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Oh, for a return to the Howard years



I never thought I would say this, but as an Aboriginal feminist with hard-left personal politics, last week I almost found myself viewing the Howard years in a favourable light.

John HowardDon't get me wrong — I still resolutely believe that John Howard was the most despicable and miserly character to lead this country. I still blame him for the rise of Nationalist sentiments, predicated on his push to white-wash history. I still blame him for the demonisation of asylum seekers thanks to his response to 9-11 and the Tampa Affair.

I definitely blame him for blocking same sex marriages. I often reflect upon his stubborn refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations. I then get even angrier when I remember how he suddenly pretended to care about the welfare of Aboriginal children in the dying days of his government, thus rolling out the Northern Territory Intervention in a bid to gain votes. I. Still. Blame. Howard.

Yet if there are two things I do miss from the Howard years, it's these: 1. Back then, we knew what a stable government looked like; 2. Back then, the idea that changing the leadership of a government would change anything at all just did not exist.

Though prime ministers were often considered (and mocked) individually, people also seemed to have a greater understanding that they were a part of a broader system. That the way to overcome such leaders lay in getting their party removed from power, or — for those of a more radical bent — dismantling the system so it didn't continue to perpetuate such social ills.

Nowadays, there seems to be this strange view that pushing for change is as simple as removing the current prime minister. I don't understand how things became so individualistic. Did we lose hope that broader change was even possible?

Last week's leadership battle in the Liberal Party was an utter fiasco, orchestrated almost entirely by conservatives looking to increase their power and stroke their egos. Yet I can't honestly say that the prospect of Peter Dutton becoming leader had me quaking in my boots any more than the prospect of Malcolm Turnbull retaining his leadership.


"At the end of the day, all these leadership changes have achieved is to serve as a distraction while the human rights abuses continue and the planet burns."


Additionally, despite believing that, if the Liberal Party were looking for someone to win an election against a Shorten-led ALP, Bishop was the most suitable candidate, neither Bishop nor Scott Morrison felt like a 'safer option' to me than the other two. Not only are all beholden to their party and the other personalities within it, but history has shown clearly that a change of leadership changes almost nothing.

We have gotten so used to a revolving door of political leaders over the past 11 years that the prospect of a leadership challenge each time things get a little hot has become normalised. In the same amount of time Howard held the top job, we've managed to go through six prime ministers. Granted, leadership battles weren't unheard of prior to Howard's time. Or even during, if you consider how many leaders the ALP went through during those years. In the late 80s and early 90s, the Hawke-Keating dynamic dominated much discussion. But six prime ministers in 11 years is something else entirely.

I will never forget the public being hopeful each time. They were hopeful that Turnbull would take a more progressive approach to climate change and push through gay marriage. They thought Gillard might provide an environment more geared towards equality by virtue of her being the first female PM. They hoped Rudd (in his first iteration) would bring social justice and (in his second iteration) stability. I'm not sure if anyone had any hopes for Abbott other than an idea that he may achieve stability where the Labor Party had failed.

Despite all this hope, nothing changed. We saw the Northern Territory Intervention persist under Rudd, expand under Gillard, then continue under Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull. Dutton could hardly have been any worse than his potential prime ministerial predecessors when nearly all of them ran election campaigns around 'stopping the boats' and partook in dog-whistling about non-existent 'African gangs'. All of them managed to lock up innocent people in offshore gulags.

Continual race-baiting by these multiple prime ministers has fed into Howard's Nationalism rather than reversing it and creating a more racially harmonious society. So much so that we have seen the growth of neo-Nazi groups and the re-election of Pauline Hanson. Our 'rights at work' continued to be eroded to the point where we are seeing record low wage growth and decreased employment stability.  

Sure, same sex marriage finally became legal but that was not due to the Liberal Party deciding to put Turnbull at the helm. It was due to years of social activism as Turnbull, rather than stand up to the conservatives in his party, removed the responsibility from himself to the public via a plebiscite. Any thoughts people may have had that he would be a progressive on climate change fell by the wayside when, as a last ditch attempt to retain his leadership, Turnbull removed climate change targets from the National Energy Guarantee.

At the end of the day, all these leadership changes have achieved is to serve as a distraction while the human rights abuses continue, the planet burns and the three word slogans are recited. Change has only been achieved by people mobilising and shifting broader public opinion, thus forcing the government to act or the opposition to change its policy in order to look like a real alternative, regardless of who is heading them up.

If we continue to believe that the answer resides in a group of self-interested politicians jostling to get the top job then unfortunately, we're going to continue to get the governments and leaders we deserve.



Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne, the National Indigenous Organiser of the NTEU, and a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, Liberal Party, Scott Morrison, John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Dutton, Julie Bishop



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Existing comments

Well said, Celeste!

john frawley | 28 August 2018  

Both the Coalition and Labor stand condemned on their cruelty to asylum seekers - cruelty that began with John Howard and the Tampa Affair and I think the Greens are the only party with a compassionate approach to those desperate people seeking asylum in our land. Both the major parties have also been bought off with huge donations from vested interests, such as those in the mining industry. The Greens oppose this and want to restore the democracy that has been sold out by the Coalition and Labor. Neither of these major parties has disallowed the opening up of the massive coal deposits in Queensland's Galilee Basin. To help stop the Adani mege-mine and other mega-mines, help save the Reef, help reduce the chance of more prolonged droughts, and to give hope to the 119 traumatised children on Nauru, vote GREEN!

Grant Allen | 28 August 2018  

Some Prime Ministers are born great, a very few achieve greatness and the majority have potential greatness thrust upon them. I'm not sure which category John Howard fits into, although he did manage to grasp power for a longish time. I agree with Grant Allen, vote for the Greens. And I think the Greens Leader, considering the policies of the major parties, may achieve greatness as PM.

Pam | 29 August 2018  

Good sermon. The electorate, we the voters, have dumped Christ and now simple argue among ourselves about what is right and wrong. Love for strangers is mandated by the Bible and by ditching that teaching, we end up loving only our own self-promoting righteousness. We the electorate are responsible for our representatives, not vice versa.

Steve Etherington | 29 August 2018  

"At the end of the day, all these leadership changes have achieved is to serve as a distraction while the human rights abuses continue and the planet burns." Exactly, Celeste.

Michele Madigan | 29 August 2018  

A well-expressed summary of the horrors of recent political history. Thank you, Celeste. It is perhaps worth remembering that while Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull, in their various existences, each fell foul to petty rivalry, Howard's own demise was just as dramatic, with none of the pettiness, when his own electorate used their combined power to say "Enough!" That should remind us that while so many "leaders" prance around on the stage as though they were running the show, the reality is that we, the people, have the right and the responsibility to call "time" when we think we are no longer being served by the system. There are many wonderful people on both sides of the House but most are slavishly controlled by non-elected power-brokers who treat our elected representatives as puppets. I wonder if we will ever decide that politics would be more effective without the parties - an independent gathering of independent thinkers.

Dennis Sleigh | 29 August 2018  

Don't think Howard fits into any of your suggested categories of greatness, Pam. He is a minnow compared to, say, Paul Keating, Bob Menzies or John Curtin.

john frawley | 29 August 2018  

Be careful what you wish for Celeste. I’m not sure longevity in office equates to stable government. Think back to Howard’s final year in office – not much stability about that. The essay lists a number of issues and reforms that were delayed for years due to Howard’s conservative values. Labor gave him an extra three years in office with control of the Senate when they elected Mark Latham as leader. I don’t know if this contributed to stable government but it did allow the hubris that gave us Work Choices. But I will give Howard credit for two brave decisions. He took on his own support base with his gun controls after Port Arthur, and he changed his mind on the GST and took it to an election. Replacing a Prime Minister is not always a bad thing. If the Costello backers had sufficient spine we might have been spared the longevity of the Howard Government.

Brett | 30 August 2018  

Howard's "stability" was as dreary and etiolated a regime as Reagan's. (I exclude Thatcher because at least her world view was an energetic one, albeit a disaster for economic morality.). Howard was the herald not only of a 1950s WASP retrogression to pettiness and banalities, but of wholesale intellectual mediocrity, and the unleashing of every sexist, arrogant, rapacious pomaded spiv that ever lurked in the under-storey. I do respect Howard for one thing alone (a bit like the Americans and Benedict Arnold's leg): the gun laws. All the cant, arrogance and turpitude we now have to endure from Canberra is down to him.

Fred Green | 30 August 2018  

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