There is a consistency about Howard. The man who turned away a boatload of refugees who had been rescued at sea by the bulk carrier Tampa, in 2001, and who demonised them, assailed them in parliament, and had them herded off to detention camps at gunpoint, is the same man who, while serving as a cabinet minister in the Fraser Government, was the only one to vote against that Government’s decision to admit Vietnamese refugees known as the ‘boat people’ in 1976. In the wake of the attacks on the world trade centre in September 2001, Howard gleefully turned the Tampa incident into a divisive debate on racism, and even went so far as to nurture the outright lie, initially pedalled by his minister for defence at the time, Peter Reith, that refugees had threatened to, or had, thrown their children into the sea. Photographs of children in the ocean, taken during another incident when a refugee ship sank, were even proffered by the Howard Government as proof that these evil people had done just that, and far from attempting to establish the truth of this incident, disputed from the start, Howard solemnly declared that he ‘would not like people who would do that to their children coming into this country.’ Howard won the election, and his minister for immigration, Phillip Ruddock, who was given the responsibility of driving the anti-refugee agenda, was given a standing ovation as a tide of racism and fear swept Howard back into power.
During Howard’s next three years of power, he managed to support the invasion of Iraq by the United States, while simultaneously subjecting those fleeing from the evil Saddam to years of detention behind barbed wire. Men, women and children attempting to flee to Australia in leaky boats found themselves in desert gulags overseen by mercenary guards, or despatched to Neuru for years on end; – the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’, wherein vast regions of Australia were declared to be no longer a part of Australia, so that international obligations regarding refugees could be avoided. Dirt-poor Neuru was paid to house many of these poor wretches, thus stymying attempts by those imprisoned on Neuru to get efficient legal representation. Despite the bastardisation of these people, the great majority of them were eventually deemed to be genuine refugees.
Howard’s 2004 election was won with an almighty scare campaign about interest rates, combined with the eccentric performance of the then Labor leader, the sometimes brilliant, sometimes erratic, and occasionally intimidating Mark Latham. Latham gave Howard a scare for a while, but less of a scare than Howard gave the voters, who voted him in with an increased majority. Latham may not have helped his cause when he roughed Howard up with a televised vigorous handshake at an ABC studio, which in retrospect, was a lost opportunity to apply a well executed head-butt.
Incredibly, and partly because of an all-too-clever allocation of Labor Party preferences in the Senate which enabled the conservative Family First Party to gain a seat, Howard found himself in control of both houses of parliament, and immediately set about fulfilling his life long wishes. He was able to privatise Telstra, something the vast majority of voters were always opposed to, but high on Howard’s wish-list. He outlawed compulsory student union fees for universities, depriving the campuses of millions of dollars which went towards providing services for students, and weakening the influence of these dangerous radicals. Finally, he dispensed with an arbitration system which had served the country well for over a hundred years, abolished laws which protected workers against unfair dismissal, and passed the so-called Work Choices legislation, designed principally to side-line unions, and to force workers into individual contracts. During this term of Howard’s Government, it emerged that the Australian Wheat Board, responsible for the marketing of Australian overseas wheat sales, had paid Saddam Hussein’s regime bribes to the order of three hundred million dollars, at the very time which Howard was supporting the invasion of Iraq. Incredibly, no-one in the Howard Government, despite numerous tip-offs, seemed to know anything about it, and unsurprisingly, an enquiry with limited terms of reference, and muzzled public servants, deemed that the government was squeaky clean in the affair.
The Howard Government has enjoyed good economic times during its reign. It is a combination of good management, of reforms initiated by the Hawke/Keating Labor government before it, (such as bank deregulation and the floating of the dollar) and of the export mining boom driven largely by the expansive boom in China. To Howard, economics is everything. It must be a mystery for him, as to why the people of Australia seem inclined to reject him at the next election. The mystery for me, is why a country which purports to be the land of a fair go, ever voted for him in the first place.