Looking to the future

The orgy of political analysis triggered by the tenth anniversary of John Howard’s prime ministership has been extraordinarily variable, ranging from shallow hagiography (The Howard Factor) or  vitriolic abuse right through  to penetrating insight.   Among the latter is an excellent paper given by  two of my favourite political scientists in Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen (who are apparently currently writing a biography of Howard that I’ll certainly be purchasing).   It’s a conference paper from a talkfest that took place at ANU over the weekend just past.   The paper in .pdf format is well worth reading, and certainly far more  nuanced, balanced  and complex than much of the MSM “analysis” of the last couple of weeks.

The same ANU conference featured a paper by historian Judith  Brett, which is also well worth reading,  not to mention  another paper by Alison Broinowski that isn’t (it belongs in category two above).   I’ve taken the liberty of  copying a substantial extract from Judith Brett’s paper over the fold, because  I think it raises a  couple  of issues worth discussing.   Brett focuses on what she sees as John Howard’s failure to implement or even consider policies which  plan for the future.   I wonder whether that is an inherent aspect of neo-liberal “minimal government”, market-oriented  philosophy, or something peculiar to Howard?   I suspect the latter, because Howard’s policies in practice have not  resulted in  small government at all.

Anywhere, here’s the extract from Brett’s paper:

The third and final legacy of John Howard’s period of government is to our awareness of the future. Temporality is an intriguing issue in politics. The speeches of politicians in the early decades of last century were full of projected futures – justifying the policies and actions of present governments and politicians in terms of their long term contribution to the future of the nation.

Governments were building a nation, investing in infrastructure for the future, educating future citizens. I get little sense from the way Howard governs that he thinks of the future much beyond the next electoral cycle. This is part of his extraordinarily self-disciplined focus on the daily political game.

In the lecture I referred to before, Paul Kelly pointed to Howard’s innovation of the permanent campaign as a feature of the way he has transformed governance. Howard operates in a 24 hour media cycle for the 1000 days of each three year term. Tight control over public servants, plausible deniability, rapid shifts in agenda are all means developed during Howard’s period of government to maintain his dominance of the media. But all this has nothing to do with whether the long-term public interest is being served by the government continually coming up trumps. In keeping its eye so firmly on the ball of the present, the future seems to elude the government’s view – with the notable exception of Peter Costello’s concerns about how the baby boomers are to live in retirement.

The other major agent of temporality that has come to dominate Australia’s sense of political possibility under Howard is the market driven by competition and individual choice. The Howard government has continued the neoliberal agenda of the 1980s, in many areas replacing the state as an agent in the distribution of resources with the market. The consequence has been a reduced capacity of the state to engage in long term planning and to embark on projects based on estimations of future needs. The skills shortages Australia is currently experiencing, and the running down of national infrastructure, are examples of the consequences of a reliance on present-oriented market mechanisms rather than future-oriented deliberative planning.

Howard once said he preferred to take an optimistic view of the past. I always thought this a puzzling claim – optimism is properly an attitude about the future – one which puts a premium on hope, and on faith in the inherent order of things. Howard made this claim in one of his forays into the debate about settler indigenous relations in Australian history. Howard has taken a strong personal interest in arguments about Australia’s history and has been a champion of those who see it mainly as a triumphant story of progress and development, albeit with a few black spots. Whatever we think about Howard’s understanding of Australian history, the point I want to make is that after 10 years in power we know far more about how he sees the past 100 years than how he sees the next.

The question of the time frame within which Howard governs is urgent because of what I and many others see to be the most difficult problems facing the future not just of Australia but of the planet: climate change and global warning, related environmental issues such as declining water quality and land degradation, and beyond that the end of the petroleum based economy as the world runs out of oil.

Howard has not only done little about any of this. He has also weakened Australia’s capacity to respond to these future problems. He has done this in three ways. First his government’s inattention to industry policy which would increase the diversification of Australia’s export base, has further entrenched the dependence of the Australian economy on the export of fossil fuels, particularly our leading export, coal. Second by failing to invest enthusiastically in renewable, non fossil fuel energies, he has maintained Australia’s dependence on coal for energy generation, and weakened the capacity of Australian science and industry to contribute to the future of the planet. In response to government policy, the CSIRO recently shifted its research priorities way from renewable energy to `clean coal’ technologies. Third, he has weakened the capacity of the scientific and research institutions – like the CSIRO and university based science – on which we will have to rely if it turns out, as is very likely, that the government got it wrong.

Howard of course, is one of many world leaders in deep denial over the likely future of the world’s climate and environment, but, for better or worse, he’s ours. The barrage of media commentary on Howard’s 10 years treats 10 years as a long time in human history. It isn’t. Howard’s long term historical legacy in my view is likely to be similar to the now faceless and nameless men who condemned Galileo for claiming that the world went round the sun. The natural world has its own laws and in the end we are subject to them, whether we consent to them or not.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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17 years ago

(Brief interruption to congratulate Club Troppo on some thoughtful and well crafted postings; wonderful.)

It would be interesting to know the truth from Howard himself as to how long he thought he’d be in the job. Destiny has a way at times of presenting itself intuitively, whereby the fact of his now ten years in office might have given him a deep sense of his long time place there from earlyish on (after a flaky start). Hard to say. I tend to think he’s made it up as he goes along, however, aware of his luck as much as anything, and feeling he could’ve been booted at many points along the track.

In terms of the vision of his playing politics, he certainly knew what to do to establish his best chances of electoral success. His approach to the public service, media, and dissenting places of voice has been a carefully orchestrated, step by step strategem from the very outset. Publicly, he very obviously set out to control the language of politics and with that not only the frames of reference but public thinking as well. In that sense he’s been visionary.

In terms of the vision of his policies, it is easy to take a quick grab of his continual opportunism and with it being so extreme conclude that he is without vision. And to have any sort of heart for those not well off, and a hope for them having the best chance of fulfilling their potential if they desire, Howard’s IR and Higher Education policies are seemingly devoid of vision entirely. But like many people I’ve come to see Howard certainly has a vision for Australia, it’s just one I almost completely disagree with.

While perhaps not affecting his polling, I am starting to think the wider country has worked him out now. Only the most fawning and hoodwinked maintain Howard to be a man of honesty. The extremeness of his actions have started to wear through the cultivated mild mannerism veil, and poke through his monotone phrase. His dogged persistence towards enacting those extreme changes suggest indeed a man of vision, contrary to earlier thought. However, his now obvious hotchpotchy putting it together and add that continual basting of repulsive opportunism mean he is a poor man visionary, any way you look at it.

It’s about this time the wider community starts to question whether such headstrong commitment is a mania they’d rather do without. The Howard vision of Australia’s future is not all that welcome a place for some. But vision for Australia he has, though it’s a shambles and a shocker for anyone but his immediate ilk.

17 years ago

I suspect that Howard’s reluctance to look to the future may have something to do with his conservative disposition (on social issues, not IR).

Tories prefer to ‘muddle through’ and not to have too much ‘vision’ or ‘doctrine’.

Though Howard is willing to use state power in some areas (eg terrorism laws), the conservative may consider the use of such power for the sake of future generations presumptuous.

Probably due to the failure of communism and socialism, tories would also tend to distrust planning.

Much of the left consider that if you pass laws you change the way we behave. However conservatives may harbour a skepticism about too powerful government and whether passing laws really makes a difference.

Although some of Howard’s policies (eg IR) are anything but conservative, as is some of his methods, there does still seem to be a ‘Tory within’ that shapes his attitudes to many things.

Possibly Howard’s idea of ‘small government’ is more about not planning or doing very much for the future rather than worrying that tax receipts are a near record percentage of the GDP.

17 years ago

Why are you particularly fond of Errington and Van Onselen, Ken? I haven’t found their op/eds particularly profound (though I admit I haven’t followed the link because I’m a bit too tired for serious reading). Judith Brett is of course uniformly excellent.

Graham Young
17 years ago

Brett needs to read The Road to Serfdom to get a handle on “planning”. There’s more than one type. What she’s advocating – industry policy and the like – is not the sort of planning that a classical liberal, or a Conservative like Howard would accept as having much utility. Interesting that it doesn’t take many social science academics too long before they start-off on polemics relating to their own concerns rather than restricting themselves to the subject of their study.

From Howard’s philosophical point of view, if you make the economy fit and flexible enough it will be able to deal with challenges as they arise – the challenges themselves are impossible to accurately foresee, certainly at the level of the state. So, you try to produce a country of sturdy, self-reliant and industrious people who will make their own plans for what they anticipate and the sum-total of that is you consequentially anticipate and deal with change, it’s just not a state responsibility.

My criticism of Howard (and here I’m on my own polemic) is that he has neglected to build or maintain many of the social and physical infrastructures in ways which will facilitate private enterprise to deal with challenges. Research funding is a mess, universities under-funded, transport infrastructure still fractured and under-funded etc. etc. In this, he’s done no worse than many other governments, but that’s no excuse.

17 years ago

On the following point raised in the article, and the questions of market-oriented philosophy and the environment..

Howard of course, is one of many world leaders in deep denial over the likely future of the world’s climate and environment

… there is value in considering something which happened not too long ago regarding CFC’s. After some prodding, as we’ll recall, the mainstream media ran regular stories regarding a perceived hole in the ozone layer and its attribution to CFC’s, particularly those found in propellant cans in your local supermarket.

The natural process of the market at work as that issue unfolded was extremely interesting. In short, it soon became unfashionable to purchase a CFC product. A substitute was quickly marketed, and our shelves filled with non-CFC alternatives. The whole machination of industry and marketing swung into full force through that issue, utilising of course the brilliant minds engaged in those areas. “Buy CFC-free” was the resultant message, delivered through advertisements and packaging, and soon we saw the removal of the CFC problem as we then knew it to be. At least, that is, we don’t talk about it any more.

This happened at a time when global warming was barely talked about publicly; yes, some people knew environmental issues were pressing but they gained only selective media coverage. We saw then a focus on a problem, and it is a clear example of how the machination of media/industry/marketing can turn public behaviour in a few relative moments.

To bear this sort of thing in mind in considering Howard’s planning for the future does pose the very real possibility that environmental issues can be addressed through the process he believes in. It might in fact be harder to argue a case against that powerful machination, it cutting to the core of consumer interest. This might make very unfair Brett’s comment.

Taking that process down the track, Howard’s faith in that machination may well deliver a time when the bigger problems are addressed. While not advocating Howard’s philosophy, it bears consideration beyond merely stamping it inadequate on the basis of current market agendas. It’s not a stretch to imagine Howard realises global enironment issues are bearing down, but that his job is to hold faith in his philosophy and make his own adjustments as that machination develops. That is, politically he wouldn’t see a huge problem in it at the moment, so he has no need to pick up on public sentiment (as yet not pressingly formed), and when the issues press more urgently he imagines world governments will address it accordingly. The faith he must carry is that the brilliance of those engaged in that machination can enact the changes quickly enough.

Of course, the question not answered by his philosophy is what is lost in the meantime.

But I think it’s unfair to rip into Howard on the basis he’s blind to these sorts of problems. I reckon he’s absolutely all over it, and it’s a matter of timing in his mind. In that sense he cannot be denied holding a plan for the future, though it may be very disagreeable.

17 years ago

It is reasonable to suggest that the phase-out simply would not have occurred but for comprehensive legislative intervention.

Yes, as it is also reasonable to include the changed consumer sentiment as I mentioned, through the industry/media/marketing machination (anything but invisible).

Your argument is not unlike that of Kyoto opponent Bjorn Lomborg, who also likes arguing that the market solves everything.

Not at all. It’s not my argument, nor my advocation. What I briefly put forward was where Howard’s vision may lay regarding global environmental issues, bearing in mind we don’t really know.

I’m not sure where you get the ‘invisible hand of the market from’, Ken. That seems to have eluded you of my viewpoint.

In the end, it comes down to what the greater public are aware of, and what they think and want. The media interface I mentioned certainly played a visible role in making those changes, and should be included in an assessment of Howard’s environmental vision.

17 years ago

Pretty much, and I think that’s about the best I can do for Howard, Ken, as you’ve paraphrased there.

It’s inconceivable to me that Howard is an idiot in relation to the environment – clearly he’d be at least as aware of the problems as the public is, even as political issues if not real problems in his mind, and it does bear wondering what advice he is getting in relation to it. Somewhere he must have a plan should he wish to go whole hog longevity [I doubt it, as he does not seem to wish to suffer the consequences of much of what he does], or a plan based in his philosophy to be carried on after him. I’d imagine his plan is mostly a matter of timing, and taking action then – part of the reactive criticism his government attracts.

It makes wonderful scapegoats, this Howard philosophy. Put out your IR and say “up to you to bargain, your responsibility if you can’t”; put out your Higher Education and say “up to you to pay for it, your responsibility if you can’t”; and hang loose on the environment saying “your responsibility; up to you to want change.”

Not too hard to imagine we’ll all receive some serious lessons from it, and being optimistic, be more aware in the greater public for the need to come up with a better plan for the future.

Graham Young
17 years ago

Ken, you seemed to have missed the point that the government does believe in Greenhouse. It has some pretty cock-eyed measures to deal with it, which I interpret as being more to do with public relations than anything else – they’re a grab-bag that won’t achieve much, and in the case of support for ethanol appear to be driven more by pork-barrelling of sugar communities and pay-offs to favoured interests like Manildra. So, Howard accepts the reality of Greenhouse, at least in a political sense, but does nothing of substance to address it.

But doing nothing on greenhouse is not an irrational position, nor is it a failure to plan. Kyoto was not only flawed, but it’s hard to find one of its signatories which is actually going to abide by it. Only a mug would have ratified the protocol, unless they intended to be dishonest, and sign but not perform.

If we are not going to just export industries to countries not bound by Kyoto, then we are sensible to wait for a world-wide system that focuses on emissions per activity rather than per country. Otherwise the emissions we emit so that people in Geneva can have aluminium will merely shift to India or China, but will still be emitted.

Another factor is that the whole greenhouse science area is beset by frauds and boosters. There seems to be a lot more work to be done before anyone can be certain about the potential increase in temperature, and what costs and benefits it might bring. There is little short-term environmental danger from greenhouse that Australia would have averted by signing-up, and significant potential economic pain.

So, planning for the future, and taking Greehouse into account, it could very well make sense to sit on your hands while waiting for the various cards to fall into place so that the world can adopt a sensible solution. Certainly killing off Kyoto was a laudable thing to do as it made no policy sense whatsoever.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
17 years ago

"Howard once said he preferred to take an optimistic view of the past. I always thought this a puzzling claim – optimism is properly an attitude about the future – one which puts a premium on hope, and on faith in the inherent order of things."
Now this is an interesting comment. And I think there’s a way to resolve Brett’s puzzle about the optimistic view of history.
The major problem with history isn’t establishing the facts — it’s making sense of them. The pessimists define Australian identity in terms of atrocities — massacres and dispossession. Racism and and White Australia policy. The optimists choose to focus on examples of heroism and self-sacrifice — from the tragedy of Gallipoli they salvage a tale of mateship and bravery. There are disputes about numbers and evidence but the real issue is which events define the character of the nation.
The nation’s character has everything to do with the future. If we embrace the pessimistic view what can we expect from the future? To remain true to our identity as Australians means continuing to commit the wrongs of the past. We can never be proud of who we are. The best we can do is confess our shame and try to make amends.
The optimistic view, on the other hand, can accept that the atrocities occurred but refuses to acknowledge that they define who we are. Optimists choose to define Australian identity in terms of the behaviours they want to see continued into the future. This allows optimists to repudiate the wrongs of the past without condemning Australians to a life of shame and sackcloth. As the American philosopher Richard Rorty says "National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement."
The biggest problem with the optimists is not that they define Australian identity in terms of what they want to see in the future, but that they often refuse to accept that we should take responsibility for what Australians have done in the past. It seems to me that a nation cannot be justifiably proud of its history unless it accepts the truth about what it has done and takes responsibility for making it right. It’s this that is the proof that we really are who we say we are.

Evil Pundit
17 years ago

Good points there, Don.

I would add that Howard has indeed accepted the truth of our past, and is taking responsibility for making it right. This is to be achieved in part by scrapping the Aboriginal industry based on guilt and entitlement, and putting in place policies that will actually help Aborigines — as opposed to the meaningless and divisive symbolic gestures favoured by Keating and his ilk.

Howard’s legacy to the future is not in the shape of some Grand Plan, but takes the form of a country that has changed for the better, and is now more capable of facing up to future challenges than it was before.

Of course, a few things still need to be tweaked. The elimination of university humanities courses and “research” would be a good thing, for instance. But in breaking the power of the unions and largely dismantling political correctness, Howard has achieved some necessary and positive reforms.

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
17 years ago

Oh may god EP were you trying to be ironic with your claims of the dismantling of “political correctness”. Doesn’t your idea of elimating humanities courses (limiting “choice”, which is one of Howard’s main catchwords) just reveal the imposition of another form of “political correctness”? Or is this a form of PPC (post-political correctness) considering political correctness was always such a floating pomo term that could never be pinned down.

17 years ago

All the history polemicists need to Get Over It(TM) – especially the politicians, who are not just elected but actually employed to run the country and prepare for its future. Historians are welcome to squabble, and shape the written record, and the schoolteachers and future Aus Studies textbooks will (largely) shape how the next generation feels about the past – but Prime Ministers should acknowledge that they have much more important things to be worrying about, arguing about, and doing. In any case, don’t you think the reformed guilty would be wiser than the controversially innocent?

17 years ago

Oh, aye. Pity there seems so few of them in politics.