Imagine you are John Howard sitting at your political chess board. Your dominance is almost complete. Your backbenchers don’t speak out on anything any more – your popularity and political control is such that dissenters feel they have no choice but to fall in behind you and enjoy the spoils. Your opposition is punch drunk. It is divided over what to do, where to go and how to play to match you. The media is largely compliant – being so popular, and now in your third term, no-one is game to take you on or push you to answer questions, so you get away with dissembling, even lies. Your handpicked elite has now fully replaced that of the other lot, and the losers are dispirited and exhausted from constantly fighting to save some of what they gained before you came to office. Most Australians seem to trust that whatever you do it’ll be OK and they don’t need to know much about why. What next?
I got an inkling of what might be next in Canberra last week. Wave after wave of new policy spat forth – intervention in the Solomons, selling Telstra, getting ASIO through, pushing for cross media abolition, passing another detention law through the lower house which would keep some people in detention forever. Labor people tended to get drunk early and party, frenetically, all night. I even saw tears in the eyes of one of them. They have no time to get their balance or to regroup or to plan strategy. John Howard is rolling all over them. And the Senate? I’ll get to that beleaguered, frightened institution soon.
When Howard decided to stay on on June 3, many people thought he’d missed his “Menzies moment”, that magic phenomenon of leaving while you’re on top and handing your organisation to the next generation in good shape and untouched by leadership blood. Peter Costello certainly thought so, and told Howard to his face when Howard deigned to kill his hopes the day before the announcement. It can’t get better for you than this, Costello told him. You’ve won the war without a casualty, you’re loved by the people, your luck will run out, people will tire of you. Now is the time to hand me the prize.
But Howard is no Hawke, the old bloke addicted to the glamour but with nothing much more to contribute. Hawke got to the top the easy way. Howard did it very hard, and got very bruised and battered along the way. In a position as good as his, he wants more. Howard has a big agenda. A very big one.
Howard wants to go out on a high alright, but he wants the high to be higher than the one he’s already on. He wants to transform Australia so completely that the old Australia can never be revived. His vision is so radical that only a man in complete charge of the political agenda could even dream of it. And the cross media legislation – the one I’ve been writing about in such despair for a week now – is central to his plans.
Just days after he announced he’d stay leader for as long as the party wanted him Howard dropped a bombshell. He wanted a referendum to strip the Senate of its power to reject legislation, because it “has become a house of obstruction”. It had to be a joke, surely. Labor, the party of reform, had always wanted just such a thing, by tradition. It was conservatives, protectors of the status quo, which honoured the Senate. Now, the roles are reversed. Howard is the radical. Labor are the conservatives.
It is conventional wisdom that such a referendum would never succeed. You only have to look at the nightmare legislation Howard has tried to get through this term – including defining political protests as “terrorist acts” and imposing a virtual police state with his original ASIO laws – to know that the Senate has acted as a bulwark of our human and civil rights. It is a place for genuine debate on the merits and real community input because the government does not have the numbers to force everything through.
Howard, leading a party traditionally suspicious of big brother government, has become the champion of it. It is now Labor, not the Liberals, who champion privacy laws. It is now Labor which defends civil rights, since Howard and his followers successfully swept small ‘l’ liberalism from the federal party over the last two decades. It’s worth noting that the big media has, almost without exception, embraced Howard’s idea, arguing that in a fast moving world of global economics, a government must move swiftly. In other words, democracy must be subservient to economic growth, and unchecked government power is good for us.
Howard will decide later whether to put the proposal to a referendum at the next election. It’s a card in his hand, one of many he’s playing to put almost intolerable pressure on vulnerable Senators.
The next card is the escalating threat of a double dissolution. In a dd, the Democrats would be all but wiped out. As it is, Andrew Murray, Natasha, Lynette Allison and Andrew Bartlett are in for another five years, while only John Cherry and Aden Ridgeway would be up for reelection, along with ex Democrat Meg Lees. So you can see why the Party is in crisis, apparently threatening to split and cross the floor last week over cross media.
The Democrats are in no-man’s land. At a time when values are imperative, they drift between the Greens on the left and the centrist Labor party with no articulated difference from either except that they’re prepared to do deals, sometimes, and except that it’s their ex-leader Meg who’s doing all the dealings and getting all the publicity.
As I wrote last year during the Democrats leadership debacle, the missing market segment is now a small l liberal type party, espousing small business economic values and progressive social values ( The Democrats: Split on survival). A decent breakaway from the Liberal Party would have helped, but the liberal moderate Greg Barnes moved across just before the party disintegrated and it came to nought.
How can the Democrats hang on? I think Howard means to split them off as soon as possible, setting up a group of three – Lees, Murray and Ridgeway – which will amenable to deals on his legislative agenda. With them on board, he’d need only one of Shayne Murphy, Brian Harradine and Len Harris to win through, and that sounds pretty easy to me.
What could he offer the three ex-Dems? Lees seems to be already on board, and she’s got a party up and running called the Australian Progressive Alliance and managed by ex-Democrats. Howard would offer Liberal preferences, and more.
But would he really go to a double dissolution if the Senate stood firm? It doesn’t make sense to, on the numbers. Political analyst Malcolm Mackerras wrote in a recent AFR piece republished below that the Coalition, with a Senate vote of about 42 percent, would get 33 of the 76 seats. But it could conceivably win half the seats up for grabs at a normal half senate election, which would give the liberals half of the 76 Senate seats. He’d then need only one Senator to get his agenda through. Murray is the obvious candidate.
And what is his agenda? In my view he wants to smash the “social contract” in Australia to smithereens. He wants to establish Australia as a US style democracy where people fend for themselves and save for their needs, including health and education. He also wants the US model of a corporatist state run by government in partnership with big business, where politicians and businesspeople swap roles routinely and big business finances the conservative party. And he wants Australia to divorce itself from the multilateral system of international relations AND become part of the American world.
But Australia would be a different place from America. We do not have a bill of rights, which in the United States keeps the Government and its powers in check. Howard would be much freer than the American president to trample our human and civil rights. He’s already walked away from our multilateral human rights obligations, and stacked the High Court with judges antagonistic to incorporating our international human rights commitments into our constitution.
What he also has that President Bush doesn’t is a concentrated media, the most concentrated in the Western world. If he gets his cross media bill through in three months, as planned, Australia’s media will be under the effective control of Rupert Murdoch, who will own most of our newspapers, a TV network, our pay TV network, and, in cities where he cannot own both a newspaper and a TV station due to his already great share of the advertising market, the key news talk station. Kerry Packer could take Fairfax and keep the Nine Network if he wished, as well as keep his stake in Foxtel and his large stable of magazines. By coincidence (?) both men already effectively control three of our major sports – AFL, Rugby League and Cricket, and would now control the reporting of those sports, ensuring news coverage only in their commercial interest.
Thus two immensely wealthy, powerful businessmen, would set the news agenda in this country, and control much of Australia’s forms of MASS entertainment. Unlike the United States president, who faces a vast and diverse independent media, Howard could, in large measure, rule effectively free from media scrutiny or dissenting analysis on crucial issues. The big two and Howard want Australia run by big business to compete in a globalised world – with favoured treatment for them, of course. Murdoch, reaching a position of immense media power even in the US, wants a free trade agreement with the United States to enmesh the two countries militarily and economically. Faierfax, the only remaining skeptical commercial media voice, one without commercial conflicts of interest, would be gone. The ABC, bruised and battered by concerted government attack enthusiastically backed by the Murdoch press, would be cowed into acquiescence. It is no accident, in my view, that The Australian recently called for the abolition of Radio National, the only mainstream avenue for big ideas and intelligent dissent in Australia.
These ambitions would be very controversial – perhaps too controversial – if we had a free independent media, and if voices of dissent could be heard. In Howard’s ideal world, they would be heard hardly at all. It would be government by big business for big business, with a powerful state apparatus to watch the public and crush radical dissent.
I wouldn’t put it past Howard to achieve these goals. When Labor reigned supreme after many years of power, with its elites firmly in place, it ran out of puff. Why? Because it disconnected from the needs and aspirations of the Australian people, and became arrogant and complacent. Howard will not make the same mistake.
As he screws the batters economically he caters to their nationalistic desires for an Australia safe from boat people and other undesirable immigrants. He gets them on strident nationalism in this way, while making us a client state to the United States in other, much more important, ways. He runs a strong anti-drugs line and socially conservative social policy to ease their fears of a society too complex to comprehend. His proposal on joint custody appeals to many conservative voters, and is a core platform of One Nation. He is keeping the battlers happy with social policy, while hurting them economically.
Howard’s new media elite is also different from Keating’s. For all its faults, the Keating media elite remained critical of Labor, its double standards, and its various betrays of principle. It kept Labor accountable. In contrast, some of Howard’s most powerful media elite act as unabashed propagandists.
So Howard has all the cards. The Democrats are fighting for their survival and Labor is a headless chook. He can now sit back and decide, when the time is right, which of his many possible roads to Australia’s transformation and his absolute power in partnership with big business is most likely to succeed.
There are risks in all this, which I’ll write about tomorrow.
Howard flies constitutional kite
by Malcolm Mackerras, June 10, 2003, AFR
Over the past 30 years John Howard has always been the Liberal Party’s candidate for Bennelong at federal general elections. So what? Not much, except this. Over that same period of 30 years there have been 15 proposed constitutional reforms unsuccessfully placed before the Australian people.
For 15 questions, in which the people voted yes zero times and no 15 times, how did Howard vote? Answer: yes twice and no 13 times.
So Howard’s record is a smidgin more reformist than that of the Australian people but markedly more conservative than his fellow politicians. Suddenly this conservative politician takes the road to Damascus (sorry, a flight to Adelaide) and we witness a Alpine conversion with Howard proposing radical constitutional reform.
The proposal he outlined is a real stinker, so much so that I refuse to believe in his conversion. This proposal will get nowhere. It is a political stunt.
In his Adelaide speech Howard referred to the fact this very reform was recommended by an all-party committee of federal parliament in a 1959 report. True. However, he should have also pointed out that the report of that committee was republished by Robert Menzies and Garfield Barwick, speaking for the government of the day.
Why would the attitude of Menzies differ so markedly from that of Howard? I suggest a simple answer. The Menzies coalition Senate vote was 50.4 per cent in 1949, 49.7 per cent in 1951, 44.4 per cent in 1953 and 48.7 per cent in 1955. The Howard coalition Senate vote was 44 per cent in 1996, 37.7 per cent in 1998 and 41.8 per cent in 2001. I predict the vote will be 42 per cent in 2004. Consequently Menzies, with his high percentages, knew he could win a Senate majority at a double dissolution election. Indeed he did, in 1951. By contrast, Howard, with his much lower percentages, knows he can never win a Senate majority. Never believe his line that he cannot get such a win because the Hawke government rigged the system. That is rubbish. Howard cannot get a majority because his Senate vote is so low.
However, the coalition can win half the Senate places at a half-Senate election. Indeed the coalition did win half the Senate places both in 1996 and in 2001. The government’s weak situation at present is the consequence of its abysmal vote in 1998 when Alpine Hanson and its own GST promise were the cause of the decline. I confidently predict there will be a House of Representatives plus half-Senate election in November 2004 as a consequence of which 38 of the 76 senators will be coalition from July 2005. In other words, the coalition will have 50 per cent of the Senate seats for a 42 per cent vote twice occurring. Thereafter all it will need is to do a bit of bargaining and exercise patience and its economic reforms will all become reality.
In a double dissolution election a 42 per cent vote would give the coalition only 33 senators – five fewer. What, then, is the point of the double-dissolution talk and this constitutional reform stunt? Simple really. The purpose is to talk up the government’s Senate vote at the next half-Senate election.
Clearly there will never be a referendum on this outlandish proposal. The proposal would makes joint sittings such a regular feature that a bicameral parliament would become, in effect, a unicameral parliament. The government’s House of Representatives majority would always overwhelm the Senate.
Most constitutional reformers these days think there should be more limits on government power. This proposal moves the system is the opposite direction.
Meanwhile, while I am not as strongly opposed to Labor’s fixed-term proposal as I am to the Howard plan for Senate reform, I think Labor’s reform moves the system too much the other way. The present arrangements, in my opinion, strike exactly the right balance between the executive and the legislature, between the two houses of federal parliament and between the politicians and the people. It is extraordinary that our present arrangements, drawn up more than a century ago, can be quite so contemporary in the way they actually work.
Malcolm Mackerras teaches in the school of politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.