Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

A decade some of us would rather forget

Wasnt there a lot of good news at the weekend?

In New York, research in the emerging science of biophotonics has led to a breakthrough in the development of designer cells which will attack and eliminate individual cancers. In Bhutan, new plans are well advanced to save the endangered snow leopard from poachers and herders. Chinese archaeologists have unearthed the fossil remains of a Jurassic beaver.

A tropical cyclone threatening Aboriginal settlements on Cape York has petered out. The property boom looks set to resume with house prices on the increase in most capitals. And in sport, an Australian skier has recorded a creditable personal best 23rd placing in her event in the Winter Olympics....

By now, regular readers may have noticed a slight difference in the style of this weeks column, almost as though its writer is seeking to avoid a topic too painful to mention.

Well, yes. At any time the prospect of discussing the gush of bumsucking surrounding a decade of John Winston Howards ascendancy would be like swallowing a coil of barbed wire and then excreting it again, but in a week when the slobber from the idolisation of Kerry Packer is still wet on the pages, it becomes almost too much for the most hardened journalist to bear. However, no-one ever said that political commentary was meant to be easy, so back to the chain gang.

This is not the time nor the place to go back over Howards individual mendacities, hypocrisies, atrocities and brutalities; most of them have been catalogued at wearisome length on previous occasions, and in any case Ive only got about 700 words left.

But it is as good a time and place as any to revisit the so far unanswered question: how does he get away with it? How can it be that the laconic and sceptical Australian electorate keeps re-electing a Prime Minister whom the majority cheerfully acknowledge is a mean and tricky little liar who will say and do anything at all to retain office?

Is the ALP really so debilitated, so worm-eaten by the factions, so bland and unappealing that there is simply no longer an alternative? Or has the country become so contemptuous of its own worth that it is prepared to embrace what it knows to be evil as long as it can see a quick buck in return to do what old-fashioned Christians would describe as selling its collective soul?

There are at least some worrying signs that the latter may be close to the truth. A poll published last week revealed that a majority believe that Australia has indeed become a meaner place under Howard, and in spite of what some of the Howard huggers have said since, they are not talking about being close to the centre, or a tougher negotiator. They are talking about mean: miserly, disreputable, servile, unkind, unjust, ruthless, contemptible, rascally, selfish and heinous, as my thesaurus puts it among other pejoratives.

And they dont even think the governments very good at very much: the assessments on health, education, welfare, the environment and even industrial relations were all failures. But when it comes to money to the buckaroonies, the loot, the payola, the cold hard cash, even if it has been begged, borrowed or stolen why then, lets hear it for little Johnny.

Nothing else really matters. One hears echoes of the 1930s, of Italians excusing the enormities of Il Duke: yes, we know, but he made the trains run on time. And in fact we have even less excuse than they did.

In Mussolinis Italy the trains really did run on time for a while, at least. But Howards economic miracle, like most miracles, actually relies on trickery.

It is true that inflation is now under control and as a result interest rates are fairly stable: this is largely a legacy of the shock imparted by Paul Keatings notorious recession we had to have.

It is also true that the government is now largely debt-free. But this does not apply to the rest of us. Over the 10 years of Howard, Australias overall reliance on overseas investment to keep the economy going has exploded. We now borrow more than $600 million every week nearly $200 million every working day of the year to power Howards miracle.

This is nearly two and a half times as much as in the Keating years, the years when he issued his notorious banana republic warning. In technical terms Australias current account deficit is now nudging six per cent of gross national product and rising. The consensus among economists is that breaking point will be reached at six and a half per cent at that stage the debts will be called in and the bubble will well and truly burst.

In the meantime Howard continues enormous welfare payments to groups who do not need or deserve them, but whose votes he needs (if not deserves), and boasts of reducing unemployment to five per cent. Alas, this is another trick: he has simply redefined full employment as working two days a fortnight. Under the old definition unemployment would be running at over 10 per cent.

But who cares? In a meaner Australia, its every sucker for himself. And if all else fails, theres always the war on terror, otherwise known as xenophobia and racism.

When Peter Costello yet again singled out Moslems for a lecture on how to fit in to Howards Australia or else piss off, Howard noted that he was fundamentally correct an interesting adjective. Is the introduction of fundamentalism his next exciting project? We already have economic fundamentalism; is it to be joined by the religious kind?

I dont really want to know, so back to the good news. On Sunday the New South Wales Blues beat the South Australian Redbacks in a nail-biting final of the one day cricket...

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