Time to make history

Has John Howard ever been so much in charge of affairs? He has won four elections, several against initial odds. He has complete primacy within his party, and, while some expect, and others pray, that he will leave office in the not too distant future, there is no pressure upon him to do so, even from Peter Costello. He has a complete ascendency over a defeated, demoralised and directionless Opposition, which is preoccupied either with its own struggles or its own leadership to be much trouble to the Government. With a Senate majority in hand, John Howard is able to look forward to getting his agenda through parliament few concessions to minor parties. Indeed, he will probably make inroads during the first six months of 2005, before he actually has a Senate majority, as Labor will find it hard to resist the idea that Howard has a mandate. The bureaucracy is under the thumb. The economy is in fairly good shape. So is he; Howard has never looked healthier even after a long and tough year. Now perhaps is the time for the history books, or at least some deeper projects.

Howard is a clean-desk man, and, for all of his micro-management tendencies, he has learnt to put his personal focus on only a few issues at a time, even if his chronic pessimism means that he has a weather eye on everything. As Parliament rose for the year, he had little in his in-tray, apart from the pleasure of overtaking Bob Hawke as Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister on December 21. The few saucepans on the stove—Aboriginal affairs and regional economic relations—were simmering away nicely, ready for testing when duties resume.

At the end of the year Howard made a very successful trip to Asia, even as he seemed to be modestly under-estimating his achievement. Australia secured a better continuing place at the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings than ever before. If this owes as much to the retirement of Australia’s old antagonist Dr Mahathir as to any diplomacy of Howard’s, it seemed to undermine the argument that Australia’s supine following of the United States had put it out of sorts with the region. Australia was not the only neighbour present, and was really the least important, with China, Japan and India hovering about and discussing wider trade relations. Australia has a stronger trading relationship with each of these, and Korea, than with all of ASEAN put together. The total ASEAN economy is somewhat smaller than the Australian economy, and while there is both investment potential and trade opportunities, the fit with ASEAN is not exceptionally good given the lack of progress of most ASEAN members in repairing their economies. Moreover ASEAN deeds are more important than action and vague commitments to free trade are not redeemable at the bank. There are better opportunities in wider Asian free trade blocs and focused bilateral deals.

John Howard has never willingly made a move or said a word which is capable of being seen to adopt the agenda of his political enemies, least of all the much despised Australian intellectual elites. His resistance to pressure to sign a treaty of amity and friendship with ASEAN countries is a reflection of that obstinacy, but also of a belief in a reasonable proposition. The treaty is fairly meaningless, with no legal, binding or, some might say, moral effect. It is full of the sort of empty phrases he despises and signing it may be seen as some sort of concession, as those Australians arguing he should sign it are of Labor or the elites. The vague words about not interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs are not objectionable because he is attached to his pre-emption policy. Nor do they have anything to do with his desire to continue to pressure other countries—Burma, say—about their appalling human rights records. Howard is fairly indifferent about human rights. But he does want Australia to have the capacity to maintain pressure on its neighbours—particularly Indonesia—about continuing economic reform, and more transparent and accountable government and commerce.

This same obstinacy has taken him, in less than six months, further in Aboriginal affairs than ever he has gone before. Aboriginal leaders are coming to him. They are not only willing—indeed desperate—to negotiate on his terms, but ready to accept not only that his appreciation of the situation was more right than wrong, but that their appreciation, and devotion to symbols, to rights and entitlements, and to a continuation of things as they have been this past 35 years, has proven wrong. The surrender is by no means whole-hearted, and the anxiety to work with the Government remains suspicious and fretful, but a revolution is underway. Howard means to take it much further than the attachment of welfare benefits to sending children to school, or keeping children healthy and well-fed. He means to completely change the structure and nature of the delivery of services to Aboriginal communities. And he means to change the economy of Aboriginal communities, not least away from petty socialism to petty capitalism. Nor is he proposing it simply so as to withdraw money from Aboriginal affairs. Indeed the short term prospect is that there might be more around, if less under the control of Aboriginal organisations.

John Howard has never been in a greater position of strength from which to push change in this field. There are many who would think it ironic if it came to be one of his greatest achievements, but there was never a time in which this was more possible. All the more so because Labor, which once claimed some sort of moral primacy in this area, has completely forfeited any standing in Aboriginal affairs.

John Howard always surprises his enemies more than his friends. The way he is travelling, he looks likely to continue. 

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

 

 

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