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National Affairs

Coalition of the willing

23 July 2009

Liberal Rule avoids the shortcomings of The Howard Years, but has flaws of its own, writes Peter Brent

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John Howard shares a drink with supporters after he conceded defeat on Saturday 24 November 2007. AAP Image/Paul Miller

John Howard shares a drink with supporters after he conceded defeat on Saturday 24 November 2007. AAP Image/Paul Miller



LAST NOVEMBER, ABC1 ran a four part series called The Howard Years. Much anticipated, it had the cooperation of practically everyone involved in the government that ruled from 1996 to 2007. But it was marred by a simplistic narrative and an obsessive desire to avoid being seen to unfairly criticise the former prime minister, which made for frustratingly one-dimensional viewing.

On Tuesday this week, SBS began its three part series Liberal Rule: The Politics That Changed Australia. It is the better of the two series, and its makers obviously had no qualms about criticising the former government. But it does have flaws, the most serious of which is the way it does this criticising.

As Tuesday’s opening episode showed, Liberal Rule has a sense of political history, of the vagaries of politics. It has memory. Tuesday’s title, “Cycles of Power,” was apt, as it recognised the part that timing and luck play in political success. The first half reprised how we got to here: quickly snapshotting John Howard’s early life, his 1974 entry into parliament, the Whitlam dismissal, Howard’s rapid rise up Malcolm Fraser’s ministerial ranks and the thirteen opposition years from 1983, culminating with the election of the Howard government in March 1996. All was done with sympathy for its subject and was an enjoyable frolic down memory lane for the viewer. The second half of the episode dealt mainly with the Howard government’s economic record.

Next week’s episode, “Hearts and Minds,” traverses territory like the 1998 waterfront dispute, Aboriginal affairs, multiculturalism and education. We are reminded that many things were attempted in that first term but not many succeeded, and nor was it a very popular government. The final episode, “Fortunes of War,” largely deals with Howard and the war on terror and George W. Bush.

The series is well put together, and it does not avoid the contentious issues. Arthur Sinodinis, Howard’s chief of staff until 2006, adds excellent value.

So what of the show’s flaws? The first, which it shares with The Howard Years and most commentaries on Howard, is that it makes exaggerated claims about its subject’s importance. The introduction explains that the series is about how “the government of Australia became the machinery for one leader’s ambition to change the nation’s idea of itself and its place in the world.”

Was Howard so important? Is any prime minister? You wouldn’t make a series about them if you didn’t think so. But many of the things attributed to Howard would have happened anyway. We probably still would have joined America in Iraq under any Liberal and perhaps most Labor leaders (say, a Kim Beazley or a Kevin Rudd), the international economic boom that began in the early 1990s would not have passed us by, house prices and foreign debt would have exploded, and the internet revolution would have taken place. In this globalised world governments’ influence on events is limited.

Another problem comes from a particularly Australian delusion about our importance in the world. Many of our journalists, including senior ones, actually believe that Australia, along with the United States and Great Britain, took the decision to invade Iraq. They think John Howard was a major figure in Washington, and take seriously the “close friendship” between Howard and George W. Bush. In reality Bush whispered sweet nothings to most leaders of the “Coalition of the Willing” (of which there were about thirty members) and had many of them to his Texas ranch. Many national leaders, not just Howard, have received congressional awards. Yet there is much unnecessary fuss made in the final episode of Liberal Rule about the Howard Bush friendship.

But the major flaw in this series is the device it uses to achieve its “balance.” These choices are difficult. The ABC’s much-lauded 1993 Labor in Power series had the benefit of the Hawke–Keating rivalry, and grumpy former finance minister Peter Walsh, to provide dissent. And that program was less about outcomes than political machinations. In Liberal Rule, members of the former government are uniformly on message (although not as much as they were in The Howard Years) about the fine deeds they performed.

A collection of talking heads, mainly comprising two economics journalists and several academics, flesh out the story from time to time. They also serve to correct the government’s versions of events. While most of what they say is valuable and insightful (and no doubt many more of their words are on the cutting room floor) the way it is put together amounts to a “ganging up,” particularly by the academics. Most troubling, at the end of each episode, these talking heads get the last word, explaining where the government went wrong.

The show would have benefited from a few other talking heads. Supporters of the Howard government are scarce in academia, but they do exist. The historian John Hirst, for example, would have been ready made for the job.

Where The Howard Years was not judgemental enough, Liberal Rule is too judgmental. But maybe I’m hard to please. •

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Dotting i’s and crossing t’s: Australian Electoral Commission staff counting declaration votes in Eden-Monaro. AEC

Dotting i’s and crossing t’s: Australian Electoral Commission staff counting declaration votes in Eden-Monaro. AEC