C'est nous qui brisons les barreaux des prisons, pour nos frères, La haine à nos trousses, et la faim qui nous pousse, la misère. Il y a des pays où les gens aux creux des lits font des rêves, Ici, nous, vois-tu, nous on marche et nous on tue nous on crève.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

The Politics of 'Legacy'

It seems that even Melbourne's Herald Sun may be beginning to turn against the Liberals. In today's opinion section, Bernard Salt has a go at Howard for his alleged bias toward Sydney (as opposed to Melbourne). Whilst not groundbreaking stuff, such complaints are somewhat symbolic, given that Howard's rival, Costello, holds a 'blue-ribbon' Liberal seat in Melbourne. Ian McPhedran also criticises the Government's handling of Doctor Haneef.

The Herald Sun is not the most conservative of the Murdoch tabloids, and, to be sure, a couple of anti-Government articles do not count for much in the bigger scheme of things. Nonetheless, the context of these articles paints a different picture, when we consider that the polls once again point to a significant Labor victory, and even the bookmakers are concurring.

Once again, the question of the Liberals' leadership emerges. We might speculate that the polls would be more favourable for the Government had the leadership changed some time ago, but any change now, by an incumbent Government just months from an election, would be tantamount to conceding defeat.

People will no doubt engage in a few 'psychologisms', and aver that Howard has merely clung onto power for the sake of his own 'legacy'. As influenced by psychoanalysis as I am, I think we ought to resist any analysis of current events that boils things down to matters of individual psychology, and instead, rigorously pursue a political interpretation. In any case, as I have said elsewhere, Howard's Liberal Party colleagues give a much better assessment of his 'character' than I ever could.

So what is the political 'legacy' of Howard, as opposed to the speculative psychodrama? This is an enormous question, so I will just touch on a few points.

Howard rose to power in 1996. Whilst Culture War revisionists like to paint his predecessor, Keating, as some kind of arch-leftist, this was not the case. Keating was one of the most conservative Federal Labor leaders that the country had seen, though was portrayed by the media as indulging a range of 'minority groups', such as Asians, Aboriginals, artists, and environmentalists. It is no coincidence that the period of his demise saw the rise of Pauline Hanson's ironically-titled 'One Nation' party, built on a platform of Asian immigration, and also saw a relatively 'moderate' Liberal party move increasingly toward the politics of dog-whistling, and race-baiting. These latter phenomena are part of Howard's legacy as much as anything else, and are now incorporated into the standard political vocabulary of both major parties.

Howard is no 'statesman', even in comparison to Australia's previous Prime Ministers, on both sides of politics. He has ushered in the era whereby oratory is little more than a jingoistic soundbite, though, in fairness, he has been assisted in his cause by a compliant media. To return to what Slavoj Žižek said about Bill Gates (in The Ticklish Subject), Howard attempts to be seen as neither a 'patriarchal Father-Master', nor a 'corporate Big Brother', but rather, as a kind of 'little brother', a clumsy, bespectacled, tinpot 'patriot', whose ideological agenda is belied by his supposed 'ordinariness', and apparent opportunism.

Much is made of Howard's 'economic credentials', though the recent biography of Howard seems to further undermine this piece of mythology, given Howard's poor record as Treasurer. The best that can be said of Howard's fiscal abilities is that he has 'managed' the economy well, particularly for those who were already wealthy from the beginning. At the same time, a significant underclass of the chronically poor has been firmly sedimented in both rural and metropolitan regions during the Howard years, and the Government has shown no indication that it intends to change this state of affairs (other than by punishing 'bad' parents). Housing prices are, of course, a disaster, particularly for young people hoping to buy their first home, and interest rates are high by the standards of the rest of the developed world. At least investors would appear to benefit.

Then there is the Orwellian state of perpetual war to which Howard has enlisted Australia, a country little more than a US colony in economic and military matters. Howard, supposedly 'in touch' with the battlers, completely ignored the many thousands of ordinary Australians, from churchgoers, to unionists, who protested the so-called 'War on Terror'. I don't recall quite the same numbers of Australians protesting for the war.

In matters of foreign policy, Australia tends to take America's lead. Domestically, Howard encourages all immigrants to 'assimilate' to his version of white, middle-class, conservative Australia, and appeared to have a sanguine view of both the Cronulla riots, and Alan Jones' role in agitating for them. For this reason, Australia has been seen as racism in Europe and Asia for the past few years. Our Government is quick to condemn regimes run by friendless tyrants, such as Mugabe, but falls silent on human rights abusers whose allies carry a bit of international clout.

Political discourse has been reduced to the lowest common denominator. Whilst dissent is tolerated by the regime, it is quickly isolated by the acquiescent media, and repackaged as 'hatred', or some other pathology. A sane person cannot, apparently, be critical of the Government. When, for instance, Howard cobbles together a hastily-conceived 'intervention' into Aboriginal communities, anybody who forwards an alternative proposal is quickly denounced as an endorser of child abuse. The laughable standard of 'debate' in the mainstream media is echoed in Parliament, where 'Mr Speaker' ensures that Opposition questions go routinely unanswered, and Liberal abuse passes for political comment.

Surprisingly, for a 'conservative' Government, Howard has overseen significant growth in the Federal public sector. Part of his legacy has been to ensure that this sector is also heavily-politicised, from the cowboys running DIMIA, to stacking the ABC board full of hard-right cultural warriors. Perhaps public sector growth is necessary, as it is inversely proportional to political responsibility. Public servants make for suitable, and relatively anonymous 'fall guys' when faced with scandals such as AWB, or children overboard, none of which our Government considers as part of its jurisdiction.

Howard has nominally moved toward some recognition of 'climate change', but then, even that exemplar of the 'loony left', Rupert Murdoch, has publicly acknowledged that this issue is important. At this point, the climate change denialists should be pleased that Howard's commitment to this issue remains strictly rhetorical.

The Culture Wars and History Wars have continued throughout Howard's reign, despite the fact that the 'conservatives' are given air-time for increasingly vacuous and intellectually bankrupt views. Moderate commentators and academics such as Robert Manne are denounced for being left-wing extremist 'elites' - apparently, social class is now conceived along educational lines. Part of these 'wars' has seen a refusal to acknowledge one iota of Aboriginal suffering, and, when travelling abroad, it is not difficult to find foreigners who no more about the plight of Aboriginals than does the average Australian. Howard despises 'symbolic' gestures, such as an apology would be. An elementary grasp of any trauma theory would inform us that symbols are intrinsic to the 'working through' of any trauma, though symbols do not, of course, reverse trauma. It is for this reason that Vietnam Vets, suffering from their war-time experiences, campaigned vigourously for a 'symbolic' recognition of their status as 'traumatised', eventually succeeding in having PTSD made into an 'official' medical/psychiatric diagnosis. For Australia's Aborigines, it is not even worth considering additional services or resources - even as regards mere 'symbolic gestures', for Howard, such people, (and their subjectivity) are beneath recognition. New 'conservatism' is 'big-government' and authoritarian, and, naturally, being conservative means never having to say you're sorry.

Howard's IR laws are probably not worth mentioning, given the ink that has already been spilt on them. Among other things, these laws are intended as a bit of union-busting, partly as a result of Howard's ideological leanings, and partly because the unions constitute Labor's support base. The 'user pays' mentality has crept into a range of other areas, such as VSU, Telstra, and the increasing privatisation of the health and education sectors. Australia's great tradition of socialised public services, many of which were world class, appears to be drawing to a close. Perhaps we can look forward to the privatisation of roads and the like.

Howard quietly managed to change electoral laws, so that voting is now more difficult for the young, the transient, and the imprisoned. This will not be of concern to Liberals, given that these demographics probably would not vote Tory in any case.

Civil liberties have been eroded under Howard. The anti-terror legislation sits dubiously in relation to presuppositions of 'innocence until guilt is proven'. The re-introduction of sedition laws are of particular concern, given that such laws have been used (historically) to criminalise peaceful and democratic dissent. It seems to be a case of 'One more sacrifice, Australians, and we shall "win" this war on terror'.

Howard has cultivated the myth of his 'battlers'. Fortunately, for Melbourne, at least, this remains only a myth, as most of the working class reside in safe Labor seats. I cannot speak for the rest of Australia at the present time, but it is obvious that, if a working class person votes Liberal, they are not only being bent over a barrel, they are providing Howard with the lubricant. The backlash against IR laws may yet shatter this myth, as it is not only the 'elites' who are nauseated by Howard's relentless propaganda, with happy, AWA'd workers invading our television screens. In this era of the decline of Marx, 'Workchoices' should at least serve to drive home a few naked truths about capitalism, namely, that workers are merely commodities, cogs in a machine, means to (somebody else's) ends.

The only principled and courageous policy direction that Howard has taken is his stance on gun control. This is the only instance of him being prepared to finally challenge the whims of a minority, for the benefit of society as a whole. To be sure, underworld figures still have guns, but, more importantly, guns are more difficult to obtain for lone psychopaths (such as Martin Bryant, or Julian Knight), and feature less prominently in 'domestics'.

Many of the issues above are beyond any simplistic left-right distinction. Many Australians, of all political stripes, are concerned with such topics. That such ideology, of limited appeal, should have been relentlessly pushed by Howard only serves as a testament to how unrepresentative our 'representatives' in the political class have been.

Clearly, Howard has left a 'legacy' for all to see. Most likely, his decision to remain as leader was not prompted by history's memory of his deeds, but rather, was a cold political decision, based on raw numbers in Caucus, as well as in polls. Howard has won several elections (albeit, very narrowly, in 1998 and 2001), and there is no reason to believe that he will be replaced prior to the next election.

Whatever happens at the election, Howard will be gone in the near future. As we have seen, the Australia that he leaves behind is diminished in virtually every respect, other than in its preponderance of imported plasma televisions.