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Cultural monarchism

August 9th, 2003

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.

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  1. August 9th, 2003 at 18:42 | #1

    Howards victory in the Culture War is Keating-specific, not world-historic. HOward and Keating were pretty similar “Economic Rationalists” on issues of Political-Economy (GST, tax cuts, privatisation, enterprise bargaining).
    Keating championed Politico-Cultural programs as modes of policy “brand differentiation” from Howard. Keating stood for “Cultural Elitist” politics of cultural symbolism as opposed to Little Johhny Howard’s dreary and staid “Cultural Populism”:
    Multiculturalism V Cosmopolitianism
    Reconciliation V Integration
    Asian Engagement V US Alliance
    Republic V Monarchy
    Howard had to put up with Keating’s gloating and taunting from the Opposition for more than a decade, which would destroy most men. But the iron got in the soul of Howard and he bided his time, waiting for the moment to strike since revenge is a dish best served cold.
    The time came in the mid-nineties, and had nothing to do with Howard’s policies or critiques as such. And the results speak for themselves.
    “Republicans” revealed their leadership as snobs who couldn’t run a tuck shop, as the Consitutional Conference showed.
    “Reconciliation” degenerated into the farce of Treaty, National Seperatism and ATSIC corruption, as poor stats on Aboriginal health showed.
    “Asian Engagement” was code for appeasing the kleptocratic dictatorship of Suharto, as Timor showed.
    “Multiculturalism” turned out to be a racket to rort the immigration/refugee program to ethnicly stack ALP’s ailing branches, as Theophanous and Albanese showed.
    HOward’s success was owed to the foolish nature of some of these ideas, their corrupt implementation and a general desire for Australians to focus on pragmatic substance over symbolic styles in the delivery of public goods.
    The Cultural Left well and truly deserve a long Howard-enabled spell in the sin bin until they get their minds right over what really counts.

  2. August 9th, 2003 at 19:06 | #2

    PS the zeitgeist is working overtime since Paul kelly adresses the same themes, and comes down more or less on my side.
    Eseentially Keating’s failure was Howard’s success. Keating started the Culture Wars by dropping Hawke’s inclcusive Cultural Populist stance for Cultural Elitist symbolic Identity Politics based on a play to minority group principals and their urban middle-class agents (or is it vice-versa?).
    It does not take Betrand Russell to work out that there are more people in the populist-led majority than the a coalition of elitist-led minorities. My Damascus Moment came when Watson gave his “po-mo” Republic speech.
    Is it any surprise that the battlers in the working class heartlands of Queensland and NSW abandoned the ALP?
    Howard’s claim to victory in anp particular issue of the Culture Wars may be temporary. But I can’t see another Keating-like program of Identity Politics getting up for a long time.
    Good Riddance.

  3. Jim
    August 9th, 2003 at 21:33 | #3

    The ’96 and 2001 election wins for Howard could scarcely be called narrow.

  4. August 10th, 2003 at 00:35 | #4

    “Support for the British monarchy has virtually disappeared…”

    Where did you get that idea? While it is true that expressed support has declined, and also understanding (e.g. that unwarranted “British” there), that’s more to do with the media being captured than anything else. As I once heard it well described, the media cannot control what we think but they can control what we think about, i.e. what is on the agenda.

    Over time that would indeed prevent the monarchist idea from being able to perpetuate itself, through ringbarking the avenues of cultural transmission, but that does take literally generations – and it is worth noticing that the republican idea is only planted in a single generation, the baby boomers. Essentially the two ideas are in place in what we might call Menzies’ children and Whitlam’s children, but the rising generation has little connection with anything – which I see as part and parcel of the same lack of transmission and perpetuation of the values associated with voluntary activities etc.

    So you really can’t take the one sided position in assessing what is happening to monarchist values, when that is just one instance of a general increase of apathy and spread of de facto nihilism by default. I for one don’t see any values present in republicanism, and I do see the ringbarking process associated with the Keating era as a levelling down to make a bad option preferable by making difficulties for the status quo without actually making the alternative worth having. It strikes me as being like deliberately trying to achieve a situation like one of those prizes where the judges announce that due to a poor standard of entrants no prize should be awarded after all. Luckily the status quo is viable, but it is senseless to destroy its ability to be passed on without at least having an alternative worth having (I’m not talking about a “model” but about the very values within anything newfangled and without a place in hearts and minds – there is no turn on in mere forms with no associated common heritage).

  5. John
    August 10th, 2003 at 10:02 | #5

    PML, the fact that you see my use of the word “British” as an unwarranted slur illustrates precisely the point I wanted to make. Until quite recently there was significant support for the specifically British aspect of the monarchy. When I was young, Robert Menzies could proudly refer to himself as ‘British to the bootstraps’. And the Bjelke-Petersens (Flo even more than Joh) were still exploiting this kind of sentiment very successfully in the 1980s.

    The “No” campaign in the referendum delivered the coup de grace to this kind of sentiment by campaigning vigorously in favour of monarchy without once mentioning the monarch.

    As I said, the fact that you saw a reference to the British aspect of the monarchy as a cheap shot against the Australian constitutional status quo illustrates the degree to which Howard has failed to restore Menzies’ values in this respect.

    Your points about the general decline in affiliation are worth a post in themselves, but as counterpoints I’d offer the steadily growing attendance at Anzac Day, and the huge attendance at rallies for peace and reconciliation.

  6. John Armour
    August 10th, 2003 at 10:43 | #6

    Howard’s dominance is not complex: he simply watched Hanson take soundings at the murky end of the political swamp, and saw that it was good.

    Jammed up against the right by a centrist labour party, Howard would simply differentiate his product by going down and backwards rather than left or right.

    The latest kite-fly on capital punishment is a perfect example of the strategy. Debate is healthy ? Not in this case it’s not.

  7. John
    August 10th, 2003 at 11:37 | #7

    Jim, the Coalition got a first preference vote of 43 per cent in 2001, and a two-party preferred vote of 50.5 per cent. That’s narrow in my book.

    In relation to 1996, I should really have said that Howard won election by default (reversing Keating’s default win in 1993), and has since then had two narrow victories.

  8. Me No No
    August 10th, 2003 at 15:22 | #8

    The 2001 win was certainly narrow, as John points out. (Actually 50.9 percent two party preferred). His 1996 win wasn’t narrow. His 1998 win was actually a vote loss of 49.8 percent 2pp)

    I assume John wrote this after reading Paul Kelly, with his monthly ode to Howard. Paul Kelly is going dotty, I think (and I’m not punning on his namesake’s old band.)

    Howard is ahead in the polls (though not by a great deal) because Simon Crean is so woeful.

    I think Latham’s gonna knock him off. Latham will be a total shocker of an opposition leader, the Labor version of Alexander Downer. He is unelectable.

    Then they’ll replace Latham by an old hand, a recycled leader …. go Bomber!

    Beazley will then beat Howard. Paul Kelly will be at a loss to explain it and will retire hurt.

  9. Me No No
    August 10th, 2003 at 15:25 | #9

    1998 result was actually 48.9 percent 2pp for the Coalition

  10. Greg
    August 10th, 2003 at 15:35 | #10

    John you may need to review upwards your estimate of the economic and cultural costs that the electorate, on a broad basis, is prepared to bear so as to retain the status quo on the boat people issue.

    Dormant as it seems at the moment, I nevertheless feel that it quietly domintes, with the electorate suspecting that the Labor Party would “open the floodgates to the asylum seekers and resuscitate the Australian people-smuggling industry”.

    This very unfortunate situation probably goes a long way towards explaining the blatant “bull in a china shop” behaviour we have seen from the Ministers of Propaganda and of Rationing lately; see also Jim’s reference to the capital punishment issue above. On this basis I predict we will see the “bull” on the rampage a lot more frequently before, if at all, it is reined in.

  11. Greg
    August 10th, 2003 at 15:57 | #11

    Oops, errata to my remarks above:
    – “dominates”, not “domintes”;
    – capital punishment reference by John Armour, August 10, 10:43am, not by Jim.

  12. jason potts
    August 10th, 2003 at 19:41 | #12

    John, I’d be interested to know what you thought of the relevance of some of the new research on percolating clusters in small world type networks (e.g. Newman and Watts 1999 ‘Scaling and percolation in the small world network model’ Physical review E 60, 7332-42, see Duncan Watts 2002 ‘six degrees’ (Norton, NY) ch.s 8&9)

    The implication seems to be that monoculture can only occur in certain types of network structure (a percolating network subject to certain conditions about threshold tolerances to change in behaviour as a function of degree distribution (i.e. the geometry of influence).

    Could it be that the Howard monoculture is more a function of the underlying social network rather than the cult of personality?

  13. August 10th, 2003 at 19:59 | #13

    More misunderstanding: ‘PML, the fact that you see my use of the word “British” as an unwarranted slur illustrates precisely the point I wanted to make… As I said, the fact that you saw a reference to the British aspect of the monarchy as a cheap shot against the Australian constitutional status quo illustrates the degree to which Howard has failed to restore Menzies’ values in this respect.’

    Who said I saw it as a slur? If anything the only cheap shot – which I am sure was unintended – was supposing that I myself feel aggrieved at being accused of a British connection. (If anything I agree with the words on the Melbourne Boer War Memorial that says the dead fell in support of the “empire that is our strength and common heritage” – which at a cultural level remains true until it is actually buried, a sort of “matter of Albion”.)

    I saw the use of the term “British” as an unwarranted and inappropriate interpolation not a slur, a digression away from the fact of an Australian monarchy coexisting within a wider whole. The very fact that JQ is only able to perceive the connection to a common heritage as something people would feel as a slur shows the success of Orwellian control of thought through language! So, let’s just remind those not in touch with this other element, that we do indeed exist and are a fact of the Australian polity – not to be confused with what the media says we are. I wouldn’t want to get read out of the polity on the “no true Scotsman” principle.

  14. Steve Edwards
    August 11th, 2003 at 03:06 | #14

    There are elements of the Howardite cultural agenda that will always remain with us, and other elements that will fall by the wayside. The monarchy, for example, will eventually die out. Hell, we might even lose the flag.

    But much of what Howard has been railing against involves the backwash of the 70s New Left, that Keating disgracefully took up as a cause. All that race-class-gender-sexuality crap we get spoonfed in the universities… Destroying the New Left cultural agenda was as inevitable as the baby boomers are ageing and mortal. It was always going to happen with a bit of generational change.

    And there is no way in hell people in this country are going to be convinced that taking asylum seekers onshore is a particularly good idea.

  15. Jim
    August 11th, 2003 at 09:31 | #15

    As you know 2pp results mean little in the greater scheme of things. It’s seats in the lower house that matter.
    I agree that 1998 was a very narrow win for the coalition but 2001 was reasonably comfortable.
    If the 2pp alone is used as the indicator then the only election results that haven’t been narrow in the last 2 decades are 83 and 96.

  16. Me No No
    August 11th, 2003 at 10:07 | #16

    Well Jim, the seat result in 2001 was almost identical to that in 1998, so you prove John’s point.

  17. Me No No
    August 11th, 2003 at 13:10 | #17

    That is, 1998: Coalition 80 seats to Labor’s 67. 2001: Coalition 82 seats to Labor’s 65. One “narrow” and one “reasonably comfortable”?

  18. John Quiggin
    August 11th, 2003 at 13:16 | #18

    Coming back to my original point, how does a House of Reps majority translate into the kind of cultural dominance claimed in the articles I’m criticising?

    The only mechanism I could see would be if people paid a lot of attention to the views of their local MHR. Since most people (including me, I must admit) can’t even name their local MHR, this seems pretty unlikely.

  19. John Quiggin
    August 11th, 2003 at 13:21 | #19

    Both Steve and Jack illustrate another of the points I was trying to make. Only by identifying the “New Left” agenda with the personal influence of Keating can you make the argument that opposition to that agenda has been sustained by the personal influence of Howard.

    In fact, both Keating and Howard opportunistically attached themselves to issues they thought would be helpful to them.

  20. DrShrink
    August 11th, 2003 at 14:16 | #20

    I disagree with Jack Strocchi’s claims.

    For instance to push that our policy with asia was about appeasement not security, nor economic despite the benefits we now find in such interactions, and inline with Keatings comments of the time. But no. So with a touch of history re-written, and ignorning that Howard is belatedly catching up with keatings plans, jack tries to re-write history as if our relationswith our northern region was all just a policy of appeasement of one corrupt leader.

    I also disgaree with his pretending that somehow race relations werent better under keating because of some corrupt atsic few. That back then we didnt have aborigines turning their backs on the PM. Or a PM who turned his back on thier needs for 3 terms.

    Hes also not being to original or honest by claming that republicans are somehow “snobs”. And the failure of the referendum is now their fault, despite a PM desperate to see the refferendum fail.
    But no the convention members inability to agree ideologically or pragmatically on a model with the many howards stacked appointees to the convention somehow means they havnt the ability to “run a tuck shop”.

    Thats just ignorant re-writing of history. Why even waste our time with such waste.

    Or “”Multiculturalism” turned out to be a racket to rort the immigration/refugee program to ethnicly stack ALP’s ailing branches, as Theophanous and Albanese showed.”

    Yeah, thats it. The ALP only wanteds a few hundread refugees for branch stacking. Hence they let in thousands and thousands. And provided new starts for them all. But no actually encouraging immigration and foreigners coming by our prescious land, whilst improving relations between the different ethnic and racial groups is boiled down in jacks History:Re-Written to a policy needing only a few hundread people for personal purposes.

    His indicated problems are often valid real problems, but the outlandish claims your making based on them are just laughable.

    John Q wrote :
    “how does a House of Reps majority translate into the kind of cultural dominance claimed in the articles I’m criticising?”

    I couldnt see your original post but id argue that controlling the HOR wont bring you cultural dominence. However governments having taken power then have the oppertunity to allow advancement for their own ideological mates. Hence slowly the balance is changed. This government has been trying, but the left having had little control of power for some time has increased its strength culturally. Hence the inability of the Howard government to win the culture wars.
    Howard has won some battles in it, but hes still losing the overall cultural conflicts.
    And if he hasnt won after 7 years government he never will. Perhaps Costello will have more luck.

  21. Me No No
    August 11th, 2003 at 14:29 | #21

    It is the lot of commentators to fill columns with analyses of reasons for election results and what they mean for the country. They nearly always overblow what they’re talking about. They couldn’t just say, well, this guy happened to be in the right place at the right time and really a drover’s dog could have won the election.

    They instead say, this guy represents Australia today. He is a political genius. His stunning success means he is an embodiment of middle Australia. He is brave. He is glorious.

    There is nearly always less to political results than meets the eye. There are true political phenomenons, like Ronald Reagan who won 49 states and 60% of the vote, but they’re few and far between.

  22. Greig
    August 11th, 2003 at 14:38 | #22

    Add my name to those who agree with this condemnation of Keating’s legacy.

    In particular I would recommend Paul Sheehan’s “Amongst the Barbarians: The Dividing of Australia” for an an insightful discussion of multiculturalism and political correctness, and the corruption that lay beneath the censorship.

  23. John
    August 11th, 2003 at 15:23 | #23

    PML, the idea of an “Australian monarchy” is an important cultural retreat for the viewpoint Howard represents. It was after all, Whitlam who introduced the style “Queen of Australia”, abolished British honours and so forth. Similarly, the Hawke-Keating government took many of the steps on which Australian monarchists now rest their political case, such as the Australia Act and scrapping appeals to the Privy Council.

    My point was that, far from seeking to restore the specifically British aspect of the monarchy, Howard has emphasised the severing of ties with Britain achieved by his (republican) predecessors as a strongpoint of the status quo

    Since the concept of an “Australian monarchy” is a purely legalistic one, it must be defended on political-legal grounds rather than one the cultural terrain where Howard is supposed to dominate.

  24. August 11th, 2003 at 16:00 | #24

    the concept of an “Australian monarchy” is a purely legalistic one

    Oh come on Pr Q.,

    Support for the Monarchy against the Republic entails, for better or worse, support for the cultural values of Anglomorphic societies. It is not a “purely legalistic” phenomena.
    It is a cultural stance that seeks to code resistance to the tendency of our Cultural Elites to despise and reject the magnificent cultural and political heritage of the British Empire.
    Since most of our Australia’s Cultural Elites cannot “make it” sufficiently successfully in the metropolitan cultural centres of the North Atlantic or North Pacific, they have supported a “going it alone” policy of symbolic Republican petty nationalism.
    Thus they can be bigger cultural status fish in a smaller nationalistic pond. Hence the prominence of (Irish) celebrities in the Republican movement.
    I prefer realism in all things: Australia is a province of the Anglo-American imperium:
    – if we can’t be world beaters in the status-quo we should remain a dominion of the United Kingdom or
    – if we want a Republic, we should federate with the United States.

  25. August 11th, 2003 at 18:27 | #25

    As for Jack Strocchiâs:

    ãThe Cultural Left well and truly deserve a long Howard-enabled spell in the sin bin until they get their minds right over what really countsä.

    Baby booomer electoral hegemony ö a force since the mid-70âs (sorry folks, but 11/11/75 has long since not mattered a damn) ö did not wax or wane at all during the 90s. Admittedly, Keating was hardly the same ãbrandä as Howard, but the excesses of the former could be seen as the baubles of the hegemonâs midlife crisis ö instead of a sports car and a young blonde (the 80s had done conspicuous consumption to death, anyway), the middle-aged got themselves one big awards night; which some saw it as arty-farty, while others saw it as the ãeveryone here goes home with a prizeä sort of do. In real substance, of course, it was, apart from a hollow circus of self-congratulation, one big ãF*ck Youä to the next generation.

    That Howard has pandered as much (and probably more) to this hegemon can be seen in steeply declining home-ownership rates among the young *not* being seen as a major electoral liability. Ditto with graduate (un)employment ö along with a rented home for life, a Gen X dead end call-centre job paying $30k and kept on a 24/7 roster is another Keating/ Howard ãsuccessä at bringing home the bacon for boomers.

    And as for ãGreigâsä conflation of the Keating era with corruption and censorship ö well, if the ãBad Old Daysä paradigm is what you believe, Iâm not going to bother disturbing your sweet dreams. I canât help but note, however, that I always thought that such a slanted message was only able to be boughtânâswallowed by semi-literate aspirational voters in new 4WDs.

  26. August 11th, 2003 at 23:25 | #26

    Rather than remuddy these waters, I would like to introduce readers to the ideas and works of certian British Empire ideologists. One important point to note is that these were not doing the typical European thing of trying to implement an idea, but the British empirical thing of trying to put a structure on top, of what was there.

    Introductions over, let me tell you of Alfred Lord Milner, and more constructively of Sir Liomel Curtis and Sir Reginald Coupland, ideators of the British Empire ex post facto par excellence.

    They tried to impose a structure and outline future based on what was. They offered the USA an imperial role without writing off sunk costs, only to find the USA stalling between fools: it both dropped what the Empire had achieved, and prevented any building on the genuine costs of that achievement, Where Coupland offered Iraq and Palestine a future – let alone India – the USA enforced premature British withdrawal, the worst of both worlds (I know, I was in Iraq in the ’50s, and I say US encroachment there).

    So, we both see the value of common heritage, and the loss of throwing away the gains of past mistakes (as in India – read Macaulay for some insight there). Republicanism in Australia now is no more than drinking the stale brew of yesterday’s exploded American dream, applied outside the place and time for which it evolved despite the way it had a true opportunity to inherit rather than undercut the hard won British experience of empire. What the USA does now is condemned to implement its past gran rifiuto – and for Australia to follow that some years late is to inherit the whirlwind without ever even sowing the wind.

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