The Howard Years were hostile. Well, they felt that way to me. Probably to many Muslims, to residents of remote communities and to any sod ineligible for that era’s generous welfare. Which, if you’ve forgotten, was any sod not already stinking asset-rich.
Throughout the misery of internment, I thought of John.
Early in Howard’s first term, the thought was simple. I thought he was old, old-fashioned and a reflection of my identity far less becoming than that provided by Keating; the human face of capitalism, retouched by MTV.
Later, Howard turned savage. I turned 30. Now, the PM’s incapacity for cool seemed the least of his failures.
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Howard’s most enduring failure began on the waterfront. Julian Burnside acted for the Maritime Union of Australia in 1998 not just because he was a barrister; he felt moved by history to do so. Burnside’s memory of the dispute in its national context matches mine: it would brook no political indifference.
The QC remembers himself as a disengaged voter; a Liberal not by conviction, but by routine. In 1998, he began to consider not only his vote, but the role of the state itself.
In 1998, the PM coerced Burnside, me, and a majority of Australians into political engagement. This sounds democratic if we agree with the majority view, not formed in opposition to Howard, but formed in conscious support.
Now, there was no neoliberal contradiction my family — working class Labor voters with assets accumulated under Labor — would not excuse. The economy attentively, even violently, regulated by Howard remained a “free market”. The working class had it “too good for too long”. The idea of paying men adequately for their labour was no longer a “fair go”, but welfare — even a cause for revulsion. The welfare Costello offered my parents in 2007 was not welfare, but a “fair go”.
My parents pushed their bodies hard in work until their youth was spent. That they derive dignity from this memory is no surprise. That they found nothing on the waterfront but ugliness was a shock.
By 2004, I’d resigned from neoliberal shock. Even avowed “lefties”, with whom I’d marched against the invasion of Iraq, accepted neoliberal techniques as sound. Thank goodness, of course, for their sustained resistance to US wars, to “history wars”, to state-endorsed Islamophobia and to offshore detention. These are crucial battles to fight. The diminished conditions of a waterside worker, the rapid ascent of the investor class, the property bubble built on a mining bubble built on a commodities bubble built on a China bubble — none of these seemed urgent.
By 2004, the only shock I thought about was Howard himself. I’d had eight years to think, and I thought: he’s a cynical genius. He tells two stories at once, and most find truth in one.
The primacy of the family was a big deal for Howard. It informed his “Future Directions” statement of 1988 and reference to “traditional” family never quit. His regulatory deregulation of rights at work gainsaid this commitment — the family that works “flexibly” at all hours finds no time to be a family at all.
In 2007, “flexibility” was not a dirty word to the liberal left. Even now, “agility” and the “side gig” are understood by many progressives as virtues, as themselves a challenge to all that “traditional” family muck.
Whatever victory the ACTU may claim for Labor, it was the experience of “flexible work” that gave 2007 to Rudd. If Howard had not pushed real workers so close to their physical limit, he’d have won. It was not the pundits and campaigners who laid WorkChoices and the political life of its author to rest; it was the sober senses of those near killed by WorkChoices.
For so long, I thought that joyless Howard morality functioned to conceal joyless Howard economics. I thought he’d watched Blair and Clinton eventually fail to conceal neoliberalism with third-way compassion, and chose a neocon mask instead. I thought his “Australian Identity” speeches were written not to appease the “battlers” but to antagonise the liberal left.
So many were sickened by the brutality of Tampa, offshore processing, “Children Overboard”, etc, that one more word by Howard on a white citizen norm could distract us for months. I thought: he dog-whistles progressives with racism! He flatters conservatives by rebranding their racism as truth! He makes the beauty of physical labour as repulsive to the working class as it is to the knowledge class and then he chucks in a bit of “black armband” and we all …
Well. Either I spent 11 years overthinking Howard, or Howard spent the last 11 learning to believe his own cack. Either way, his submission to the Religious Freedom Review is proof that one of us is bonkers.
Here’s the crib: religious parents must be free to protect their issue from exposure to “incompatible values” and funding for all schools must be contingent upon a guarantee of freedom from what Malcolm Turnbull, Neil Mitchell and The Guardian all reasonably suppose is sex education. Probably even the straight sort.
Howard proposes that the exemption religious organisations currently enjoy from anti-discrimination laws doesn’t go far enough. It shouldn’t simply be lawful for a religious school to discriminate in employment practice, but unlawful for it not to do so.
Make godliness compulsory. Consign all sex to hell. Make paupers of all godless perverts.
Hail the return of DJ Jo-Ho who spins madder than he ever did — for “values” concealing nothing at all.