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February 08th 2010 print

Tom Switzer

John Howard and the media

He was called a “fool” (Michael Leunig), an “unflusha­ble turd” (Mungo MacCallum), a “scheming, menda­cious little man” (Alan Ramsey), who silenced dis­sent (Clive Hamilton), corrupted the public debate (David Marr) and used right-wing religious activists to indoctrinate the nation (Marion Maddox). He was also “far and away the worst prime minister in living memory” (Phillip Adams).

Extract from Tom Switzer – “John Howard and the Media” published in The Howard Era (Quadrant Books): 

He was called a “fool” (Michael Leunig), an “unflusha­ble turd” (Mungo MacCallum), a “scheming, menda­cious little man” (Alan Ramsey), who silenced dis­sent (Clive Hamilton), corrupted the public debate (David Marr) and used right-wing religious activists to indoctrinate the nation (Marion Maddox). He was also “far and away the worst prime minister in living memory” (Phillip Adams) who had a “pre-fascist fetish to attack minorities” (Margo Kingston). Under his government, Australia headed towards an “increa­singly authoritarian trajectory of the political culture” (Robert Manne), became “a backwater, a racist and inward-looking country” (Greg Barns) and was “condemned at the court of world opinion as callous and inhumane” (Sun-Herald, Sydney).

If any of these criticisms bothered John Winston Howard, he never let it show. Besides, the nation’s second-longest-serving prime minister was, for the most part, an overwhelmingly pop­ular leader whose “awesome ordinariness”, observed veteran journalist Michelle Grattan, connected with Middle Australia throughout much of his nearly twelve years in power. In 1995, he had inherited a party that had chalked up its fifth consecutive election defeat, only to win four elections on the trot. In power, the man President Bush dubbed the “Man of Steel” fundamen­tally transformed the economic landscape. Along with his dep­uty Peter Costello, he cut taxes, reformed welfare, balanced the national books, wiped out government debt, loosened organised labour’s grip on business, and presided over the longest eco­nomic boom since the gold rushes of the nineteenth century. Under his leadership, Australia led the 1999 peacekeeping effort in East Timor and has been deeply involved in countering ter­rorism in Australia’s neighbourhood and in farther flung thea­tres such as Afghanistan and the Middle East.

“In the eyes of much of the world,” acknowledged Howard foreign policy critic Owen Harries at the height of the detention centre controversy in 2002, “the Australians of today are a relaxed, self-confident people, at ease with themselves. Which makes it very strange that many Australians—and, in particular, those who take it upon themselves to represent the conscience of the nation—spend much of their time agonising over what the rest of the world thinks about us, and convincing themselves that we are in the doghouse.”

In short, Howard presided over a cultural and political rea­lignment of the nation at a time when Australians, as he liked to boast, became more confident, secure and prosperous. So much so that the only way the Opposition Labor leader Kevin Rudd could defeat him in the 2007 election was by being more like him. Clearly what peeved the metropolitan sophisticates did not reflect the thoughts and attitudes of the silent majority of Aus­tralians during much of the Howard years.

According to his biographers Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen, this wide divide between elite and public opinion—between the values and opinions of journalists and the educated classes on the one hand and what Howard called “the decent conservative mainstream of Australia” on the other—is one of the recurring themes of Howard’s prime ministership. It’s a subject that warrants further scrutiny. Indeed, there’s a PhD the­sis by a psychology student to be written tracking the connection between intellectual disdain of Howard and public support for him.

To be sure, the aforementioned commentators were some of the more strident Howard critics—or, as the Prime Minister called them, “self-appointed cultural commentators and dieti­tians”. Still, it is also fair to say that the broad cross section of the Canberra press gallery and the intellectual establishment, with honourable exceptions (such as the Australian’s political editor Dennis Shanahan and La Trobe University historian John Hirst), consistently and, at times, vehemently and intemperately criti­cised the Prime Minister on a wide range of issues—from his response to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and demands for an Aboriginal apology to his opposition to a so-called politicians’ republic and support for tough-minded border protection. In the Left’s telling, Howard often used the “dog whistle” to send sub­tle signals that appealed to the prejudiced, which was to say a majority of Australians. He only won his four elections in 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004 through luck and duplicity, and on each occasion the voters were too lazy and stupid to see the light. Only members of the intellectual elite, the argument ran, were smart enough not to be fooled by Howard’s trickery.

Of course, such prejudice was hardly novel. In 1991, Derek Parker argued in The Courtesans: The Press Gallery in the Hawke Era: “No other figure has drawn as much acrimony from the Press Gallery as John Howard during his period as leader of the Liberal Party.” He detailed how most political journalists set out to destroy Howard’s Opposition leadership from 1985 to 1989 in a savage and sustained manner. Howard, in demeanour, attitude and background, was definitely not “one of us”; which is to say not one of them. “The members of the Gallery,” he argued, “simply knew that they disliked Howard, his agenda and his party, without ever really understanding why.” Per­haps, Parker argued, such attitudes had a lot to do with his sub­urban conservatism which clashed with the Gallery’s more left-leaning liberalism. In any case, Howard has long drawn acri­mony at a personal and philosophical level from the Canberra press gallery.

During his nearly twelve years in power, that widespread enmity among the progressive classes prevailed. Perhaps nowhere was this hostility more evident than in the many anti-Howard screeds that were published during this period. From Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison’s (edited) Silencing Dissent: How the Australian Government is Controlling Public Opinion and Stifling Debate and Robert Manne’s The Barren Years: John Howard and Australian Political Culture and Margo Kingson’s Not Happy, John to Marion Maddox’s God Under Howard, Mungo MacCal­lum’s Run, Johnny, Run and the endless array of Quarterly Essays, the message was the same. In the words of Hamilton and Mad­dison, the Howard government, in cahoots with a “right-wing syndicate” of media commentators, “systematically targeted independent, critical and dissenting voices” in order “to ensure that its values are the only values heard in public debate”.

In his 2007 Quarterly Essay “His Master’s Voice: The Corrup­tion of Public Debate under Howard”, Marr warned that How­ard had “cowed his critics” and “muffled the press”. “The steady constriction of public debate under Howard,” he lamented, “has aroused no deep concern in Australia.” Never mind the many dissenting and anti-Howard columnists such as Phillip Adams, Kenneth Davidson, Mike Carlton and Alan Ram­sey. And never mind publishers such as Scribe and Black Inc and magazines such as Dissent, Arena, the Monthly and New Matilda online—all of which published overwhelmingly hostile items about the Howard government.

The point here is not to suggest that the Left controlled much of the public debate in the way it did before 1996. It is just that a broad cross-section of Australians became more engaged in a healthy vibrant conversation about all sorts of issues. And this debate was taking place not just in the op-ed pages, but also magazines, talkback radio, cable television and increasingly in blogs and internet chat rooms. In the Howard era, virtually eve­ryone had a seat at the debating table. Not much evidence here of cowing his critics. As the Australian’s Imre Salusinszky has argued, Howard was “our most accessible public speaker in the sense of having opened out the rhetoric of Australian political debate to the broad mainstream”. Which is perhaps why so many on the intellectual Left put forward such irrational criti­ques of Howard during the period.


Extract only.
Read the full text in: 

The Howard Era
Essays edited by Keith Windschuttle,
David Martin Jones & Ray Evans
$44.95 Hb,
ISBN 9780980677812

Published December 2009, 538 pages


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