I can’t count the number of times I’ve read articles on the theme of Howard’s victory in the culture wars in the last three years. I’d say it must be about as many times as I read similar articles about Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 1980s, and Keating and Kennett in the 1990s. In each case, almost as soon as they lost office, their supposed cultural dominance evaporated.
The assumption underlying all these articles is something that might be called ‘cultural monarchism’, since it works on the assumption that any elected leader whose political dominance is currently unchallenged must enjoy some sort of occult connection with mass culture, similar to that typically attributed to monarchs.
Bjelke-Petersen’s was perhaps the most substantial example of unchallenged dominance. He was in office for decades, and his government was ruthless in crushing opposition on all fronts, so he did manage to keep Queensland significantly different from the rest of Australia. But after one term of Labor, Bjelke-Petersen’s influence had faded, and by now it’s almost undetectable.
Keating’s supposed dominance was never anything more than a Press Gallery illusion. He was never popular, and won the 1993 election only by default. Far from Keating establishing a dominant orthodoxy issues like multiculturalism and the Republic, support for these causes was damaged by their association with him.
Howard’s supposed dominance is I think equally illusory – in fact, it consists in large measure of the fact that Keating’s illusory dominance has been dispelled. He has had a string of narrow election wins over unimpressive opponents, but his government has never been as popular as the Labor governments at state level.
As regards cultural dominance, the republic issue provides a good test, since its an issue where Howard clearly had a majority against him when he took office. He managed the issue adroitly to ensure the defeat of the referendum, but he’s made essentially no progress in rebuilding support for the status quo – at most he’s held the line. And I’d argue that monarchism has lost more ground in cultural terms under Howard than it did under Labor. Support for the British monarchy has virtually disappeared (although the Queen remains personally popular). The idea that the Governor-General should be an apolitical figurehead, answerable to the PM except in 1975-style emergencies, and exempt from political criticism has also lost ground.
Howard’s current poll majority would disappear if, for example, interest rates rose by a couple of percentage points and house prices fell correspondingly. And if that happens, in all probability, we’ll be reading similar stuff about Crean in a couple of years’ time.