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Not Happy, John! Introduction, 2004
I Am, You Are, We Are Australia
But there was too much baggage. Keating’s government was exhausted, arrogant and out of touch. John Howard had soothingly assured us he’d smoothed his more extreme policy edges on Medicare and industrial relations, and pledged himself to act as a torchbearer of the Menzies Liberal tradition. I voted for what I thought was a healthy turnover of power in our democracy. Time for a change.
Be careful what you tick for.
As one of many citizens who’d opposed that war, I wanted to hear what the man who had led us into it would say, especially to those elected representatives who, on behalf of Australians like me, had refused to back him.
As a reporter, I wanted to see if he’d look them in the eye as he spoke. Instead what I experienced on 23 and 24 October last year made me fear for our democracy’s future.
I saw a Parliament on its collective knees before a condescending Imperial Caesar, led by a lame provincial governor of a Prime Minister so blind to the duties of his own democratic office, so unmoved by the issues still rending his own people, that he turned what might have been a healing thank-you visit into just another vehicle for his own ambitions. I saw him do so at the expense of Westminster traditions and norms of civilised behaviour that I’d thought were above partisan politics. I saw elected politicians – elected by us, the Australian people – shouted down, physically manhandled and viciously abused.
And I saw a castrated press gallery largely oblivious to what was happening to our democracy right there before their eyes, on their own professional beat. A press gallery unwilling or unable to report it to a citizenry that urgently needed to know.
I was staggered.
We, the people of Australia, are systematically being left out of the democratic equation. The finely tuned mechanisms of our Westminster system, so painstakingly developed by the people over centuries of struggle, are corroding fast. Our politicians are replacing checks-and-balances subtleties with government by unseen sledgehammer – by rigid control, populist manipulation, outright misinformation and deceit – all of it disguised in a very expensive wrapping of super-spin designed to blind us to the fact that governance is now mere salesmanship.
Dissent, accountability, scrutiny, principle, even the rule of law – these things have no place in the Darwinian worldview of anti-democratic big business. A parliament is simply an obstacle, which is why ours is quickly and quietly being dismantled.
This book contends that John Howard is not a liberal, or a Liberal, or a conservative, or a Conservative. It seeks to show that he’s part of an ideological wrecking gang made up of radical-populist economic opportunists, one which long ago decided that robust liberal democracy was an impediment to the real elites – Big Business and Big Media – that sponsor them, rather than an essential complement to and underwriter of market capitalism.
This book contends that John Howard’s wrecking gang has always been plain wrong but now threatens the long-term future of Australian democracy.
Sorry, John. We’re not just consumers. We’re not just commodities. We’re citizens. And as a citizen, what I saw during George Bush’s visit scared me.
As a reporter, it confirmed that I’d been right to start breathing the Canberra air again. After all you go where the real story is.
I want to show you why I’ve come to regard John -Howard – ‘relaxed and comfortable’ Honest John, for whom I voted – as a threat to our democracy. I want to demonstrate where I think John Howard’s Australia now stands in this crucial election year, after eight years of Howard ruthlessly changing Australia to suit his ‘times’, NOT him suiting our times as he often claims. I’ll show you who’s ‘in’ in Howard’s democracy, who’s left ‘out’, and how such exclusion corrodes civic life for everyone in the long run – whether we’re ‘in’ or ‘out’ or totally disengaged.
I also want to show you why I no longer have any confidence that either of the two major parties is capable of addressing the problems Howard’s government is increasingly normalising and how their behaviour has in fact jointly brought us to this looming crisis.
And I want to show you why I think we’ve now reached the stage where it’s up to each of us, as Australians, to work together to save the day. You might not draw that conclusion from what I report, of course, but there are a lot of Australians out there who do.
So in this book I’ll also describe when the moment of choice arrived for me, personally and professionally, and why I decided to take the activist option and to hell with surrender. And what happened when I did so, on the one issue that it is not only my right to be politically partisan about, but also my obligation: cross-media ownership laws. And the way I was rejuvenated by that decision, and how in the subsequent fight this jaded political reporter at last grasped an essential truth about a healthy working democracy: that if a cause is sound, and openly, -passionately fought for, then it can quickly become a wider, non-partisan one.
My personal fight showed me again why our ‘least worst’ system of governance is so precious and so worth defending: there is room enough for ALL of us in it. My ‘crisis of engagement’ – and the rescue of my civic faith by those politicians, journalists and fellow citizens who’d remained committed – led to a reaffirmation and a determination to keep playing my part, as journalist and citizen, in the fight to help save our messy, inclusive, brilliant democratic system from John Howard’s grubby wrecking gang.
Alongside many, many other determined Australian -citizens.
My starting-point Big Idea? The political parties have lost the power to do the job for us so we have to do it ourselves.
This book is my start. I hope it snowballs into something bigger. Penguin has agreed to set up a website, www.nothappyjohn.com, in conjunction with the book, where, if you like, you can comment on each chapter and add your own suggestions. Let others know what you’re doing to make your voice heard.
We citizens only ever find out how strong we are when we finally get around to working together.
No, I’m not happy, John.
And, yes, I firmly believe that we citizens must throw out your wrecking gang at the next election. As a voter, I regard myself as a swinger; since 1996, John, I’ve thoroughly swung.
Above everything else I believe in universal human rights – the foundation principle of the United Nations. It’s central to my personal value system and to my idea of what this nation stands for. So, for example, although I had voted for Labor in 1998 because I was disgusted with Howard’s stance on Wik, I had no choice but to change my vote when Labor agreed to Howard’s plan to excise territory to deny asylum seekers access to our laws. Instead in 2001 I supported – for the first time and to my great surprise – the Greens.
Too right I could. Like all of us, I have my bedrock beliefs – my democratic ‘line in the sand’ – but that doesn’t mean I hold back from the messier pragmatics of democracy. As this book will show, I can and will happily work with anyone – conservative, Liberal, ALP supporter, National Civic Council member – who wants a cleaner, more transparent system, one that produces a parliament truly representative of the various views of our citizens. One not beholden to the powerful and the cashed-up when the ‘public interest’ is being decided.
One very unlike the system we have now.
The second thing I’m unashamedly partisan about is my own vocation, journalism. This is what underpins my conviction that Howard’s got to go – he is now on the verge of destroying Australia’s mainstream independent media.
So that’s where I stand. But don’t get me wrong. I’m no Labor patsy. In the end all I’m really partisan about when it comes to politics is the future vibrancy of our democracy.
It’s under threat. And it’s worth defending.
I imagine Independent and minor party politicians holding the balance of power in the House of Representatives for once – ensuring some real debate, demanding some real democratic hard yakka from the cabinet, fostering some real engagement down where the legislative action should really be: in the people’s House.
I imagine the big power-players, the real elites, for a change facing a bit of stiff competition for ministers’ ears. I imagine their shocked faces when they realise they can’t buy access and influence and power from our politicians with donations to their parties.
I imagine democratic politics as an honourable vocation, not the grubby career that John Winston Howard seems so determined to bequeath as his political legacy. I imagine ethics and honesty and decency restored to mainstream debate. I imagine real people standing on real principle. I imagine party politicians prepared to step off the party line when it offends their core beliefs or when it betrays the welfare of the people who put them there.