Saturday, 24 November 2007

The End of the Howard Era

Like a guest who has shamelessly overstayed his dinner invitation, John Howard has finally been shown the door. Embarrassing, to say the least. He could have left with grace and dignity had he voluntarily stepped down last year, and he would have departed with an abundance of public goodwill and nostalgia. Now while his electoral defeat today is being hailed as the end of an era, the sentiment is being accompanied by rejoicing.

I feel an enormous sense of relief. I feel as if something has finally happened that was long overdue.

I migrated to Australia in 1998, at the height of the xenophobic hysteria whipped up by Pauline Hanson. Well-meaning friends even asked at the time if I felt safe going to Australia, when it didn't seem to be very welcoming to migrants. Thanks to reassurances from Indian friends already in Australia at the time, my wife and I decided to press ahead.

Sure enough, the Pauline Hanson phenomenon died out soon after, and her party even went bankrupt (financially as well), but what disturbed me was how Prime Minister John Howard seemed to take the wind out of her sails by quietly adopting many of the policies she espoused. She didn't want to acknowledge aboriginal land rights or admit that any wrong was done to aboriginal people. Howard echoed that by publicly refusing to say "Sorry" to the indigenous Australians on behalf of white Australia. (While I have a strong personal distaste for political handouts and believe that communities must lift themselves up by the bootstraps, I can see that John Howard was playing to a certain gallery that was beginning to look Hanson's way).

He took a stronger line on immigration and refugees. The shameful incident when he turned back the MV Tampa carrying 439 Afghan refugees rescued in a shipwreck off Australian waters (and even alleged (untruthfully) that the asylum seekers were heartlessly throwing their children overboard) revealed to me the unsavoury side of his character.

I learnt the term that described his behaviour much later - he was "dog whistling" Pauline Hanson's policy. Without seeming to be the racist that Hanson clearly was, he succeeded in attracting back the redneck voters who threatened to desert his party. He attacked multiculturalism as political correctness. Under Howard, attacking political correctness became politically correct, and it became acceptable to roll back (in word at least) the multiculturalism that was so strikingly in evidence on the ground.

He showed the opportunistic side of his nature once again in the November 2001 elections when he cynically manipulated the fear that September 11 generated to win his third term.

He won his fourth term having wrapped himself in the national flag by going to war in Iraq alongside the US. In those days, when Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were a theoretical possibility and Western civilisation seemed under threat from the Islamic world, it must have seemed unpatriotic to white Australians to oppose Howard's policy. (In Western countries, who knows the difference between Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, or between Arabic, Farsi, Pushtu and Urdu?)

In the latest election too, he tried the same tricks of fear and xenophobia (of which a bit more in a moment), but it didn't work this time. His opponent Kevin Rudd was every bit as smooth and unruffled as himself, and played his game with the same degree of skill. I like to think that the Australian people ultimately saw through Howard's lies and showed him the door.

If I had two words to say to John Howard today, they would be "Mohammed Haneef." What angered me the most in the current election campaign was the character assassination of this doctor of Indian origin who was practising in a hospital in Queensland. In the run-up to the 2007 election, the government needed a bogeyman, and what better one than a Muslim who was related to one of the Glasgow bombers? The immigration minister, Kevin Andrews, has a lot to answer for regarding the utterly shameful treatment of Dr. Haneef, and if I were a religious man, I would say there is a special place in hell for cynical men who think nothing of destroying others' reputations and lives for their own political survival. Even after the charges against Dr. Haneef were proved baseless and he was released, Howard's immigration minister had his visa revoked "on character grounds", and the poor man had to leave Australia. I don't believe Kevin Andrews was acting on his own on such an important and explosive issue. John Howard was "dog whistling" again in the background. Getting Dr. Haneef out of Australia was a PR coup, because once the scandal dropped out of the headlines, the problem was over.

Ah, but not quite. In many people (myself included), the Haneef incident evoked deep and lasting anger. Mohammed Haneef is a Muslim and I am nominally Hindu, but I can recognise unfair treatment when I see it. I choose my words carefully here, but even if John Howard is not a racist, he is certainly anglocentric in his attitudes. And one of the real reasons why he has lost touch with Australia is that this country, at the grassroots level, is no longer anglocentric. Anyone can see the sheer ethnic and cultural diversity in Australia today by just walking down a Sydney or Melbourne street. No politician will cut ice with the contemporary Australian electorate by demonising minorities. The system of compulsory voting in Australia means that you cannot even count on minority alienation to keep hostile voters away from the polling booths. John Howard angered me, a voter. He's now history.

The election of Kevin Rudd is a fundamental generational shift in Australian politics. Whether it's merely symbolic or not, Kevin Rudd can speak Mandarin. How many anglophones can speak another language, much less a non-European one? When Rudd's family took the stage in Brisbane today during his victory speech, his Chinese son-in-law was on stage with him, dramatically illustrating the changing face of Australia.

I have no idea whether Kevin Rudd will make a good prime minister, but I do know that this country's future has no place for John Howard in a leadership role.

The end of an era? Thank goodness.

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