Beautiful Truths

Australia’s new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Cartoon by Bill Leak

Lumps of Coal in John Howard’s Christmas Stocking

“The refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol will almost certainly, in time, be remembered as the greatest failure of the Howard government — Tampa, detention camps and Iraq notwithstanding.” This quote was pulled from Tim Flannery’s 2005 essay, Beautiful Lies, and printed on the book’s back cover. The essay concluded: “It was a visiting American, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to literature as Mark Twain, who said that Australian history reads like the most beautiful lies. I think that Clemens felt that way because the histories he was given to read were indeed filled with romantic falsehood. From now on — for the next little while at least — the history we create must be more mundane. It should tell the story of a small country that did the best it possibly could for the people and the environment of the world.”

Tim Flannery has spent 2007 as “The Australian of the Year”. It’s a symbolic role bestowed on a figure nominated by ordinary Australians. Late last year the former Prime Minister, a climate change skeptic, announced a $10 billion plan to save the Murray Darling River region, which produces around 40% of Australia’s food. “With splendid serendipity the popular environmentalist Tim Flannery was named Australian of the Year,” journalist Mungo Maccallum writes in Poll Dancing, his book on the 2007 Australian election. “A week earlier this would have been an embarrassment to Howard: Flannery had been a constant critic of the government for its lack of action on global warming, and indeed warned that he would continue to be so. But in the circumstances, the front-page snaps of Howard and Flannery shaking hands seemed to presage a new dawn of environmental concern. You wanted the big picture? They don’t come much bigger than this. The $10 billion figure itself was more than somewhat suspect; it turned out that neither the Treasury nor the Department of Finance had been involved in its preparation. Indeed, neither had done any significant work on the problems associated with global warming and the consequent water shortages. It quickly became obvious that the figure had simply been plucked out of the air; after all, it was a nice big round number, eminently suitable for a tabloid headline.”

John Howard is being assessed as a man who understood the immediate usefulness of tabloid headlines and failed to grasp the long-term symbolic power of government. “If you have any doubt that the election of a Rudd Labor government has changed the country, consider this: a year ago, did you imagine that the Prime Minister would be sending an openly gay woman of Chinese ancestry to Bali, to ratify the Kyoto protocol on Australia’s behalf?” Mungo Maccallum wrote in the online journal Crikey on December 3. “Because that’s exactly what Climate Change Minister Penny Wong will be doing … Kyoto, of course, has been one of the great symbolic differences between Labor and the [Liberal – National Party] coalition; another is WorkChoices, and Julia Gillard is already busy putting that to sleep so she can concentrate on what she rightly sees as her main job, implementing Rudd’s education revolution. And the third major symbol will be the long overdue apology to the stolen generation, now being prepared, as it should be, not just by the government, but in consultation with Aboriginal leaders.”

Some of John Howard’s harshest critics have been former Prime Ministers and State Premiers, some from within his own Liberal party, who were steadily critical of his leadership in the opinion pages of the nation’s newspapers throughout his rule. Two days before the November 24 election that John Howard resoundingly lost, becoming only the second Prime Minister in Australia’s history to lose his own seat, Paul Keating, the Labor Prime Minister he’d defeated in 1996, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald:

He has turned out to be the most divisive prime minister in our history. Not simply a conservative maintaining the status quo, but a militant reactionary bent upon turning the clock back. Turning it back against social inclusion, cooperation at the workplace, the alignment of our foreign policies towards Asia, providing a truthful and honourable basis for our reconciliation, accepting the notion that all prime ministers since Menzies had: Holt, Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and me: that our ethnic diversity had made us better and stronger and the nation’s leitmotif was tolerance. Howard has trodden those values into the ground…. Nations get a chance to change course every now and then. When things become errant, a wise country adjusts its direction. It understands that it is being granted an appointment with history. On this coming Saturday, this country should take that opportunity by driving a stake through the dark heart of Howard’s reactionary government.

Two days after the election, writing again in The Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Keating expressed relief that John Howard had been defeated:

Saturday night’s victory was not just a victory for the Labor Party, it was also a victory for those Liberals such as Malcolm Fraser, Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan, who stood against the pernicious erosion of decent standards in our public affairs. The Liberal Party of John Howard, Philip Ruddock, Alexander Downer and Peter Costello is now a party of privilege and punishments. One that lacks that most basic of wellsprings: charity. The French philosophers had it pretty right with the Enlightenment catchcry of liberty, equality and fraternity. There was not much liberty for the boat people or fraternity for the Aborigines or the Muslims or equality for the trade unionists who believed in nothing more revolutionary than the simple right to collectively bargain.

Tim Flannery wrote that the greatest lie that Australian history perpetuates is that it was an empty country when the first European settlers arrived. Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser (1975- 1983) accepted refugees from the Vietnam War and was harshly critical of John Howard’s coldness towards refugees. Fraser has also been a great advocate for the rights of indigenous Australians believing that a formal apology from the Federal Government ” would help to rebuild trust and establish partnership. It is not the words that matter, so much as the acceptance of responsibility to put right the damage done.”

Malcolm Fraser controversially came to power after being instrumental in having former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (1972 – 1975) removed from office by Australia’s Governor General. (Australia is not a republic and ultimate power still rests with the Queen of England through the Governor General.) Yet a couple of weeks before the last federal election Fraser and Whitlam collaborated on a letter protesting the erosion of privacy and the weakening of Australia’s freedom of information laws under Prime Minister Howard.

In the last two decades the constitutional principle that ministers should be held accountable for the failings of their policies or administration has been seriously undermined. No matter how grave their failings may be, ministers no longer resign. This principle is the bedrock of responsible government. In its absence, the capacity of the parliament and the people to hold a government to account for its actions is substantially weakened.

It is 31 years since the last official inquiry regarding the principles of ministerial accountability at a federal level. That inquiry framed the doctrine for simpler times. It could not anticipate the major changes in governance that have occurred since then. These include an enormous growth in the powers of the executive, the now pivotal role of ministerial advisers, the outsourcing of many crucial governmental functions and the expanding influence of the lobbying industry. The Freedom of Information Act, an important safeguard introduced in 1982, has also been undermined significantly by the practices of recent governments and restrictive interpretation by the courts.

Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam. November 12, 2007.

The Australian Financial Review reports in its Christmas Bumper Edition that John Howard, at additional expense to Australian taxpayers, became the only Prime Minister in history to choose to live in the Government owned Kirribilli House in Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, rather than at the Lodge in Australia’s political capital, Canberra. He also ran up a $10 million flight bill on Australia’s Air Force one, choosing to fly on the more luxurious plane between Sydney and Canberra, rather than a cheaper aircraft that had been intended for the Prime Minister’s domestic travel. During most of the time that he was Prime Minister the Premier of New South Wales was Bob Carr, of the Labor Party. In this weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald Carr becomes the latest former leader to criticise John Howard’s legacy.

To the Brits it may have had a touch of Little Britain. On March 28, Sir Nicholas Stern and his secretary were in a corridor of Parliament House. Suddenly Alexander Downer descended to enunciate: “So you’re the economist who is telling us we’re all going to hell in a handbasket.” Stern had just spent a week with the Indonesian President and his cabinet. He had been treated seriously and with respect. He shouldn’t have been surprised by the dismissive approach in Canberra. It was an approach that I witnessed first hand. … In September last year when Al Gore visited Australia, Howard showed the kind of rudeness that was to inspire his foreign minister’s curt treatment of Stern. The two-term vice-president was “alarmist”: no meeting. Today I witness Australia’s decisive moves to international co-operation over climate change with pride, but with sadness at the lost years.

Bob Carr. Sydney Morning Herald. December 22, 2007

The Australian states have made gains in combating global warming that the Federal Government didn’t capitalize on. Carr writes that in New South Wales he introduced one of the world’s first carbon trading schemes, halted deforestation in some areas by preventing the removal of native trees, and required new buildings to be energy efficient and meet greenhouse standards. “When Howard and his ministers dismissed global warming they saw it as a battle in the culture wars, not a crisis in humankind’s relation to nature that towers above any left-right divide.Now we scramble to catch up.”

The Week in Review Section of The New York Times this weekend has a report on previous American Presidents commenting on their successors, starting with an attack Herbert Hoover made on Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.

“I do not suggest that Mr. Roosevelt aspires to be a dictator,” Mr. Hoover said in Columbus. “It is however understatement to say that he has builded personal power to a dangerous point in this republic.” He went on to compare the “sinister” and “insidious” accumulation of power in the administration to “the rise of every dictator in Europe.”

… By a mile, American presidents are not men of small egos. A wallflower could not survive the nomination process and the general election, especially its current 22-month incarnation. But as partisanship intensified in the 20th century, and politics became increasingly defined by the personalities of party leaders, presidents and ex-presidents have found it hard to remain offstage, silently watching their successors, or would-be successors, grapple with the job — especially during campaigns.

The stakes may have proved too enormous for presidents to remain silent. If they could no longer be the nominees, then they would be pundits of the first order — men with credibility on Oval Office matters by dint of once sitting in the chair themselves.

Patrick Healy. “As I Was Saying Before I Left Office.” The New York Times. December 23, 2007

Cartoon by Bill Leak

Bill Leak Draws Kevin Rudd’s Head With a Compass

“March 2, 1996 marked the start of 10 long years of struggle for the nation’s cartoonists,” wrote Bill Leak on the tenth anniversary of John Howard’s reign as Prime Minister last year. “John Howard’s ordinariness is one of his most effective electoral attributes, but it is almost impossible to capture. It’s a bit like having to draw something that’s not there. As someone once said of British politician Gordon Brown, ‘when he leaves a room the lights go on.’ Howard seemed to us like that — or, as Paul Keating put it, ‘like a lizard on a rock — alive but looking dead.’ “

What we need is a feature to exaggerate to the point of absurdity, something — anything — to get a grip on … but, please, not ordinariness.

Journalists as well as cartoonists found it difficult to get a handle on Howard when he first rose to prominence in Malcolm Fraser’s ministry in 1977. Fraser himself, with his half-closed eyes lurking somewhere behind the hanging gardens of his eyebrows and his jaw, the length of which was restricted only by the amount of drawing space available, was a gift from God. But his Treasurer [John Howard] was a different matter.

Howard was mired in the 1950s, a man who came over all misty eyed when recalling those glory days when Australia was still hanging on firmly to Mother England’s apron strings, nice people lived in suburban houses on a quarter acre, a wild night was when someone broke free from singing songs around the piano and danced the hokey-pokey, and modern art was a foreign pestilence successfully quarantined from our shores. Cartoonists and journalists alike portrayed him as a man living in the past, defined by a series of tired clichés.

Bill Leak. New Matilda. March 1, 2006

“It’s a cruel business drawing caricatures. You have to be a bit of a sadist to get into it in the first place. There’s no denying the joy you get from ridiculing people’s physical features and knowing the hapless victims will have to see what you’ve done to them in the next day’s paper,” Bill Leak wrote in The Australian on May 21 this year. “What’s the first thing you look for when you start drawing a caricature of someone? The answer is shape. For instance, does this person have a big, square block of a head like Mark Latham’s, a soccer ball-shaped head like Kevin Rudd’s, or a Steeden football-shaped head like Petro Georgiou’s? Nick Greiner was one of those rare people whose head was like a horizontal football, the view you’d get if it was laying on a shelf. The things you look for next are the things that stick out: funny noses especially bulbous ones like Peter Costello’s; weird ears (thanks again Costello); whopping great chins like Peter Garrett’s; silly little chins like Mark Vaile’s which looks more like a lump in his neck; jowls like a frigate bird’s throat like Peter Reith’s, or bottom lips that poke out so far you wonder how their owners don’t drown when it rains.”

In The Australian yesterday Bill Leak wrote that he failed to grasp how important Kevin Rudd was going to be when he was named leader of the Labor Party in December last year because his appearance was so unassuming. The former diplomat’s mild manner reminded him of the earnest Belgian boy reporter Tintin, who overcame his opponents with brains, not brawn, and he began drawing him as Tintin, accompanied by a fox terrier who was a dead ringer for Snowy. “Rudd looks like the little bloke who is taking on the big adventure and who just might prevail in the end,” Leak explained [in a story reprinted by The Forbidden Planet] “All I did was add a bit of a chin to him. And sometimes a little bit of a firmness to the mouth.”

Cartoon by Bill Leak

Moulinsart SA, which publishes the Tintin books owned by the Herge estate initially protested but reached a settlement with Leak that allows him to depict Rudd editorially as Tintin, but not sell copies of the cartoons. But, Leak wrote yesterday, when it seemed certain that Rudd would become Prime Minister he realized that the Tintin analogy had a “use-by date” and he’d have to start depicting him as his own man. The shape of Rudd’s head doesn’t give him much inspiration and he noted that he’s the only figure he’s drawn whose head is best drawn with a compass. Brendan Nelson, the new leader of the Liberal Party that John Howard left in tatters, inspires him however. His ascendancy to the leadership of the Liberal Party is a gift to cartoonists, Leak wrote, noting that Nelson has a head that’s a figure eight, and all that’s needed to bring him to life is a tuft of hair, like that of a toilet brush. Leak suggested that the Liberal Party might also be in need of tenaciousness and intelligence and drew Nelson as Tintin.