[Written 11 September, 2001, but before news of “9/11” arrived late that night.]
Prime Minister John Howard has set Australia on a slippery slope that leads to fascism. He is not himself a fascist, though he is playing fast and loose with our precious democratic institutions and with taxpayers’ money, but he has promoted a dynamic in Australian society that, left unchecked, will deliver us into fascism. Once started, this dynamic is difficult to reverse. Its reversal demands courage and leadership, qualities that are singularly lacking among our major political parties at present.
Many Australians have been whipped into near-hysteria over what must be one of the least threats we have ever endured. A leaky boat-load of a few hundred asylum seekers represents, at most, part of a small stream of refugees that shows signs of increasing somewhat in coming years. The few thousand refugees per year that have been reaching our shores is a trickle compared even with the flows into some European nations, let alone the floods into poorer countries closer to trouble spots. I don’t sully my ears with talkback radio, but people have been writing to the paper fretting that there are millions or billions more refugees out there just waiting to pour into our beloved little corner of the world. What ever lies and distortions are they being fed?
The boat people are accused of queue-jumping, but the queue is ill-defined and extremely slow and cumbersome. It requires refugees to wait with their families typically for years in unsavoury, unsafe and dispiriting circumstances, and still with no guarantee of not being returned whence they fled. In fact the boat arrivals make no difference at all to the total number of such people we accept from various sources, because we impose an annual quota.
Anyway the present posturing is not only extremely expensive, it is a farce. The asylum-seekers will still be processed by Australia, and they will still be accepted if their case justifies it.
Why have we got in such a lather over what should be a relatively minor issue? Much immediate blame must lie with irresponsible and self-interested media that play on peoples’ fears, and particularly with talk-back radio shows that actively cultivate ill-informed and misdirected scapegoating.
However scapegoating would have limited appeal if there were not deep reservoirs of resentment, alienation, anger and frustration within Australian society. These deep reservoirs do exist, and they have been filling steadily for at least two decades. Of course there are always disaffected people in any society, but the numbers started rising through the 1980s and the rise has accelerated under the Howard Government.
Obvious and immediate causes are unemployment, overwork, dramatic restructurings of major sectors of primary and secondary industry, and a shift to the insecurity of casual and contract employment, which shifts business risks from corporations to employees. Rising income inequality has fed cynicism and despair, as the fruits of the phoney boom flow overwhelmingly to the already wealthy. Abetting these primary causes have been the steady withdrawal of services by both the public and private sectors and attitudes of indifference, disdain or open hostility towards the losers in these dramatic changes.
One predictable consequence has been a rise in primary symptoms of a disintegrating social fabric: crime, domestic violence, drug abuse and so on. Another consequence, predictable and predicted, has been the rise of political groups from what used to be called the fringes but which now must be recognised as mainstream, because John Howard just made them so.
John Howard can take some direct responsibility for the rise of One Nation. He has consistently avoided condemning and disavowing Pauline Hanson’s attitudes. Currently he is making strenuous efforts to minimise One Nation’s electoral success, but simultaneously he has made One Nation attitudes coalition policy.
There has been plenty of comment on the superficiality of One Nation policies, and rather less condemnation of One Nation’s scapegoating attitudes towards Asians and other minorities. However there has been little acknowledgment of the underlying reasons for the rise of One Nation. Groups like One Nation thrive on resentment and alienation. This is no secret. The alienation of rural voters in particular has been loudly evident.
The stresses and social disintegration of the past couple of decades have their obvious source in economic rationalist policies. The Hawke and Keating Governments started the rot, but the Howard Government has pressed forward with more savage zeal.
For all the hype accompanying economic rationalism, the main economic indicators have been consistently inferior to the postwar period to 1970. GDP growth has only recently reached comparable levels, while unemployment and debt are both much higher, and income inequality and social indicators are consistently worse. The straightforward conclusion is that the greater restraints on markets that were imposed in the post-war era not only served to distribute the benefits of a growing economy more equitably, they actually fostered a more prosperous economy overall by more consistently channelling money and effort into real wealth production instead of into the fast-buck ripoffs that became the sport of the eighties.
This conclusion is anathema to economic rationalists, who insist that government involvement always degrades economic performance. The evidence plainly fails to support their case. One excuse that is made to explain this comparison away is that there was a bounce-back effect after World War II. However a bounce-back cannot reasonably explain the continued good economic performance twenty years after the war’s end.
Australians are not complete mugs, they know their quality of life is not improving. As more and more people protest the effects of economic rationalism, and as one major initiative after another starts to unravel, the Howard Government has become desperate to retain power. The immediate context of the phoney asylum-seekers crisis was that Treasurer Peter Costello was being seriously embarrassed by disclosures of alleged GST rorting by Queensland Liberal Party branches. The talk-back radio bigots came to the rescue.
John Howard has in any case been massively rorting the Australian taxpayer to fund his unofficial election campaign. From expensive TV advertisements for so-called gap cover to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the GST publicity blitz, the primary effect and intention has been not to inform but to make the government look good.
Such desperate antics subvert the core of our democracy. When distortion and manipulation become the common currency of politics, cynicism and alienation of citizens is the direct and inevitable consequence. As the level of misinformation and untruth rises, so our democracy sickens.
Into that context has now been injected overt xenophobia and paranoia. These are dark and powerful forces, easy to unleash, difficult to restrain. With the best of wills, it would take some time to calm and repair the damage done this past week to the basic mutual respect that is the essential foundation of a free and democratic society. The continuation of policies that have caused the underlying problems aggravates the wounds. The blind and desperate lust for power exhibited by the Howard Government in this shameful episode promises instead to inflame the wounds.
Check your history of Germany in the 1920s. A malfunctioning economy, progressively alienated people driven to desperation, scapegoating and the rise of someone promising to restore self-respect, security and glory. They are here too, waiting in the wings.