Political giants leave difficult legacies. For two decades, Labor has been berated for failing to match the political and policy standards of the Hawke-Keating years — particularly by the Coalition, which smeared and vilified both men as corrupt when they were in politics but elevated them as the exemplars of political and policy achievement afterwards.
John Howard wasn’t exactly a giant of the stature of Hawke and Keating but he, too, casts a long shadow for his party, which has endured four leaders since his eleven-year reign and is considering a fifth. At the moment, there’s plenty of reflection about how both the resurgence of One Nation and the increasingly dangerous product differentiation by the Nationals would have been handled better by Howard.
Part of the problem is that, much like a coach looks much better if she has a bunch of champions turning out for her, Howard had much better Nationals leaders. Barnaby Joyce is a pale shadow of Tim Fischer and John Anderson, even if Fischer was every bit as idiosyncratic as Joyce. And they in turn had people like Ron Boswell, that florid lion of rural Queensland who, whatever his own ideological obsessions, was committed to fighting what he regarded as the deeply toxic influence of the far Right in Queensland politics.
But berating Malcolm Turnbull for failing to be sufficiently Howardesque in his handling of One Nation and the Nats is like complaining that if only the current generation of Labor figures were like Hawke and Keating, we’d have more economic reform. Magically transplanted into today’s political environment, Hawke, Keating and Howard would all struggle for much the same reasons as the last four Prime Ministers have struggled:
- Neoliberalism is dying. Voters are no longer content to acquiesce to the demands of the great god of Reform. They push back aggressively, as Anna Bligh and Campbell Newman can relate, and the pushback is no longer confined to regional electorates. They viscerally hate many parts of the entire neoliberal project despite being demonstrably wealthier for it, and are prepared to back parties that share their hatred.
- As part of this, wage stagnation is engendering deep disaffection not just for market economics but for corporations and the super-wealthy. The dearth of pay rises in recent years seems to confirm what many voters always suspected about neoliberalism, that it was a system designed to benefit corporations and the wealthy, not them. The few, not the many.
- There’s no longer a unified media space to dominate, Keating-style, with cut-through messages that work with voters. The media is fragmented, less interested in politics and far more democratic than it was even when John Howard clumsily began a Youtube video during the 2007 election campaign with “good morning”. Any utterance by politicians is now vigorously contested, fact-checked, contradicted, demolished, often within seconds of appearing online. The only people who cut through are people like Tony Abbott, whose entire message is “no”. And even he just got soundly thrashed on marriage equality.
- Australians are far more disengaged from politics than they used to be. The level of informal voting and the level of non-major party support have increased in recent elections while the level of major party membership and of actual interest in political news and current affairs has fallen.
All of these things mean politicians have less control, operate in a far more hostile media environment, have less capacity to reach voters and face economic policy challenges that Hawke, Keating and Howard never did, or which they faced in more nascent forms. None of that is to belittle their achievements. They had different challenges to face, and they overcame them. But their lessons don’t always easily translate into 2017. Turnbull’s political judgment might be pretty maladroit but pretending it would be easy if he was more like Howard is an exercise in analog-era nostalgia.