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Howard’s gone to water

By John Tomlinson - 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.

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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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