Trust me

John Howard has a new pitch to the public on nearly everything, but particularly on national security and industrial relations: Trust me. Trust my judgment to keep the nation safe, and to juggle the delicate balances between protecting the public at large and safeguarding human rights. Trust my management of the economy and knowledge of the labour market to be sure that dismantling old industrial protections will make most people better off and more secure.

Howard is not a person who has ever much called on trust before. Even at the last election, when he used the word, the context was not his reputation for telling the truth, or standing by his word, but a record of steady economic management and growth. Now, however, a man whose actions have done a lot to undermine trust and confidence in politicians has a lot staked on whether people accept that he knows what he is doing.

Ten years ago, one of the most successful strategies used by the then leader of the opposition against an arrogant and out of touch prime minister was that he was governing for the élites, not ‘for all of us’. It worked because it had a good measure of truth in it. Paul Keating was a big-picture man who put great talent and energy into persuading members of what John Howard would call the political class that his policies were right and appropriate. But he grew steadily more impatient with the different, but equally important, job of justifying the policies to ordinary Australians, many of whom felt increasingly alienated from grand and consuming visions.

Now, ten years on, Howard has a problem with striking parallels to Keating’s. How ironic that it involves a centrepiece of Howard’s political life, the issue which he has most consistently talked about for 30 years, and in which he had seemed about to triumph. Howard and the Government have, by and large, sold the much-despised intellectual élites on the macro-economic merits of their industrial relations policy. Even many of those who are instinctively hostile to anything that Howard, or his Government, proposes, would acknowledge now the general necessity for freeing up labour markets.

But the Government’s, and John Howard’s, problem is not the macro-economic debate, but the micro-economic one: the impact of his proposed changes at individual workplaces, and the personal insecurities of hundreds of thousands of Australians about their bargaining power at their place of employment, or how they might be treated if economic circumstances change, or whether they will be placed under additional pressure to work longer hours, for proportionately less money. The Howard campaign, expensively and improperly financed by the general taxpayer, is not well addressing individual fears and insecurities; in some respects, indeed, it may be aggravating them. The arrogance of the misappropriation of public money may be aggravating things too.

Even in trying to reach individual concerns, the campaign may be too macro. The Government is, for example, patiently trying to explain that it is unlikely most people will be disadvantaged or worse off: after all, skilled labour is at a premium, replacing people costs money and training time, and fewer people are entering the workforce. The law of supply and demand, in short, is on the side of the average workers who, if they are smart, might well be able to parlay the need for their skills into pay and conditions that more exactly reflect what they want to do. Nor should ordinary Australians fear that they will lose their public holidays, or treasured (in some cases hard-won) special conditions such as maternity leave; these, the Government insists, are safe. Likewise many employers may well take on more employees when rid of the uncertainties and unfairnesses of unfair dismissal legislation.

The Government has been generally courteous and reassuring about the fact that the sky will not in fact fall in. And about its hope and firm belief that most Australians will be better off, just as they have been generally better off as a result of other Howard Government economic policies, including industrial relations reforms, since 1996.

The truth is, however, that all this expensive propaganda and research does not seem well focused on individual anxieties and insecurities. And why not? In major part, it’s because John Howard is selling a big picture and a belief (some would say, unfairly, an ideology) that outcomes are generally better the more markets are deregulated. He is not addressing insecurity—though he has been, over his own career, willing enough to exploit it when it suits. He is not painting a picture for ordinary working Australians of how their new workplace will be in the new paradise he is creating.

The lack of penetration is probably compounded by the Government’s lack of frankness about the fact that there will be losers, and people with little bargaining power, many of whom will belong to just the classes for whom people such as Catholic, Anglican and Salvation Army leaders are expressing concerns. And that their numbers may well be considerably increased by the Government’s simultaneous moves to force many people off welfare into work—any work—on the premise that they will be morally, and in some cases financially, better off than by receiving the dole, sickness or maternity benefit.

The problem is not going to be resolved by spending even more taxpayers’ dollars, but by better understanding the mood of the broader community, and operating from within it, rather than by the supreme and smug self-confidence about what was best for everyone which some say—John Howard particularly said—characterised the Keating Government.

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of The Canberra Times.


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