James Arvanitakis reviews ‘A Land of Plenty’

I have often wondered what an obituary of the Howard Government would look like to an independent observer. How will history judge the eleven years of neoliberal and neoconservative rule? In fifty years time, will students of Australian politics reflect on the Howard Government positively, leading Australia through an era of global insecurity and overseeing a sustained period of economic growth? Or will this period be seen as eleven years of wasted opportunity when a government with four electoral mandates ignored global and domestic opinion on global warming and the invasion of Iraq, focused on  divisive politics, and corrupted long-standing political safeguards?

In his new book, Land of Plenty (MUP, 2008), Mark Davis weighs up this equation. He does this, not by merely focusing on Howard and his government, but by analysing the Australian socio-political landscape as it exists today. The strength of this impressive, provocative and insightful work is the important links Davis draws between events that may at first sight seem disparate, presenting a holistic view of the broader neoconservative agenda –– from ‘practical’ reconciliation, the debunking of global warming, and the militarisation of Australia’s history, to nasty refugee policies and demonisation of  the United Nations. He also shows how the ideological positioning of neoconservatives and neoliberals are co-dependent rather than in conflict as many have assumed.

This critique is undertaken by placing the Howard years in a broader historical arc. In so doing, Davis may tell us many things that we already know, but the strength is in the telling.

In the end, Davis’ assessment is damning –– not just of Howard and his government but also of many progressive critics who failed to grasp what was going on or adequately respond to an electorate seeking answers. Sure, derision of John Howard and his key ministers was fun, but it did little to assure the vast majority of Australians that we were listening.

Davis also reminds us that, while Howard has gone, the neoconservative hangover remains and is now becoming mainstream. This is repeatedly highlighted by the ongoing calls to delay the federal government’s proposed emissions trading scheme (ETS) because of the global downturn. While the ETS is inadequate, it is a step towards reforming the national economy and can provide the impetus for a renewable industry (and green jobs). So while droughts and fires ravage our nation, the usual suspects –– as so eloquently identified by Davis –– are scaremongering about jobs in an attempt to delay the inevitable transition to a green economy. We can only imagine where Australia would be if we had begun down this path twenty years ago. A squandered opportunity? Yes … but more likely to be thought of as insanely neglectful.