Culture catcher: 14

Norman Abjorensen, John Howard and the Conservative Tradition, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008

Just how conservatives view Australia – and resile from any articulation of its distinctiveness as a nation and a people in their own right and with their own interests and own ways of doing things – may be seen in the grotesque characters created by the comedian Barry Humphries, himself a conservative and sometime member of the editorial board of Quadrant.

Another … character created by Humphries, Sir Les Patterson (Labor Minister for the ‘Yartz’) is more extreme [than Barry McKenzie]; crude and revolting in manner and dress; an uncultivated snob elevated to high office and put in charge of something with which he has absolutely no affinity, the ‘yartz’. This is a savage take on both the assertive Australian cultural nationalism that flourished briefly under Australia’s Weimar [sic], the Whitlam Government of 1972-75, and Labor itself.

John Howard has always frightened his fellow conservatives.

In a military sense (and Howard is fond of military analogy), you go after an enemy by silencing his guns first. So has Howard systematically pursued a strategy of silencing political dissent, with not insignificant help from a pliant media. There is a real cause for concern here in what [Robert] Manne describes as the increasing authoritarian trajectory of the political culture under Howard. Opponents and critics have been targeted and discredited, government funding has been deployed as a powerful weapon, and government boards have been shamelessly stacked with partisans.

Ian Lowe chronicles how government scientists have been gagged from commenting on climate change – something the government seems to have suddenly discovered after years of sceptical dismissal. The CSIRO, once a national icon, has been hijacked and put under the control of a compliant board and a CEO charged with dismantling its social culture.

Dr Norman Abjorensen is a Left academic who lectures in politics at the Australian National University

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