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Trust me

  • 21 April 2006

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