From my fairly hazy memory of it, Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People ranks as one of the less incisive Australian works of political biography I’ve read in the last decade or so. But if Paul Kelly’s review is anything to go by, her latest book Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class looks set to surpass it as an exercise in egregious hagiography:
La Trobe University’s Judith Brett offers insights into Howard’s success that transcend the progressive intelligentsia’s obsession about a racist little man in a 1950s time warp.
Brett says: “Howard has emerged as the most creative Liberal since Menzies as he has reworked the images, themes and arguments of Liberal Party philosophy to respond to the social and economic changes in Australia since Menzies’ retirement.” …
Brett says that depicting Howard as seeking a return to Menzies’ ’50s is “grist for the satirist’s mill but it is not good history”. Howard’s aim is not to return to the ’50s (a truly absurd proposition) but, like Menzies, to find a new language of social and national unity to marginalise his opponents.
In the ’80s, his Future Directions showed Howard’s dismissal of identities larger than the family and smaller than the nation class, religion, ethnicity, gender, race. He aspired to create a unity of the whole and his opportunity came when Paul Keating’s cultural politics, after an initial success, went off the rails. …
Brett argues that Howard’s lukewarm view of multiculturalism is not driven by racial factors but by his faith in a common Australian culture and his rejection of efforts by cultural elites to use state power in pursuit of national identity re-engineering.
His rejection of policies that enshrine separate indigenous rights (customary law, treaties and sovereignty) reflects the same conviction that this is a dangerous step towards a divided nation in violation of the commonsense Australian notion of equality and fair go. (This is a position Brett strongly criticises.)
Howard’s stance on border protection is a variation of the same theme. This issue mirrors a conflict between a cosmopolitan citizens-of-the-world view and a narrow nationalism that puts “obligations to their fellow nationals much higher than to those outside the boundaries of the nation”, a somewhat commonsense attitude.
Brett argues that in the process Howard has paid a price. He has lost much of the party’s moral middle class, symbolised by the ABC constituency, to his opponents. But she also fingers the blunder made by Howard’s professional critics, arguing that, to understand Howard, his denial of racism must be taken seriously and his policies assessed within the terms that Howard himself advances.
Strangely, Kelly (who with all his faults is usually an intelligent political commentator) makes no attempt to explain why it should be regarded as a “blunder” to refuse to accept Howard’s self-servingly flattering characterisations of the motivations for his own divisive policies.
Actually, I agree with Brett that focusing on Howard’s policy stances as “racist” is mistaken, but for quite different reasons from hers. Howard may or may not be racist (or, more accurately, xenophobic) on a personal level, but it’s politically irrelevant. The salient feature of these policies is not their racism per se but their carefully calculated divisiveness. This is a 21st century polling-driven exercise in Machiavellian “divide and rule” strategies. Race issues are among the most strongly emotive “hot button” issues, and the most easily exploited. Moreover, many working class (and otherwise ordinarily Labor) voters can be successfully hived off the ALP by well-designed appeals to fears about race and ethnicity. The Labor movement has had a rich vein of racism running through its entire history, with many workers convinced that the yellow and black hordes threatened their jobs. The advent of the towering figure of Saint Gough and a succession of subsequent middle class ALP leaders, who eschewed racist appeals, tends to obscure the fact that as recently as the 1960s Labor leader Arthur Caldwell (a proud upholder of the White Australia Policy as post-war Immigration Minister) could unblushingly utter the immortal line “Two Wongs don’t make a white”. Those sentiments have merely lain dormant in many traditional Labor voters over the intervening decades, and they are what Howard has been able unerringly to exploit through his stunningly successful “wedge” politics election tactics.
Brett’s audacity in asserting that Howard has sought “to find a new language of social and national unity” is nothing short of breathtaking in its complete inversion of reality. Despite his strong leadership and steady economic stewardship, Howard is without question the most socially divisive Prime Minister Australia has ever had. Judith Brett has missed her vocation. She should be a political spin doctor instead of an academic historian.