John Howard always made quite a thing of his humility about the triennial verdict of the Australian electorate. He had no shame about doing things to get their approval, but accepted their verdict and their right to make it, even if it proved to be against him. He might not have wholly accepted what Bill Hayden said, that the voters' collective judgment usually proved itself sound but the record was an argument for history, not a dispute with the umpire.
But one does not have to go into those history wars, as Howard did so enthusiastically, to know that the proper judgment of history is as problematic as the judgment of the electorate. Victors, generally, write most of the drafts and have a keen interest in having them adopted. Survivors, including one's old comrades, tell their stories, each with a tendency to have themselves, not you, on centre stage, at least until the point where things went wrong.
Events make a big difference too. The Global Financial Crisis is now a year old. Its first ripples were going out two years ago, just as the Howard government was about to fall. There are some who claim to have predicted it and, of course, in retrospect it was obvious, wasn't it? But anticipation of it was hardly on the political horizon two years ago. So far as its ripples threatened to engulf Australia itself, it was a combination of quick Treasury (and Rudd Government) thinking, and the general soundness of our domestic banking and financial system, and of our Government's accounts, that made the damage here far less severe than elsewhere.
Howard can claim his share of the credit for that. Yet those who judge him for the history books will have the advantage of knowing about the GFC and there will be an inevitable tendency to judge 12 years of Howard in terms of how it prepared the economy for that. In much the same way as they will see a host of actions for the way in which they fit within a continuum. Kevin Rudd, for example, has been assiduously scripting a "Howard Years" history in terms of a political and economic reform continuum which puts Howard in an unattractive light. In this script, as rehearsed, for example, in launching Paul Kelly's new book, , reform began with Hawke, continued with Hawke and Keating, then finally Keating alone. They took most of the big decisions about fundamental reform of the economy and about the role of government, the bigger because of the political struggle to achieve what they did, including getting their party and the electorate on-side. By this story, John Howard had always claimed some reformist credentials but, in government, muffed his chances and, on the big canvas, achieved very little. Some of his claimed achievements, not least on the government balance sheet, flowed more from earlier reforms or a commodities boom than any discipline or reforms by Howard or Costello.
And not only that, so the story not entirely implausibly goes, but the Howard government squandered many of the fruits of the earlier reforms. It did not invest or reinvest in the national infrastructure, leaving a big fix-up job for future governments. It did not invest in education and training, just as critical a part of the national infrastructure. It did not refocus the economy to take account of mounting evidence of climate change, including the crisis of drought and riverine water. Particularly in its last days, it was merely playing ideology (including over industrial relations). In this narrative, it goes without saying, the sound judgment of the Australian people in 2007 again put Australia on the path to reform, including the task of addressing the problems Howard had ignored or created.
In many ways this was a problem made more difficult by the GFC and the enormous diversion of energies and government resources that this involved. Even then, however, an able Rudd Government did not miss the opportunities caused by the crisis, because it focused its emergency spending programs into just the sorts of areas that Howard had neglected, such as schools and roads and critical communications infrastructure. It's a good story, and there's no particular reason for Rudd to drop it, least of all when the Coalition has not really debated, let alone settled on, a satisfactory explanation for its rejection by the electorate and is, as a result, uncomfortable in defending its history or in describing to voters where it wants to take them. Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull described the Rudd speech as "Orwellian" and the most "ungracious and graceless" political speech he had ever heard.
"History will nonetheless record that in the years of the Howard government, Labor in opposition voted against virtually every one of the Howard government's reforms to strengthen Australia's economic performance," he said. Peter Costello also made a telling point that Rudd himself, whether as Labor leader or frontbencher, was never at the forefront of any reform debates. Howard, at least, has a record to defend, with no direct stake in what happens. By contrast, Turnbull and the Liberal Party need a history which is a servant of the story they want to tell electors at the next election, or perhaps the one after that. This is where the traps lie, whether in relation to workplace reform, the environment, economic stewardship or generally in social policy, including health and education. Aggressive defence of the Howard record invites the suggestion of a yearning to put old policies in place in somewhat the same way that Howard had to battle against suggestions that he wanted to reinstate John Hewson's Fightback in disguise. Self-conscious separation from the old record as with, say, Turnbull's leaking of his great unhappiness with Howard's position on climate change or Kyoto, invites questions about courage.
One risk of which the players should be aware, in all of this, is of being used as a thread in a great tapestry made too early or being made to act in a drama distorted by the author's compulsion to tell a parable.
Paul Kelly, for example, is a journalist who has written compelling modern Australian political history, with sales to match. He has watched government and politicians at close quarters for more than 40 years and, much more than most commentators, has always had a high focus on policy, substance and enduring ideas.
His latest book might be described as Volume II of his earlier because it continues with the central idea that, in the 1980s, Australian politics, particularly under Hawke, broke free of a largely bipartisan political and economic consensus, based on old ideas about empire, race, protectionism, class warfare and state paternalism, a model he attributed to Alfred Deakin. Instead, Australia became outwardly focused, creating a model "defined by free trade, competitiveness in world markets, a surplus budget, an independent central bank, an enterprise-based industrial culture, an immigration ethos tied to an inclusive culture, retention of the egalitarian ethic, an Australian-made synthesis of a decent society and a strong economy, the search for reconciliation with the indigenous peoples, and entrenchment of a national interest strategy that reflected Australia's global interests and regional responsibilities". There are many words, and a lot of ideas, in such a description, and not a little effort is needed to explain, sometimes, how many of the supposedly transforming developments fitted into the grand theme, and how often there was little difference in what the politicians were arguing about, compared with the new things about which they had agreed. On such a canvas, with such subjects, it is possible to nitpick the detail without disputing the overall image. Or, within the framework, to direct particular criticism at some of the players for their faults or failures. While Kelly is, at times, severely critical of Howard (and of Keating), he is, it seems to me, often far too willing to forgive, or, at least, to seek to explain their failures to follow a perfect script.
For me, however, there are real problems with the story, and with the theme as well. Problems in many respects made more difficult by the beard-stroking tendency of Kelly to find deep significance in everything he draws to attention. It is hard to deny signal shifts in policy and approach over the time, but I still wonder whether they were as profound as many think. I expect we will not know for another 30 years. I doubt, for example, that there has been very much change in the set of attitudes that Australian voters, the ultimate judges, have brought to their task since 1949. The bundle of things that people expect from politics, politicians and government has, I suspect, changed very little over 50 years.
That politicians on both sides now so often speak a different language simply shows how out of touch they are. That, sometimes, journalists take politicians so seriously, may show how out of touch we are.
The March of Patriots. By Paul Kelly. Melbourne University Press. 709pp.
Jack Waterford's column appears each Saturday in newspaper
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