Now’s your chance, Mr. Howard: Go, Johnny, go!
Australian politics is entering unfamiliar territory in that, for the first time in a quarter of a century, the government of the day now controls both Houses of Parliament. Having spent the duration of the Howard Government arguing against their agenda, I guess their Senate majority is a cue for me to redouble my efforts and do what I can to critique and resist what already seems to be a bad bunch of policy options.
But I realise that this moment actually offers me a chance to give John Howard a piece of gratuitous, though sincere, advice. Believe me, my inclination is not to do him any favours, but maybe I’m just homesick enough – I’m about to head back to Oz after three years in the United States – to see what maybe we should all see more clearly, namely, that sometimes politics offers us opportunities.
People argue that history is bearing down on Mr. Howard and that he shouldn’t waste the opportunity of his Senate majority in the way he himself believes Malcolm Fraser did after 1975. I’d like to suggest
another historical possibility.
The fact is, like no prime minister in recent history, Mr. Howard is on the verge of greatness.
Indeed, he is in the rare position of being able to implement change that would not only honour the liberalism that underpins his party philosophy but that would end some of the most divisive and intractable debates since the Dismissal. Plus, it would undermine his opponents such that there would be virtually no challenge his government couldn’t undertake.
In short, the prime minister would so reek with political credibility that all would wilt before him.
The first step would be to offer an apology to Aboriginal people for past injustices. Think about it. He would in one stroke provide the basis for the sort of symbolic recognition that he himself admits is needed, without for one second undermining his insistence on ‘practical reconciliation’. His opponents would be blind-sided and could offer nothing but praise.
Second, he could embrace the Georgiou reforms on immigration and asylum seekers and end the utterly illiberal policy of indefinite detention, freeing children and their families, without at all undermining his government’s basically sound stance on border protection. Once again, his opponents would be floored.
Finally – and admittedly, most difficultly – he could ignore the special interest calls for a ‘more flexible’ workforce and publicly recognize that a worker is not just another factor of production, but that work itself is the basis from which people find a sense of personal identity and through which our society builds a stable and prosperous nation. He could level the playing field without at all damaging the economy.
Having thus transformed the political landscape, he could even do what so few political leaders get to do: retire gracefully at the top of his game.
It should be obvious that any one of these options would be personally difficult for the prime minister – though far from politically impossible – and that any attempt to do all of them would require an almost transcendent sense of duty and will power.
But that’s what greatness demands. A willingness to defy expectations. If he chose to grasp the moment, Mr Howard could seal his place in history as the most audacious leader of the modern period. Probably of any period. Johnny B. Great.
Tim Dunlop is a homeward-bound writer and author of Australia’s most widely-read left-leaning blog, www.roadtosurfdom.com