Elites just don’t get Howard

For a regular fix of first-rate journalism and some serious analysis of Australian politics that goes beyond the length of Julia Gillard’s earlobes, it’s hard to go past The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen.  Like this piece where Albrechtsen examines the Australian media’s misreading of the role of former Prime Minister John Howard in the current election campaign.

This recent sniffing by Fairfax media elites about the return of “Howardism” betrays one constancy: they just don’t get John Winston Howard. And it’s likely they never will. The reason is simple enough. If you don’t understand mainstream Australia, then Howard is equally mystifying. They cannot bring themselves to admit that Australia is quietly, comfortably conservative by nature. Not in that overtly American way of muscular individualism, flag-waving patriotism or screaming Tea Party opposition to big government. In Australia, public displays of philosophical affection give way to private pragmatism and common sense. Howard battlers are not pining for the past. They have always sought the leader and the government that best represents their values and aspirations.

Even the ‘better minds’ in the media just don’t get it, writes Albrechtsen:

Howard is invariably depicted as an embarrassingly dotty, dribbling old one-trick pony forever shamed from political life by the 2007 election loss. For them, Howard represents everything they, the educated classes, despise: flexible workplaces, strong border control, moderate climate change policies, indigenous intervention. And so on.

They failed to comprehend the differences between Howard’s 2007 election loss and Paul Keating’s drubbing in 1996. Mainstream Australians stood ready with baseball bats to boot Keating, his Italian suits, antique clocks and Mahler CDs out of office in 1996. Meanwhile, the educated classes cried into their chardonnay at the rise of a balding, nerdy chap in thick glasses who espoused family values and torpedoed political correctness.

In 2007, only the educated classes had their baseball bats at the ready for Howard. Most Australians did not harbour visceral hatred towards him. While Australia’s second longest serving prime minister certainly overstepped the mark on Work Choices, his bigger problem was overstaying his time in office. After 11 years as PM, Australians gave the new guy pretending to be Howard-lite a go. When they worked out Kevin Rudd was conning them, the battlers turned away long enough and swift enough for Labor to switch to a new face.

So why, she asks, “if Howard is such a fossil from the past, has Julia Gillard mimicked the former Liberal PM on the critical issues in this election campaign? “

When Gillard shelved the emissions trading system, she signalled she is browner than Howard. Likewise, Gillard copied Howard’s strong borders policy by proposing offshore processing of illegal immigrants and echoed Howard’s policies on Afghanistan and the US alliance. On ABC1’s Q&A on Monday night, Gillard — the architect of waste and mismanagement within the $42 billion schools building program — continued the me-too caper she started early on in the campaign, lining herself as the natural heir to Howard’s record of sound economic management.

In other words, Gillard knows this election will be decided in the homes of Howard battlers. Issues that concern Australians in the sun-belt seats of Queensland and western Sydney are very different to the left-of-centre agendas pursued by those in inner-city seats where our media elites work, live and practise pilates.

So how will Howard’s legacy play out in the polling booths on Saturday?

For much of the media, the prospect of Abbott becoming prime minister on August 21 is as repugnant as Howard winning in 1996. Mesmerised by Labor’s latest messiah, they speak about the “sparkle” in Gillard’s eyes. For them, a secular Gillard who pretends to be a conservative is far more preferable to a Catholic Abbott who is the real thing.


The rest of Australia may beg to differ. In fact, it didn’t take long before Gillard started to look more Titanic than messianic. Witness her embarrassing call for help from Kevin from Queensland. Gillard and the number crunchers now know that Gillard for PM is not winning over voters in those critical Queensland seats no matter how much she talks about understanding the stresses of family life, balancing the family budget, buying that new pram and paying for those music lessons. She now depends on the man who she politically assassinated, a church-going family man, to pull Labor over the line. The question is whether Queenslanders are awake to Labor’s latest conservative con.