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:

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’s political legacy is equally impressive: a Hansonite-less L/NP and Theophanoid-less ALP. The leader of the ALP is a cultural conservative and not beholden to faction or lobby.

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.

35 thoughts on “One Cheer for John Howard (guest post from Jack Strocchi)

  1. wbb at September 2, 2004 12:58 AM remarks

    First time I’ve heard the “Jakarta lobby” described as leftists! Self-determination from colonial rule is such a hobby-horse of the right, too


    It would be more accurate to call the Jakarta lobby the cream of the Political Elite, which includes Leftists, Centrists and Rightists.
    The Jakarta lobby and fellow travellers included some of the Brahmins of the Australian Left: Paul Keating, Richard Woolcott, Richard Butler, Gough Whitlam.
    It also included centrist and rightists. elements, eg Ashton Calvert and Greg Sheridan.
    I believe that many of the 43 “doddering daquiri sipping diplomats” who put their monikers onto the anti-Howard screed are being manippulated by the Jakarta Lobby, as payback for Howards triumph in East Timor.

  2. call the Jakarta lobby the cream of the Political Elite, which includes Leftists, Centrists and Rightists.

    Australian prosperity later this century will come through Indonesia. That country will do a China before it becomes a “shop on the credit card” country like Australia is. At the moment Australia and Indonesia have roughly complementry economies, we should be pursuing a Free Trade Agreement with Indonesia, not the US.

    Australia investing into Indonesian prosperity through a FTA will give greater returns than an US FTA. Indonesia is making great steps towards maturing as a democracy and an economy. Australia ensuring that the region is stable and a “genuine” economic synergy between the nations will only increase the inter-dependance and ultimately the security.

    Keatings line of security within Asia rather than from it is very true IMO. The major Australian defence vulnerabilities are the north-west shelf, the timor sea and the coral sea. With a strong economic, cultural, diplomatic and defence relationship with Indonesia those vulnerabilities would be far less open to exploitation by outside entities.

    The main risk Indonesia faces is balkanization. East Timor has split off, though it was annexed in the 70’s. Irian Jira was annexed in the late 60’s. It doesnt look to have the same nationalism as East Timor did, but it isnt the safest or most secure place on the planet. Aceh has already been put down once recently.

    It is going to be up to Australia to provide a secure and stable environment for Indonesia to mature as a democracy and market economy. It will also require Australia to speed Indonesia’s path to prosperity. Roll out the FTA with Jakarta is the easiest way. Flood our universities with Indonesian students too.

    The anglosphere is political eugenics for those that dont truly want to be internationalists. It is eugenic isolationism with the appearance of internationalism. The sooner the facile “great and powerful friends” doctrine gets dumped the better, then Australia can truly focus on where it is vulnerable as a nation-state and take the defence, economic, diplomatic and cultural steps to remove those vulnerabilities. It all points to Indonesia.

  3. I have been an avid reader of Professor Quiggin’s blog for the last couple of years. And this is my first comment in response to a post. So, first I should thank John for the pleasure, stimulation and teaching he has provided to me.

    But I have to say that after reading Jack Strocchi’s guest post I was left disquieted. . Generally, I find Jack’s comments to be interesting, to offer an unusual and at times unconventional perspective and to provide a broad and diverse range of references.

    I too am the son of refugees from WWII. My initial bias is that anyone prepared to risk an ocean crossing with his or her family is going to be highly motivated to succeed in their country of choice.

    I think that Jack is wrong, and wrong in a particularly pernicious way.

    Jack makes various statements about the causes of, or reasons for, various historical events that, prima facie, seem surprising. But I am not competent to properly evaluate the validity of his judgments. In any event to me they seem mere rhetorical flourishes and only tangentially relevant to his central case.

    The core of my objections relate to Jack’s moral reasoning. My point is that there is a better and more economical explanation for Howard’s actions.

    First, there is the implausibility of his claim that to have a humane detention policy and “to win the Culture War” required the lies of the Tampa and the callous rigour of the “island solution”. As he says, “some lesser evil had to be done to stop the rot”. This prescription is just silly. I don’t think any festering has stopped either.

    “[Howard] chose the arrival of the Tampa to fight the decisive battle”. “Decisive”? This strains credulity given Howard’s past as a politician in general and on Hansen and immigration in particular.

    He goes on to assert that 9/11, for him, “spelled the end of the fashionable ideologies (sic) of pee-cee and multi-culti”. Really? I think his reference to 9/11 is a clue to what he is really on about. And that is that “the world has changed”. A ‘War on Terror” has been declared, not by “us”, but by “them” who hate us our “freedoms”.

    Which in turn justifies “lies” proffered in support of a war prosecuted for our “protection”. As Jack seems to want to say, but doesn’t (Johnny’s “most dubious decision…has had a beneficial effect on the polity”).

    Against this I would urge that we are not in a war, but enmeshed in a state of “Creation of Fear”, being engendered by our politicians and their media and academic courtiers.

    Secondly, his post displays remarkable sophistry deploying a range of moral euphemisms such as “misspeakings”, “deceitful verbalisations”, “abusive incarcerations”, “ahistoric”, “hyperbolic” and “counter-empiric”. “What’s in a name?” What is wrong with the good old earthy “lie” for the two first mentioned? Or “illegal detention” for the last? Are “ahistoric”, “hyperbolic” and “counter-empiric” just words meaning wrong or false. This just attempts to hide the moral force of his reasoning. I feel that it is deliberately obscurantist and evasive.

    Finally, his reasoning is all about consequences, not about the morality of the means or even their utility in achieving the desired consequences, ostensibly a “soft hearted” policy. His reasoning is situated in a context of “political rationality”. Is this different from ordinary, vanilla moral rationality? Is the political category merely “means to ends” reasoning, with possibly the former justifying the latter? It is a non-existent dichotomy.

    Of course there is no sense of the morality of the virtues, of the importance of truth and honesty. In short, of the importance of the practice of virtue.

    It is the concentration on consequences of moral choices, to the exclusion of other considerations, that easily leads to justifications such as Jack’s. Greater emphasis on the nature of the good life, the means to it and the role of the virtues in it is required. Only in this context will the values of truth and honesty be given their due weight.

    A simpler and more straightforward explanation is that Howard lied and did so to win in order to create fear. If his aim in using his means was a humane detention policy, then say so and let us judge as to their effectiveness in achieving his aim and their morality. If he thought the “Tampa” incident would lead to this result, then say so and let us judge. The Tampa as a battle in the “Culture War”? Please let us in on the secret. We just might disagree.

    We must require stringent standards of truthfulness and honesty and the exercise of the other virtues. We must reject any distinction between political and moral rationality. Let us insist on speech that is free of the obfuscations, ambiguities and equivocations to which we have all grown so accustomed. Let’s hit “spin” for six. Otherwise, too nimble feet will be required of too many of us to play the googlies bowled to us by “spin”. For we know that winning is not the only point, and we ignore the verve and honesty with which we play the game of life to our cost.

  4. Gaby at September 2, 2004 07:02 PM complains that my apologia for Howard entails a cynical justification for the political interests of John Howard at the expense of the moral interests of asylum-seekers.
    This criticism is only half-true and the bit that is true is the smaller half.
    Australia has recently been in the throes of concurrent domestic and foreign crises. From 1974-2001 we have had an ongoing cultural identity crisis. From 1999-2003 we experienced a series of massive national security crises.
    Something hard had to be done to sort these messes out before they got out of control. I felt Howard was the best man for the job available at the time. I supported Howard inspite, not because, of his xenophobic handling of the Tampa. I felt he was the right man to:
    resolve the internal Culture War, waged against Multicultural Leftists and Nativist Rightists, into a victory for the Vital Centre
    manage the external Culture War, waged against Fundamentalist Militants, by strengthening of the US Alliance
    So far Howard has delivered well on the internal cultural war and seems to be avoiding disaster on the external cultural war.
    I also wanted to restore some balance and sanity into the moral evaluation of Howards political career. I feel that the demonisation of Howard as a war criminal was way over the top.
    He has beaten back domestic political extremists of Right and Left.
    He has entrenched a high-flow ethnic immigration program.
    He is relaxing the draconian regulation of asylum-seekers.
    He is the first Australian leader to really involve himself in nation building the South Pacific.
    He has helped to liberate three countries from real live war criminals: Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq. The refugees from these countries are now free to go home and are doing so in great numbers.
    The claim that he is responsible for the manslaughter of the passengers in the SIEV-X is unsubstantiated and borders on “grassy knoll”-style hysterical speculation.
    Howard has his many faults, but he has left Australia a stronger and safer place than when he found it. A strong and safe Australia can do more good for those in need of care. He deserves some credit for that.

  5. Jack,
    Are you supporting the Iraq war again. I thought you’d resolved it was a mistake. Afghanistan was supported world-wide and was still a stuff up. Currently Afghans in Oz are having their TPVs extended as nobody thinks that it is safe for them to return – three years later.

    The cultural war 1974-2001 is a figment of your imagination. The aboriginal problem remains and new approaches come and go with no alignment to the cultural war thesis. Hansonist views are still rife but Hanson has been repressed by the majors on both sides. Spinsters on top? I don’t see them backing off anywhere. The preamble was laughed out of the place. The republic is still popularly supported just that they were outpointed politically in the short-run. Multiculturalism has only been defeated if you believe that Theo’s crimes were the point of multiculturalism. In the real world major employers constantly bang on about respecting cultural diversity – it is mainstream and accepted as natural and common sense. That I think was always the point of multiculturalism. Just because you were forever put off the cause by the “I just love the Hindu culture” crowd in your youth. Who wasn’t but what had they to do with multiculturalism. That had never anything to do with the subject. It was about making overseas arrivals welcome and at home without forcing them to do their thing behind closed doors. It was not a radical suggestion. It was simply to put an end to the days when we all called and thought of them as “bloody wogs”. Howartd mereley identified a couple of individuals and groups that could be painted as the embodiment of a multicultural industry to tarnish a whole social change. Tawdry indeed. Politicising something for selfish ends. Again.

    Howard has continued with “high” immigration as the business world and demographers demands – and as far as the ethnic tolerance shown by the “high” Asian component – all he’s done there is back off on the hysteria he himself whipped up in the first place in ’87 and then again in 2001. You don’t give someone credit for fixing their own mistake.

    Ending the cultural war? Fanning it more likely. Gays, ATSIC, refugees – always grandstanding on issues which should remain bipartisan or low-key or calm. We never heard the term cultural war until he got in office.

    And we still watch TV in colour.

  6. Dear Jack,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment.

    I do feel, however, that you have misunderstood or misinterpreted my views.

    You charge me with being more wrong than right. Albeit with a particularly infelicitous trope. I’m not sure how my “half-true” criticism can be the “smaller half”.

    I certainly did not intend to assert that your post was a “cynical justification for the political interests of John Howard at the expense of the moral interests of asylum seekers”. Rather, in your terms, I charged you with a cynical justification for the telling of lies. A totally different thing.

    I did not attempt to consider at all the moral interests of ostensible refugees to asylum in Australia. This is a far thornier ethical issue than that of the virtue, and the nature of the obligation, of telling the truth. That refugees have a moral interest to which we must have regard is beyond doubt. The nature of a refugee’s interest in a safe haven from our perspective is a far more difficult moral problem.

    The core of my comment was rather that endemic lying by our politicians is gravely inimical to our democracy and which you have not addressed at all in your reply.

    Furthermore, I also utterly reject your description that Australia has recently been involved in various “crises”: domestic, foreign, internal, external, cultural, essentialist (the “vital centre”???), security, or of identity. There has been some debate, differences of opinion and policy, but not anything that you would not expect in any flourishing free, tolerant and liberal democracy. To call these “wars” is to go beyond any form of justifiable rhetoric or permissible metaphor.

    This, for me, deflates the achievements you ascribe to Johnny about success in any so called “Culture War”.

    You also set up a straw man when you say you want to defend Johnny against “demonisation as a war criminal”. This is not the issue, although in passing, I believe that politicians are morally responsible for the consequences of their decisions, such as deaths occurring in wars they may declare.

    Johnny is certainly not Macchiavelli’s “Prince”. He is duplicitous, unenlightened, uncreative, divisive, intolerant and probably fundamentally illiberal. His “safe and comfortable” vision for the future of Australia is laughably and characteristically myopic. Of course, Johnny, but is that all? And nothing like what one would expect from a de Medici “prince”.

    The real, underlying problem of Howard as politician is of a man obsessed with gaining and maintaining power. But not in using that power to equitably distribute the largesse of Australia to the majority of its citizens. And to take an easy example, not interested to humanely treat “alien” children, among others, that may chance upon our shores. Or the hypocrisy evident in the many and various abrupt, and “compassionately conservative”, changes in policy recently announced by the Government. “Tributes” to “virtue” of the “vice” inherent in previous Government policy.

    Can the possession of power really be such a potent aphrodisiac?

    To answer my own rhetorical question in the context of the current election campaign, it must be very alluring. Because if it were not, then why would a self-respecting leader choose to become a mere “small target”.

  7. The penultimate refuge of the scoundrel
    Some odss and sods……….. I’m not sure that you should use the his-word-against-mine defense when you are, you know, John Howard. Also, they’re all class, aren’t they? John Howard’s defence of his colleague comparing refugees to animals is hilariou…

  8. Heal thyself
    In the summary of the election issues in the post below, I made the following point about the charge of “Howard hatred” that is often levelled against those who simply disagree with the prime minister politically: I think the ongoing…

  9. Heal thyself
    In the summary of the election issues in the post below, I made the following point about the charge of “Howard hatred” that is often levelled against those who simply disagree with the prime minister politically: I think the ongoing…

Comments are closed.