The three ages of Howard

28 Sep 2007

Both his friends and his enemies have overstated the PM's influence, according to DAVID BURCHELL.

IN Shakespeare’s day it was common to refer to the “seven ages of man” to describe the various paths our lives take over time. “One man in his time plays many parts” on the worldly stage, the bard reminded us.

Modern politicians don’t have the benefit of this leisurely life-evolution. Generally their play has only three acts. There’s the one where they’re on the upswing; the one where they reach their apex; and the declining one. Every political life’s a little tragic drama, if you like. And very few choose the manner of their departure.

The PM’s political life is no exception to this grand rule. In the first of the Ages of Howard - which ran from the 1980s right through to the last months of 2001 - the PM’s abilities were consistently under-estimated right across the political class from Left to Right.

In this period it was commonplace to treat Mr Howard as a figure of fun. His worldview was straight out of the 1950s. He was trying to drag all the rest of us back to a strange historical place. If anything, at that stage people who were to become “Howard-haters” were not so much hate-filled as embarrassed - on the view that a party leader of this ilk made the country look bad overseas.

Following the confluence of events that led up to the 2001 election victory, though, Mr Howard’s political life entered its Second Age.

During this period commentators were inclined to over-estimate his talents almost as wildly as they had under-estimated them in the previous period. Now they depicted Mr Howard as having a strange, almost mystic connection with national psyche - or at least with its darker side. Why, he had only to whistle for dogs to come running.

According to this view - which, in contrasting emotional registers, was common on both sides of politics - Mr Howard had a special and peculiarly intimate understanding of the electorate and its fears and anxieties. And he had an almost limitless ability to produce rabbits out of political hats. (Could a new SS Tampa even now be steaming over the horizon? As if tugged by a prime-ministerial string?)

This no doubt explains why it’s taken so long for most commentators to twig to the fact that the likely victor of the upcoming federal election is the ALP. It’s not so much that they believed the Coalition would win on its merits. Just they couldn’t quite believe Mr Howard could actually lose.

Over the last few weeks, though, Mr Howard seems at last to have attained his third and final age. Now the very qualities which in his prime made him appear so obdurate and immovable have begun to be interpreted as weaknesses.

A recent interview with Kerry O’Brien on ABC television was widely interpreted by commentators as evidence of his supposed political decline. This in turn sparked off a strange and rootless leadership frenzy, which lasted the better part of a week.

And yet, if you watched the interview closely, it was really the same old Howard. He gave nothing away, he conceded nothing to his opponents, and he said little that was new. It’s not the man who’s changed, but the circumstances.

As the recent biography of the PM makes clear, the pervasive image of Mr Howard as possessing an almost kinetic connection with the inner thoughts of the electorate was always overblown.

In reality, like most MPs, Mr Howard is a prisoner of Parliament House and various government office spaces in Sydney. His most frequent contact with ordinary people comes from the highly untypical listenership of Alan Jones’ radio program (which reaches out, according to its market research, most successfully to retirees in Sydney’s southern suburbs). Other than that, if you want to get the ear of the PM, it’s probably best to run into him on his early-morning jog.

Likewise, the hoary legend of “Howard’s battlers” has been seriously overplayed. Outer-suburban voters are more likely to be mortgaged up to the hilt, and to be highly attentive to movements in the national economy. They also have a tendency to be somewhat traditionalist on moral and social issues.

Both these factors have pushed them in the government’s direction over the last decade. Now Labor looks credible on economic policy, and has a leader who speaks a moral language outer-suburban folks can relate to, they’re drifting back. There’s really not much more to it than that.

Finally, there’s the fantasy that over the Howard years the electorate has been mysteriously shaped into the moral and political image of the PM. If you listen to the chattering classes, since 1996 we’ve become a less kind and generous nation, more suspicious of outsiders, and more prone to think of our own personal interests.

The evidence has never really backed up those claims. Indeed, on most measures we seem to have become rather less worried about immigrants and immigration, and problems of social disunity. Even terror and terrorism - which on this view are supposed to have taken hold of our inner fears - are still only second or third-order political issues on most people’s reckoning, compared with education, health and workplace matters.

All things considered, the odds are that by this time next year the fantasy of a Howard hegemony over our public life will seem but a hazy memory. And the denizens of inner-city cafes will have turned their attention instead to the myriad failings and betrayals of that most disappointing of all PMs - Kevin Rudd.

Just John Howard with a hair-transplant, they’ll grumble into their glasses of milky coffee. Remember Paul Keating, they’ll ask? Now, there was a prime minister!

• David Burchell teaches in Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, and is associate editor of APO.

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