December 29, 2003 | Peter

The Year that Was

Some of the more important events of 2003 had an air of inevitability about them. President Bush II was always going to invade Iraq and Simon Crean was always going to get knocked off as ALP leader.
Looking back, the intent of the US under the leadership of George W Bush and his coterie of eager Neocons to invade Iraq was crystal clear. You might have thought the S11 attacks would have distracted him, after all this was the most effective assault on the American heartland since Pearl Harbour. But in some of the most devious manipulation of public opinion in modern times, in a process that showed the utter mendacity of the US mass media, he managed to conflate the two issues. Apparently, almost half of the American public still think Saddam and Osama were linked, which is a real worry.
The out-of-touchness of the US public is becoming a serious global problem. Much of the gulf that looms ever more between the US and Europe, for instance, reflects the growing disquiet in Europeans over the wilful ignorance of Americans.
Of course, WMDs have not been found in Iraq (if Saddam finally has) and even if they were found it is still most probably the case that this was an illegal war according to international law. Whether or not Bush – with the active connivance of Blair and Howard – has dealt a body blow to collective security in the 21st century we will have to wait and see. It is quite possible that a President Dean, Prime Minister Latham and even Prime Minister Brown will go back to the existing international relations fora and shift away from unilateralist action.
Latham has a special incentive to do this. He knows a lot about Labor and Australian history, so he knows how much the post-war Labor government, and especially Doc Evatt, supported the idea of collective security in general and the United Nations in particular. This is a tradition he could well champion as an alternative to Howard’s increasingly blind subservience to the Bush II doctrine.
The way Howard is locking Australian foreign and military policy into the US agenda is a public debate we should be having right now. We are rapidly returning to the bad old days when we were the regional representative of British Imperial might. We know how well that worked when the Japanese actually threatened Australia. For their part, perhaps unlike the British, the Americans have never said they would act in anything but their own direct interests.
There is another interesting parallel with history in the so-called ‘War on Terror’. Howard is showing a definite disinterest in engaging with the underlying cultural complexities of terrorism, just as the Australian government did when the Japanese were attempting to eradicate structural racism between the wars. In failing to deal with legitimate Japanese concerns, we helped ensure a vicious and racist war in the coming years.
There was a decided element of inevitability about Crean’s fall, if not about Latham’s rise. There are some important lessons here for Labor that go well beyond the matter of leadership.
In retrospect, we can see that Crean inherited the leadership because an attitude of lazy acceptance, of business as usual, had permeated the federal ALP. This trend began with Keating, who took the leadership from perhaps the second most successful ALP Prime Minister when it was clear that the electorate was hostile to him. Keating fluked an election (thanks to Liberal stupidity), and then got ejected next time around.
Then nice guy Kim, who was the son of a prominent minister in the Whitlam government, but (who despite all the complimentary things said about him, especially in his appallingly bad biography) had never shown any special leadership qualities, inherited the leadership because there was no else about. His lack of leadership ability was really shown up in the second election he lost when he acceded to the fundamentally flawed ‘small target’ strategy.
And then Simon, son of prominent minister in the Whitlam government, but who had never shown any special leadership qualities, inherited the leadership because there was no one else about. Another nice guy, but the electorate read through him like they read through Beazley.
Labor, due in large part to the fat years of the 1980s and early 1990s, is bereft of talent in the FPLP because it is chock-full of careerists. The Labor Party itself is still weak and demoralised because of the way opportunism has run rampant and as the result a deliberate strategy by the peak office holders to minimise rank and file participation. The ALP was in pretty good shape when Bob Hawke won the leadership, but it has been going down hill steadily since then.
So, if Mark Latham is to get the ALP into a position to win government and stay in long enough to implement genuine reform, he needs to oversee the renovation of the party itself. But the fact that Crean’s minimal attempts to reform the party generated such hostility indicate the size of the problem. The fact is that the ALP is now riddled with people who place their own interests over the party’s, and certainly over the nation’s.
Latham’s hero Whitlam had to push a sustained agenda of party reform as part of his project to regain political relevance (and some of those reforms have gone sour), and Latham faces a similarly Herculean task.
So it was a significant year. World affairs are in turmoil, with the Bush agenda leaving little or no room for much open negotiation of crucial issues, like responding to terrorism or global warming. John Howard, with his adept but utterly dishonest handling of the Iraq, terrorist and refugee issues, which he readily confuses, seemed to consolidate his power over the Liberals, the government and the nation. But a smart, young Labor leader is now on the scene, albeit with plenty of ideational and personal baggage.
All up, 2004 looks like being a hell of a year.

Posted by Peter at 4:06 pm | Comments (3) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Splendid piece, Peter.

    Comment by James Cumes — December 30, 2003 @ 5:44 pm

  2. Thanks, James. Sometimes the lessons of history are just too pertinent to ignore, don’t you think?

    Comment by peter mcmahon — December 30, 2003 @ 7:35 pm

  3. Peter, I agree: we ignore the lessons of history at our peril.
    We tend now to look back smugly on the Whitlam Government and purport to be astonished that any government, any cabinet, any prime minister, could be so incompetent, so feckless, so self-destructive.
    And yet, the Whitlam Government did or tried to do many splendid things. It shook up the whole political, social and economic environment. In a way, we can imagine Gough Whitlam to have been our Jack Kennedy – showing us what we could do if we tried, offering us a fresh look at a whole wide range of issues.
    And then the whole thing went badly wrong. The loans affair, never very far from the absurd, lapsed into high farce…. Gough got his red card in one of the most extraordinary denouements in our political history.
    What we forget in all this is that the Whitlam Government was dead unlucky in coming to power just at a time when the post-WW2 economic and social framework was crumbling – nationally and worldwide. Gough’s dreams – or a large clutch of them – were almost inevitably unrealisable just as Scullin’s dreams collapsed into nightmares in the turmoil that followed the Great Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. The essence of the Whitlam failure – which, in any event, was far from total – was in his failure to cope with the basic economic and social challenges of an extraordinarily difficult time.
    In assessing the Whitlam period, we need to look back on the performance of the governments that followed his and ask whether they have done any better.
    Have they learned anything from the history of the last thirty years?
    The answer must be that the Howard Government – and the Reserve Bank – are as unable to understand and deal with the basic economic and social issues as the Whitlam Government was, much more understandably, thirty years ago.
    They have learned nothing.
    When they look back patronisingly on the Whitlam record, they should reflect deeply, objectively and responsibly on their own performance and its impact on the country and its people. They should consider a national and personal indebtedness that dwarfs anything contemplated by Whitlam. They should reflect on unemployment, poverty, inequality, the gutting of Australian industry, the deterioration of our environment, the lack of adequate public – and indeed private – investment…. The list of those features with which the situation in Whitlam’s most deeply distressing moments might favourably compare, goes on and on.
    Will John Howard reflect in this way as 2004 begins? Will Peter Costello? Will the Reserve Bank?
    I very much doubt that they will.
    I hope Mark Latham might.
    James Cumes

    Comment by James Cumes — January 2, 2004 @ 7:48 pm

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