Throughout the days of the previous government, its media cheer squad denounced anyone who dared to criticise the government as a “Howard-hater”. This seemed to me to be either a silly piece of rhetoric or just plain wrong. To the extent that it was simply a label for anyone who disliked the government’s policies and therefore disliked the government and its leader, it was just a silly piece of hyperbole. A more natural reading is the claim that people who had no particular quarrel with the government’s policies opposed it because of a personal hatred of Howard. This seems to me to be just plain wrong. I don’t think I ever met anyone who liked the government’s policies but strongly disliked Howard himself (by contrast, other government ministers like Abbott and Costello were widely disliked on a personal basis). It’s notable that the only hostile nickname for him that ever really stuck (the Rodent) was due to one of his own backbenchers and didn’t emerge until 2004. The flipside was that very few people loved Howard in the way that many other political leaders have been loved. Liberal supporters stuck to him as long as he won elections, and forgot about him as soon as he lost one.
The only personal hatred that has any real force in Australian politics is hatred of Paul Keating. This emerged very clearly in relation to the 2020 summit but it’s true more generally that Keating has remained an energising figure for right wing culture warriors more than a decade after his departure. Whenever they go on about the chardonnay-sipping or latte-drinking elites it’s patently obvious that this stuff bears no relation to the current generation of Labor leaders. I have no idea what kind of drinks Kevin Rudd or Anna Bligh or any of the others favor, and Rudd is certainly more intellectually cultivated than Keating ever was, but the idea that they are members of some cultural class distinct from the ordinary Australians is patently silly.
Update: I posted this partly completed, there’s more over the fold now
When he was actually in power, hatred of Keating wasn’t by any means confined to the political right, and for that matter love of Keating came largely from groups other than the Left, who were, after all, his tribal opponents within the Labor party and the earliest targets of his powerful talent for invective.
For the general public, Keating’s fate was sealed when he referred to “the recession we had to have”. He and his economic advisors expected a brief downturn that would puncture inflationary pressures, but he took responsible for the longest and most brutal downturn since the Great Depression.
Amazingly, and reflecting his great talents, Keating came back from that disaster to take the Prime Ministership from Bob Hawke, to drive John Hewson to defeat in the apparently unlosable 1993 election, and to sweep aside the ‘dream team’ of Alexander Downer and Peter Costello. If his talents had included humility (or even the capacity to fake it convincingly) he might well have gone on to beat John Howard.
Instead, he convinced himself that the victory was a tribute to his Leadership. (don’t ask me about the full stop) and proceeded to demonstrate this by embracing a set of causes to which he had previously exhibited either apathy or active hostility – the Republic, Reconciliation, multiculturalism, the arts and so on.
For the majority of Australians, this made little or no difference. Keating was tied to the recession and that was that. The causes he espoused suffered a temporary loss of support by virtue of his association with them (the phrase Keatin’s Republic, deployed to some effect in the 1999 referendum, is illustrative), but the effect faded within a few years of his removal from the political scene.
Among those who took Keating’s sudden change of focus seriously, a somewhat ingenuous minority took him at face value and approved (I remember a doco in which some members of this group were incautious enough to be filmed drinking the white wine that must not be named). A larger group, the culture warriors of the right, convinced themselves that Keating’s unpopularity derived from his cultural agenda, and not the other way around. They’ve been fighting Keating’s ghost ever since, and still can’t bring themselves to abandon this struggle.