Since John Howard says that he was right in 2003, perhaps I might be forgiven for making the same claim. In a note about Howard in 2003, I said the following.
Take foreign policy. I was balloted out of Vietnam. I did not go. Nor did any member of this Government go. Although I did not go, I learned a big lesson – about believing my government or following someone else’s. I did not think that at least one of those lessons would be forgotten, but it apparently has been. We have gone back to fighting the wars of our master. How many of its young does a nation have to lose before its government learns? Mr. Howard is ready to follow the U S in a war that will demonstrate to the Muslim world that the U S can mount a unilateral crusade in the name of God against a Muslim state to overturn its government and to Asia that we are the sheep-dog of the U S, and a very well disciplined one at that. How would we like it if a Muslim nation unilaterally started a war to change the government of a Christian nation or the Jewish nation? We might be leaving a legacy of poison that outlives my grandchildren. That is our best result even if every man Mr. Howard sends comes back – and all because of the felt need of Mr. Howard to fawn on someone who has been too much fawned upon already. As for our posturing of military or diplomatic significance, I am reminded of the local paper in Launceston which, in the 1850s, shortly before the Crimean war, said at the start of its editorial, “This newspaper warns the Czar of Russia.”
I append, for those who are interested, the whole note. It does show, I think, why our faith in our politicians has ebbed away so much.
JOHN WINSTON HOWARD
In his last speech to the House of Commons, Winston Churchill wondered what would happen “if God wearied of mankind.” In responding to the extracts of the Quadrant paper published in The Australian of 10 January 2003 (“All Hail the Unlikely Savior”) by my friend Peter Ryan, I want to suggest that the answer is that if God had wearied of mankind, God would have given John Winston Howard to Australia. In my view, Mr. Howard was given to Australia to bring out the worst in Australians, and he is at his heart’s ease when he is doing just that.
Take our refusal to apologise to the aborigines. There is, apparently, some debate in this country about the level or incidence of genocide (as there is in Turkey and Israel about the mass deaths of Armenians). Personally I prefer the evidence of the aborigines not to mention the circumstantial evidence – to the advocacy of the Europeans. But some things are clear. The aborigines did not invite the Europeans to take over the country. The Europeans did so. As a result, countless aborigines died and their people are immeasurably worse off, at least in their eyes. If a gentlemen’s club found itself in a similar case, it – its present members – would apologise. Courtesy would call for nothing else.
But it goes further than that for us. Australia as a nation has to accept responsibility for what happened when it was being built. Just as we celebrate the Anzacs at Gallipoli and Bradman at Lords – all generations before most living Australians – so we have to accept that others of our forebears behaved with revolting inhumanity in dispossessing the aborigines to make possible the development of Australia as we know it.
Australians used to be smug about the racist attitudes that prevailed in Germany and South Africa. We should not be. They are way ahead of us in truth and reconciliation for their racist histories. As Hannah Arendt made clear (on the final page of Eichmann in Jerusalem) it has nothing to do with collective guilt.
“Every government assumes political responsibility for the deeds and misdeeds of its predecessors and every nation for the deeds and misdeeds of the past.”
Since there is no generational statute of limitations for offences against humanity, this is what we expect from the German nation for what Germans of past generations did to another race. It is what others expect from the Australian nation for what Australians of past generations did to another race. Does the Australian government seriously suggest that the Australian survivors of the Burma Road or Changi, or their families, are now out of time to ask for acknowledgment from the government of Japan, the nation in whose name the relevant offences against humanity were committed? Do we say that since the changing of the guard the German nation is home scot free from Auschwitz? Does anyone who does say that at the risk of being called morally insane – state our moral claim to possession of the Ashes in terms of the exploits of the present generation of Australian cricketers and nothing more?
Why does Mr. Howard insist on being so mean and petty about squaring off with these other Australians?
Take the republic. We are talking about the future now, not the past. Did the Prime Minister show leadership? Did the Prime Minister show vision? No – all we got was mere politicking designed to preserve the status quo. It was in truth a filibuster designed to last a lifetime. Here was an opportunity to reformulate the nation when it and its world had changed completely since we received our current dispensation in a schedule to an act of Queen Victoria and the Imperial Parliament. Instead we have to tell Asia and our other trading partners that we cannot carry on our affairs without intervention from the English royal family. Our standing in Asia as a colonial relic has been reinstated, and at a time when we are winning back our reputation as racists. Australian judges, not our most radical group, began cutting loose from the authority of British courts two generations ago. It was part of our growing up. What is it with this fetish of Mr. Howard with the British?
All this takes place against the most public and tawdry dissolution of the royal family. There is apparently some convention that we should not mix family and political matters. Why not? That is just what a monarchy does. The top job is hereditary. It stays in the family. This family is no longer up to it. The heir and his chosen queen have shown that they cannot maintain the most basic oath of fidelity – and yet people on this side of the world are expected to honour oaths of allegiance to them. Is this the best that we can leave our children?
Take the flag. I would like my country to have its own. I have been to Gallipoli, the Somme and Ypres. I have grieved at each. I have grieved not just because of the Australians who died there, but because of the heartlessness and mindlessness of those who caused the carnage – for the most part, not Australians. I would have thought that each of these memorials is a powerful lesson about being too attached to a flag. No sane person dies for a flag – but each of these places is now part of Australia’s heritage. It is natural to carry the flag there. I would rather do so with Australia’s own flag and not one dominated by the flag of the imperial power responsible for these losses en masse. The standing of that power was not increased by the moral failure of Mr. Jardine, the physical failure of Singapore, or the absorption of Great Britain into Europe.
It is one thing to celebrate a history in terms of loss or failure; we love that here; it is altogether a different thing to venerate those responsible, foreigners or not. To continue to insist on the maintenance of relics is not to respect the fallen but to refuse their gift. We may proceed on the footing that they died that Australia might live, not that it might be mummified.
There is some irony in our devotion to a flag that is said to reflect our history. Those who are most fervently for the current flag because of its history are often those most fervently against accepting responsibility for other things that happened in that history. In truth, the flag is a political issue and both sides might usefully consider not invoking Australian dead on their side, if for no other reason than that it is vulgar. In any event, I cannot believe that my father’s father fought in Flanders so that his grandchildren might be subjected to claptrap about saluting the Union Jack.
Take refugees. None of that “huddled masses” or “wretched refuse” jazz for us. We are committed to fight them on the beaches. Churchill sat there with Dad’s Army waiting for the whole might of the Wehrmacht to be unleashed. We sent our elite SAS to storm a boat full of unarmed Afghans. People seeking shelter from Australia are offered a choice – they can be held in some slophouse of the Pacific eager to turn a coin in this trade in human misery, or we can jail them indefinitely in a concentration camp in the desert. Try jailing an Australian indefinitely on the mere say-so of a copper or a politician. All this came to a head in an election campaign in which it is now clear that senior members of the Australian government suborned senior officers of the armed forces. We as a nation have acquired the ethics of the tobacco companies. First you harm people, then you lie about it, and then you deal with the evidence to put yourself beyond the reach of the judges -the electorate, or the courts, as the case may be – and if the system goes to plan, you have a sporting chance of getting away with it.
Take foreign policy. I was balloted out of Vietnam. I did not go. Nor did any member of this Government go. Although I did not go, I learned a big lesson – about believing my government or following someone else’s. I did not think that at least one of those lessons would be forgotten, but it apparently has been. We have gone back to fighting the wars of our master. How many of its young does a nation have to lose before its government learns? Mr. Howard is ready to follow the US in a war that will demonstrate to the Muslim world that the U S can mount a unilateral crusade in the name of God against a Muslim state to overturn its government and to Asia that we are the sheep-dog of the U S, and a very well disciplined one at that. How would we like it if a Muslim nation unilaterally started a war to change the government of a Christian nation or the Jewish nation? We might be leaving a legacy of poison that outlives my grandchildren. That is our best result even if every man Mr. Howard sends comes back – and all because of the felt need of Mr. Howard to fawn on someone who has been too much fawned upon already. As for our posturing of military or diplomatic significance, I am reminded of the local paper in Launceston which, in the 1850s, shortly before the Crimean war, said at the start of its editorial, “This newspaper warns the Czar of Russia.”
What do these things say about our government? It is mean. It has no imagination. It does not lead. If there is any vision, it is bleak. I have seen Australian governments arouse serious hostility, but I cannot recall one making so many Australians feel ashamed to be Australian. A nation that finished the last century trying to get rid of its mean, timid, colonial, white Australia streak, is reinventing itself in the first part of this century: a country not just of the triumph, but the triumphalism of mediocrity. While this is the antithesis of the conservatism of Disraeli or Churchill, a comparison with other conservatives may be misleading and unfair. Disraeli had to deal with Bismarck; Churchill had to deal with Hitler and Stalin; Mr. Howard has to deal, on a daily basis, with Gary Morgan, John Laws, and Jana Wendt. Not for us “those broad sunlit uplands”; we have to stick with the irredeemably prosaic.
Two appointments show a personal animus of Mr. Howard behind these flaws. The Archbishop of the Church of England – not the Church of Thailand or the Church of Iran; one does not play those chaps at cricket – was appointed Governor-General when it was apparent that there were likely to be problems. Trouble did follow the Archbishop to the detriment of the office of Governor-General. He is, however, still there, although irrelevant and an embarrassment to everyone. Mr. Howard has remained obdurate. We have gone from a man who could unite the nation, and who was respected, to one who reminds many of its cruelest moments, and who is not trusted.
Take the appointment of the successor to Justice Gaudron. It would not have taken much to have made an appointment that would not have told half the country that they are not up to it. No, Justice Heydon was appointed with the ludicrous statement that the appointment was apolitical. Of course it was political. The government wanted a dead-set conservative it thought it could rely on. (It was presumably this ideology that underlay the gruesome kamikaze attack on “the gadfly” (Justice Kirby) by Mr. Howard’s friend.) Extensive interviews were conducted to ensure compatibility. Justice Heydon revealed his thinking on the High Court in what might fairly be described as a polemic. It is apparently to be published in Quadrant. Peter Ryan, also a contributor to Quadrant, is well pleased that “that august tribunal will finally resume its former status of universal esteem” (unless, I suppose, the person forming the estimation is a woman, or an admirer of Justice Gaudron, or had views about income tax becoming optional under the Barwick court). Heaven knows the country needs a respectable intelligentsia of the right, but an appointment to the High Court of a conservative lawyer by a conservative government is hardly a seemly occasion for a congratulatory confraternity of contributors to Quadrant. Just think what the stink would have been like if a couple of the true believers had got one of their own up, and had skited about it in one of their journals. (Who could forget the reaction at the Melbourne Bar when the late Justice Murphy was appointed? Some wanted to cancel courtesy and boycott the welcome, at a time when the Court was wilfully distorting the law to suit the supporters of the parties that had appointed every other member of the Court.) In the end, we have lost an Australian success story for the drab uniformity of seven pin-striped eggheads. This was indeed a signature appointment by Mr. Howard.
Can’t say sorry to the aborigines. Can’t say goodbye to the British. Can’t say no to the Americans. A hemisphere out of place; a century out of date; and not a principle to be seen. The spiritual heir of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Mr. Howard, is a relic lost among the cobwebs of the colony he cannot escape from.
Do these attitudes of the Prime Minister have something in common? There is the visceral insecurity of the kind you associate with a serial loser. There is obviously a belief that Australia as a nation cannot stand on its own two feet – it is not grown up yet. We have in this Prime Minister a natural retardant. More worryingly, there is a distrust of the ordinary Australian which has for too long been the inarticulate premise of what passes for the conservative side of politics in this country. As a result, while there is not much on the left, there is even less on the right. We have arrived at bleakness visible, and at least one generation of Australians is about ready to give up.