John Howard's Body

By Magee, Paul | Cultural Studies Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

John Howard's Body

Magee, Paul, Cultural Studies Review

People consider themselves put under an obligation as much by the benefits they confer as by those they receive.




'Under us, the views of all particular interests will be assessed against the national interest and the sentiments of all Australians': John Howard, 6th June 1995.> One of the greatest things about living in Australia is that we're essentially the same': John Howard, 28th October 1995.2 'Our society is underpinned by those uniquely Australian concepts of a fair go and practical mateship': John Howard, 20th November 1998.3 It is on the basis of quotes like these that Judith Brett has sought to answer the question that has left Australian intellectuals floundering for most of the last decade: 'How are we to understand the contribution of John Howard himself to the success of his governments?'4

Brett's thesis is that Howard's success arises from the way he has managed to associate two long-standing Australian traditions. The first is the traditional Liberal claim to represent the interests of the nation as a whole-as opposed to the interests of the class or the section, the latter role being attributed, of course, to Labor, with its origins in the labour movement of the 1890s, and its ongoing links to the unions. The Liberals govern for all of us. The second is the tradition of Vernacular egalitarianism,' those notions of 'fair go,' 'practical mateship' and all being 'essentially the same' with which Howard dots his speech.5 Brett argues that the Liberals, prior to Howard, had a real rhetorical problem: 'they had no plausible way of talking about anything other than economics'.6 Howard found that way. By merging a traditional Liberal commitment to the level playing field that is meant to make equals of all of us, with 'the symbolic repertoire of Australia's radical nationalist past,' Howard managed, Brett argues,' to reconnect Australian Liberalism with ordinary Australian experience.'7 He made it convincing.

Where Keating spoke to the nation, Howard spoke from it-straight from the heart of its shared beliefs and commonsense understandings of itself. This is revealed in the images which surround the two men. Keating's are of foreignness. [... ] Howard's are of suburban ordinariness-barbeques, cricket, the annual holiday at the same beachside resort, jogging in a shiny tracksuit festooned with logos.8

The most interesting and challenging aspect of Brett's argument is in her insistence that Howard's is indeed the people's language. She cites a focus-group study published in the Australian Journal of Political Science in 2000 which found 'remarkable agreement across the groups' studied as to just what Australian identity, events, values and beliefs are.9 The study included a group of non-English speaking women and found among them too 'references to mateship, owning a house, sport, having a go'.10 Here's some more examples, this time in direct quotes from Howard: our 'sense of fair play' our 'strong egalitarian streak,' our 'openness and unpretentious character,' our 'creed of practical mateship'.11 For Brett, these admittedly banal phrases are indices to Howard's creative genius; he's managed to make the Liberals a party with working-class appeal! What's more, people actually speak and feel this way. He's tapped into it. That's her thesis.


'Like many Protestant women of the time, she was a bigot.'12 I'm citing the journalist Milton Cockburn who wrote an article on Howard's background in 1989. The Prime Minister's mother hated Catholics. She was born one. Mona Howard (nee Kelt) was born in 1899, and instructed in the Catholic religion until the age of eight. At that time, her mother died of cancer, and her care was transferred to her father's Protestant family. She grew to hate Catholics in the process. Her four sons were made to know about it. Mona Howard discouraged her sons from forming friendships with Catholics of either sex, and she was particularly opposed to any romantic attachments. …

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