Jun 21, 1999

Grievance Debate – Prime Minister of Australia

GRIEVANCE DEBATE – Prime Minister of Australia

21 June 1999

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (4.32 p.m.)—My grievance today is not so much that the Prime Minister is stuck in the past; my grievance is that he wants the whole nation to stay back and keep him company. This is the man who, having been rejected by his own generation, has taken refuge in a previous generation. For John Howard, the prime ministership is not about the nation’s future but about his own past. In getting the prime ministership, his only aim was to pay back all those who had tried to stop him along the way. This is a man whose well-developed reflex is to punish like they did in the good old days. All the so-called reforms in the areas of tax, industrial relations and social security are only punitive efforts at revenge—half-hearted attempts to turn Australia into The Land That Time Forgot .

John Howard has steadfastly resisted any opportunities to allow the country to move forward. The glaring example of this is the way he has sabotaged the process of reconciliation with indigenous Australians. As Prime Minister, the one vital role he could play was to apologise on behalf of the Australian people for all the hurt and destruction caused by past government policies, including to the stolen generation. Only the Prime Minister can make this symbolically important gesture. Not this Prime Minister, though—no Redfern Park speech from him because he is just not up to it.

The politics of social inclusion and progression are anathema to him. We see it in his opposition to the republic—a historic inevitability. The fear of change is quite remarkable. It was also embodied in the Prime Minister’s proposed preamble. It got a laugh, but it was one of embarrassment—the straight refusal to acknowledge indigenous custodianship of our land, the talk of mateship, the talk of being free to be proud of our country. The Prime Minister did acknowledge that there were people here prior to 1788. Big deal! He does not go further than that because he is not capable of making that step forward.

He wants us to take a giant leap backwards by entrenching his own distorted view of the past in the Constitution—once more, a list of his petty grievances, a failure to lead. It is worthy of a South Park script with John Howard as Mr Garrison always getting his facts wrong and Tim Fischer as Mr Hat chiming in with, `You can say that again, Mr Garrison.’ John Howard is the living embodiment of zero tolerance, zero tolerance for social and cultural progress. He is anti-reconciliation, anti-republic, anti-multiculturalism, anti-union, anti-worker, anti-public education, anti-public health—the list goes on and on.

John Howard is a mean spirited man leading a mean spirited government. He has raised mean spiritedness to an art form. Even the surviving matriarch of the Menzies era has little time for John Howard’s anachronistic vision for Australia. Anachronisms belong in museums and historical texts, certainly not in parliament or in leadership positions. Dame Rachel Cleland, aged 93, is the widow of Sir Donald Cleland who, with Sir Robert Menzies, was one of the co-founders of the Liberal Party. She is the woman Richard Court’s deputy leader has described as `a conscience of the party and, when she speaks out, she can do so with an authority that virtually no-one else in Australia has’. When interviewed for a recent Australian Story, Dame Rachel Cleland said of John Howard:

. . . I think he is governing an Australia that no longer exists. He’s governing in his mind an Australia that existed 30 years ago.

He lives by the maxim: out with the new and in with the old. Just look at the major changes he has made to the prime ministerial suite since taking office. He got rid of the tastefully understated modern lounge suite that was expected to last for 200 years and replaced it with a good old fashioned $10,000 green leather chesterfield lounge. To paraphrase Ross Peake, he has turned his office into something resembling an old-style gentleman’s club but with less style.

It is just the sort of furniture that Menzies would have approved of, so why not go the whole hog and match it with Menzies’ desk as well? It has actually happened. He has taken it out of its museum setting in Old Parliament House and put it into the museum setting of this backward Prime Minister’s office. It has not stopped there. Kirribilli House now has an $82,000 dining suite circa 1835, complete with black horse hair fabric covers.

We must not forget the Prime Minister’s plan to bring the Speaker’s chair up from Old Parliament House. The feasibility study alone cost $12,000 to tell the Prime Minister that it was a really stupid idea. Eighteen million Australians could have told him that for free had he been in touch with the feelings of the Australian people in 1999 rather than 1950. No wonder the Secretary to the Joint House Department, Mike Bolton, has said that the original furniture in the Prime Minister’s office would return the day John Howard left office. `A midnight arrangement—I hope it will happen,’ he has said on the record. This is indeed a tragicomic government.

Under John Howard’s leadership, the government hangs delicately in the twilight zone between black comedy and farce. The afternoon tea with Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, the refusal to live in the Lodge—all scenes worthy of a Monty Python sketch. We have here a man who prides himself on being the drip tray for all the passive-aggressive tendencies that can accumulate in a society at any one point in time.

While Labor is the voice of the dispossessed, John Howard is the voice of the impotent. In generations to come, cultural historians will recall with an ironic smile that the Howard era was the period in Australian history which will be known as `The Great Stagnation’. In keeping with this inability to move forward, the name John Howard has become synonymous with the political backflip, with reneging on promises. Think of the promises made during the 1996 federal election campaign, promises that were set in concrete. The concrete obviously had too much sand or too much water in the mix, because it did not hold for too long. Once the coalition came to office, those promises became non-core promises, ones that could be broken.

Speaking of concrete makes me think of the ministerial code of conduct, another fine example of the John Howard political backflip. Hailed with such fanfare when the coalition took office, the code of conduct promised a new era in disclosure and accountability and an unprecedented standard of ministerial conduct. Unprecedented is right—seven ministers resigned in 18 months. What is the Prime Minister’s response to this disgraceful showing? Did he make the code tighter? Did he insist that the remaining members of his ministry should meet the standards in the code of conduct? No. John Howard’s ministry seemed to have difficulty clearing the bar, so he lowered it. The code of conduct turned into a set of guidelines.

The latest outrage surrounding the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources has shown that even these guidelines are not worth the paper they are written on. The member for Leichhardt is clearly in breach of the guidelines, but the Prime Minister, stuck as he is in reverse gear, is incapable of keeping his commitment to the Australian people when it comes to keeping his own ministry in line. In fact, given the number of times the Prime Minister practises the political backflip, you would think he was in training for the Sydney Olympics. I can just see it as an exhibition event in the year 2000. So John Howard should take heart: he will never play cricket for Australia, but he would break world records representing Australia in the backflip.

In fact, John Howard deserves recognition for his unswerving commitment. We should immortalise this achievement with a new entry in the dictionary. After all, `Thatcher’ has made it into the vernacular and inspired her own `ism’. What an honour for John Howard to follow in the footsteps of his muse. So it would go something like this:

Howard: noun, a political backflip; the act of breaking a commitment.

Howard: verb, to break a commitment; to renege on a promise; to regress.

Howardly: to behave in a Howard-like manner.

Howardice: lack of commitment; inability to keep a promise.

The only occasion the Prime Minister has flaunted tradition is his decision to open the Olympics, which would normally be the reserve of our head of state, the Queen. For a man who joined the criticism when Paul Keating dared to place his hand on the Queen’s back, it has been a rush worthy of Mark Yeats on Dermott Brereton in the opening seconds of the 1989 grand final in the way the current Prime Minister has pushed the Queen off that podium. The monarchists should perhaps consider suspending their leader but, then again, it is hard to suspend someone who is suspended in a time warp of the 1950s.

In last Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald, Kookaburra gave us another fine example of Howardice by the Prime Minister. When Australia made it into the World Cup final, Kookaburra reported Howard as saying:

"I don’t think everybody will be at work first thing on Monday morning and I think everyone will understand that," said the sportive Prime Miniature . . .

And later:

A follow-up question, "Are you asking employers to be lenient?" made Howard get all tetchy. "No, look, I don’t get into that trivia," he said.

This is a man who aspires to be yesterday’s hero, but what else could we expect from a man who has never escaped from what Barry Humphries refers to as the `Age of Laminex’?