One Cheer for John Howard (guest post from Jack Strocchi)
Following up Brian Bahnisch’s guest post, I’m presenting another from Jack Strocchi. It should be obvious that I don’t agree with Jack’s view of Howard as a Straussian/Machiavellian, telling “Noble Lies” to lead us all to his vision of tolerance. But I’ll leave it to others to make up their own minds.
I found the discussion of Brian’s post very interesting. Jason Soon has some more thoughts, with which I broadly agree, though I’d concede that excessively narrow utilitarianism can lead to the kinds of moral blindness pointed to by Brian.
I congratulate Brian B. on his eloquent plea for Australian citizens to show more “care of strangers”. I, as the son of a migrant who fled a ravaged Europe in the aftermath of tyranny and war, deeply sympathise with his call for more fellow-feeling for those distress. His words radiate the spirit of humanitarian concern, so beautifully expressed in Rabbi Hillel’s poem:
If I am only for myself, what am I?
But I cannot bring myself to endorse Brian B.’s, and Pr Q’s, general political critique of the Howard governments alien settlement policy. Brian B.’s position contains the necessary soft-hearted moral sensibility. But it lacks a hard-headed political rationality.
the battle between the political head and personal heart is an age-old problem in moral philosophy. Frank Knopfelmacher, citing pacifism as a paradigm case of “principled unpragmatism”, used to argue that
There is such a thing as a moral[lly] coherent empirical absurdity.
The cognitive dissonance generated by this moral conflict is causing our Cultural Elites to experience a weird political neurosis. There is now a chorus of voices, including that of our own Pr Q’s, raised to demonise John Howard as a liar, racist and scourge of humanity.
I find the Howard-hating thesis to be an ahistoric, hyperbolic and counter-empiric. The evidence for this orchestrated campaign of vilification is unpersuasive. It is an ungracious valedictory for a man who, at the rate he is going, is unlikely to make it into our storehouse of Living National Treasures.
The demonisation of Howard’s cultural policies ignores the politico-historical context of Australia’s recent cultural conflicts. The asylum-seeker problem arose as part of a broader institutional-political struggle for the soul of the Australian polity. Howard has waged, with occasional misadventures and misspeakings, a systematic campaign against the more pernicious forms of these ideological nonsenses.
To restore balance I propose that, before Howard shuffles off the stage of public life, progressive politicos find it within themselves to celebrate his contributions to our culture. I don’t anticipate a full-throated roar. Raising one ragged cheer will do.
But first we must set the record straight. Howard’s cultural policies have been trivialised as “wedge politics” designed to play to the prejudices of suburban bogons and rural rednecks.
This implies that the cultural conservative view is axiomatically illegitimate. I beg to differ. Howard has restored some order to institutions that were rocked to their foundations by the Cultural Left’s long, and Great-Disruptive, “march through the institutions” during the sixties and seventies. The Cultural Left had a divisive agenda which was leading us down the not-very-rosy garden path to civic anomie, autarchy and anarchy.
Then there is the critique of Howard’s personal character and professional mode. Acres of wood pulp have been darkened, and banks of cathode screens are being pixel-sprayed, with endless tales of Howard’s petty deceits and grand machinations.
One can wearily acknowledge Howard’s political lies (I’m shocked! Shocked!). And one must deplore his politicisation of the Civil Service profession. The GG and the PS should go back to being faceless and opinionless.
Yet, as Auden hinted at in his call to arms, there is a darker veil of ignorance drawn, and web of deceit woven, around much bigger sources of our civic woes. And this is by the very thinkers entrusted to safeguard our cultural institutions:
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad…
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie
Howard has got some crowd-pleasing runs on the board. Think of some of the mad, bad and sad ideas that our Cultural Leftists would be pursuing had they not received Howard’s 1996 and 2001 double-whammy:
- Aboriginal separatists would still be dividing ATSIC’s spoils;
- feminist spinsters would be hogging the bureaucracy’s bully-pulpit;
- ethnic lobbyists would engage in even more uninhibited stacking of ALP branches;
- Minimal Republicans would still be pursuing their time-wasting fetish
- Kiwi-style isolationists would be weakening our strategic defences
- Jakarta-Lobbying appeasers would be consolidating the misery of the E Timorese.
Can this Devil’s reputation be Salvaged? I think it can, but first we must be prepared to get off our high moral horses and take a close look at the rocky political ground we have traversed. A certain amount of grubby political chiseling is required to appreciate Howard’s mine of precious civic gems.
We might contrast Rabbi Hillel’s humanitarian formulation with Mr Howard’s apparently chauvinistic construction:
we will decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come
How can these apparently contradictory positions be reconciled?
Part of the answer lies in the second half of the Rabbis triplet, which asks what kind of person is fit to be of moral consequence:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
The stronger you are, the more secure you are in your identity, the more good you can do. Over the naughties Howard has, militarily, economically and civically, strengthened this nation both in quantity of resources and quality of relations. His personal hard-headedness, and professional skill, has put this nation into a politically soft-hearted zone.
A new poll has found Australians are now more willing to accept asylum seekers than at the time of the last election.
The Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper today found 61 per cent of voters want at least some asylum seekers arriving by boat to be allowed to enter Australia.
This has already had a liberalising effect on asylum-seeker policy. Howard has, following a more “relaxed and comfortable” attitude in the community, softened the Party line on asylum-seekers:
Thousands of refugees on temporary protection visas will be allowed to stay permanently in Australia, after federal cabinet agreed to a radical overhaul of the Government’s asylum seeker rules yesterday…
The change of heart has been made possible, however, by the reduction in the number of boat people arriving over the last three years.
Only Nixon could have gone to China. Only Howard could have restored Asian immigration to high levels, and still retained public confidence in a lawful alien settlement scheme. The Coalition Minister for Multiculturalism highlighted out the cross-wired political effect on public attitudes to migration:
new research by his department showed that when the Coalition came to power in 1996,
65 per cent of people thought migration was a negative.
“Now 65 per cent think it’s a positive,”
Howard, up until the mid-nineties, was losing the battle for civic determination of cultural institutions. Keating performed the invaluable service of formally declaring the Culture War. Howard won the 1996 election with a resounding mandate for a conservative cultural-populist policy. Howard’s cultural populism, not Hewson’s economic rationalism, was the beginning of the real “fight-back”.
Then, in 1999, the Culture War was overshadowed by a Shooting War. It was apparent, from the reaction to the Timorese intervention, that the Political Elite’s mantra of “Asian engagement”, and disparagement of the US alliance, was a dangerous fantasy. National survival still required an ANZUS sword to go with DFAT covenants.
But Howard got no credit from the Cultural Elite for his liberation of Timor. And the Political Elite traduced Howard for standing up to the Javanese Imperialists. The Cultural Elites continued to dug in their heels.
So, in 2001, Howard escalated the Culture War to militant levels of force. He chose the arrival of the Tampa to fight the decisive battle. It was, as Stalin used to say, “no accident” that Howard used the SAS and RAN to execute this policy.
The “enemy without”, to some racists Australians, were the asylum-seekers. But, to many Australians, the asylum-seekers were innocent civilians who suffered (regrettable but reparable) “collateral damage” in the course of the cultural conflict.
The real targets of Howard’s militancy were the “enemy within”, the institutionalised Cultural Elites, the HREOC’s, the ATSICS, the ALP ethnic lobby et al. All those well-intentioned “nice guys” whose ideological announcements and institutional arrangements had led us to this unpretty cultural pass.
And then, out of the blue, 911 hit. This, for me and many others, spelled the end of the fashionable ideologies of pee-cee and multi-culti. No longer can anyone kid themselves that all other ways of life are all equally worthy.
the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade
So, in 2001, like many other social democrats, I bit the bullet and voted for Howard. Swallowing his deceitful verbalisations and tolerating his abusive incarcerations was not something that gave me a warm inner glow I grant. But some lesser evil had to be done to stop the rot.
The Machiavellian politician kept up his end of the statesmans bargain. Even if he loses this election he has, using nasty political methods to achieve nice policy results, won the Culture War.
Howard’s policy legacy includes a high and diverse flow immigrants, most-all of the genuine refugees are being freed and cared for and the people-smuggler boats, which used to sink without trace, no longer make the dangerous journey.
Politics is now more about institutional substance than ideological style. Real funding of Aboriginal social policy is up 30 percent since 1996.
Even Howard’s most dubious decision, participating in the US attack on Iraq, has had a beneficial effect on the polity. We have paid-back the favour owed to the US for assisting us in E Timor and have <a href=http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/03/02/1078191324438.html>strengthened the US alliance.
Howard deserves some credit for his recovery of Australia’s Vital Centre. Instead the knives are out and he is being hounded off the public stage by intellectuals who should know better.
Brian B. is right in one respect: it is essential to our humanity that we offer a safe haven to those in distress. But Howard is right in another, equally crucial, respect: we need to make sure that the haven stays safe and not turn into the kind of place that refugees are fleeing.
we can now answer to Rabbi Hillel’s final query
If not Now, When?
The Australian polity, after a generation of cultural bickering, is ready to achieve Desmond Manderson’s noble vision of offering sanctuary to those who depend on the kindness of strangers:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.