(Historian Ross McMullin's most recent book is Will Dyson: Australia's Radical Genius)
Read here full article in The Age (Australia)
VARIOUS commentators have highlighted similarities between the 1996 election campaign and the current one, especially concerning opposition tactics. But little recent attention has been paid to 1996 in the context of what happened after that election. This neglect suits John Howard.
In the lead-up to the 1996 election Howard delivered a series of vague "headland" speeches that were deliberately long on generalities and short on specifics.
What was specific was his guarantee during the campaign that an incoming Howard government would retain numerous social policy initiatives of the Keating government.
During the 1996 campaign Howard was asked whether this pledge was qualified in any way, whether he may have to modify it in response to unforeseen contingencies that he might encounter in office. Not at all, he insisted. The guarantee was absolute and unconditional.
Another feature of Howard's 1996 campaign, remarkable though this appears in hindsight, was his emphasis on restoring the electorate's trust in politicians.
Having won the 1996 election, Howard swiftly dismantled many of the previous government's initiatives that he had pledged to retain. While this breach of trust was most blatantly evident in higher education, labour market programs and the ABC, a range of other cuts in the 1996 horror budget also clearly contravened Howard's pre-election promises. Howard's justification has become part of Australian political folklore. These undertakings didn't really count, he explained, because they were non-core promises.
In the context of contested credibility in the 2007 campaign, some commentators have contrasted the failure to mention WorkChoices before the 2004 election with its subsequent introduction after the Howard Government's horizons expanded in response to its unexpected Senate majority.
However, it is the 1996 background, not 2004, that makes Howard's strident 2007 accusations about Labor's intentions most hypocritical.
Howard's own conduct in 1996 was the most flagrant display of precisely what he now desperately asserts is Labor's (alleged) reprehensible plan. He no doubt hopes that the current collective amnesia about 1996 persists.
Moreover, in view of Howard's record in government beyond 1996, he displays extraordinary effrontery in making accusations about trust and credibility at all.
This is not just a consequence of his predicament arising from his pledge on interest rates, which was the centrepiece of his 2004 election campaign and has left his economic credibility self-evidently in tatters.
There are all the other episodes since he announced the concept of the non-core promise — children overboard (another crucial election issue grounded in deceit), AWB bribes and the Iraq disaster.
For months Howard kept denying that he had decided to send Australian formations to Iraq when this was obviously false.
It has become apparent that the purported premise for our involvement, weapons of mass destruction, also was obviously false.
Following America into Iraq has not been in our national interest. Iraq has become, as many commentators predicted, a bloody quagmire, and the invasion that we joined has not only created more potential terrorists but made Australia more of a terrorist target.
Australians understand this, even though Howard and his ministers keep denying the obvious and coerce officials into toeing the Government line.
In view of Howard's record on Iraq, it would be hard for Australians to believe or trust him if he declared in the future that there were compelling reasons for Australia to follow America into some other conflict. Howard's credibility is as diminished on national security as it is on interest rates.
John Howard, the leader who said in opposition he would make a priority of restoring trust in politicians, has in office placed himself in a class of his own for deceitfulness in modern Australian politics. Since Federation, in fact, only Billy Hughes — who was prime minister from 1915 to 1923 — could be ranked with Howard for public untruthfulness (short-lived prime minister Billy McMahon was regarded as a notorious liar, but it seems this was more evident in private than in public).
Furthermore, it is not only Howard's repeated willingness to be cavalier with the truth that has undermined our political culture. The emergence of the concept of plausible deniability during his Government has debauched the bureaucracy.
The public service used to provide frank and free advice, and still should. Instead, public servants who should have been telling Howard and his ministers unpalatable things — children had not really been thrown overboard — realised that ministers didn't want to be told so they could keep pretending to the public that they didn't know. (In this context Kevin Rudd's announced intention to revert to more traditional public service conduct is welcome.)
With John Howard's record establishing him incontrovertibly as a serial deceiver, he has a nerve to point the finger about credibility.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007