Sunday, June 24, 2007

Howard's Endgame

It would be tempting to say that John Howard, Australia’s Prime Minister, has truly lost the plot, or that he’s decided to show his fascist side. I think it’s more likely that he’s simply displaying the cunning killer political instinct that has kept him in power even when it looked certain voters were about to kick him out.

Howard, who famously described
Australia under his rule as being the “deputy sheriff” to George Bush’s regime, is a neo-conservative who’s not afraid to go too far. I criticised Howard for his boneheaded attacks on the US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama here and here. At home, Howard was willing to promote an incident involving illegal immigrants that was revealed to have been faked, allegedly with his full knowledge. There have plenty of other cunning tactics, too.

Now he’s at it again. A report came out describing widespread physical and sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, fuelled by alcohol and drugs. Howard responded by, essentially, taking over the Northern Territory (because it’s not a state, where he’d have no authority). He’s banned alcohol and pornography from Aboriginal land, taken away Aborigines’ rights to control access to their own lands, issued an order requiring all Aboriginal children under 16 to have mandatory health examinations and he’s restricting 50 percent of aborigines’ welfare payments to pay for housing and food, supposedly to make sure it’s not spent on drugs or alcohol, and making it all dependent on the children attending school. He also plans to use the Australian army to help with “law and order”.

The report detailed nothing that was new. The thing is, Howard did nothing about these well-known problems in the eleven years he’s ruled
Australia, but now, suddenly, it’s an “emergency” and he claims he needs to exercise dictatorial powers over Aborigines. There’s something much more going on here.

Howard and his coalition government have been polling badly in recent months. He told his party to expect a massacre at the polls, a tactic designed to rile up his base, of course. While that was standard politics, Howard’s antics now are upping the ante considerably. He plans to use the same tactics against beneficiaries throughout
Australia, regardless of race. It’s another in his long line of now classic attacks on the vulnerable and politically scary (to ordinary Australians), including immigrants, gays, and now a two-for-one: Aborigines and beneficiaries.

Technically, this is called “dog whistle politics”. He’s saying things that his many opponents hear and condemn, but they can’t hear his real message, which is that he’ll deal to those drunken, lazy good-for-nothing abbos and welfare bums. Music to the ears of his red-meat base and, sadly, a good many otherwise decent Australians—there are plenty of people in
Australia who are loudly cheering him. He, as usual, makes no apologies:

It is a hardline approach in the sense that we are moving in, we are going to take control. I will be slammed for taking away people's rights and so forth. Frankly, I don't care about that because I do know that the greatest responsibility I and others have got is the protection of the vulnerable in our community—and nobody is more vulnerable than a little child.

It’s a statement any fascist would be proud to have made. Is Howard a fascist? Personally, I have no idea what he is, except for one thing: His political cunning is matched in the Western world only by George Bush’s kingmaker, Karl Rove.

At the very least, his new policies are incredibly paternalistic and smacking of “white man’s burden”. Moreover, Howard is certainly insincere. He pledges to spend “millions” on his jackboot tactics, but has absolutely no plans to deal with the problems he’ll create: Nothing to help people get off of drug or alcohol addiction safely, no counselling to help children who have been abused or families that are torn apart, no additional medical resources, despite the fact that the medical establishment has said they don’t have the people to screen every Aboriginal child, and certainly not to deal with the huge follow-up that will be necessary. There aren’t enough police, either.

There’s plenty of one thing, however: Headlines. In the end, that’s all that Howard wants in order to rile up people so they’ll vote for him. He doesn’t really care about the problems among Aborigines; he just wants to use them for his political gain. If he cared, he wouldn’t have ignored their problems the entire time he’s been ruling
Australia, nor would he have used his time in office to disenfranchise Aborigines and cut them of from the democratic process.

But this will all play out very well in
Australia. I knew he’d pull something in the run up to their fast-approaching national election, something divisive and right wing. As much as I dislike Howard, I almost have to admire his cunning and the way he’s able to cynically play Australian voters like a violin.

Unless something dramatic happens between now and the election, I’d bet on another term for Howard and his right wing coalition government. And once he does, the Aborigines’ very real problems will be forgotten again.


Matt Faulkner said...

Hey Arthur, I really like Howard and think he's a strong leader. We'll have to agree to disagree again:)


Arthur Schenck said...

I don't mind disagreement, especially when it's not disagreeable (to paraphrase). I admire civility, so thanks.

In this particular instance, my criticism is more about Howard's actions in the Northern Territory crisis, not him generally. However, maybe I should explain a little bit why I dislike him so that you and others can understand where I'm coming from.

I've seen Howard in action since the day he won the elections and became Prime Minister. Where others see strength, I see arrogance. Where others see leadership, I see a cynical opportunism. This is based on watching him day after day, in the evening news, in the newspaper, making speeches or debating in Parliament.

I've seen a man who, like Karl Rove, has been happy to exploit people's fears and to drive wedges to win elections. I've seen him work to deny democratic choice. Two examples of that:

He is a monarchist, and when he was forced to allow a referendum on Australia becoming a republic, he made sure it was worded in such a way that voters would defeat it, as they did (but not by a landslide). I don't perceive him as being religious, but he was happy to exploit religious sentiment to have the federal government outlaw gay marriage, taking the choice on the issue aways from the states, and his government has repeatedly quashed all attempts by the Australian Capital Territory (a fiefdom like DC in America) to enact even mild protections for same-sex couples.

He reportedly has a good working relationship with New Zealand's Prime Minister, but it has to be noted that not much of substance has happened between the two countries while Howard's been in office. The relationship hasn't gone backwards, but it hasn't progressed as much as one might've expected.

So, to me he's not a strong leader as much as an arrogant, cynical and opportunistic politician much like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. And his actions in the Northern Territory are nothing less than dictatorial—there can be no denying that—and, to me, smack of the sort of patronising colonialism that was common a century ago.

Add it all up, and that's why I don't like him. It doesn't matter what I think, though, since his being prime minister isn't up to me. But we're all entitled to our opinions of him, even those of us who don't have a say.

Matt Faulkner said...

I'm sure you are more familiar with Howard's politics etc. and I'm not up to speed on Australian politics (I did spend 12 months traveling around Oz after high school and loved it). My opinion is only based on a couple factors. I met Howard at a dinner function on one of his recent trips to the US, he was looking to engage American businesses, especially in CA to increase trade. I also saw a speech Howard made to The Canadian Parliament on CBC and was really impressed. I must admit I didn't know he was opposed to gay marriage, that is one of those issues I think should be left up to the States (in the US) and taken off the national political agenda.