An excellent year for conservatives and the country

28th December 2005

PSSST. Keep this to yourself. John Howard will be with us for a very long time. Even if the Prime Minister hands over the reins to Treasurer Peter Costello in 2006, the Howard imprint will remain for years to come. Looking back on 2005, Howard has put serious runs on the board. He will not be remembered as a do nothing, occupy the crease kind of PM. He's more Don Bradman than Trevor "Barnacle" Bailey, the English all-rounder who made the slowest half-century in first-class cricket.

It has been a momentous year for the conservative cause. Howard has become for Australia what Ronald Reagan was to the US and Margaret Thatcher to Britain. Plenty of politicians spend a lifetime gaining power and, when it comes, are so busy holding on to it that they shy away from controversial but much needed reform. Think of Malcolm Fraser. Known for little more than his efforts in Zimbabwe and introducing secondary boycott provisions in the Trade Practices Act, Fraser was out for a duck, if we're talking cricket.

Howard, on the other hand, is changing Australia to reflect the way we work, the way we raise our children, the way we're educated, the sorts of things we expect governments to do and, more to the point, the things we want to do for ourselves.

Of course, Howard is far from the perfect conservative. He has thrown tax dollars at failed businesses (Ansett, United Medical Protection), set up slush funds to massage the passage of reforms (voluntary student unionism, Telstra), and continues to prop up and pander to powerful lobbies (pharmacists). Not to mention his obscene election spending sprees. But, then, reform comes at a price. And Howard is on the reform path.

Generations X and Y (and indeed earlier generations) are no more interested in collectivist labour structures than they are in allowing central planning of their sexual and social beliefs. So the Work Choices legislation puts individual choice above union power.

Similarly, the VSU reforms are based on a simple idea that no one should be forced to join a union, be it on campus or in the workplace. So if students want to jump on a bus to Woomera to protest against mandatory detention, fine. But don't expect other students to pick up the bus fare by paying compulsory union fees.

Indigenous people are being encouraged to take responsibility for their lives, to work, to be able to buy their home, to send their children to school, because the past 30 years of top-down, bureaucrat-driven regulation has failed them.

Telstra is being sold because public ownership of assets in such a hi-tech, high risk, fast-moving industry is only slightly less Jurassic than Soviet-style collectives or the Great Leap Forward.

Critics go bonkers at the idea of Howard changing Australia. The level of vitriol aimed at the Prime Minister on each of these issues is testimony not only to the significance of these changes but also to the fact Howard is overturning long entrenched vested interests, be it in the workplace, on campus, in indigenous politics and so on. A few weeks ago, even University of Sydney vice-chancellor Gavin Brown was calling VSU supporters such as Howard "redneck philistines". Hardly an intellectual response from our lofty academics. But, then, no one relinquishes power or money quietly.

Then there are the genuine but misguided Fabian socialists who believe, to steal from Reagan, that a little band of intellectual elites in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves. These people have lost their elevated status in Howard's Australia.

Other critics include one Greg Barns, once a Liberal, then a Democrat, now politically homeless, who last week wrote that Australia had become a pigsty under Howard, the conservative ideologue. The country, he argued, needed to be rescued by some latter-day Gough Whitlam or Paul Keating. Poor Greg sits waiting for Judgment Day, when a new philosopher king will lift whatever party he then belongs to into power while the Coalition will be cast into eternal damnation.

To criticise Howard as a conservative ideologue gravely underestimates him. Far from this being one man's ideological jaunt, Howard has caught the temper of his times. For Howard, conservatism is not an abstract ideology. It is diametrically opposed to abstractionism. It is rooted, instead, in human experience, in what works and what doesn't. To borrow again from Reagan, when "conservatives say that we know something about political affairs and that what we know can be stated in principles, we are saying that the principles we hold dear are those that have been found, through experience, to be ultimately beneficial for individuals, for families, for communities and for nations; found through the often bitter testing of pain or sacrifice and sorrow".

Howard's year of reform is driven by the idea that what works is letting individuals be free to make their own choices. Which raises a sweet irony in the progressives' opposition to Howard's reforms. The Left, after all, let the individualism cat out of the bag back in the 1960s when we were encouraged to "do our own thing" without any state interference. What people did in their personal lives was out of bounds. So why the vitriol when a similar notion is applied to people's lives once they step inside a workplace, a university or the family home?

But such logic is wasted. Instead, pining after bygone days, critics such as Hugh Mackay suggest workplace relations may just be on the cusp of a new "communitarian era", communitarian being an updated and refurbished version of collectivism. As if somehow a new word will fool us into thinking the Left is pursuing something new.

And just to confirm that opposition aimed at Howard is too often unshackled by reason or evidence, the Howard haters have finished off the year with one of their old favourite taunts: Howard, the racist ringleader. When, after the Cronulla riots in Sydney, he refused to label Australians as inherently racist, it was just another example of "all sorts of dark shadows fall[ing] out of his mouth", according to Richard Ackland. Howard is holding the lead of that "rancid old race dog". Or, according to left-wing think tanker Clive Hamilton, Howard was whistling at us racist dogs. And let's not forget Barns's contribution: we are living in a pigsty with the PM winking and nodding to a racist populace.

Dark shadows? Leads and dogs? Pigs? Winks and nods? Howard's critics imagine he has some spooky Svengali-like influence over that dumb animal farm known as the Australian electorate. But, then, Howard haters are forced to talk down to voters rather than 'fess up to the fact the PM may be on to something with policies based on empowering individuals to make their own decisions, thus neutering a whole swag of elites who would prefer to call the shots. No wonder his critics are becoming more feral every day.

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