Howard’s Ten Years in Power

On March 2, John Howard celebrated ten years in power that have seen the country profoundly transformed in its social and economic landscape. While the prime minister rejoiced, his supporters in advance were busy repeating the standard mantra of good economic management. Gerard Henderson – executive director for the Sydney Institute – on ABC’s Lateline (24/02/06) argued that unemployment has gone “down from 10 per cent to 5 per”, that the “economy has been very strong” while reassuring us that Australia is not “dramatically different” from the last decade.

Not one to be uncritical of the government, Henderson earlier in a vague manner in the Sydney Morning Herald (21/03/06) noted how the coalition was “messy” in its first few years, while on Lateline he lamented that Howard has not “reformed” the ABC and SBS – i.e. made them completely subservient to the government’s views. Barry Cohen – environment minister under Bob Hawke – writing in the Australian Financial Review on February 25 also joined the choirs because the “economy has been through one of the most successful periods in Australian history”. With “inflation and unemployment low and profits and property values skyrocketing” according to Cohen, “most Australians have been feeling much better off.”

On the day of celebrations, the editorial at The Australian (02/03/06) decided to show restraint in its joy and presented some mild critiques of Howard. Paradoxically the paper helped launch the book The Howard Factor: A Decade that Changed the Nation (2006) which has presented few, if any, in-depth critiques of the government. At the liberal end of the political spectrum, the Herald’s editorial was also paying homage. “Mr Howard” has “shown the strength and decisiveness necessary in a leader” while his government’s “greatest achievement is domestic: the maintenance of the economy on a path of steady growth.” (SMH, 02/03/06).

In the mortgage belt suburb of Leumeah in Western Sydney, things look slightly different from the standard jingle on prosperity. Frank – a factory worker at a cable plant in Liverpool – agrees that many changes have taken place in the past decade. “On my way to work at five in the morning, more and more people are going through a Salvation Army clothing bin.” About a dozen people at a time, “sometimes they bring their children to try on the shoes that they rip from the bags next to the bin.” At work, Frank comments his friends are scared of an interest rate hike, are deeply indebted and are fighting over shifts given increasing retrenchments.

Certain things in Leumeah do nevertheless correlate with wider economic trends. While the suburb’s depressing geography has not changed much in the past decade, near the train station a new apartment block is under construction reflecting the recent housing boom. Frank’s two-bedroom house is now worth more than what it was ten years ago with his co-workers having similar experiences. “Oh, most of my mates at work used to vote Labor in the 1980s although now that interest rates are down, they vote for the coalition”.

What Frank’s mates do not know is that interest rates are set by the Reserve Bank of Australian as Steven Keen – economist from the University of Western Sydney – notes. Keen, who perhaps might be classified as one of many of Howard’s respected academic opponents who Henderson on Lateline described as “psychotic” and “crazy”, comments that part of the government’s “success has come from encouraging Australians to over borrow” through measures like “halving capital gains tax” and “doubling the First Home Buyers Grant”. As a result, borrowing increased as did spending driving the “economy into an extended boom.” Interestingly, borrowing as Keen observes has done “little to increase productive capacity, and a great deal to increase land prices. Now that it’s no longer looking like a good investment for the individuals who undertook it (and it never was for the economy as a whole), the boast from domestic demand has evaporated–hence the sudden sharp downturn in NSW.” Then there is the China factor with the Australian economy (or certain sectors of it), benefiting from the boom in commodity prices although as Keen highlights, once the Chinese boom declines Australia will go into steep deficit.

Another myth of the government is its unemployment figures. John Quiggin – economist at the University of Queensland – has agued that while the official rate is above 5 per cent, “when various forms of hidden unemployment are taken into account, the true rate exceeds 10 per cent” (AFR, 16/02/06). When specifically asked if the Howard government has fudged the criteria to measure unemployment, Keen’s response was that “all nations have, since the early 1970s when the wheels started to come off the global economy.” If the government genuinely considered “the number of people who are not earning sufficient through work to stay alive”, according to Keen “we’d come up with an unemployment rate that is close to twice the published rate.” Historian Humphrey McQueen in Social Sketches of Australia 1888-2001 (2004) notes that since the 1990s governments have in fact “redefined” employed as “having one hour of paid work during a week.” If doubts exist as to why the above analyses are not widely known, Quiggin provides a reasonable answer. “Unemployment hasn’t been front-page news for some years” (AFR, 16/02/06) and one might add, neither is it the topic of the day on the millionaire shock-jocks radio programs – John Howard’s favourite interviewers.

Most of the corporate media has been fundamental to Howard’s rapport with voters. Note how widely discussed it is that Australia has over a million people living in poverty, or that from 1996 to 2002 the average wage for the top 50 chief executives increased from $1.2 million to $3.5 million (Adele Horin, “Some more equal than others”, SMH, 25-26/02/06). When was it last front-page news that the government has continuously used vast amounts of public money to promote its industrial relations legislation or push its agenda to sell public infrastructure at bargain prices? Senior Lecturer in Politics at Monash University, Dennis Woodward in Australia Unsettled: The Legacy of ‘Neo-liberalism’ (2005) argues that the notion that Howard is a good economic manager is largely a myth as his term in power has seen rising household and foreign debt along with higher taxes. His work, for obvious reasons, has not received the wide attention it deserves.

A similar situation has occurred with former Howard government adviser Greg Barns book Selling the Australian Government: Politics and Propaganda from Whitlam to Howard (2005). In it Barns documents how the coalition has spent tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer’s money promoting particular agendas before each election while the media, instead of challenging these practices, constantly monitors the public’s views through opinion polls. While we must not overlook the fact that Australia still has a strong social safety net and an accessible education and health system, the incumbent government in the past decade, as with Hawke and Keating before it, has done much to undermine the country’s social pillars replacing it with an agenda that greatly favours organisations like the Business Council of Australia – the real elites, if anyone bothered to notice. Discussing these issues with Frank, he also highlighted an important change in the past ten years in Leumeah which reflects a wider social trend: the increased xenophobia of Anglo-Celtic Australians who have embraced John Howard’s jingoism. “Oh yes, the number of people who drive around with an Australian flag or a sticker on their car that reads, “IF YOU DON’T LOVE IT, LEAVE!” is amazing.” They often “insult you if they think you are Arabic which has happen to me on numerous occasions. Only a few days ago I was insulted even though I was wearing a T-shirt with the word Mexico.”

As we walked to Frank’s house, I saw a clear reminder of the government and the media’s ten-year achievement: a young Caucasian male driving a Toyota pick up with an Australian flag draped on his side-rear window. He looked at us with disgust. He pays more taxes that ever before, has less access to a full-payed job and good working conditions, is deeply indebted and has his country involved in a nefarious foreign war believing perhaps that the West has to “defend its values…vigorously” or “surrender to the rampaging hordes” (letter to The Daily Telegraph 13/02/06). He also most likely votes Liberal and is regard as prosperous.

*Rodrigo C. Acuña is a combined-honours graduate in Politics and International Relations and Spanish and Latin American Studies from the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He is currently undertaking post-graduate studies in education.

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