GRIEVANCE DEBATE – Prime Minister
6 April 1998
Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (4.52 p.m.)—Today my grievance is against the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) for his failure to provide leadership. You can trim the eyebrows; you can cap the teeth; you can cut the hair; you can put on different glasses; you can give him a ewe’s milk facial, for all I care; but, to paraphrase a gritty Australian saying, `Same stuff, different bucket.’ In the pantheon of chinless blue bloods and suburban accountants that makes up the Australian Liberal Party, this bloke is truly one out of the box. You have to go back to Billy McMahon to find a Prime Minister who even approaches this one for petulance, pettiness and sheer grinding inadequacy. I read the late Paul Hasluck’s description of Billy McMahon, and I cannot find a thing that does not describe this Prime Minister equally well:
I confess to a dislike of McMahon. The longer one is associated with him the deeper the contempt for him grows and I find it hard to allow him any merit. Disloyal, devious, dishonest, untrustworthy, petty, cowardly—all these adjectives have been weighed by me and I could not in truth modify or reduce any one of them in its application to him.
In John Howard, here also is a man, small in every sense. Some have said that he is the worst Prime Minister since Billy McMahon. That is unfair to Billy McMahon. I am one of the few people who have opened up and read David Barnett’s biography of John Howard. I have to admit I have not read it all, because it is impossible to stay awake. I did, however, get to page 17. Here Barnett outlines Howard taking six weeks off work to campaign for the McMahon government. Was Billy McMahon grateful? Barnett outlined:
An appointment was arranged with McMahon in his office in Parliament House. Howard was ushered in, and Bill McMahon jumped to his feet. "No" he said. "I don’t want to see him." Then McMahon, who also had an appointment with a Japanese delegation, stopped himself. "I thought you were Japanese" he explained.
Barnett goes on to explain what John Howard’s incredibly crucial and high-powered job was in the McMahon campaign: he was given the job of rolling the manual auto queue built into McMahon’s podium. How appropriate. In this book Howard is quoted as saying of McMahon `he arrived in the job too old and too late’—this from a man who was born old and for whom time has stood still.
But the gulf, Mr Deputy Speaker, between the man in his mind—the phlegmatic, proud old English bulldog—the Winston of John Winston Howard—and the nervous, jerky, whiny apparition that we all see on the box every night. When he looks on the box he gets to see what we see—not the masterful orator of his mind but the whingey kid in his sandpit. Spare a thought for us, Mr Deputy Speaker, because we have to watch this performance every day—the chin and top lip jutting out in `full duck mode’. We get this every day because this is a man in refuge from himself and from the rest of Australia.
This prime ministership is not about the future of our nation. It is about John Winston Howard’s past. We do not hear about the future of this nation when we listen to this Prime Minister. In every performance all we get are his life’s grievances. All we get is the accumulated bitterness and bile of 13 long years in opposition and the people he blames for keeping him there.
John Winston Howard grew up in the inner west of Sydney. His father owned a service station on the corner of the street where I now live. These were the halcyon days of little Winston’s life—when the working classes knew their place and when all migrants were British. Lucky John Winston Howard moved further north, across the harbour; he certainly would not be comfortable living in the inner west of Sydney any more. A bit too much change for his lifetime.
John Howard has always been proud to call himself a conservative. The problem I think is that he has confused this with preservative. He probably wishes good old Ming had dosed the country with formaldehyde when he had the chance. Because it all started going wrong in the late 1960s. Here is a man who lived at home until he was 32. You can imagine what he was like. Here were young Australians demonstrating against the Vietnam War, listening to the Doors, driving their tie-died kombi vans, and what was John Howard doing? He was at home with mum, wearing his shorts and long white socks, listening to Pat Boone albums and waiting for the Saturday night church dance.
Yes, it all started to go wrong back in the 1960s. Radical and sinister notions of equality for women, world peace and, dare I say it, citizenship rights for indigenous Australians. So what do we hear when we listen to John Winston Howard today? We hear the hatred and resentment in his voice—the sort of hatred and resentment we saw at the reconciliation conference last year—hatred and resentment from a man who was never part of the scene, who was not accepted, for whom a different life was too big a leap and who took refuge in a previous generation. You can see it in his instinctive hatred of any progression, and he sees it everywhere—policies of social inclusion, multiculturalism, women’s liberation, Aboriginal reconciliation. In all of them, he only ever sees the jump he was too weak to make decades ago. Now he wants the whole nation to stay back and keep him company.
Try an interesting little exercise some day. Punch `Howard’ and `multiculturalism’ into the Hansard database. You will find he has never mentioned the word. When you punch in `Howard’ and `multicultural’ you do get it nine times but each and every time he is referring to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. This is the man we have leading the country—a man who is so instinctively petty and so bitterly obsessed that he could craft an entire parliamentary career without mentioning the word `multicultural ism’ and what that represents, because it is an idea he is opposed to. He is positively Orwellian in his pettiness. This is a smallness of mind, a meanness with breathtaking scope. I can just imagine his enormous pride at this aspect.
It is a small thing, really, but remember when the Spice Girls came to Australia at the beginning of the year? Everyone said it was just the silly season that the Prime Minister’s refusal to meet with them got so much press. Well, it was and it was not. What did he say? He said it would not be `appropriate’ to meet with them. That is vintage John Winston Howard. If he really did not want to meet them, he could have just said he was on holiday at Hawks Nest—same place, same flat every year for decades—with the family, and that would have been fair enough. People would have respected that. But he could not resist. He could not resist telling the youth of Australia that he thought they were infantile and stupid and therefore it would be inappropriate to meet these people who, after all, are Tory supporters from Britain.
We have a man leading this country who is prepared always to go out of his way to insult people he does not like, but not with the courage to come out and say it but do it sneakily. Weakly and sneakily. Weaseling around the point. Remember when he decided to give Jeff Kennett a blast? He does not do what anyone else would do—go into parliament or go outside and do a doorstop. He tells the coalition party room and then organises for one of his mates to leak it. No wonder Jeff thought it was so funny.
This is the man we have leading this country—yesterday’s man, a weak man, a little man, a man without courage and a man without vision. This is Billy McMahon in short pants. This is the man who has brought the full force of his personality to bear on Australia. Australia is now learning what it is like to live life through John Howard’s eyes. This is the man whose only aim in the end—for getting the prime ministership—was to pay back all those who had tried to stop him along the way. Australia is a better country than that and Australians are better people than that. Australians are, if we are anything, courageous people.
So steeped in conservative values and fear of what is new is John Winston Howard that, if he were born before the Wright brothers, he would have organised a campaign against air travel of any description on the grounds that it was new and potentially dangerous. He is an antique, a remnant of the past that should be put on display, but not in government and certainly not in a leadership position, for anachronisms belong in museums and historical texts, not in parliament. Australians deserve a courageous leader; they do not deserve the kind of leader that used to dob on them in the schoolyard. They do not deserve John Winston Howard and in time they will put him out to pasture. Roll on that day, come the federal election.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.