The Morrison Government: A reflection of the Howard years

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John Howard. We now realise things could have been worse (Image via YouTube screenshot)

With the recent turn of Parliamentary events, Australia's darker aspects of political history seem a little brighter, writes Celeste Liddle.

I NEVER THOUGHT I would say this, but as an Aboriginal feminist with hard-left personal politics, last week I almost found myself viewing the Howard years in a favourable light.

Don't get me wrong, I still resolutely believe John Howard was the most despicable and miserly character to lead this country. I still blame him for the rise of Nationalist sentiments, predicated on his push to whitewash history. I still blame him for the demonisation of asylum seekers, thanks to his response to 9-11 and the Tampa Affair.

I definitely blame him for blocking same-sex marriages. I often reflect upon his stubborn refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations. I then get even angrier when I remember how he suddenly pretended to care about the welfare of Aboriginal children in the dying days of his Government, thus rolling out the Northern Territory Intervention in a bid to gain votes.

I. Still. Blame. Howard.

Yet if there are two things I do miss from the Howard years, it's the following. One, back then, we knew what a stable government looked like; and two, back then, the idea that changing the leadership of a government would change anything at all just did not exist.

Though prime ministers were often considered (and mocked) individually, people also seemed to have a greater understanding that they were a part of a broader system. That the way to overcome such leaders lay in getting their party removed from power, or – for those of a more radical bent – dismantling the system so it didn't continue to perpetuate such social ills.

Nowadays, there seems to be this strange view that pushing for change is as simple as removing the current prime minister. I don't understand how things became so individualistic. Did we lose hope that broader change was even possible?

Last week's leadership battle in the Liberal Party was an utter fiasco, orchestrated almost entirely by conservatives looking to increase their power and stroke their egos. Yet I can't honestly say that the prospect of Peter Dutton becoming leader had me quaking in my boots any more than the prospect of Malcolm Turnbull retaining his leadership.

Additionally, despite believing that, if the Liberal Party were looking for someone to win an election against a Shorten-led ALP, Bishop was the most suitable candidate; neither Bishop nor Scott Morrison felt like a “safer option” to me than the other two. Not only are all beholden to their party and the other personalities within it, but history has shown clearly that a change of leadership changes almost nothing.

We have gotten so used to a revolving door of political leaders over the past 11 years that the prospect of a leadership challenge each time things get a little hot has become normalised. In the same amount of time Howard held the top job, we've managed to go through six prime ministers. Granted, leadership battles weren't unheard of prior to Howard's time. Or even during, if you consider how many leaders the ALP went through during those years. In the late '80s and early '90s, the Hawke-Keating dynamic dominated much discussion. But six prime ministers in 11 years is something else entirely.

I will never forget the public being hopeful each time. They were hopeful Turnbull would take a more progressive approach to climate change and push through gay marriage. They thought Gillard might provide an environment more geared towards equality by virtue of her being the first female PM. They hoped Rudd (in his first iteration) would bring social justice and (in his second iteration) stability. I'm not sure if anyone had any hopes for Abbott other than an idea that he may achieve stability where the Labor Party had failed.

Despite all this hope, nothing changed. We saw the Northern Territory Intervention persist under Rudd, expand under Gillard, then continue under Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull. Dutton could hardly have been any worse than his potential prime ministerial predecessors when nearly all of them ran election campaigns around “stopping the boats” and partook in dog-whistling about non-existent “African gangs”. All of them managed to lock up innocent people in offshore gulags.

Continual race-baiting by these multiple prime ministers has fed into Howard's Nationalism rather than reversing it and creating a more racially harmonious society. So much so that we have seen the growth of neo-Nazi groups and the re-election of Pauline Hanson. Our “rights at work” continued to be eroded to the point where we are seeing record low wage growth and decreased employment stability.  

Sure, same-sex marriage finally became legal, but that was not due to the Liberal Party deciding to put Turnbull at the helm. It was due to years of social activism, as Turnbull, rather than stand up to the conservatives in his party, removed the responsibility from himself to the public via a plebiscite. And any thoughts people may have had that he would be a progressive on climate change also fell by the wayside when, as a last ditch attempt to retain his leadership, Turnbull removed climate change targets from the National Energy Guarantee.

At the end of the day, all these leadership changes have achieved is to serve as a distraction while the human rights abuses continue, the planet burns and the three-word slogans are recited. Change has only been achieved by people mobilising and shifting broader public opinion, thus forcing the government to act or the opposition to change its policy in order to look like a real alternative, regardless of who is heading them up.

If we continue to believe the answer resides in a group of self-interested politicians jostling to get the top job, then, unfortunately, we're going to continue to get the governments and leaders we deserve.

This article was originally published on Eureka Street and is republished with permission. Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman, the National Indigenous Organiser of the NTEU and a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. Read more from Celeste on her blog Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist or follow her on Twitter @Utopiana.

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