Australia has had a few dodgy and iffy governments over the years, but apart from the latter days of the Bjelke-Petersen dictatorship in Queensland, political extremism has never really gained a significant toehold.
That is, until the current term of the Howard government and its absolute authority over the parliament. The truth is that John Winston Howard – who masquerades not entirely convincingly as an ordinary bloke – is a political extremist.
Pragmatic concerns over the years have served to keep that extremism in check – but it’s always been there. In the mid-1980s he was talking about total deregulation of the labour market, even before he lit the fuse venting his long held belief in white Australia.
We have all been too taken in by his apparent ordinariness and his protestations that he was a conservative. He is not; he is a radical neoliberal, albeit with a pragmatic streak. Every institutional pillar has been under sustained assault on his watch – the High Court, the parliament, the public service, the military and security organisations, the Auditor-General, the ABC and so on.
Some aspects of his radical neoliberalism he shares with the rabid neo-conservatives who have wreaked such havoc in the Bush White House with their pet project – the war in Iraq. Like the neocons, he pretends to revere the past but really despises it.
The distinguished American political scientist, Anne Norton, who has repeatedly exposed the neocons for the social vandals they are, contrasts them with the archetypal traditional political conservative, whom Howard professes to admire, Edmund Burke. She writes in Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire:
“Conservatives of this caste… valued custom and practice, reverenced memory, and honoured the distinctive character of an established community sharing a common life.”
Howard has derided and dismantled custom and practice, launched a cultural offensive against memory and tradition, and has implemented policies that effectively preclude Australians sharing a common life. His attack on the family by way of workplace changes while purporting to uphold family values is something Orwell could have used in 1984.
Jack Lang was demonised as a political extremist (which he wasn’t) and driven from office by the representative of the British bondholders – but the real extremists who fought Lang, the laughable but deadly New Guard, never quite cut it politically. They were fascists, pure and simple, and the Australian people did not like what they saw.
Similarly, the Communist Party only ever managed to get a single candidate elected, and while One Nation enjoyed a flurry of success in the late 1990s, its flame quickly subsided.
Howard’s extremism – in his fanatical campaign against the unions and the rights of workers and his total capitulation to the rapacity of big business – simply flies in the face of not just the Australian way of life but the collective wisdom of the Liberal Party itself.
Bob Menzies well knew the dangers of the party he helped found being seen to be too close to business. Bob Askin, in NSW, fought hard to drag the party in his State to the centre to make it electable in 1965 after 24 years in the wilderness, and Malcolm Fraser knew both his Menzies and his Burke.
Howard, of course, is not alone. Peter Costello is imbued with the fanaticism of the H. R. Nicholls Society, Tony Abbott is to the right of General Franco on all social and political issues, Nick Minchin never saw anything wrong in attending a breakfast with the LaRouchites, and Kevin Andrews appears to have created his very own political oxymoron – a unique Cromwellian Catholicism. And of course ever present is the sinister Eric Abetz who sees nothing wrong with using his staff to investigate witnesses at Senate committee hearings in order to try to discredit them.
The virtual outlawing of strikes and the hounding of union leaders, the contempt for accountability, a dysfunctional Freedom of Information regime, a sustained diminution of human rights and civil liberties, and a massive build-up of internal security forces all serve to make this country a very different place from the one in which many of us grew up.
Howard argues, with some justification, that the entire electorate has moved to the right. While not wishing to compare Howard with Hitler, precisely the same argument could have been mounted by the Nazis in defence of their policies in the 1930s.
If Howard loses on Saturday, it will be because of this perceived extremism. That might just explain why the electorate is uneasy in a prosperous time.