Saturday, December 17, 2005

tense and uncomfortable

It’s not clear whether David Kemp is the only Liberal who responded to Judith Brett’s recent Quarterly Essay on Howard, but in any case, his is the Liberal voice published in reply in the latest edition*. He has, as he puts it, just ‘niggles’; you know, why doesn’t Brett credit Howard & Co. with the prosperity that has accompanied his governance, etc. He does approve of Brett placing Howard in the mainstream of Liberal tradition. My guess is that Liberals are eager to welcome her reading (continuity over rupture) because otherwise Howard could be seen as being just as much of a radical, loose cannon as Labor's Latham was, if a much more successful one. This statement of Kemp’s, though, is completely lacking credibility:

“It may be a Liberal defect to look closely at the impact of policies on individuals, and to be less enamoured of collective symbolism, but I don’t think so.”

So I guess Anzac Day, the diggers, Gallipoli have nothing to do with collective symbolism. Kemp need only read Brett’s response to the correspondence, where she reminds us how good Howard is at using symbolism:
“[He] evoked the widely shared symbols fo the Australian legend, the symbols of mateship, easygoing informality and the fair go, to present himself as the protector of national culture against the social engineering of the lftwing elites who had got their hands on state power. And as prime minister he has most identified himself with that most potent bearer of a nation’s past -- its military history.”

Kemp also insists that Howard “has great interest in the role of [the] ‘elites’. Indeed, he has time and again emphasised the imortance of the ‘battle of ideas’ in politics…” To me, this is a tacit admission that the Howard governments believe that politics doesn’t belong to the punter, that it is an elite sport, that the mob needn’t worry it’s pretty little head too much about little ole politics. That’s the flavor of the Howard years—paternalistic condesencion. (Incidentally, on the subject of voter disengagement with politics, when another correspondent, Don Aitken mentions that political party membership is down in ‘all Western developed countries save Japan’, I want to know why not Japan? What’s special about them? Is it the particular charisma of their young and attractive PM? Did ‘generational change’ work for them?)
The Labor voice in reply to Brett is offered by former Labor heavy, Graham Richardson. He attributes Howard’s success to external factors--“very, very good luck”--but it’s obvious that alot also depends on how you play the hand you’re dealt, and as we’ve all seen, Howard is a skilful poker player. Richo does acknowledge the skill but places more emphasis on luck. He also doesn't miss the opportunity to put the boot into Latham by mocking his ‘ladders of opportunity’, though to me, that was actually one of Latham’s ideas that did seem to fall under the rubric of the large economic theme.
Richo’s mystified as to why Howard’s gone from being ‘all at sea when it came to working a crowd’ and ‘awkward to the nth degree’ to moving around at photo opportunities ‘with consummate ease’. Didn’t Richo watch Australian Princess? Isn’t he aware of what even 12 weeks of deportment, eyebrow grooming and etiquette lessons can do for an average schmuck? And he’s had twenty years of it. Me, I’m not at all surprised he’s been transformed from nerd to Australian King.
To what extent is current prosperity a consequence of Howard’s governance and Liberal policies? Both parties lay claim to it. Don Aitken hands it to Hawke. Kemp, of course, wishes to claim it for Howard.
And is the the answer for Labor to focus on economics like the Liberals do, because the punter just wants to be able to pay his mortgage? Then it’s open to complaints about political convergence on economic issues.
Richo writes, “Australians see economic policy as the core, and social policy as what can be afforded after the real work is done.” I see it slightly differently. I think if Australians see economic policy as the core, it’s because social policy depends on its success. It’s not some kind of extracurricular activity, as Richo’s comment implies.
Whether or not Howard can take the credit for current economic propserity, ultimately as Brett points out it wasn’t so much an election won on Liberal economic management as lost on Latham’s lack of leadership credentials. The “Learner Latham” ad campaign was cunning, and devastating for Labor.
To wrap this up for now (I think I’ll have a few more comments to come), I think it’s an interesting discussion between Brett and her correspondents as to whether Howard shows more continuity and adherence to Liberal traditions than rupture and radicalism. My guess is that he chops and changes from both when it suits him, according to current conditions. I see Howard as a shapeshifter—notice how he always gets that worried frown which hangs around until he has had a good sniff of the voter mood and formulated an appropriate (safe) position. I see him as a huge opportunist. And to me this, coupled with tthe fact that it was Latham who lost the last election, just shows the huge, if quixotic, influence of the personality of individual political leaders.
Brett’s conclusion is the same (optimistic) one I came to after reading her essay.
“Now Howard’s speaking with the voice of the economic elites, Labor is back on its home ground.”
Anyway, as I said, hopefully more soon.

(*Looking forward to reading this edition's essay by John Birmingham, "A Time for War". He also has a blog, apparently.)

I also wrote about the Brett essay here and here, if interested.