The Age ~~ Melbourne ~~ Saturday November 24 2007
Let this be an epitaph for a man of shame
FOR the past 11 years, Prime Minister John Howard has been fond of reminding us of his favourite Australian traditions and catchphrases. The so-called Aussie values he believes have come to define us such as a fair go, mateship and the Gallipoli spirit.
They've been curious, male-oriented choices wrapped for the most part in empty rhetoric that has served to divide, not unite, us and heralded a zealous campaign to treat philosophical, intellectual and cultural vigour as if it were a plague.
Indeed, one of the PM's self-proclaimed triumphs was to oversee the eradication of another much-touted Howard catchphrase political correctness. Whatever that actually means, we apparently don't have it in Australia any more, much to the PM's delight.
But it was another, more universal, catchphrase that occupied my thoughts this week as John Winston Howard found himself boxed into an ugly corner largely of his own making and was forced to confront a house of cards with race writ large on them all.
Somehow the word comeuppance came to mind as the 11th-hour race implosion in the federal seat of Lindsay derailed Howard's re-election momentum. And it screamed poetic justice.
After years of playing on the nation's xenophobic fears and whipping up race-based frenzies to deliver political victories, it was the PM's former golden girl minister, Jackie Kelly the accidental politician who epitomised Howard's aspirational battlers when she helped sweep him to power in 1996 who brought him unstuck so spectacularly.
Kelly's attempt to laugh off an appallingly ill-judged anti-Muslim campaign leaflet being handed out in her electorate by her husband and close associates had all the hallmarks of Russell Crowe's dynamic performance in Romper Stomper, except it was for real. Jackie just couldn't see what all the fuss was about. And it spoke volumes.
It was an extraordinary finale from a woman once touted as Liberal leadership material but who is now opting for a parliamentary pension. Her train wreck of an interview with Chris Uhlman on ABC radio was, apparently, her way of helping the woman hoping to replace her in Lindsay. The PM, most definitely, was not amused.
The episode did little other than remind us that some rivers still run very deep in the modern Liberal Party. The same modern Liberal Party that John Winston Howard has led so proudly for so long. The same modern Liberal Party that has driven the most decisive of racial wedges through the heart and soul of this country, eroding its essence so comprehensively it will take considerable strength, determination, courage and vision to restore it.
As Howard stood at the National Press Club making his last-ditch stand for power on Thursday afternoon, nothing could rid him of that elephant in the room.. Try as he might to tell us over and over that we've never had it so good, the elephant just kept getting in the way. Try as he might to persuade us he is not yesterday's man, it all came back to the elephant.
And it was the very same elephant that Howard let into the nation's lounge room when he became Prime Minister in 1996. That same elephant that underscored Cronulla, Noble Park, the intervention in the Northern Territory and the proliferation of Australia's draconian immigration detention policies. It is time to tell it to leave.
It is time to make room for change to take place. It is time to make room for hope to be restored. It is time to make way for leadership with vision and compassion to flourish.
Today is the day that we tell John Howard and his elephant it is time for them to go. Today is the day for Australia to reclaim its sense of justice, humanity, equality and pride. Today is the day we tell each other and the world that we are a decent, good-hearted, generous people who reach out and reach down and walk tall because of it.
And today is the day John Winston Howard walks into the hall of mirrors that is the politically, socially and culturally redefined multicultural electorate of Bennelong.
Oh, what an epitaph. That the man whose political party played the race card once too often in his 11th hour is not only tipped out of government, but the man himself tipped out of his now culturally diverse seat by the very people he used so successfully for so long as pawns in his political chess game.
Could there be a sweeter decline?
Tracee Hutchison is a Melbourne writer and broadcaster.
London ~~ Thursday November 22, 2007
Howard election campaign hit by dirty tricks scandal
See the fake leaflet (pdf) HERE
Barbara McMahon in Sydney
The husband of the Australian Liberal MP Jackie Kelly is captured distributing fake election flyers purporting to be from an Islamic group calling on people to vote for the opposition Labor party. Photograph: Australian Labor party/EPA
The election strategy of the Australian prime minister, John Howard, was in turmoil today after members of his Liberal party were caught red-handed in an inept dirty tricks campaign.
Bogus flyers from a fake organisation called the Islamic Australia Federation were distributed through the letterboxes of voters in a marginal seat, claiming the Labor opposition sympathised with Islamic terrorists.
The leaflets referred to the men imprisoned for the 2002 nightclub bomb attacks in Bali, which left more than 200 people dead. The flyers also claimed Labor support for the building of new mosques in the area.
Howard has made it clear the stunt was not authorised by his party, but the damage has been immense. With only two days to go before the country goes to the polls, it overshadowed the prime minister's final rallying call to voters today asking them to trust him with Australia's future.
A team of Labor officials found five men posting the clumsily printed flyers - the phrase Allah Akbar, God is Great, had been misspelled as Ala Akba - through letterboxes in the early hours of the morning.
The members of the Liberal party involved in the deed, in the key marginal seat of Lindsay, near Sydney, included the husbands of a retiring candidate and her replacement. They said later that their wives had not been aware of what they were doing.
The Australian Electoral Commission said it would set up an inquiry and police were being asked to investigate whether the group had committed a criminal offence by appealing to anti-Muslim sentiment.
Howard said the leaflets should never have been distributed and called the material "tasteless and offensive," but the spectacular own goal was seized upon by the Labor leader, Kevin Rudd, who is leading in the polls.
"After 11 years it's clear the Liberals have nothing left to offer other than desperation, negativity and dirty tactics," Rudd said in Brisbane.
The president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Ikebal Patel, said the incident was "despicable".
Sydney Morning Herald ~~ Friday November 23 2007
Scandal adds to humiliation
By Peter Hartcher
Australia does not change its government very often. The people have dismissed a government on only four occasions since the modern two-party system took shape in 1949.
On all available indications, tomorrow will be the fifth.
Today's Herald-Nielsen poll, the internal estimates of both major political parties, and the indications from the betting markets all point strongly to the same conclusion - that the Howard era is over.
Indeed, according to the findings of the Herald-Nielsen poll, it appears that Howard is about to suffer the biggest swing against any sitting government since 1949, and perhaps the biggest since 1910.
It was on May 23 that Howard told his party room: "The public opinion polls suggest that we would not just lose but be annihilated."
Howard did not seriously expect that this was the fate that awaited him. He did think, however, that the voting public was in some sort of a Rudd-induced trance. Howard wanted to snap the country out of it, force us to confront the enormity of the act that we were collectively contemplating.
At that time, Labor would have won an election by a devastating 58 per cent to the Coalition's 42 per cent, according to the Herald-Nielsen poll.
How does today's poll compare? Today, Labor would win by 57 per cent to 43 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. In other words, the annihilation that Howard faces tomorrow is almost exactly the scale of annihilation that he was contemplating in May.
The country, it seems, thought about it, realised the enormity of it, and decided it liked the idea.
Today's poll, incidentally, with a sample of 2071, has a margin of error of 2.2 per cent. Its accuracy is supported by the fact that the pollster, Nielsen, conducted a parallel poll, asking the same questions, with a different sample using a different methodology - online rather than phone. And it came to precisely the same conclusion on the two-party vote.
On the evidence of these polls, the swing against the Government would be 10 per cent. This would be a stunning outcome. It would not be a swing so much as a resounding thump. There has been no swing this big since 1949. For comparison, the Keating government was thrown out with a swing against it of 5 per cent.
Since 1949, the biggest swings against a government have been in the 7 to 8 per cent range and both were reactions to Gough Whitlam - first to embrace him, and then to reject him.
The first was in 1969 when Whitlam led a 7.1 per cent swing against the conservatives, yet narrowly missed winning power and tried again, successfully, in 1972 when he pressed ahead by a further 2.5 per cent shift.
The second was when Whitlam was thrown out after the constitutional crisis of 1975. He lost the subsequent election that year with a record swing against him of 7.4 per cent.
To find any shift of 10 per cent or larger you need to go back to 1910, when there was a 13 per cent movement to throw out Alfred Deakin's Protectionist Party in favour of Andrew Fisher's Labor Party.
It is a stunning prospect that Australia could be contemplating such an emphatic humiliation of its second-longest serving prime minister. Even a simple loss for Howard would be an extraordinary and historic event. Why?
To throw the Howard Government out tomorrow would be to commit three political firsts.
First, it would be the first time in Australia's history that the country would have wall-to-wall Labor government, Labor in power in every state and nationally as well.
Only once has Australia had one party in power in all governments, federal and state. It lasted for exactly one year and 20 days. And it was the conservatives who enjoyed this brief monopoly of power, from May 10, 1969 to May 30, 1970.
The statistical probability of the entire political map being coloured a single hue is only one in 512. Or, as a percentage, there is only a 0.19 per cent chance.
Second, it would the first time in the postwar era that a government had been ejected while the economy was in an unequivocal phase of robust growth, according to the economist John Edwards.
Third, it would the first time in the 35-year history of the Nielsen poll that a prime minister would have been discarded while he was still relatively popular. Howard's approval rating in today's poll is 50 per cent, bang on the threshold that defines political popularity.
So why is it happening? How does the second-longest serving leader in the country's history defy all the precedents to be at risk of imminent humiliation?
Consider the basis of Howard's power. He has ruled by welding together two distinct voting blocs to form a coalition. One was the traditional conservative voting base. The other was the so-called "Howard battlers," the working families who were traditionally more inclined to vote Labor than Liberal.
Howard has alienated some members of both blocs. Some of his policies angered some traditional conservative voters who feel strongly about social justice issues, the group often dismissively referred to as "doctors' wives." Polling by Newspoll, commissioned by GetUp!, shows a clear majority of Liberal voters opposed Howard's policies on David Hicks and global warming.
And some of Howard's battlers feel betrayed by Howard's fourth-term performance. Two factors, in particular, destroyed the trust that working families had put in Howard. One was Work Choices, and the other was Howard's fake and fractured promise to keep interest rates at record lows.
Overlaying all this is unease that Howard has been in power too long, plus real unhappiness that he's to be succeeded by the unpopular Peter Costello.
Still, these disgruntled voters might not have acted on their unhappiness. Australia's is a very cautious, risk-averse electorate. But Australians have been freed to act on their disenchantment by the prospect of a low-risk alterative, Kevin Rudd, economically conservative and exuding middle-class respectability.
The last-minute revelations of scandalous rorting of the rural grants program, and the outlandish amateur effort in Lindsay to portray Labor as pro-terrorist, do not doom Howard, but they do add a flavour of disgrace to a looming humiliation.
As Howard's head disappears beneath the water, these scandals threaten to leave a stain, a slick, on the patch of water where the last air bubbles are surfacing.
Peter Hartcher is the Herald's political editor.
The Age ~~ Melbourne ~~ Friday November 23 2007
When the luck finally runs out
By Robert Manne
Illustration: Andrew Dyson
UNLESS scores of astonishingly consistent opinion polls have been systematically misleading, tomorrow the Howard Government will be voted out. How will historians judge it?
Not every judgement will be negative. Even though foreign and personal debt are at record levels, the nation is far wealthier than ever in its history. The Howard Government will be praised for its part in creating the conditions for non-inflationary growth, with low levels of unemployment, but without dismantling the basic pillars of the welfare state. It will also be praised for introducing the GST and using this new tax to finance the states; for introducing effective gun control; and, despite early missteps, for helping East Timor gain its independence.
Compared to the harm it has done to Australia, however, all this will seem relatively trivial. Stimulated by the Hansonite movement, from 1996 the Howard Government has waged a protracted culture war against what it called "political correctness". As part of this war, the Government turned its back on the aspiration that had been embraced by every government from Whitlam to Keating via Fraser to build a multicultural society in Australia. It did not fight against the Hanson attempt to make "Asians" feel unwelcome in Australia. Following September 11, the rhetoric of Howard Government ministers, which challenged Muslims to prove their loyalty, succeeded in marginalising patriotic citizens. In its desperate eleventh hour, it cast a slur on the Sudanese refugees brought to this country.
The abandonment of multiculturalism was paralleled by the attempt of the Howard Government to deny the moral meaning of the indigenous dispossession. It refused to apologise to the thousands of Aborigines who had been removed, as children, from their mothers and communities. It destroyed the prospect of a symbolic act of reconciliation at the centenary of Federation. The Prime Minister personally encouraged a new denialist school of history, pioneered by Keith Windschuttle.
The abandonment of both the aspiration for multiculturalism and the quest for reconciliation had no direct electoral impact. The Government's callous treatment of asylum seekers, fleeing from the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, did.
At first, using Labor's dangerous mandatory detention legacy, the Howard Government imprisoned these refugees for indefinite periods in appalling desert camps. With the arrival of the Tampa at Christmas Island, in late August 2001, it decided on an even more brutal strategy to use military force to drive all asylum seekers away. To legitimise its cruelty, the Government let the people believe a lie: that the Iraqi refugees had thrown their own children into the ocean. In the long term, mendacity and a carnal desire for power at almost any cost became the trademarks of the Government. In the short term, "border control" hysteria helped Howard win the November 2001 election.
Tampa was the defining political moment in the history of the Howard Government. Labor was destabilised. Pauline Hanson's One Nation lost its purpose. By now a new kind of political culture had crystallised populist conservatism. For years, it was exploited by the Howard Government exceedingly well.
John Howard was in Washington on September 11. He made two decisions that dominated the second half of his prime ministership and will determine his reputation.
Howard signed a blank cheque in favour of the United States in its war on terror. As a consequence, Australia followed the US into Iraq, without UN approval and on the basis of false intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction. Catastrophe has descended the deaths of hundreds of thousands; the flight of millions; the preparation for religious civil war; the battle-hardening of a new generation of al-Qaeda militants. Iraq was the worst foreign policy blunder of any Australian government.
On September 10, Howard was offered a choice by President Bush: to go with Europe on climate change or to support the US in opposition to binding national carbon emission targets and the Kyoto Treaty. Howard chose to follow the US on global warming, wherever it might go.
Unprecedented international co-operation is the only chance humanity now has for avoiding real disaster. Just as Western governments of the 1930s are now judged over their response to the Nazi threat, so will today's be judged by whether they have risen to the challenge of global warming. Of all Western governments, Bush's America and Howard's Australia both of which believe that climate change can be combated by voluntary national emissions targets and yet-to-be-discovered technological miracles will be seen by history as the most blind, reckless and delinquent.
For the past 12 months the Howard Government has been staring at defeat. There are three main reasons. Australia was now in the grip of a ferocious drought, without apparent end. For many Australians this has personalised the seriousness of the climate crisis and the astonishing folly of the Howard Government, for which, until the day before yesterday, global warming denialism where "the jury was still out" and where "something would turn up" had been the dominant form of daydream.
In July 2005, the Howard Government took control of the Senate. Getting what it most desired provided the foundation for impending defeat. The Government now introduced to an unsuspecting public, radical "WorkChoices" legislation. Even the name was offensive. As Australia is not America, and as Australians have no wish for it to be, this new law proved a godsend for Labor. Citizens might trust government rhetoric on issues remote from their own lives, such as asylum seekers. They did not need to rely on trust on things personally experienced, such as exploitation in an unequal workplace.
In December 2006, Kevin Rudd took over the leadership of the Labor Party. His combination of ambition, energy and comparative youth; acute political judgement and instinct; natural social conservatism; steady vision, at once generous and modernising; obvious but non-condescending intelligence; and considerable personal charm, made him the most attractive and electable Labor leader since Bob Hawke. With Rudd's arrival, Howard's political luck had finally run out.
Robert Manne is professor of politics at La Trobe University.