Welcome to an ugly week. It is one in which the support for “Yes” to marriage equality will continue to soften. It is one in which intolerance will take root and hope will wilt. It is into these hothouse conditions that our shittiest, most cynical living Prime Minister returns to poison everything and everyone anew. It’s John Howard, returned from his dotty project of comparing himself to Robert Menzies. He’s back, doing what he does best at close to full capacity: propagandising.
You may be too young, or you may have been too sensibly drunk, to remember the Howard era. I was sober, more or less, and I can tell you, this guy learnt a thing or two from Goebbels. And, no, I’m not comparing the Howard years to those of the Third Reich—although, those in the Northern Territory who felt the force of a racialised (and ongoing) “Emergency Response” are quite entitled to make that comparison. I am saying, simply, that the bloke is very, very good at what I see as using media to spread his message of class deceit. Perhaps there was never a leader who could so effectively flatter “the battlers” into believing that their service to elites was in their own best interest.
Howard afforded generous tax concessions to investors in residential property. This was sold to the nation as an opportunity for all us Average Mums and Dads to become landlords! Never mind that a nation of landlords requires at least another nation of immiserated tenants. Nearly 20 years later, home ownership rates in Australia have plummeted, and renting is now a much more common experience than it has been in decades.
Then, Howard introduced “WorkChoices”, which he assured the people was a true rebel’s move against those nasty unions, with all their hoity-toity demands for a living wage. It was “simplified” legislation, he said, and killing off all those unfair dismissal laws would be a way to guarantee Australian jobs. Never mind that the facility to sack workers with ease was likely to drive wages down. Howard was a marvellous storyteller when it came to WorkChoices, right up ’til the point that people started losing their job security and booted his arse out.
It was in his moments of “culture wars” obfuscation that Howard showed true skill.
It was, however, in his moments of “culture wars” obfuscation that Howard showed true skill. By turning the attention of the nation again and again to the problem of unhealthy “culture”—just as much as any one of my post-modernist lecturers in the ‘90s did—the emerging problems of our stagnant wages and rising house prices were forgotten. We became fixated on the “black armband view” of history. Although an Aboriginal perspective on history had never been a meaningful part of the Australian curriculum and notwithstanding that the good Howard Australian was required to stand to attention every Anzac Day, remembering just one of many massacres ordered by the powerful, we just had to fight against the possibility—never the reality—of true and uncensored Aboriginal knowledge.
Honestly, to relive his tales about asylum seekers, and Muslim asylum seekers specifically, is today beyond my emotional capacity. It’s just too fucking sad. Of course, Howard was not the first Australian Prime Minister who succeeded in convincing white citizens both to blame their own rotten lot on “others” and to support the US hegemon in profitable battle. But, darn, he was good at it.
In the Howard years, we became briefly fixated on those Troubling Gays, who, in 2004, underwent a pointless sort of double exclusion from The Marriage Act. The words “man” and “woman” were inserted, according to Howard, to “make it very plain that the definition of a marriage is something that should rest in the hands ultimately of the parliament of the nation.” This is kind of impressive, if you think about it. Howard was at once able to declare that the state should control the terms of one’s most intimate partnership—and legal amendments that afforded rights to same- and opposite-sex couples identical to those for married couples were not made until the Rudd era—while also seeming like a defiant scallywag screaming in the tyrannical face of Political Correctness Gone Mad.
In my view there has not been a Prime Minister whose policy has been so coercive.
In my lifetime and in my view, there has not been a Prime Minister whose policy has been so coercive. He changed the way we work and he diminished our future possibility of secure housing. He sent the military in to strongarm Aboriginal communities. He made the rich richer and extended the power of the finance sector. He involved our nation in a war that we now all agree was barbarism, and one that many hundreds of thousands of Australians protested at the time. He fought against a style of teaching of culture and history that had never truly been taught. He played a pivotal role in reducing our wages—one’s “choices” do tend to diminish in scope along with one’s available funds. And he did all this while appearing to advance the case of “the battlers”. Many of whom now still believe his deceitful promise that a very contemporary set of economic policies hurt less if they were offset by a very old-fashioned set of cultural values.
He extended the techniques of the new economic liberalism—neoliberalism—introduced to Australia by Keating. Then, he promised us salvation with an idealised old-fashioned life. Problem was that Mum was now working casual full-time to feed the predatory lenders Howard had permitted to flourish, and Dad had lost the job security to which he had become accustomed. Howard accelerated real-life change in Australia, both cultural and economic, but blathered on for 11long years about his desired return to an era purportedly made unrecognisable by anti-war protestors, unions, Aboriginal academics and, basically, anyone who fell outside his base. Even when he failed the base, he was still perceived by many as a Rational Man with no time for this PC cultural nonsense.
Thanks, in no small part part to Howard, a “No” to the question of marriage equality now seems very likely.
And now, this master of doublespeak is back! Thanks, in no small part part to Howard, a “No” to the question of marriage equality now seems very likely. Why the eff anyone is surprised by this, though, is quite beyond me.
Comrades, we must pause to see how recently others were right here: engaged in a fight for something quite beyond the liberal matter being contested. This matter, so likely to be lost to a popular middle finger, is no longer about marriage. It’s about the conflation of a barely remembered life of middle-class fortune with still-remembered middle-class values.
Remember when it was generally held that the “Leave” vote in the UK would be easily defeated? When few pundits or people questioned the ease with which Hillary Clinton would make her way to the White House? Today, the UK is negotiating its departure from the EU and Donald Trump is President. In some part by accident and in some part by design, these strange illiberal victories occurred due to that “belief” upheld by Howard: things were better in the old days.
Things were, materially, better in the old days. There was a much bigger middle-class. Despite what our current Prime Minister says about this being an Exciting Time to Be Australian it is actually a pretty shitty time to be Australian—unless you think housing insecurity, underemployment and crap wages all qualify as a thrill. Depending on who you ask, things were culturally more stagnant in the old days. Unless we come to understand that the economy has a great impact on the way many people experience the culture, we who are likely to vote or publicly advocate for “Yes” have no hope of outdoing a media Machiavelli like Howard.
Across the West, voters are making some apparently illiberal choices, while their liberal opponents continue to say that these were anomalous, the work of an organised right-wing militia or the product of Russian Hacking. “You’re just stupid and unfeeling if you vote No.”
After more than two decades of separating economic reality from political consciousness, perhaps we’ve all become a little stupid and unfeeling. If someone, however deluded, feels that a return to old-fashioned values may also be a return to old-fashioned comfort—a story they’ve been told by canny propagandists like Howard for a very long time—can you truly blame them? Or, at least, can you hope to shake them out of a lifetime of thinking that everything starts with the culture, when you believe that as well?
Unlike Howard, I do not believe that the state should set the terms for any personal relationship.
That advocates for marriage equality have built much of their campaign on a smug presumption of near-unanimity—i.e. only the intolerant and stupid minority would vote other than “Yes”—always seemed a poor strategy to me. In this week when we will receive our survey slips, it seems tragic. Unlike Howard, I do not believe that the state should set the terms for any personal relationship. This does not mean, however, that I cannot see how much damage this mini-Brexit moment could do to our political life. There are terrible and widening divisions between the “progressive”, but still neoliberal, knowledge class and those Australians who long for a past in which they could still afford a home, maybe a coastal holiday once a year.
We could get together on this. There is no time, sadly, in the moments before Australia, I predict, votes “No”. But when it comes to other matters, we must speak beyond the terms that a propagandist like Howard permits. We cannot let matters of national significance become little more than a contest between the knowledge class and everybody else. We can no longer permit our belief in the primacy of the culture blind us to the economic lies we were told, and are still hearing. On both sides, we believe that cultural belief will change everything. It could be truly transformational if we found some solidarity in the true “centre”.
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