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.