I’ve been meaning to write to your for a long time. Unfortunately, whenever the urge strikes it is always at an inappropriate moment. However today during my lunch hour I read over some of the articles in Webdiary – in particular the insightful, honest and passionate contributions from Canberra on the recent events surrounding the visit of GWB (sorry, I am so repulsed by that man I can’t even bring myself to write his name). I told myself that when I got home, I’d write to you. So here I am. The topic: John Howard.
The destiny of Australia has been on my mind of late. Currently I don’t reside in Australia and haven’t for the past four years. One of the great advantages of living “outside” the cosmos of Australia is that all preconceived ideas are stripped bare. Instead, you come to appreciate the place Australia has in the world, how Australia is perceived by other nations, and how the actions of a country can affect their standing on the world stage.
When I left Australia four years ago I was under the impression that Australia was a “player” on the world stage, a naive thought for a 32 year old. However, 2 years in London working for one of the biggest financial institutions in the world changed all that. When in comes to business and politics, Australia doesn’t count for three reasons – financial, geographical and time.
While we are a developed country we have a very small economy which has little to no impact on the “world” economy. Hence the reason why the Australian economy is in decent shape and remained relatively unaffected during the downward economic cycle the world has found itself for the past few years.
Australia is an island continent so far from the action (both geographically and time wise) that we just don’t count. They forget about us. Even as late as 2001 people in London would say to me, “So, Keating’s still your PM isn’t he?”
During my time working around the world my illusions about Australia’s place on the world stage have been stripped away and replaced with a more balanced view. It’s also been interesting to note that of late I’m received differently when entering countries or talking to people of other nationalities than I used to be, and that’s disappointing.
Having said that, I also say that Australia has an awful lot to contribute to the world. Australia is, or at least it used to be, a country with a “can do” attitude. If there was a problem, Australians would continue until a solution – usually pretty creative – was found. I say “at least it used to be” because over the past 2-3 years, Australians have become complacent and willing to believe whatever propaganda is placed in front of them. However I feel the tide is turning and the population is becoming less complacent and more willing to question the motives of their elected officials (federal, state and local).
And this leads me to John Howard. I’ve just finished reading a book titled The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. It’s fiction based on the author’s relatives’ remembered stories of the family history from the late 19th century to the end of the 20th century, following their path across South East Asia. The end of the book sees the reunion of a niece with her uncle whom the family lost contact with after the WWII when they returned to India and he was trapped in Burma.
The uncle grew up in Burma and decided to stay, in the process watching the death of democracy and Burma’s decline under dictatorship. I’m sure Mr Ghosh won’t mind if I quote from the final passages of this novel – a discussion between Uncle and niece after listening to the weekly talk given by Aung San Suu Kyi. The uncle says that she is the only leader he’s ever been able to believe in. The niece asks why:
Because she’s the only one who seems to understand what the place of politics is – what it ought to be – that while misrule and tyranny must be resisted, so too must politics itself – that it cannot be allowed to cannibalise all of life, all of existence.
To me, this is the most terrible indignity of our condition, not just in Burma, but in many other places too… that politics has invaded everything, spared nothing. Religion, art, family – it has taken over everything. There is no escape from it – and yet, what could be more trivial in the end?
She understands this, only she, and this is what makes her much greater than a politician. She has torn away the masks from the generals’ faces. She has shown them the limits of what she is willing to do, and these limits have imprisoned them too. She haunts them unceasingly, every moment. She has robbed them of words, of discourse. They have no defense against her but to call her an imperialist, which is laughable, when in fact it is they who invoke the old imperial laws and statutes to keep themselves in power.
The truth is that they have lost and they know this – this is what makes them so desperate. The knowledge that soon they will have nowhere to hide, that it is just a matter of time before they are made to answer for all that they have done.
While it’s a bit far fetched to say that Australia is being ruled by a dictatorship, there are some echoes of truth there, and have been for some time. Let me explain.
I’ve never been fan of John Howard. There are many nuances and ticks that indicate the character of a person. For me, the biggest sign is the eyes and I’ve always felt that John Howard had shifty eyes. I was willing to see how he went as PM –
the turning point came during the euthanasia controversy back in the late 90s.
While I know Johnny is probably not the first nor the last politician to do this, I was disgusted that he would so blatantly use the Constitution to negate the Northern Territory law legalising euthanasia, and in the process disregard the wants and needs of the Australian public.
For those who are unaware, the Australian Constitution allows the states to create their own laws, but if a state and federal law are either the same or in contradiction of each other, the Constitution dictates that the federal law will preside. At the time, around 75% of the Australian public were in favour of the Northern Territory law. While I’m not an advocate of suicide, I am an advocate for the right for people to choose what is right for them. You know the saying about not making comment until you’ve walked a mile in another man’s shoes – in no case has this been more applicable.
And that’s what appalled me – that the Prime Minister of the country overrode popular opinion and the opinion of his own party and used the Constitution to force his own morale code on to the public. That was a red letter day for me and it only seems to have gotten worse since then. For me, decisions such as following the US in invading Iraq was inevitable given other things he allowed to take place during his time as Prime Minister.
The other issue that literally turned my stomach was the incident with High Court Justice Michael Kirby. The behaviour of a certain Senator was bad enough, but when you consider that it was with the PM’s full knowledge I was appalled. And it wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last time this type of behaviour occurred.
Have you ever asked yourself why John Howard, despite pressure from the general public – and the then President of the US, Bill Clinton – never really criticised Pauline Hanson? It was because she was saying what he, as Prime Minister, couldn’t without adverse damage to his reputation. I’ve been appalled that the PM uses his party members and other members of parliament to achieve his objectives while appearing to remain Mr “Squeaky Clean”.
John Howard is the ultimate “Teflon Man”. No matter what happened you could never really make anything stick to him no matter how much you knew, in your heart of hearts, what he did and how culpable he was.
To me John Howard is the worst kind of person – a hypocrite. He expounds virtues and morals yet he has little to none. He expounds on protecting Australia, her freedoms and rights. John Howard would like Australians to see him as a compassionate man, yet this is a man who refuses to fight for the rights of Australians being held unlawfully by the United States military; a man who willfully ignores the doctrines and conventions of the United Nations; a man who unlawfully detains people seeking entry to this country under refuge status to flee persecution in their lands of origin.
I found the 2001 election laughable. I was in Australia for a few months and the Coalition’s campaign was straight out of Hollywood. If you’ve ever seen the movie The American President – I’m aware of the irony – you’ll know exactly what I’m referring too.
Toward the end of the movie, Michael Douglas’ character Andrew Sheppard makes an impromptu speech at the daily White House press briefing. To me, its one of the best scenes and dialogue in a movie, and the parallels with the Coalition tactics in the 2001 election are unbelievable:
How to win an election? Make people afraid of something and then find someone to attach the fear to so the people have someone to direct their anger at. In this respect, September 11 couldn’t have come at a better time, as it generated a fear factor unlike anything anyone form the baby boomers down have ever had to face. The Baby Boomers are probably the biggest demographic in the electorate – a group of “middle age, middle income, middle class voters who remember with longing an easier time”.
While the opposition was trying to focus on the problems Australia was facing (education, health, unemployment, increased taxes), John talked about protecting Australia from the terrorists. He made sure Australians linked terrorists to both Islam and people from the middle east, thereby cleverly creating the link to a group who will induce fear and bring terror into the average Australian’s daily life.
To top it all off, the Coalition publicity machine in conjunction with the foreign minister showed footage of “boat” people throwing their children overboard to jump the queue to get into Australia, while ensuring the link to Islam and the middle east is very clear. It then babbles “Do we really want these kind of people in Australia?”, talks about improving boarder protection and hey, presto you’ve won an election by instilling fear into the electorate while sidestepping the real issues.
If John Howard is willing to go to these lengths to stay in power, what else is he willing to do? I’ll tell you. By calling anyone with enough intelligence and audacity to question the government un-Australian. The persecution of the ABC is a case in point. And it is here we can start to relate the performance of John Howard with the passages from The Glass Palace.
And the opposition aren’t much better. I always thought the mainstay of the political process in Australia was for all elected members of both Houses to question the laws being implemented in the running of Australia – to debate their relevance. I think some members of the Labour Party would dearly love to do that, but the price is political suicide, particularly if you want a political career and have ambitions for higher office.
Simon Crean seems to dictate to the labour troops much the way John Howard dictates to the Coalition’s. We end up with a group of elected officials who are too scared to question for fear of being vilified. The irony – they end up being vilified anyway for sitting on their hands and doing nothing. History will not be kind to this crop of politicians.
The greatest thing I have at the moment is hope. And hope is a powerful thing. I hope that members of the opposition, whatever their political persuasion, will start to question the government and be brave enough to face down the wrath of their own party. I also hope the journalistic community and the Australian public continue to increase their questions of our elected officials.
The reward – the respect of a disillusioned Australian public and the satisfaction that you can go to bed with a clear conscience knowing that you tried to do what was morally right instead of being complacent. I know all those people are out there – they just need to make their voices a bit louder to be heard over the baying of the sheep.
Keep asking questions and you will “rip the mask” from John Howard’s and the government’s face so that they have no discourse, nowhere to hide and will have to finally be accountable for their actions.
Thank you, Margo, for Webdiary and for providing a forum where people are allowed to express their opinions. By doing this you allow a balanced view of the Australian political and social landscape. Whether you are aware of it or not, a large majority of people appreciate your commitment and your passion to truly free speech.