Last week, I set out a scenario under which John Howard would oversee a seismic shift in Australia’s democracy. We would become a corporatist state almost fully integrated into the United States economically and militarily, in partnership with a mainstream media tightly controlled by Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer (Howard’s roads to absolute power).
Howard’s dominant political position and his success in coopting traditional institutions which operate as checks on power – the public service and much of the mass media – and in suppressing dissent by defunding public interest groups, stifling free speech in universities and terrorising the ABC – makes this neo-liberal, neo-conservative dream plausible. But what are the weak points, and can it be countered?
There are several faultlines I can think of, apart from the unpredictable outcomes in Iraq and the possibility of a world recession. They are:
* a backlash from traditional Liberal voters,
* the politics of Telstra,
* the risks of Howard’s idea to gut the Senate blowing up in his face and
* the chance that non-Coalition parties, independents and our public interest groups could band together to defend Australian values and Australian democracy against the Howard onslaught.
Howard has many things going for him. The world is now so complicated and frightening that many people want to trust Howard – almost a ‘father figure’ – with their fate and get on with their lives to meet the increasing obligations he imposes on them, including funding their basic health care and education for their kids. They’re working longer, harder, and less securely – their lives are tightly managed and they want to relax with sport, entertainment and home renovation. Many have disconnected from their society as communities disintegrate, partly because few have the time to contribute to their local community and build local support systems. Many people, perhaps most, have lost faith in their democratic institutions – the law, media, the public service and business. Many salve their alienations and insecurities through downward envy and prejudice, a tendency happily exploited by Howard.
Faultline 1: Will true Liberals revolt?
As we saw from reader reaction last week, some of Howard’s traditional constituency, particularly small l Liberals, are uncomfortable with Howard’s agenda. As natural opponents of big government, they didn’t like his grab for state power and control with his original ASIO and anti-terrorism bills. They prefer a more independent foreign policy, and they’re growing increasingly concerned at the excesses of Howard’s refugee policy. They understand that his cross media proposals threaten our democratic right to know what’s going on. To true Liberals, Howard’s combination of small government in the economic sphere and extra large, highly intrusive government in the private, social sphere, is untenable. It’s also grating, because at the international level, where big business makes the big money and wields enormous power, Howard is a fan of international agreements to grease big business wheels. Yet on human and civil rights and environmental protection he walks away from our international obligations and slams them as a breach of national sovereignty. In other words, the place of the citizen in the state and the world is downgraded, even ignored, as we are told we exist to serve “the economy” and Howard busily dismantles our civil “society”.
I believe that some in the business world will also grow increasingly concerned. After all, if Packer and Murdoch control the mainstream media we’re talking an effective oligopoly. That means the pair could set advertising rates at high levels, hurting big and small business alike. The pair could also veto advertising which is not in their interests. Already in Sydney, professionals like lawyers and accountants have to decide whether they’re Packer or Murdoch people. An increase in their power compromises them further. (My analysis of the consequences for Australia if Howard’s cross media revolution gets up is at Closing the door on your right to know.)
An interesting piece in last week’s media supplement in The Australian revealed that stockbroker Roger Colman, of CCZ Equities, had advised independent Senator Shayne Murphy and One Nation’s Len Harris on Howard’s cross media revolution:
“In his role as a broker, Colman had previously advised financial institutions which media share prices would benefit from media reform. “I was arguing against the research I put out, and I was arguing in my capacity as a private citizen,” he says. “I did not want to be swamped by Kerry Packer.”
There’s now a gaping hole in our political market place – small l Liberals (and middle class Labor voters with similar values) have nowhere to go. Last year, the Democrats imploded after Meg Lees and her supporters sought to move the Democrats into the centre, with a policy of cooperating with the Coalition agenda in exchange for side deals on things like the environment and the ABC, while standing firm on core small l principles of a non-intrusive state and human and civil rights.
That cause was lost, but Lees now has a new party, the Australian Progressive Alliance, which is seeking to fill the gap. It’s a hopeless cause, one would think, without the attraction of a big name to get momentum and perhaps even a few breakaway Liberals from what’s left of the moderate strand of the Liberal Party.
There’s a wild interview with former opposition leader John Hewson in last week’s Bulletin magazine in which he strongly criticises John Howard’s agenda. Hewson is an economic dry with progressive views on foreign policy, the environment and human rights. He supports us signing the Kyoto protocol, opposed us invading Iraq without UN sanction and is a critic of our refugee policy. Maxine McKew, after hearing his rave over lunch, wrote:
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Is this the sound of a resurgent political ambition? Is John Hewson making another run? He doesn’t back away from the question. “I’ve had dozens of offers to go back. Wealthy people offering to fund me, either to go back or set up a new party. Every time there is a preselection in Wentworth (Hewson’s old seat in Sydney) there are people who want to know if I’ll run. But my view in life is you never go back.”
But to paraphrase what Al Gore’s mate Bill Clinton would say, it may depend on what ‘going back’ means.”
I’ve had quite a few conversations with Liberal moderate staffers and pollies over the years where the question a new, true Liberal Party came up. It’s probably not possible, for now at least, but Hewson’s musings indicate some alternatives.
Liberal aligned independents have the potential to do well in safe Liberal seats, as Ted Mack showed when he held North Sydney for years. Peter McDonald gave Tony Abbott a run for his money in his Sydney North Shore seat at the last election.
The vast majority of Liberal voters in safe Liberal seats would not dream of voting Labor, although a few of them are voting Green. I’d see promise in a well-funded, high powered group funding strong, respected, people in safe Liberal seats to stand as Liberal independents. They’d promise to support a Liberal government on supply, but to act in accordance with their conscience otherwise. They’d be loosely aligned, run joint advertising campaigns, and pool their supporter base. Someone like John Hewson or the renegade former NSW party president John Valder could endorse the group and campaign for them.
FAULTLINE 2: The Senate focus
But the real action would be in the Senate. Howard will publish his discussion paper on dumping the Senate’s veto power over the winter break (see Howard’s rubber-stamp democracy). Howard’s ploy is to trap Labor into supporting the idea because he’s nicked one of their traditional cornerstone issues. Labor won’t do it – can’t do it – though, because now Labor is the Party trying to preserve the status quo and the social contract, while Howard is the radical reformer.
The concerns of some Liberal voters about Howard’s direction could help mobilise a centre-right team in Senate races and an unprecedented focus on the Senate campaign at the next election on the theme of keeping John Howard accountable. A prominent person to head the ticket in each state and a well funded campaign could spell danger for Howard.
Faultline 3: Telstra danger (Disclosure: I own Telstra shares.)
Then there’s the Nationals. Webdiarist Denis Berrell is sanguine about my Howard scenario. “How is John Howard going to manage a majority in the House of Representatives after the National Party get wiped out at the next election after supporting the sale of Telstra?” he asks.
Let me tell you, some cynical political observers in Canberra think Howard’s Telstra play is actually designed to destroy the Nats, thus freeing him from the economic and cultural constraints they place on his agenda.
The Liberals still insist that the proceeds of a sale would retire debt, and won’t yet answer the obvious rejoinder – that Peter Costello announced after the last budget that our debt was now low enough, and that’s why he could give a tax cut. My guess is that Howard will attempt a 1996 type tactic at the next election. Back then, he announced that a Liberal government would sell one third of Telstra, with much of the proceeds to go to a Natural Heritage Trust. But it’s likely that Telstra shares won’t be anywhere near the right price to sell by the next election, so any such promises would be a bit never-never.
I reckon the Nationals are in appalling trouble over this issue. There are already two country independents in the Parliament – Bob Katter in North Queensland and Tony Windsor in country NSW, both of whom are strong opponents of Howard’s cross media laws and the sale of Telstra. Both have threatened to start a new Country Party or country alliance to capitalise on the National’s troubles. Like the small l liberal apprehension, country Australia is very suspicious of Howard’s big business agenda, and there’s no guarantee One Nation leaners will stick with him because of his hardline refugee policy. A new Country Party or country alliance would be well placed to tap into disaffection. Again, they could promise to back the Coalition on supply but keep them honest on other matters.
More broadly, the public’s attitude to selling Telstra could be a referendum on how it judges the success of privatisations so far, particularly in areas where very Australian believes he or she has a basic right to services. It’s called fairness. Tony Windsor’s line is potent – that government ownership means our elected representatives are truly accountable for performance, and that once Telstra is off the leash, anything goes. Little people, as always, will suffer, as they have post the Commonwealth bank and electricity privatisations. Why has the bush got a good deal on telecommunications services for the past few years? Because the government wants to sell. Why would ordinary citizens vote to lose cede yet more of their power in a democracy to private, unaccountable business in the game for money alone?
Faultline 4: Unholy alliances
Last night’s Four Corners program on the operation of the Tweed Shire council in northern NSW, Ocean views, is a classic micro view of the big picture, and of the emerging formation of unlikely alliances against the new values of money talks and only making money for big business matters. Big developers effectively bought the last council election, and it’s been let her rip ever since, with processes subverted, transparency in retreat, and a pristine coastline razed to the ground to prepare for million dollar views for the wealthy.
The “opposition” comprises Liberal/Green/Labor and National Party councillors. A new newspaper detailing the dirty tricks and developer misdeeds has just started in the Tweed, and the four opposition councillors proudly appear in the same full page advertisement as representatives of the local community insisting on having a say in determining what happens to their community. What do you want to preserve of your way of life? Do you have a right to help decide what your children will enjoy, or lose the enjoyment of? Local unholy alliances are made up of local people normally at loggerheads who realise that only they care about the public interest, and that the public interest requires them to work together to keep the playing field fair and the community in the game.
Could this local trend move up to the federal sphere? Mobilisation of disaffection across the political spectrum would upset Howard’s presently unassailable constituency mix. Medicare, education, Telstra, the Senate, and foreign policy – all have the potential to splinter the mix by creating unlikely partners in opposition. Just one example. Who would have thought that small l Liberal and Labor internationalism could align with One Nation nationalism against Howard? Yet they do when it comes to Howard’s planned free trade agreement and his subservience to US foreign policy demands. Neither constituency is at all happy that Howard is happy to see a secretive US military tribunal try David Hicks while US citizens captured in Afghanistan in the same circumstances enjoy the full protection of US law and its constitutional bill of rights. This is straight out double standards and Australian acquiescence to Australian citizens being second class world citizens. Many Liberals are also determined to protect and enhance our local culture, and not see it buried in foreign material if the Americans get their way in the free trade talks.
Often it’s about issues of process, of the means to the end. In the end, people under pressure – and they include Labor, Democrats, Greens, Liberal and One Nation voters – want a fair process and transparency in decision making. The key moment is when all of them realise that there’s an enormous force out there which threatens to swamp them all, and that their only chance to protect their right to have a say is to band together against the common enemy. For instance, the far right, the left and small l Liberals were as one on the evils of Howard’s ASIO and anti-terrorist bills. Imagine the power of that coalition if they worked together, rather than separately, on such campaigns. Similarly, all parties except the Coalition opposed Howard’s cross media bill, and his decision to follow the US into Iraq without UN sanction.
These sorts of issue or values specific alliances on particular issues would require a major mindshift from the players based on the recognition that fighting amongst each other while the Howard machine rolls over all of them is counterproductive. They might even need to agree to disagree on some fundamental issues while agreeing that the big political picture required the election of a Labor government in the short term, when they could resume battling it out between themselves.
This would be provided, of course, that Labor listened and learned, articulated the values which united opponents of Howard’s agenda, guaranteed to raise ethical standards in the public service, politics and business and to improve the accountability of all three.
Labor would also have to defend the Senate. If it did, an anti-Howard coalition might even work together on an intensive Senate election campaign, deciding preferences with a view to getting anyone BUT Coalition candidates up. As we know from Malcolm Mackerras in ‘Howard’s roads to absolute power’, Howard can expect a vote of 42 percent in the Senate at the next election, which would deliver him half the Senate seats, and the delightful prospect of needing to woo only one non-Coalition Senator to ram through its policy agenda.
To counter this, a disparate groups of political parties and interest groups would need to focus the public’s mind on the dangers of such dominance and convince Australians they need to curb Howard’s excesses with their Senate vote.
All this, of course, would require enormous effort and commitment from many Australians on the ground, who’d have to be willing to dedicate some of their precious spare time to establishing local networks and action groups. All the non-Coalition parties and movements would need to bulk up their grassroots membership and bypass the mainstream media in favour of traditional and direct information and grassroots political campaigns. The return of the town meeting, perhaps? Letter box drops, routinely. Local fundraising events. Guest speakers. Social events. All of it. The internet is the building block for such an ambitious undertaking. Websites would aim to attract activists across Australia who would then do the grassroots work.
These things can work, you know. There’s a bloke called Howard Dean who was considered a rank outsider in the US Democrats presidential race. He’s the only Democrats contender who’s been against the Iraqi war from the beginning, and through the internet he’s garnered more money for his campaign than any other candidate. He’s now a frontrunner! (See Salon).
During Hanson’s 1998 election campaign, I realised that Australia was divided by the fact that we couldn’t understand each other. The urge to preserve our democracy would require disparate Australians to drop their certainties and their prejudices against the prejudices of others and really talk to each other directly again in plain terms, taking joint responsibility for our legacy to future generations.
They’d need to look for what they had in common, rather than what divides them (Howard’s motto in reverse!) And they’d need to realise that whatever their differences, they had one thing in common – the determination to save and enhance our democracy against the forces which seek to diminish it and disempower the people.
In the late Labor government years, when the media was at its beck and call and many issues affecting ordinary Australians were not discussed or discussed in dehumanised terms, a red head from Ipswich broke through and a grassroots movement exploded into the public arena. Hansonites didn’t trust anything they read in the newspapers and began an internet site to spread their own information and reinforce their own beliefs. In a strange way, most of us who fear Howard’s agenda are now outsiders. We fear losing our voice, our say, in what our society is to be and what values it is to live by.
Howard’s media are even more dominant than were the Keating media elite. If the One Nation experience is anything to go by, disaffected Australians may again be ready to again bypass it to look elsewhere for their information and their world view.
If this is true, that old Australian trait of backing the underdog could come into play. Australians could become uncomfortable with John Howard’s rush to absolute power and, if Labor gets its act together, vote Labor to keep Howard on some sort of leash, or even toss him out.
Politics today is an exercise in feeling the earth move under your feet.