The Melbourne Writers’ Festival is over for another year and the main sponsor, The Age, has unsurprisingly declared the event a success.

One of the more interesting sessions was a discussion about The Howard Factor, (Melbourne University Press) an assessment of the prime ministership of John Howard. Leading Australian figures Christopher Pearson, Caroline Overington, Nick Cater, Matt Price and Imre Salusinszky reflected on the nation’s political climate and future directions.

Price said that Howard was neither as brilliant nor as dastardly as many claimed but he simply worked harder than any other politician in the country. He argued that Australia went to war in Iraq for the US alliance, but “you can basically trust Howard.” He did acknowledge, however, that Howard used “weasel words” like the best of them, especially over AWB.

Pearson alleged that the Left felt morally superior to Howard and had a licence for moral outrage over conservative rule. When challenged over the Iraq war, he said that, “nobody should have been surprised that we went to war in Iraq” (though one wonders how he feels about the complete collapse of the Iraqi state after our engagement.) “Howard is the “sanest occupant of the Lodge since Menzies”, he proudly stated.

Salusinszky fell into the same trap as Pearson, seemingly incapable of understanding that the ALP and the Left are not one and the same thing, and the so-called Left does not hold identical views on every subject. Salusinszky denied that the country had lost its moral compass under Howard and claimed the electorate had already decided that Kim Beazley was unelectable.

Overington was the least affected by cultural warrior rhetoric or media spin. She explained how many young Australians felt comfortable with Howard’s economic and social changes and voted Liberal in greater and greater numbers. She said that Australians “can’t trust Howard”, especially over the Iraq war and AWB.

She again demanded that Alexander Downer should resign over AWB. As soon as the scandal broke, he “should have behaved more like a man [and stepped down] and less like a minister.”

Disclosure: Melbourne University Publishing recently published Antony Loewenstein’s My Israel Question.

Peter Fray

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