Howard's reshaping of Australia
How Tampa sailed into 2002
By Robert Manne
To understand Australian politics in 2002, one must begin with the Tampa incident of August, 2001. Tampa not only assured the government of victory in the November election. It also altered the balance of forces in Australia in a fundamental way. After Tampa, John Howard realised that he could appeal directly to popular instinct and bypass the kind of fussy moral arguments advanced by the educated, left-leaning section of society his government called the "elites".
Already, after the 1996 election, Howard began to disparage, as "political correctness", the cultural agenda followed by every government since Whitlam, with its implicit criticisms of the foundations of the Australian state. Howard wanted to make the people "comfortable and relaxed" about their past. His government stopped talking about multiculturalism. It helped kill off the republic. It rejected the idea of Aboriginal self-determination. It reoriented Australian foreign policy from its Asian focus.
"One of the most unsettling features of Australian politics was the lamb-like fashion in which the Howard government followed every twist of US policy over Iraq."
Between 1996 and 2001 there was a battle of sorts between the "elites" and the "ordinary people", over Howard's reshaping of Australia. On no issue was this battle more clear-cut than on the question of the treatment of asylum seekers. The government's decision to use military force to repel boat refugees was not only a brilliant populist ploy. It also represented for the "elites" a decisive defeat. It is in the light of that defeat that the politics of 2002 are best understood.
This year the only threat to the new balance of forces came in the aftermath of the "children overboard" affair. After the election the general public discovered, first, that the story was not true; second, that the photographs released by the government depicted a different event; third, that within minutes of their release senior Defence bureaucrats advised their minister's office of that fact; fourth, that two days before the election the Acting Chief of the Defence Force informed his minister that there was no evidence that children had been thrown overboard; and, fifth, that although the Minister for Defence spoke to the Prime Minister that night, John Howard spent the day before the election assuring the media that on "the best advice" available the government still believed that children had been thrown overboard.
As these details emerged it momentarily appeared as if Howard's Tampa cultural victory might be reversed. Even if the people supported the refugee repulsion policy, surely they would resent the fact that they had been so comprehensively misled. This was another "elite" misunderstanding. The Howard government weathered the children overboard scandal unscathed.
During 2002 almost no "unauthorised" asylum seekers came by boat or plane. Nonetheless, despite the fact that Australia had no asylum seeker "problem", hundreds of men, women and children, whose refugee applications had been rejected but who could not be repatriated, were left to rot in the detention camps. This shocking and purposeless cruelty, which occasioned savage United Nations condemnation, became, in 2002, a matter of general indifference.
Those who insisted on speaking of these people's plight risked becoming refugee bores.
By far the most significant international development of 2002 was the slow United States preparation for war against Iraq and the announcement of its post-September 11 strategic doctrine of pre-emptive strike.
Since September 11, I have been convinced that the danger of terrorist attacks, with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, is real. I have also become convinced that the new US doctrine, in reality of preventive war, is an irrational response to this threat. The chance that "rogue states", like Iraq or North Korea, might launch suicidal first strikes against the US is virtually nil. The chance that they might risk oblivion by being discovered as suppliers of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups is only marginally less so. The danger, however, that the general adoption of the idea of preventive war will introduce new perilous uncertainty into the world seems to me very real indeed.
One of the most unsettling features of Australian politics in 2002 was the lamb-like fashion in which the Howard government followed every twist of US policy over Iraq and the mindless enthusiasm with which the Howard government embraced the revolutionary doctrine of pre-emptive strike.
The consequences of our uncritical support for US foreign policy gradually became clear. No Australian prime minister has possessed antennae more sensitive to domestic politics or more insensitive to the international arena than John Howard. When, this month, he spoke of his preparedness to launch a pre-emptive strike on foreign soil where a clear terrorist threat existed, he gratuitously reinforced throughout South-East Asia the most unhelpful portrait possible of Australia, as an anti-Muslim Western outpost acting as proxy for American power.
The peculiar atmosphere after Tampa has not been easy for the opposition parties. The Australian Democrats have long been torn between contradictory self-images, as a party of the centre or of the left. In 2002, in combination with personal rivalries, this uncertainty tore them apart.
For federal Labor, 2002 has also been an annus horribilis. Despite the effort taken over internal reforms, its problems are not organisational but existential. Labor's economic policies are almost indistinguishable from the Coalition's. Increased taxation, to improve the quality of social services, heath and education, is politically ruled out in advance. Even though many Labor members would agree with Carmen Lawrence's resignation cri de coeur - "John Howard's Australia is not one I recognise; he's diminished us all" - the party leaders now realise that any attempt to revive Labor's post-Whitlam progressivist cultural agenda will only further alienate their old working-class constituency and play into Howard's hands.
Of the left parties, the only one to flourish in 2002 were the Greens, with their victory at Cunningham and their breakthrough performance in the Victorian state election.
There are now a large number of young, well-educated Australians who are not only concerned about the environment and ashamed about Australia's retreat from reconciliation and inhumane treatment of refugees but who refuse to accept a mainstream politics premised on individualistic aspirationalism and the abandonment of the struggle for a better world. If there is any hope for the emergence of an oppositional politics, at the time of the Howard ascendancy, it now lies with the Greens.
In their Christmas stockings, the "elites" found a copy of Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History, with solid endorsement from the The Australian. This is the most reactionary book to be taken seriously in this country for very many years. I suppose all one can console oneself with is the thought that every era produces the book it deserves. Happy New Year.
Robert Manne is professor of politics at La Trobe University. This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 30 December 2002 and is reproduced with the author's kind permission.