday, 11 September 2003


Another term under the Coalition, and probably John Howard, will see Australia well on the way to being a mean but fairly wealthy country along American lines. Just with fewer guns, and of course that wealth is very unevenly distributed. Labor's best chance to alter the program is to realise that politics in Australia has fundamentally changed, and that Labor must re-invent national politics itself by offering a genuine alternative.

The success of John Howard has become the great political story of the past decade. The events of the past few weeks, when Howard was caught again and again denying responsibility or knowledge in relation to the actions of subordinates, have only proved his relative imperviousness. And of course his economy with the truth in relation to the children overboard matter and the invasion of Iraq (still no weapons of mass destruction - oh where, oh where could they be?), genuinely serious matters, has not hurt him in the polls.

Howard's strength and Simon Crean's weakness has Labor stymied. Even though Crean's poor personal showing is not the same thing as electoral doom for Labor, the ALP is already looking like a party on the ropes.

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I have written elsewhere that in global terms we are in the early stages of a basic transformation that will affect everything, and that we need a new kind of politics for this new era. What we are going through now is the early reaction to this process, and Howard has become, through chance and character, the beneficiary of the sense of uncertainty and insecurity in this strange in-between time.

Howard is a political success because he has cleverly manipulated the growing sense of fear in Australian voters. He plays it like a guitar (remember the Tampa riff?). He has given the electorate simple ideas (personal responsibility for everything, including health, education and employment) and people to hate (dole bludgers, Aborigines, asylum seekers, terrorists) as distractions from hard, complicated reality. This is a tried and true method for gaining and keeping power in troubled times.

Meanwhile, with minimum fuss, he dismantles the last vestiges of government responsibility for social life and quietly but surely directs Australia along the American path.

However, none of this could have happened but for two favours done by Labor. First, it was Labor that first opened up the Pandora's box of economic rationalism without putting in place adequate social, industrial and environmental safeguards. And then it was Labor who abrogated their traditional responsibility as the party of national development and social reform. Under Kim Beazely this posture of 'steady as she goes' was taken to its logical extreme - that is, doing next to nothing.

Labor effectively handed not just the last three elections but the entire Australian political landscape to John Howard. Right now Howard owns Australian politics. This is why nothing touches Howard - no one sees any alternative. There is no point in criticism or censure of Howard, because he is the only game in town. Might as well shrug your shoulders, keep your head down and watch the house value go up.

There is a perception that the world is just too complex and dangerous, and that politics as it is can do nothing. The alternative response - a resort to selfish 'nesting', and an effective rejection of the whole concept of national community - has been readily identified by social commentators like Hugh Mackay.

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So John Howard is our leading politician because Australians do not believe in politics any more. The very things that dismay people like me about Howard - his disinterest in long term problems like the environment, his lack of acknowledgment of the growing socio-cultural diversity of this country, his obsession with simplistic economic issues, and his follow-the-leader foreign policy - resonate with a large section of the electorate who happen to be the swinging voters. It is precisely his failure to lead - which requires reasoned risk-taking to deal with problems before they become critical - that these voters relate to. They simply have no faith in politics at all.

The role of the mass media and both major political parties in demeaning national politics should be clear in this. The cosy two-party system, the refusal to set standards for parliamentary responsibility, the glib acceptance of lying as standard political practice, and the denigration of parliament itself have all contributed to the downfall of politics as an important part of Australian life. Mostly, though, it is the failure by labor to seriously question the simplistic notions of economics (that is, market power) as the new social dynamic, as opposed to negotiated political processes.

Labor, therefore, has to reintroduce politics into this country. It won't do this by being slightly to the left of the Coalition. Labor must regain the electorate's attention, and they must hold it until the next election. And the only way to do this is to get serious about taking back the initiative in issues of national development and social reform.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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