The world turned upside down, down under

by John Quiggin on November 30, 2007

Political events in Australia have been moving so fast, no one has really caught up. A week ago, Labor looked very likely to win the election (held last Saturday) and there seemed a good chance that Liberal (= pro-business right) Prime Minister John Howard would lose his own seat. Those things duly happened, and that seemed to be about as much as we could expect or hope for. Instead, there has been a meltdown of spectacular proportions on the losing side.

First, Howard’s deputy and longstanding rival Peter Costello announced, contrary to most expectations, that he would not serve as leader of the opposition and was looking to get out of politics and into business where he could make some real money. Then Mark Vaile the leader of the Liberals’ coalition partner the National (= rural sector) Party decided he should spend more time with his family.

And there was more to come. Foreign Minister and Mark Steyn fan, Alexander Downer decided he would also head for the backbench (it seems likely that he and Vaile will face a lot of trouble for a deal in which a government-established monopoly paid Saddam Hussein kickbacks, out of Iraqi Oil-for-Food money, to buy Australian wheat, right up to the day Australian forces took part in the 2003 invasion).

The last prominent conservative left standing at this point, Health Minister, Tony Abbott, announced he would run for the party leadership but withdrew when it became apparent he didn’t have the numbers. That left the Liberals with a choice between two ambitious, but largely ideology-free, political adventurers, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull.

Turnbull, much the more able of the two, offered a complete repudiation of the culture-war policies of the Howard era, proposing ratification of the Kyoto protocol, an apology to indigenous Australians, support for repeal of the anti-union Workchoices package. He has also been a leading advocate of an Australian republic. Nelson, who ended up winning by three votes, has announced support for Kyoto, and partial support for Workchoices repeal, while opposing an apology. Even this much would have seemed unthinkable a week ago

After a thoroughly uninspiring election campaign, characterised by lots of me-too promises and fence-sitting, we have ended up with a political scene that is utterly transformed, with the previously dominant hardline right not merely out of government but a marginalised minority within the opposition. It remains to be seen whether Labor can make anything of this. No one is expecting much in the short term, but suddenly there seems to be room to move, and the prospect of several terms in office in which to do it.

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1

SG 11.30.07 at 12:54 pm

John, isn’t it more likely the right have marginalised themselves deliberately, so that Nelson can lose the next election and then they can take over and return with a vengeance? In today’s herald it was pretty clear that all the right – Nick Minchin, Tony ABbott, and all their subhuman kin – had voted for Nelson. Who, incidentally, refuses to accept the apology to Aborigines.

It’s all a long-term scheme to return the conservative portion to power.

I was hoping Turnbull would get the leadership, because whoever has it is pretty much guaranteed to lose the next election and thus be shuttled away from the leadership. Since Turnbull in the future could actually reform the party to actually win power, it seems better to me that he be in charge now, so that he can be pushed out when he actually has a chance to make a difference. As it is he can wait for Nelson to lose the next election, move in and rebuild the Liberal party.

And we definitely don’t want that to happen!

2

dsquared 11.30.07 at 12:56 pm

was looking to get out of politics and into business where he could make some real money

it is probably a good thing about Australian politics and a bad thing about British that I find this hilarious.

3

Mrs Tilton 11.30.07 at 3:25 pm

After a thoroughly uninspiring election campaign, characterised by lots of me-too promises and fence-sitting, we have ended up with a political scene that is utterly transformed, with the previously dominant hardline right not merely out of government but a marginalised minority within the opposition.

Let us hope that Australia will set the paradigm for any number of other large countries with an ocean at either end…

4

rea 11.30.07 at 5:47 pm

Nelson. Who, incidentally, refuses to accept the apology to Aborigines.

Pardon my ignorance, but is Nelson an Aborigine? How does he get to decide whether the apology ought to be accepted?

5

Rory 11.30.07 at 6:03 pm

John means “refuses to accept the [offering of an] apology to Aborigines”.

6

Grand Moff Texan 11.30.07 at 6:50 pm

This exodus from politics seems to be one of the symptoms of the terminal stage of “Anglo Disease.” Recruiting efforts for the property party in the US have met similar catastrophe. Just look at the GOP primaries.
.

7

Grand Moff Texan 11.30.07 at 6:51 pm

Who is apologizing to the aborigines, and why?

Pardon my not googling, but I’m assuming that the people on this site would have far more interesting takes on the matter.
.

8

mds 11.30.07 at 8:02 pm

we have ended up with a political scene that is utterly transformed, with the previously dominant hardline right not merely out of government but a marginalised minority within the opposition. It remains to be seen whether Labor can make anything of this.

Hey, in retrospect, it seems like it was the perfect time for Labor to move right under a more centrist “business-friendly” technocrat, doesn’t it?

This does indeed hold discouraging lessons for certain “other large countries with an ocean at either end” where the nominal party of the Left recaptured power despite casting themselves as little different from the party of the Right, and where its leaders intone that the real lesson of the growing marginalization of the hardline right’s ideas is that the party of the Left must adopt even more of them.

9

a very public sociologist 11.30.07 at 10:30 pm

Leftists in Oz need to keep a watchful eye. After all, didn’t Murdoch back Rudd? Says all we need to know.

10

SG 12.01.07 at 3:33 am

grand moff, no-one is yet apologising to Aborigines, but the incoming government plans to give some form of apology. The specific reason for the apology is the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents for eugenic reasons (“to breed out the colour” is the phrase used) between the 1900s and 1970s; but the broader reason of course is 200 years of attempted genocide. The apology has long been mooted as the first, big step in finally putting all that trouble to rest.

Brendan Nelson, the opposition leader, doesn’t believe that Australians owe any responsibility for this genocide, even though most of us live on stolen land. He also (ridiculously) claims that modern Australians don’t “own” historical events we are proud of, citing Gallipoli (hardly a reason to be proud). This is silly – we have a national holiday in connection with Gallipoli. But you can see where the debate is leading… The issue will be that when the new government opens parliament they may want to make the apology; obviously an apology with bipartisan support is better; but the opposition may choose to object. A great way to open the long winter of their discontent…

11

snuh 12.01.07 at 5:04 am

Leftists in Oz need to keep a watchful eye. After all, didn’t Murdoch back Rudd?

sort of. the sydney murdoch tabloid was pretty balanced in its coverage of the campaign, and editorialised for rudd. ditto the brisbane tabloid, although mostly because that’s where rudd is from.

the melbourne tabloid was generally pro-howard, as was its election eve editorial.

it seemed to me the election result was mostly a foregone conclusion, anyway. i think rudd doesn’t owe murdoch for his win in the way blair did in 1997.

12

John Quiggin 12.01.07 at 8:15 am

The Murdoch press, most notably the Australian (widely known here as the Government Gazette) backed Howard until the last few days, then switched to Labor. As someone observed, it was the GG on Friday, and it will still be the GG come Monday.

13

Jacob Christensen 12.01.07 at 3:26 pm

@13: Same thing as in the UK, isn’t it? Murdoch supported the Conservatives until a Labour government appeared to be 120% certain. (There’s still the EMU issue, of cause, but as far as I know large parts of the Labour Party are anti-EMU)

We might want to consider what a President Obama with a Democratic congress would do to FOX News in the US.

14

Carol 12.01.07 at 8:33 pm

As for Left versus Right in this election, the role of the Greens shouldn’t be overlooked. In many of the marginal seats that Labor won from the Coalition (Liberal and National parties) it was due to getting the preference votes from the Greens. Prior to the election, Labor and Greens did a preference deal to improve the odds that that would occur. There were even TV ads that featured the leaders of the Greens and the Australian Democrats plus a Labor Senator encouraging people to vote for any one of them over the Coalition candidate in the Senate. The Greens significantly increased their share of the vote this election though the Democrats lost all their seats and are pretty much a ‘dead’ party. Consequently the Greens leader Bob Brown has already made it clear that Labor will need to deal with his party on key environment and social issues.

15

Lucy 12.02.07 at 12:08 am

The hard right aren’t “marginalising themselves deliberately” – the Howard/Tony Abbott right quite simply don’t have the numbers within the current Liberal party. Howard courted all kinds of ideological uglies during his prime ministership, but now they’ve lost their champion, their electoral mandate, and much of their influence. If they did take over after Nelson’s inevitable downfall they would render the Liberal Party unelectable, like the New South Wales Liberal Party at the last state election.

I think a lot of Libs are biding their time and letting Nelson do the dirty work post-election, in the expectation that Turnbull, who’s brilliant and prime ministerly, will take over when the dust settles.

16

Jonathan Edelstein 12.02.07 at 1:49 am

The apology has long been mooted as the first, big step in finally putting all that trouble to rest.

Wouldn’t some kind of across-the-board Mabo-and-Wik-based negotiations on land and development rights (rather than piecemeal litigation or one-at-a-time arrangements in the NT) be a more material step?

17

SG 12.02.07 at 3:29 am

lucy: they deliberately destroyed their electoral chances in NSW rather than let a moderate win that election. Why not do the same federally?

jonathan: I agree, it would be a more material step. But part of John Howard’s model for preventing those material steps has been denying the historical reasons for their necessity. Negotiations over Mabo are hard, and involve transfers of land and money. Realistically, people resist them if no reason is proferred. The apology is easy to do, requires no transfer of anything, and sets a solid and clear basis for the practical negotations to follow. John Howard focussed on his laughable idea of “practical reconciliation” which of course achieved nothing, because he simultaneously denied a need for justice, and trumpeted historians like Windshuttle who deny anything bad ever happened in Australia.

Symbolism is important, and easily done before the big important things. (And remember, Labor was negotiating on Mabo and wik-based matters when they were voted out in 1996: they can resuem it now, with an apology to give it some gravitas).

18

John Quiggin 12.02.07 at 3:33 am

I think it’s a problem to overstate the material significance of Mabo and Wik. The land that can be claimed under Mabo is mostly marginal (since rights over land seen as valuable were extinguished long ago). Wik extends Mabo by providing access rights that are important symbolically and in giving indigenous people a say in management, but don’t create much in the way of economic opportunity.

I’ve posted a bit about policies for development on my blog in the past – my general conclusion is that sustained subsidy/protection arrangements are both necessary and justifiable.

19

Jonathan Edelstein 12.02.07 at 10:24 pm

But part of John Howard’s model for preventing those material steps has been denying the historical reasons for their necessity.

Fair point. I wonder, though, whether an apology might not have the opposite effect: i.e., that rather than regarding it as a historic foundation for reparations, the public might say “they’ve got their apology, now what else do they want?” I’m aware that apologies have facilitated a number of other post-conflict reconciliation processes, but in these cases, the apologists were generally participants in the conflict rather than descendants of participants. Where the connection between the apology and the conflict is more attenuated, it doesn’t always have the same facilitating effect: for instance, I don’t believe that the various apologies for US slavery have resulted in increased support for affirmative action or similar measures.

John, I agree that the economic effect of Mabo and Wik is limited, in the latter case because the package of rights granted by the Wik Court don’t correlate well with modern economic development. Hunting, fishing and camping rights don’t go very far in suburban Perth. Maybe if negotiations do get under way, the items on the table might include expanding the customary-rights package (at least for non-freehold-owned lands) or granting freehold rights to certain non-marginal public land.

(And while I may not understand John Howard’s logic, how is it possible to have “practical” reconciliation that doesn’t include anything material?)

20

SG 12.03.07 at 6:04 am

Jonathan, I think an apology is only ever marketed in Australia as the first step. It tends to be only a kind of wierdly internally-contradictory conservative interpretation of the idea which leads one to conclude that it is being promoted in isolation (I am not accusing you of this). The red-herring conservative argument is that an apology is “just” symbolic, so why do not do something practical? But the actual argument for an apology is that in settling the historical issue of whether someone was responsible, you are explicitly preparing the ground for some form of reparation.

You should also bear in mind that, as far as the “on-the-ground” effectiveness of the apology goes, we are very much still in the position that, as you say

the apologists were generally participants in the conflict rather than descendants of participants.

A little-noted fact about John Howard and his response to the stolen children is that he entered parliament in the same year that the last child was taken (1973). Older politicians who are still alive today (though retired) like Whitlam were making policy when this was happening. Figuring in the news today is Lowitja O’Donohue, who was a member of the Stolen Generation. I suspect that this is part of the reason the reconciliation movement has focussed on associating the apology with this issue, because the combatants (and they were combatants) are still alive.

Your last point, about practical reconciliation, was made at the time Howard coined the phrase. Aborigines in need of “practical” reconciliation aren’t middle-class home-owners, so they don’t qualify for government assistance. So exactly what “practical” aid they have received from this government over and above that of previous governments (who were also interested in the symbolic issues) is not clear.

21

Jonathan Edelstein 12.03.07 at 4:54 pm

I think an apology is only ever marketed in Australia as the first step.

All right, my ignorance then. For some reason, I’d been under the impression that the apology was being debated as an issue in its own right rather than as part of a package.

A little-noted fact about John Howard and his response to the stolen children is that he entered parliament in the same year that the last child was taken (1973).

It continued into the 1970s? Even after the aborigines were made citizens?

In that case, an apology would be much more in the nature of a reconciliation between participants.

the combatants (and they were combatants)

Agreed. My use of the word “conflict” in this context was deliberate. Stealing children, and resistance to same, are methods of waging cultural combat, and are no less so

Aborigines in need of “practical” reconciliation aren’t middle-class home-owners, so they don’t qualify for government assistance.

Speaking of which (more or less), what does the Rudd government plan to do in respect to urban aboriginal communities? The largest single concentration of indigenous Australians is in Sydney, and from what I gather, their problems are as much those of an urban underclass as those of a dispossessed indigenous people. The rural-urban divide has caused problems now and again in NZ, with urban Maori fighting the iwi-based trusts for a share of the Waitangi reparations. Does the incoming government (or, for that matter, the aboriginal leadership) have any plan for mediating these differences?

22

Jonathan Edelstein 12.03.07 at 4:54 pm

and are no less so

… because they aren’t fought with armies.

23

SG 12.03.07 at 11:53 pm

jonathan, I am no constitutional expert but I have heard that Aborigines have always been citizens of the crown – they were just never counted. The 1967 referendum simply extended the census to them, so enabling them to be counted and therefore included in policy. I wouldn’t even bet one groat on that interpretation though, coming as it does from me… Not that being a citizen is particularly protective of individuals in Australia, as David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib can surely confirm.

The Stolen Children policy was run for a variety of reasons which morphed from directly-stated genocide in the 20s to more “welfare” oriented programs later. It is these few years of “welfare” oriented programs which have given John Howard the chance to refuse to apologise for policies which were done “from the best of intentions” at the time. But he and his mates were around and influencing policy when it was happening (he was in the Young Liberals before he entered parliament) so there isn’t even an issue of generational guilt here – he could have tried to stop it but didn’t care, and for that he should be sorry. At least later generations (e.g. Paul Keating) have made an effort.

(Which is just reiterating a point).

As for urban Aborigines, that’s a thorny one. I don’t think they have the same resentments as Maori because the rural tribes aren’t doing particularly well land-rights wise, and in any case the urban population to which you refer is very transient and moves in and out of tribal areas a lot. I would suspect that a lot of the problems urban Aborigines have are spillovers from rural zones, and that repairing the problems in rural communities will both fix the immediate problems and discourage transience. I wouldn’t be surprised though if the government isn’t preparing a reparations package for stolen children. They criticised the last government repeatedly for forcing stolen children to fight for compensation (which they were likely to get, in spades) through the courts, so I would imagine reparations are on the cards. I haven’t read their policy though, it’d be too much like knowing the area…

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