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A politically correct legacy

By Jay Thompson - posted Thursday, 6 December 2007

Since his electoral defeat on November 24, 2007, there has been the predictable discussion about what exactly the “legacy” of John Howard will be. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating has argued that Howard will be remembered for spearheading “regressive and reactionary policies fuelled by social exclusion and division”. Conversely, right-wing columnist Janet Albrechtsen (writing in The Australian newspaper) has labelled Howard a “cultural warrior who tackled the political correctness that had inflected and intimidated our national conversation”.

In this article, I will concentrate on Albrechtsen’s musings about Howard’s legacy. Her laudatory comments are unsurprising given her very public support for the former Prime Minister during his time in office. On another level, though, I would argue that her use of language - particularly the terms “political correctness” and “Left” - inadvertently suggests that Howard’s legacy may be considerably grimmer than the one she has undoubtedly envisioned or hoped for.

I will suggest that Albrechtsen ironically invokes the kind of legacy that would resonate more with those so-called “Left”-wing readers whom she (as with Howard) ostensibly tries to distance herself from.


Let us first consider the term “political correctness”. I am currently exploring the history and the usages of this term for my doctoral thesis, a portion of which focuses on the rise of neoconservative politics in Australia.

The term “political correctness” has (since at least the early 1990s) been used by conservative thinkers to describe the perceived negative impact upon Western culture of those social movements that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. These movements include feminism, black and Indigenous rights, the environment movement, and gay and lesbian (or, more recently, “queer”) liberation.

They also include that long-running movement that was used as a scare tactic par excellence by the Liberal Party in the recent Federal Election: the trade union movement.

Albrechtsen echoes countless conservatives when she argues that these movements have had a repressive impact on the societies they have ostensibly aimed to liberate. According to Albrechtsen, these movements have “intimidated” “ordinary Australians” (to coin a popular political catchphrase) by creating an air of panic around issues such as sexism, workplace rights, the environment, and the oppression of Indigenous Australians. There are still some social inequities, suggest conservatives such as Albrechtsen and Howard, but the “Left” has distorted and exaggerated these.

This is only a brief overview of conservative arguments against so-called “political correctness” and the “Left”. Nevertheless, even this brief overview suggests a point that I am exploring in depth in my thesis: that is, the perception of “progressive” social movements commonly held by conservative thinkers is as hostile and inaccurate as the attitude towards Western culture that these movements apparently hold.

Consider the way that Albrechtsen (as with Howard) collates the aforementioned movements under the term “Left” and describes their perceived negative impact upon society as being “political correctness”. These linguistic sleights of hand reduce quite diverse movements and ideologies to one single and identifiable enemy. This is an “enemy” that, according to the conservative mindset I have described, must be deflated because it threatens the livelihood of “ordinary” citizens.


I would instead suggest that one of the most remarkable achievements of the movements that Albrechtsen and Howard oppose is that they have called into question what exactly an “ordinary” citizen is. What are the cultural norms that underpin this definition - or, for that matter, any definition - of “ordinary”?

Albrechtsen echoes Howard (and myriad figures from around the Australian political spectrum) when she writes that “(t)he voters” in the 2007 Federal Election “got it right. They usually do”. Would it be perhaps too optimistic to suggest that many of those women and men who voted against the Howard in the recent election do not share the his views about who constitutes an “ordinary citizen”, or share the views and values that such citizens all apparently hold?

Could these dissenting voters have recognised that, by pointing to racial injustice and the dispossession of Indigenous land, one is not simply being blinded by a “black armband” view of history? Could these voters have recognised how “collectivism and unions” offer workers - and this includes “working families”, to use another popular catchphrase from the election - greater protection and security in the workplace than did the Liberal government’s WorkChoices legislation (built as this was on a sense of what Albrechtsen calls “individual responsibility”, as well as a distinctly anti-union bias)?

I acknowledge here that there will be readers who will still concur with Albrechtsen that Howard “restor(ed)” Australia “to greatness” through his staunch opposition to a “Left”-generated “political correctness”. Again remaining optimistic, though, I would suggest that there will also be readers (“Left” and otherwise) who would have gleaned from her article a bleaker, but perhaps more accurate idea of what exactly Howard’s legacy might be.

That legacy is of a man who used stereotyping and broad-ranging terminology to identify and attack those who were critical of his vision - a vision he shares with myriad other conservatives, Albrechtsen included - of what the “ordinary Australian” way of life entails. According to this legacy, Howard is still a “cultural warrior” of sorts. However, he is also one who misunderstood the “ordinary Australians” he supposedly championed.

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About the Author

Jay Daniel Thompson recently completed a PhD in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. His thesis focused on representations of sex and power in Australian literature during the "culture wars"’ of the 1990s.

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