I never was entirely sure about prime minister John Howard. I was sure, of course, that the guy would debauch the nation with his every legislative move. True, there was that one sober decision to reduce the number of local deaths by firearm, but so very many squiffy ones in the decade of shore leave that followed.

Oh. Come on. Don’t give me that “strong economic management” rubbish. Spend? Howard splashed the cash around like a drunk divorcee with a brand-new bottle of Lynx. High-earners enjoyed discounts on their super, $4.6 billion was blown in foreign exchange gambles and the turn taken during a commodities boom was not to save for a rainy day, but to drown already wealthy voters in a pool of cheap money. Even my neoclassical-ish pal B. Keane agrees that the history reads poorly.

Anyhow. As agreeable as it is to describe the budgetary bungles of Howard-Costello, this is not the point of not being sure about Howard.

We can be sure that that Howard believed in his hybridised economics. We can have faith that Howard had faith in settings that grew nothing but a) the assets of a still-shrinking investor class, and b) perilous private debt that now exceeds GDP. It wasn’t his crap compendium of economic policies — still quite common and revered in Western think-tanks — that made Howard a leader about whom we can never be sure. It was his cultural bigotry. Honestly, I never bought him as a true bigot. More as a bigot of convenience.  

Don’t get me wrong. I propose that the Howard commitment to cultural bigotry was more political than moral not to exonerate the tortoise. Further, I am by no means suggesting that a politician who is less than a bigot produces less than bigoted policies. Howard’s policies were bigoted. So, for that matter, were Barack Obama’s. Look no further than the record of the US president to see just how bigoted and illiberal even a handsome, adorable non-bigot can get.

I do this to illustrate the difference between Howard, a man whose bigotry may have been truly driven by policy, and Peter Dutton, perhaps a politician driven by bigotry alone. I do it to mark the diminishing power of the dog whistle.

[‘African gang’ rhetoric goes beyond dog-whistling]

It is entirely true that John Howard did some bigoted things. Don’t even get me started on his “emergency response” of 1997; use New Matilda as your source for accounts of this ongoing denial of rights to Australians. Other bigoted Howard government offerings include: the tall tale of “children overboard”; the fantasy that Aboriginal historians had claimed our nice white universities to darken our past; the lie that Sudanese refugees had failed to integrate into the Australian Way of Life.

When Peter Dutton, Home Affairs Minister, began banging on last week about “street gang violence” in my city, I wasn’t immediately reminded of the anti-Sudanese claims made a decade ago by then-minister for immigration Kevin Andrews — and Howard. Sure, Andrews was the type to go a little freestyle, but Howard, a wily leader, generally kept his cabinet in check. Bigotry was to be served by all in small but effective shots.

If there were a Nobel Prize for dog-whistling, Howard would be a shoo-in. If they ever give one for barking like a Bichon Frise that wishes it were bigger, Dutton is my bet.

Once, code like a “comfortable and relaxed” Australia reached its target. Notwithstanding that Howard himself usually seemed about as comfortable and relaxed as a turkey on Christmas Eve, this statement soothed those naively racist enough to imagine a nation in which no Australian felt ire toward another, or ever became confused by life. The passive longing hardened up when Abbott dreamed of “Team Australia”, then softened momentarily as Turnbull pronounced Australia, “never more exciting”. Neither declaration worked to get the people riled, as Howard had done so effectively, about something other than their diminishing wealth. Which, I guess, is why they let Pete the lap dog yap on talk radio.

Melburnians are “scared to go to restaurants” for fear of a Sudanese crime aperitif. A deceased Liberal prime minister made mistakes in accepting Lebanese refugees. Refugees are not only illiterate and innumerate in great number but poised, despite this deficiency, to take our Aussie jobs.

It is possible that Dutton is a politician whose cunning is equal to Howard’s; that he uses the reverse dog whistle as Trump does with contemporary guile and no little ambition. It is also possible that he’s a bigot. Again, I find myself unsure. I am sure, however, that many Australians are, like me, scared to go to restaurants due to wage stagnation and world-beating levels of private debt.