Writing in this morning’s SMH, Gerard Henderson
defends the term “Howard-haters” as “reasonable word usage”: “Howard
really is despised by many members of the intelligentsia who have the
ability and capacity to state their case publicly.” He maintains that
their obsessiveness is counter-productive, and that Howard’s opponents
“would have much more impact if they threw the switch to rationality”.

The article is a condensed version of the speech Henderson gave last Friday night at the John Howard’s Decade conference – in Peter Brent’s words,
“many of today’s gags were test-run there.” As an after-dinner speech
it worked well, partly because Henderson doesn’t back away from a
fight: he took questions afterwards, and stayed till the end, mingling
with his critics.

Reactions were mixed; only a handful of those present would have agreed
with Henderson’s praise of Howard. At the other extreme, some regarded
him as beyond the pale, and said so in no uncertain terms. But the
majority were somewhere in the middle: they disagreed with him, but
they appreciated the value of some of what he said.

I found little evidence there for the idea that social science
academics are humourless and intolerant. Most of them applauded
Henderson, and laughed at his jokes, despite being the targets of them.

And of course they invited him in the first place, and (as he said)
encouraged him to be provocative. The thing that most strains their
tolerance, it seems to me, is the Iraq war. Henderson and others can be
forgiven for voting for Howard, or admiring him, or supporting many of
his measures. But war raises hackles in a way that few other things can.

Someone who you think is guilty of bad public policy can still be a
friend, or at least someone to have a civil debate with. But if by your
lights they’re guilty of war crimes – of capriciously killing
thousands of people – those courtesies are harder to maintain. I’m not
sure how well Henderson would maintain them if the positions were
reversed.

Peter Fray

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