Missing Howard Battlers

Have you noticed what is missing in this election campaign? After 10 years the ‘Howard battler’ has disappeared. Having been our constant companion for so many years, he is nowhere to be seen.

Workchoices is undoubtedly responsible. But his disappearance has implications that go well beyond workchoices.

Successful politicians usually have a governing story. It is a story about their country and where it needs to go in the future. It is also about them as a person and why they are the natural choice to steer the nation along that journey.

When Margaret Thatcher won power she argued that Britain had lost its way in giving up the power and prestige of empire. She argued the spread of leftist ideals had led the nation to mediocrity. She pointed to her own rise from such depths as a model for the country.

When Nelson Mandela won the presidency of post-apartheid South Africa, he resisted revenge and argued the future rested on reconciliation. His own personal story of persecution meant he embodied the story, and was able to lead his country down that path.

The ‘Howard battler’ has been essential to Howard’s governing story.

In 1996, when Howard came to power Australia had undergone two decades of radical social and economic change. In the 1970s we embraced the social revolutions of women’s liberation and  multiculturalism. Women got equal pay, could divorce if they wanted, and porn became a no-no in the tearoom. The number of non-anglo faces grew, and were given an equal seat at the table.

The 1970s also saw the beginning of economic reforms that gained a full head of steam in the 1980s and early 1990s.The reforms saw trade barriers ripped down, the currency floated, and massive privatizations. The unions were stripped of their powers and industries downsized.

By 1996, Paul Keating had recrafted Australia’s self image as a young tech savy  country engaging with Asia. We were educated, multi-lingual, and comfortably strutting the world stage.

As Australia transformed, the ordinary working bloke had been relegated to the periphery of our national life. Blue collar man not only had to make space for women and non-anglos. He also copped the worst of the economic pain as it was his industries that were privatized or downsized.

Howard identified with the Australians who felt marginalized by the change. His leadership story was all about returning the ordinary bloke to centre stage. He painted working men as the real Australians. His election slogan was ‘for all of us’.

Howard also promised to put an end to the relentless change. He told us his goal was to make us ‘relaxed and comfortable’.

In his story it was his conservatism and ordinariness that made him a convincing champion of those he dubbed ‘the battlers’. He was not super bright, super articulate, and didn’t wear Zenya suits. He wasn’t even good at bowling a cricket ball, but he loved to watch. He was the perfect main character in his governing story.

Howard’s story has been pulled out every election in the 11 years since. For most of his tenure he left us in no doubt who he was, what he believed in, and what we could expect from him.

It is a governing story that would have run its course. There has been no one pushing for serious social change for a decade. And now Australians have had time to get relaxed and comfortable, it does not seem like remarkable promise any more.

Yet Howard’s governing story has not been allowed to slowly burn out. It has been snuffed out. The absence of the Howard battler this election flags that Howard’s governing story is dead. And it was not just because of the passage of time. Nor was it because of the brilliant political strategy of the opposition. Howard has no one to blame but himself.

The political impact of workchoices goes beyond being an unpopular policy. In pursuing workchoices, Howard has unravelled his own governing story. He has undermined his claim to be the representative of the battlers.

Working Australians have felt betrayed. They feel he does not really represent them. He failed to understand how vulnerable people would feel. And he underestimated how many would get the wrong end of the stick.

Coming into this election, Howard is still a pretty ordinary individual, but he no longer represents ordinary Australians.

In the last 12 months we have seen Howard flailing around trying to find a new governing story. He has struggled to explain who he is and what his relationship is with the Australian people. He has also not been able to paint a picture of where Australia is now and why he is the man that should lead us into the future. He has been grasping at straws, lurching to be the people’s champion in battles with the states, the God of water, and the saviour of indigenous children. None of it resonates.

Workchoices might not have been the killer blow to the government in itself. But the disarray, directionlessness and strategy-less-ness that we are now seeing is because when Howard endorsed the new laws, he undermined his own political reason for being.

This article was first published in the Canberra Times, November 2007