There has always been a disturbing patriarchal character to John
Howard, but it is becoming far too prominent as the pressure grows to sort
out the Iraq mess. His reluctance to allow parliamentary debate and his
unwillingness to answer questions put by the media reflect a tendency to
assume that really only he has the right to all the facts and that only he
can make informed judgements.
John Howard is a canny political operator, now doubt about it. He has a
developed sense of how to manoeuvre within political structures, including
the Liberal party itself, to achieve and maintain power – even if it
took him a few tries to get it right. He also has a demonstrated ability
to read the electorate and exploit that understanding. The dark side of
this ability was shown only too clearly with the last election and his
deft handling of the Tampa affair.
But along with this aspect of his character is the man most at home in
the 1950s when happy families lived in modest houses with white picket
fences and Australia battled the old foe England in the cricket. And the
role of the benevolent father, who knew everything and felt no need to
explain his actions, was unchallenged, as epitomised in the popular
sit-com, Father Knows Best.
Howard’s tendency to take the lofty view has been reaching new
heights lately as the pressure has mounted in relation to how he and his
government have handled the Iraq situation. In particular the inept
performance of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has placed the focus
directly on Howard to provide some consistent leadership. By and large, he
has taken the position that he has special knowledge, and that only he is
able to judge the situation and make decisions. He even resisted a
parliamentary debate – formally the most important decision-making
process in the country – on this matter. I have no idea whether he
behaves this way in his own party room, but if he does it must be a very
frustrating experience to be a Liberal parliamentarian.
In the Parliament Howard’s hardness is obvious. He attacks the
opposition with all the ferocity of a man brought up in the green
bear-pit, essentially adopting the bleak but time-honoured political
strategy of ‘when you see a head, kick it’. He is not alone in this
approach, however, in a parliament increasingly devoid of much other than
this macho arm wrestling.
Where Howard’s fatherly authority really comes out is in television
and radio interviews. On television he smiles benignly at the interviewer
and then quietly chooses which questions he will answer and which he will
only respond to with a gentle but firm chiding about how shallow the
interviewer is being. On both TV and radio a common response to a tricky
question is to use a term like "it serves no purpose" to avoid
answering. This sounds very reasonable but what he actually means is
"it serves no political purpose to me", or just, "I don’t
want to". And when Howard has decided he just does not want to answer
a question, that’s it.
Howard’s refusal to pretend that he takes the electorate into his
confidence reflects his confidence in his role as benevolent father of the
nation. His children (Parliament, the media, the electorate) do not need
to know all the facts – on the genuine threat of Iraq, for instance –
nor what he intends doing about particular issues.
Perhaps there was a time when such obviously patronising leadership was
acceptable. After all Howard is not the first to adopt this attitude,
indeed for some time it was the fashion (here we should recall his hero,
the arch patriarch Robert Menzies). Australia seemed to get along all
right under such benign rule.
But things have changed. Australia is faced by a series of intractable
problems, like global warming, unstable international relations, a
volatile global economy, radical social change and Aboriginal
reconciliation. These challenges will only be met by open information
sharing, sustained debate and inclusive decision-making. Solving them
involves such far-reaching changes to basic socioeconomic conditions in
Australia that it can only succeed if there is sustained and comprehensive
information distribution and consultation.
Furthermore, Australian society itself is changing into the much mooted
information society. In this society information has to be spread around
for people to use and generate more information. It is not to be hoarded
by those who claim to be in the know in order to avoid discussion.
Everything has to be open and decisions made by transparent processes so
that we can see the process at work. It is decreasingly legitimate to
claim a privileged position that enables secrecy and lack of
Whoever replaces Howard as the chief decision-maker in Australia had
better acknowledge the limitations of the benevolent patriarch as
political leader and let his or her other colleagues, along with the rest
of the population, in on what is happening. Father
Knows Best was a popular TV show in the 1950s and 1960s, but it
wouldn’t rate now.
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