Shifting Ground Indeed

ACT Council of Social Service

1997 April, 30

Shifting Ground Indeed

Last week, tributes flowed in the wake of the resignation of Andrew Robb, mastermind behind the Howard landslide of 1996, as federal director of the Liberal Party. That Robb devised and ran a brilliant strategy based on an acute understanding of the psychology of the nation is not disputed. Robb knew which were the hot buttons and how to press them. He engineered an electoral victory using state-of-the-art polling and communication techniques borrowed from the Republican Party in the United States.

For my part, however, I still harbour grave reservations about the ruthlessness of the strategies Robb employed to get John Howard the prize that had for so long eluded the conservatives. The Hanson phenomenon is the cat that Andrew Robb let out of the bag during the 1996 election campaign. And he knows it.

This was the campaign in which the Great Mainstream of Australia rose up against those who for so long had kept its people outcast and dispossessed. The Great Mainstream of Australia conquered all before it at that March poll. The Great Mainstream then embarked on a relentless crusade against the appalling state of Aboriginal privilege. The wrath of the Great Mainstream was then visited on immigrants, who had for too long been luxuriating in our dole queues. The Great Mainstream freed itself from the bondage of political correctness. The Great Mainstream tore off the black armbands that the former prime minister had foisted upon it. Free at last. Free at last. Thank God

Almighty we were free at last. And of course, the Great Mainstream was returned to its rightful place in the firmament with the delivery of the new government’s first budget. Or so we were told.

Since Pauline Hanson gave her maiden speech, there has been a lot of public analysis of the politics of blame that was, for me, the true undercurrent of the election. It underpinned not just Hanson’s own resounding success in the former Labor stronghold of Oxley, but also the national Coalition landslide. The recent release of her book The Truth (some chapters of which, I would wager, she had not read before she was interviewed about it) has generated more analysis of the circumstances in our society that have given rise to the so-called Hanson phenomenon.

The historical context for the political and economic changes that have led to Pauline Hanson is of course best captured in the title of Paul Kelly’s seminal account of the Hawke–Keating era’s place in Australian history: The End of Certainty. In the Australian last weekend Kelly wrote that:

Hanson symbolises an alienation within part of the community caused by a conjunction of forces – globalisation, economic restructuring and social changes – where people need scapegoats to explain their frustration.

This analysis is now familiar to us. However, most of this kind of discussion is focused on Pauline Hanson. But did Hanson deliberately identify these hot buttons in the community as part of a calculated political strategy? The analysts avoid this question. My own view is that she did not. Although she is now very much aware of how scapegoat-herding works for her politically, I do not believe that this was the case when she started. Given her lack of analytical and political sophistication, I believe that Hanson’s identification of these hot buttons was the instinctive manifestation of primal and inarticulate grief. Her message resonated because she actually believed in the correctness of her complaints, and these complaints were patently shared by many other people in similar circumstances to her own. This is why I am not inclined to support the notion that Pauline Hanson is evil. The ideas she espouses, the feelings she is cultivating and the controversy she is revelling in are certainly ugly and repugnant, but my feelings for her are more of pity than of anger. I do not believe she knows what she is doing; she is caught in a tragic redneck celebrity vortex from which she does not want to escape.

I am not so concerned with Pauline Hanson. I am concerned with those who know the truth, who are not ignorant of the facts of Aboriginal disadvantage, Asian immigration and so on, but who nevertheless deliberately scapegoat minorities in the same way as Hanson. There has been almost no analytical focus on the other beneficiaries of the politics of blame: John Howard’s Coalition. Not during the 1996 campaign or in its aftermath. Only when the prime minister gave that incredible speech which implied that the Pauline Hanson issue was an issue of free speech was there any focus on the government’s role in the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle cultivation and exploitation of the politics of blame.

Only Malcolm MacGregor in the Australian Financial Review had the insight and the courage to analyse the strategic exploitation of feelings of resentment and alienation by politicians and apparatchiks more seasoned and more cynical than Pauline Hanson. Read MacGregor’s coverage of the campaign and its aftermath. It is all there. It was brutally honest and foretold of the Australia we have endured over the past twelve months. Most of the other social and political commentators were either oblivious to the realpolitik or unwilling to acknowledge its real dynamics, both before and aft er the election.

In an address to the Sydney Institute in the third week of the campaign, I delivered my own interpretation of the psychology underlying the Coalition’s campaign. You will appreciate that I burned more bridges with that speech than a prudent man, feeling the good ship Paul sinking inevitably into the unforgiving depths, would have done. In retrospect I have to say that my views have not changed much. The 1996 election was a very different one for Australia. I don’t know if we have ever before had a national election, at least in the modern era, in which the victorious party traded on the mainstream’s resentment of other sections of the community. It left many of us asking: for whom had Paul Keating’s Labor government governed, if not for us?

The Liberal Party’s slogan implied a righteous sense of deprivation and neglect in Middle Australia. Many uncertainties, frustrations, unfulfilled expectations and dashed ambitions could easily be attributed to government indulgence of minorities and ‘special-interest groups’. (Of course, we in Middle Australia don’t count the numerous business, professional, recreational, religious and community groups that we are members of as ‘special-interest groups’.)

Andrew Robb’s 1996 campaign was very clever. He made the usual pet scapegoats – most obviously Aborigines, Asians and unions – Paul Keating’s running mates, in much the same way as the Republicans had made the black prisoner Willie Horton Michael Dukakis’s running mate in his failed 1988 presidential bid. Mabo and Asia had so coloured Keating’s leadership over the previous term, they were like albatrosses around Labor’s political neck. This is not to say that Labor was not on the way out for a host of other reasons, but Keating’s vulnerability on these fronts was ruthlessly exploited by Andrew Robb.

It was a watershed election because it seems to me to have been the first time we have employed wedge politics in Australia. Although elections in the Northern Territory have routinely generated and exploited white paranoia and racism in relation to Aboriginal people and land rights for a long time, I cannot think of a national election in which Aboriginal affairs, and particularly questions of Aboriginal privilege and comparative white disadvantage, have featured at all. It was a big part of the undercurrent of the last campaign – particularly in regional Australia – and if you accept my view, this was done deliberately. Remember that John Howard’s senior adviser, Grahame Morris, is a veteran of Northern Territory campaigns by the Country Liberal Party. Remember also Alan Ramsey’s post-election analysis of how the most severe regional swings against Labor were in seats with visible Aboriginal populations.

Pauline Hanson, Bob Burgess and Bob Katter were instances when the putrid sewage broke the surface and became visible. They were instances when the dog-whistle could be heard at normal frequency. Their contributions, however, were not unhelpful to the overall strategy. Remember the point in the campaign when Bob Katter complained that only Aborigines and the rich could afford to send their children to boarding school? The most telling thing was John Howard’s response. Whilst he continued to maintain that he abhorred racism, Howard said that what Bob Katter was saying was true: Aboriginal children did receive benefits that were not available to other country kids. Of course this was an untruth. Th e Labor government had already lift ed the assets test cut-off for Austudy for country children to about three-quarters of a million dollars as part of its drought response, and this socialism was thanks to lobbying by National Party backbenchers such as Bob Katter. Furthermore, Department of Employment, Education and Training statistics showed that whilst there were about 3000 Aboriginal students on maximum assistance under Abstudy, there were about 11,000 non-Aboriginal students on the maximum assistance under Austudy. So through untruth, John Howard was able to give his subtle imprimatur to Katter’s allegation of black privilege and white disadvantage. And Howard’s response penetrated.

I think that USA-style wedge politics are now with us to stay. They are likely to become a part of election campaigning in our country in the future. The conservatives have realised that they can drive a wedge between sections of the community who would not otherwise have voted for them. The projection of blame onto minorities has worked very well for them.

Let me make two final points in relation to this. Firstly, when I realised what the conservatives were doing and how successfully they were doing it, I resigned myself to accepting that this kind of ruthlessness is to be expected during elections. The drive for power can obliterate all principle and decency. I put myself in Canberra mode and said to myself: they woulda been mugs not to use it. The second point, however, is that I also hoped that, having been so ruthless in seizing power, upon gaining government they would change tack. Conscious of the damage their ruthless button-pushing may have inflicted on society, I actually expected the new government to pause and seek to heal the very wounds they had so vigorously agitated. After all, the business of government is not the business of elections.

But even this benign hypocrisy was beyond them. Andrew Robb was onto too good a thing. He could not resist pressing those hot buttons that had yielded such great success in the election. The Pauline Hanson bandwagon was too good to miss. So from day one of the new government we saw a sustained orgy of divisiveness and meanness about immigration, Aborigines and dole bludgers.

Robb wanted to turn the phenomenon that he had observed well before the election, and which he had successfully capitalised on during it, into a fundamental cultural shift in the Australian community. He wanted the government to be seen to be tough on the scapegoats, and to follow public opinion to the letter, whilst at the same time talking about ‘government for all of us’. The public good was presented as a matter of charity – not of equality or right. The blacks and the Asians and the unionists and the dole bludgers had to resume their place on the margins of society, where they could be the recipients of a kind of frugal and ascetic charity.

Robb wanted to turn ephemeral madness into a permanent psychosis. To this end, the Howard government has been a slavish devotee of data, which Liberal Party headquarters produces using techniques learned from American politics. This was most bizarrely expressed in the prime minister’s constant claim that he ‘understands’ whatever ignorant or offensive attitude, prejudice or anger has registered in the polls or arisen in public debate. Listen, it’s not nice to bash Asians, but I can understand why some sections of the community might feel that they are entitled to. Listen, I can understand that some sections of the community feel that Aborigines have been wasting taxpayers’ money. To ‘understand’ a problem allows you to avoid taking a position on it; it allows you to be understood to be legitimising certain views without claiming them as your own.

The cultural shift which Robb set out to achieve, so that Howard’s battlers could remain Howard’s battlers, is what, in my view, has fuelled the racism and social division that so concern Australians today. When I look at Hanson and her so-called followers, I can’t help thinking that sections of our society are willing themselves – defiantly – to ignorance. If you live at Kingaroy or Gatton, it is as if reason and enlightenment do not count. This phenomenon of an obdurate citizenry for whom ideology founded on ignorance and prejudice becomes as immovable and righteous as religion is the product of manipulation. Woe betide us when the mainstream political machines feel they need this citizenry and must woo and indeed exploit its voters.