by Anthony Burke
© all rights reserved
National identity develops in an organic way over time.
John Howard, 13 December 1995
On 2 March 1996 the Liberal–National Coalition won government with a stunning 45-seat majority in the House of Representatives – the worst defeat for Labor since 1977. As if he were some shining new Leviathan, the new Prime Minister, John Howard, said that he would govern for all Australians. While the scale of the defeat had many commentators searching for some kind of sea change in Australian consciousness, the Coalition’s near-total loss of the same majority in 1998 revealed a new and dramatic political volatility in the electorate, whose elements were more difficult to locate and analyse. One suggestion, encouraged by Howard himself, was the subject of an ironic cartoon carried in The Australian.It showed an artist’s studio, in which Howard could be seen standing before an easel and a tiny canvas, painting a suburban idyll. Through a door at the back of his studio a forlorn Keating could be seen following an attendant as he wheeled out a massive, impressionistic work entitled ‘The Big Picture’. On the wall of Howard’s studio was a sign saying: ‘Australia’s Top Miniaturist, Quiet Please’.1
I read the text as directing the joke against Howard and those who elected his government, yet like all good satire, it also turned Keating’s own hubris on him. An earlier version, printed two days before, had workmen carrying out Keating’s canvas and asking a passer-by, ‘Excuse me mate, where’s the big shredder?’ The cartoons captured the many layers of bitterness and confusion which seemed to make up the Australian dilemma at the end of the 1990s, given greater poignancy amid the ashes of defeat. The dilemma, of course, turned on the continued direction and viability of a unified Australian subject, and quickly took on some of the most profound elements of Australia’s social cohesion and diversity – the fate of the mythical ideals of equality and opportunity amid globalisation, the capacity of Australians for tolerance and generosity, and their capacity to respond to the historical experience and contemporary political demands of Australia’s indigenous peoples. The cartoons drew on a view, encouraged by the Liberals, that voters were reacting against the sweeping nation-building rhetoric of 1980s Labor, whose alienating slogans of reconciliation and a new Australian identity in Asia neglected their more grassroots concerns for personal advancement and security, and their roots in a historically Anglo-Celtic structure of identity. Indeed some commentators, including Howard himself, interpreted the victory as a blow against ‘political correctness’ in all its forms.2
Yet the text was also misleading, in its suggestion that Howard was not himself engaged in a totalising project. In this sense it was complicit in the Coalition’s efforts to obscure its own social and economic engineering beneath the illusion of a politics which sought its roots in the ‘autonomous’ operations of ‘the market’ and the reproduction of modern domestic life.3 As John Howard was to say later, simultaneously invoking the totalising and the individualising aspects of security, ‘The success or failure of a nation essentially begins in the homes of its people.’4 It was starkly clear that ‘the political double-bind’ retained its importance as an effort to link the production and management of individual subjectivity with that of national and transnational totalities.
In many ways the Howard governments more closely echoed the conservative liberalism I have traced through Locke, Bentham and Hegel, with the important difference that against Keating’s still unrealised totality Howard posited an achieved one which should resist further cultural (though not economic) change. This would, he and his government hoped, have the effect of preserving existing identities and traditions and liberating existing aspirations. This was the public face of a shallow conservatism that masked one of the most radical governments Australia had seen. The renewed primacy of security in political discourse functioned as a promise of continuity amid intensified pressure for change – it was a potent appeal which sought to strengthen the bind between citizenship, subjectivity and political power amid deepening (global) divisions and uncertainties.
Externally, the most visible and disturbing event of the period was the Asian political and economic crisis. Over a twelve-month period in 1997–98 the currencies of South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia plunged massively in value under sustained attack from speculators; this caused bankruptcies, a dramatic flight of foreign investment and tremendous falls in economic activity. By mid-1998 every Asian economy was in recession and some, such as Indonesia, were in deep depression.5 This crisis was accompanied and exacerbated by the increasing protest and instability around the Soeharto regime – there was destructive rioting, violence and repression before he was finally forced to resign in May 1998. In its aftermath the army’s war of counterinsurgency in Aceh intensified, religious pogroms flared up in Ambon and Kalimantan, and East Timor was plunged into its most serious political and humanitarian crisis since the Indonesian invasion of December 1975.
As I made clear in Chapter 4, powerful images of a renewed and modernised Australian identity – which was simultaneously a renewed culture, polity and economy – were closely tied to the nation’s ability to successfully integrate with Asia, particularly with New Order Indonesia. Thus it is right to assume that the Indonesian (and broader Asian) crisis held the potential to destabilise strong forms of Australian policy and being. After the fall of Soeharto many commentators took the opportunity to reassess Australia’s policies towards his regime, asking how they reflected on our national character. The Australian Financial Review‘s Peter Hartcher wrote that in tolerating the ‘ugliness’ of the regime for thirty years, ‘we became a little uglier ourselves’.6 This process of re-evaluation has more than once coincided with ongoing domestic crises of identity. The widely criticised xenophobia of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, for example, arises not merely from the ongoing strength of historic images of White Australia, but from a resentment at the changes forced on Australians through structural economic reform and the increasing ‘globalisation’ of the economy.
Security and the loss of ‘home’
In this context, security has functioned, particularly in the rhetoric of the Howard governments, as a drive for historical, strategic, economic and ontological certitude.This has been manifest in the government’s statements about Australian history and cultural tradition, about indigenous people, about the regional political economy, and about defence and foreign policy. Some of these took the form of combative interventions into public debate, while others, such as the 1997 foreign policy White Paper, were highly formalised statements of the real which were intended to frame and structure policy. While the Labor Party took many strongly oppositional stances – retaining its support for the Keating-era embrace of reconciliation and multiculturalism, and undertaking a courageous reassessment of its history on East Timor, for example – its own rhetoric of security has also functioned to solidify an underlying elite consensus about Australia’s integration with the global economy and basic forms of political and economic subjectivity. Conflict was thus being played out across discourses which nonetheless derived from a common liberal imaginary.
It is thus unsurprising that the most visible appeals to security came in 1998, as an election campaign loomed, Indonesia boiled, and the long-term consequences of the Asian crisis remained unclear. Throughout that year Howard told Australians that his government had delivered them ‘security, safety and stability’, and that they should continue to place their faith in him to deliver ‘safety and security’ to the Australian economy.7 In January, the ALP’s national conference, under the leadership of Kim Beazley, adopted a new platform, which declared the party’s central values as ‘security and opportunity’ – elevating security to an overarching goal which linked, in a seamless continuum, the personal security of individuals and families to the security of the nation itself.8 Announcing the election, Howard said the choice would be about which party could make Australia ‘secure in a very turbulent and hostile environment’.9
Uncertainty seemed to be the only certainty there was, and the political desire to control and tame it was strong. But could this really be achieved so easily? The social theorist Zygmunt Bauman doesn’t believe so. He sees uncertainty not as a transitory and easily controlled phenomenon, but as a ‘permanent and irreducible’ element of the postmodern condition: an uncertainty ‘not limited to one’s own luck and talents, but concerning as well the future shape of the world, the right way of living in it, and the criteria by which to judge the rights and wrongs of the way of living’. Images of identity in this condition are no longer stable, and reconstituting identity against uncertainty is no longer so easy – it is no longer a simple matter to ‘arrest the floating and drifting self’.10
This is not entirely a negative idea. It tends to thwart the power of the ‘political double-bind’ even as it is put into operation, and raises important questions about how successful such efforts on the part of Howard (orLabor) could ever be. Even though such uncertainty can be corrosive of an open and tolerant cultural attitude, producing selfishness and xenophobia, it also holds the potential for more positive transformations because it puts existing understandings into question. Thus while Bauman often seems overawed by the negative features of our time – which arereal enough – we can also focus on their optimistic and emancipatory potential. To ask what the world’s ‘future shape’ will be is to create agency in making it; and to ask what ‘the right way of living’ in the world is is to turn uncertainty around identity into a form of ethical workwhich asks about the alternative forms of being our previous ideas of identity have suppressed – which opens the question of being, as the philosopher Julia Kristeva suggests, into one that asks what being withothers truly requires.11
For Bauman the symptoms of uncertainty included the increasing globalisation and deregulation of capitalism, the loss of social support networks and fellow-feeling, the loss of stable geopolitical references with the end of the Cold War, and the rise of the image industries which fracture identity into a series of fleeting and malleable modes of consumption.12 While all this was arguably true for Australia, in the late 1990s a heightened sense of uncertainty derived also from Howard’s own ideological preconceptions, and from more local events and socio-economic processes such as the Asian crisis, the fall of Soeharto and the destruction of East Timor, and the High Court’s Maboand Wikdecisions.
Howard’s own speeches in part echoed Bauman’s diagnosis, with some important differences: he believed uncertainty could be controlled and he sought to arrest the more positive transformations – such as the empowerment of Aboriginal people and history – that this condition of uncertainty might liberate. Profound dilemmas of justice and identity were instead reduced to a task of management: ‘The task of modern government is to maintain the momentum for the changes which are necessary – whilst to the extent that it is possible, to cushion the personal and social consequences of that change.’13 The challenge for us is to break this classic Hegelian double-bind, which seeks to release the revolutionary powers of market and technological modernity while stifling progressive social change beneath a suffocating social and political conservatism. In differing but interconnected ways, this struggle was the discursive subtext to the crises in both Indonesia andAustralia.
Thus Howard chose to read the key events of this period as crises of identity – and as opportunities to intervene in and solidify those forms of identity he valued. The continuing globalisation of the economy and an (at least pragmatic) engagement with Asia were necessary, Howard thought, but they also had the power to destabilise traditional feelings of identity, security and ‘home’. In 1997 he argued that:
Increasingly, modern government is about facing the challenges of very rapid change but also remembering that there are certain stabilisers in society that provide reassurance and support when a society is undergoing great change particularly of an economic character.14
Crucial to such stabilisation, Howard thought, was ‘the Menzian concept of home’, which provides a ‘sense of security’:
I believe that the concept of home is a compelling notion in our psyche…The loss of security challenges traditional notions of home and people feel the need to react to alienation. Part of the job of a Prime Minister in these contemporary times is, whilst enthusiastically embracing change and globalisation, he or she must embrace what is secure, what people see as ‘home’…I want to provide Australians with this security as we embrace, as we must and will, a new and vastly different future.15
It is security that protects us from the loss of home – as the cultural theorist Fiona Allon comments in her own meditation on the significance of home for Howard, a ‘struggle over meanings and conceptions of “home” and “community”, “family” and “nation” in Australian social and political history have found a significant juncture in the politics and policies of John Howard in the 1990s’. She reminds us that ‘home, now more than ever, is seen as firmly connected to the world of politics and economics, as actively shaped and defined by the public sphere’.16
Howard’s political concerns gestured ahead, to this ‘vastly different’ future, and backwards, towards the (illusory) unity of a tradition that might ensure stability through change. It was clear that in his mind security and identity were synonymous, and that he saw the manipulation of identity as an important political tool in ameliorating the resentments produced by his government’s policies and the profound structural changes wrought by globalisation’s ‘different future’: unemployment, the loss of services in rural and regional areas, the changing patterns of work and family life, an increasing gap between rich and poor, and reduced access to welfare, educational opportunities and health services.
The insecurity associated with the loss of home is also the loss of an (imagined) cultural homogeneity: a symptom both of the increasingly visible diversity of Australian society and of the enhanced political power and presence of the Other. Thus Howard’s sense of ‘loss’ was not felt by all: for those who didn’t share in his European nostalgia, a secure sense of home in Australia was yet to be found, and was in fact being destabilised by the new politics of ‘home’ – as Ghassan Hage ably demonstrates in his book White Nation.17 This was particularly true of Australia’s indigenous peoples, whose efforts to secure title and rights to their land – ‘home’ in its most profound and ancient sense – were actively thwarted by the government. This was the harder edge of the nostalgia for ‘home’: its deployment into a practice of continuing dispossession.
Howard’s concern was not entirely cynical: he shared with other Australians a deep-seated anxiety about the transformations in identity which figures like Whitlam, Keating and journalist Paul Kelly had been arguing would inevitably come with accepting an ‘Asian’ future for Australia. As the government’s 1997 foreign policy White Paper announced: ‘closer engagement with Asia [does not] require reinventing Australia’s identity or abandoning the traditions which define Australian society…Australia does not need to choose between its history and its geography.’18 These views were presaged during Howard’s 1996 visit to Indonesia, when he said that Australia ‘does not claim to be Asian’ and brings ‘its own distinct culture, attitudes and history to the region’.19 Similarly, one of Australia’s most eminent poets, Les Murray, managed to rope together postmodernism, Keating-era diplomacy and multiculturalism into a bitter paean to the same anxiety:
All of people’s Australia, its churches and lore
are gang-raped by satire self-righteous as war
and, from trawling fresh victims to set on the poor
our Mandarins now, in one more evasion
of love and themselves, declare us Asian.
Australians are like most who won’t read this poem
or any, since literature turned on them
and bodiless jargons without reverie
scorn their loves as illusion and biology,
compared with bloody History, the opposite of home.20
Again there is the nostalgia for a lost sense of ‘home’, paired however with an anger at the hypocrisy of the ‘mandarins’ who, ‘in one more evasion of love and themselves’, offered an ‘Asia’ ruled by corrupt and repressive elites as the key to a new Australian destiny. While pandering to such anxieties about identity, Howard turned a deaf ear to the more salient critique of the Asianist amorality. Indeed, at a geopolitical level Howard sought to preserve the same structures of security and certitude that Labor had clung to: in the same breath that he distanced Australia from Asia he also reaffirmed Australia’s closeness to the Soeharto regime and our need to develop ever closer defence and economic ties with Indonesia.21
Yet the crisis which would conclude two years later with Soeharto’s resignation had already begun. Only two months before Howard’s visit, in June 1996, Soeharto had ordered the Armed Forces (ABRI) to force the removal of the popular Megawati Soekarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, from the leadership of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI); this provoked violent rioting in Jakarta and the occupation of her headquarters by supporters. The occupation was violently ended by the military on 27 July, leading to even more damaging riots, and some of her supporters were arrested and placed on trial. Other radical opponents of the regime, including the union leader Muchtar Pakpahan and activists from the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) such as Dita Sari and Budiman Sudjatmiko, were also arrested at this time.22 New foreign minister Alexander Downer’s bold response to the attack on the PDI headquarters, in which five were killed and 170 seriously wounded, was to say, ‘We don’t conduct our affairs in Australia in the same way.’23
The depth of Howard’s paranoia about identity was underlined by his insistence that Labor had been arguing Australia should seek to become Asian, when this was something Keating had persistently disavowed. In 1994 he said, ‘We do not, and cannot, aim to be “Asian” or European or anything else but Australians.’24 One suspects that the prospect of an ‘Asian’ Australia formed an emotive smokescreen for Howard’s real anxiety about his ability to continue to define Australianness in ways which had political utility. Why else accuse Keating in 1995 of ‘an attempted heist of Australian nationalism’? Howard instead portrayed national identity as a stable and unchanging set of traditions: ‘it develops in an organic way over time’. Apart from effacing the enormous social and political conflict over identity throughout Australian history, this served to paper over a deeper anxiety that identity could never be fixed or made hegemonic: ‘Constant debate about identity implies either that we don’t already have one, or worse, that it is somehow inadequate.’25
What this points to is a profound ontological anxiety. It was thus especially ironic when The Australian‘s Greg Sheridan praised the Howard Government’s first Budget – with its drastic cuts to spending, increased tertiary education fees, cuts to childcare and bias towards nuclear families – for its good ‘Asian values’.26 Indeed, the political economist Richard Robison sees a broader attraction for Western conservatives in the Asian agenda: a new hybrid of conservatism and neo-liberalism that increasingly mimics an ‘Asian’ politics where ‘the interest of economic growth is portrayed as the collective public interest and where the state smooths the way for the corporate or family agenda’.27
In attempting at the same time to accelerate economic change and retard cultural change, the Howard governments sought – as Labor had – to create overarching structures of Cartesian certitude within which more nuanced forms of governmentality could be deployed. Thus they sought to develop a strategy in which formations of national and individual identity, and domestic and international policy, could be brought into a cohesive and harmonic whole. This was clear in the 1997 foreign policy White Paper, In the National Interest,which argued for ‘a whole-of-nation approach which emphasises the linkages between domestic policies and foreign and trade policies’. Revealing the complex ideological conjunction between foreign policy, domestic policy and modes of discipline and self-government, the White Paper claimed that Australia’s international competitiveness and national ‘economic strength is crucially linked to measures such as a more flexible labour market, investment in research and development, strengthening education and training systems, developing appropriate infrastructure, and implementing effective savings and taxation policies’.28
Whatever the claims to policy coherence, the deployment of security here was driven by an attempt to manage and annul contradiction. Just as conflict and dispute permeate the political, industrial and international arena, the more private (and supposedly essential) formations of subjectivity also display striking dissonances. Cultural theorist Toby Miller has already explored the psychological tension, in liberal states, between the self-interested subject of consumption and the selfless and obedient citizen;29 likewise, deployments of national policy (whether in welfare, taxation, health, industrial relations, or foreign affairs) will affect and produce subjects differently, according to complex cleavages of income, work, locale, gender, age, ethnicity and sexuality. In short, securityis characterised by a malign sleight-of-hand: while it utilises a politics of sameness in talk of the national interest and identity, when combined with other market and social formations it deploys a complicated system of social and economic differentiation using diverse combinations of policy, discipline and desire.
Through its own combination of the ‘political double-bind’ and the strategic imagination, the government sought to simultaneously transform and police individual subjectivities, ‘reform’ domestic policy frameworks and relations between market and state, while continuing previous lines of international policy in ways which might limit larger transformations in identity. In this sense the introduction of a consumption tax, the sale of Telstra, the inexorable tightening of eligibility for welfare, the restriction of workers’ rights to strike and collectively bargain, the confrontation of waterside workers, the harassment of refugees and the aggressive pursuit of international trade liberalisation can be thought of as part of a single totality. At the same time as rhetorics of the ‘national interest’ were deployed in an effort to universalise the interests of the (largely city-based) elites who benefited from the government’s policies, a series of techniques were deployed for the differential control and production of subjectivity: discipline and surveillance targeted at welfare recipients, youth, workers and refugees; and desire and self-government used to develop self-interested and market-oriented subjectivities in citizens. These were then paired, where necessary, with more totalising deployments of legislative, police and bureaucratic power.30
At the national and transnational level, the government’s rhetoric was characterised by the same kind of Cartesian hubris to which Labor had earlier been victim. In August 1997, at the onset of the Asian crisis and only eight months before the fall of Soeharto, the foreign policy White Paper declared that ‘Australians should have confidence in Australia’s capacity to shape its future’ and that ‘economic growth in industrialising East Asia will continue at relatively high levels over the next fifteen years’.31 In order to preserve such certainties it would merely be necessary to strengthen Australia’s alliance relationship with the United States, pursue regional security co-operation, economic integration and trade liberalisation as before, and strengthen key bilateral relationships with Indonesia, China and Japan.
The paper failed utterly to identify either the economic or political seeds of the Asian crisis – while it cited ‘potentially serious factors’ such as ‘worsening current account deficits combined with high debt levels [and] institutional weaknesses’, it did not see how the flight of massive amounts of short-term portfolio investment would combine with corruption and poor prudential supervision to precipitate, within eighteen months, the widespread collapse of regional economies.32 This failure occurred even though, as the economist Jeffrey Winters argues, highly accurate warning signs were available in the analysis of regional think tanks like Jakarta’s ECONIT.33 About the looming flashpoints in Indonesia – the Presidential succession and East Timor – all the paper had to say was that ‘an improved human rights situation and a greater role in the administration of the Province for indigenous East Timorese would contribute to an overall resolution of the issue’, and that the bilateral relationship would require ‘careful management’ through any leadership transition.34 Yet in the wake of the July 1996 riots, regional media had already identified the broad-based resentments that would soon destroy Soeharto. Asiaweek quoted one Chinese businessman, who presciently said, ‘If he wants to stay on, we will not be able to stop a social revolution. The poor will not differentiate…we will all come under attack.’35
Indeed, many others could see the coming storm. In September 1997 I warned in The Jakarta Postof ‘the increasing despair over the current political stalemate in Indonesia’, and of the fears of many that ‘the myriad incidents of violence prior to and during the election campaign portend an explosion’.36 In a similar vein the political scientists Jim George and Rodd McGibbon warned that ‘Australia’s support for the Soeharto regime is actually undermining, rather than enhancing, the long-term prospects for a stable, secure and prosperous regional environment.’37 Yet it was inconceivable to the White Paper’s authors that, within three years, East Timor would have voted for independence, Indonesia would be struggling to entrench democracy amid enormous social and political upheaval, and the bilateral relationship would be in deep crisis. Instead, the White Paper revealed a myopic and dangerous complacency. One of the most telling (and in retrospect ridiculous) boasts was John Howard’s claim in May 1997, immediately before the Asian crisis, that his government’s policies would ‘contribute to our region’s strategic resilience. They will help provide us and our neighbours with greater confidence that we can navigate safely a period of great economic, political and strategic change. They will help ensure that the economic progress of the past ten or twenty years is not disrupted.’38
One element of this complacency was the largely self-indulgent realism which the Howard Government saw itself bringing to international policy. The White Paper repudiated Labor’s (already limited) commitment to international citizenship and multilateralism, emphasising bilateral relationships over international structures and institutions, and stating that ‘in all it does in the field of foreign and trade policy, the Government will apply [the] basic test of national interest’. While the government emphasised multilateralism in trade, in crucial questions on conflict and diplomacy it chose bilateralism. Yet the later crisis in East Timor showed how this fed serious delusions about Australian influence with Indonesia, at the same time as it cruelled badly needed multilateral efforts to avert the looming disaster. Labor’s spokesman on foreign affairs, Laurie Brereton, identified the hidden agenda in the White Paper’s argument for a ‘selective approach to the international agenda…in areas where our national interests are closely engaged’39 by pointing out that: ‘The issue of human rights, including labour standards and child labour exploitation, has been very significantly downgraded in our foreign policy priorities, with the Howard Government withdrawing from active participation in the International Labour Organisation and openly arguing for a “softly, softly” human rights approach designed to give no offence to authoritarian regimes in our region.’40
This contrasted, Brereton said, with Downer’s previous harsh criticisms of the Keating Government’s weak approach to human rights. When Brereton had wanted Australia to impose sanctions on the Burmese Junta after its renewed crackdown on the democracy movement, Downer refused.41 Also in contrast to the government’s pragmatic response to the Indonesian Army’s removal of Megawati and brutal crackdown, three weeks after the riots Brereton was urging the government to be ‘more actively engaged in encouraging the exploration of peaceful solutions to the current unrest…Australia should not confuse any particular political group with a country as a whole. Nor should we assume a necessary congruence between the interests of any group, including the Soeharto government, with the interests of both Indonesia and Australia.’42
The Howard Government’s narrow interpretation of Australia’s security and ‘national interest’ was not only dangerously complacent; it had its corollary in their visions of individual and social subjectivity. In a whole range of areas – industrial relations, welfare, immigration, Aboriginal affairs, even foreign policy – the government sought to break and dissolve the bonds which linked individuals with broader social obligations and forms of collective social organisation, and put in their place a more selfish and atomised citizen-subjectivity, attuned to self-interest first and suspicious of the claims of others. With its introduction of individual workplace contracts the government sought to attack the power of trade unions; with cuts to foreign aid and a harsh approach to refugees it sought to weaken a sense of obligation to outsiders; with cuts to welfare and attacks on ‘special interests’ it sought to scapegoat the already disempowered against an illusory ‘mainstream’; and with cuts to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) budgets they sought to weaken the concept of minority rights, undermine a crucial vehicle of Aboriginal self-determination and drive a wedge between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
This was consistent with the founding liberalism of the 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens,which Marx criticised as merely ‘the liberty of man as an isolated monad drawn into himself…None of these so-called rights of man [equality, liberty, security, property] goes beyond the egoistic man,beyond man as a member of civil society, as man separated from life in the community and withdrawn into himself, into his private interest and private arbitrary will.’ This was, however, the essential meaning of security: ‘Civil society does not rise above egoism through the concept of security. Security is rather the guaranteeof its egoism.’43
‘We are special individuals, not special interests’, Howard liked to say.44 Political scientist Carol Johnson argued that implicit in the government’s politics was ‘a dismantling of a version of [Labor’s] neo-liberal project which reshapes and commodifies groupidentities.’45 Alleged proof of the success of this atomisation strategy, which was simultaneously an effort to shape and to commodify individualidentities, was Howard’s oft-repeated boast that Australia was ‘a great share-owning democracy’. Yet this had largely occurred through the partial float of Australia’s largest corporation, Telstra, and the demutualisation of large insurance companies such as AMP, National Mutual and the NRMA. Nearly two million people bought shares in Telstra, and in the case of the NRMA and AMP, millions of policyholders were givenshares in the new entities.46 While this hardly indicated a spontaneous merging of individual and corporate interests, it did indicate a crucial terrain of struggle at a time when many large corporations were sacking thousands of staff in order to boost short-term profits and share prices, and when corporations chafed against government regulation in areas of taxation, environmental protection and industrial relations. As journalist Adele Horin suggests, ‘support for socially responsible corporate behaviour…can evaporate under threat of a sliding share price’.47
Yet how does this mesh with the government’s social conservatism and its vision of international relations? Here the ‘political double-bind’ is at work again. With its elevation of the concept of ‘national interest’ over internationalism, the government traced an image of the self-interested individual subject onto the self-interested nationalsubject. While ‘internationalist’ co-operation and generosity were not ruled out, they would be subject to ‘this basic test’ of national interest.48 At the same time, the government traced a movement back into individual subjectivity, with Howard’s lecture to Australians that: ‘The success or failure of a nation essentially begins in the homes of its people…Each one of us is responsible for building our lives and the life of our nation. All of us [are] accountable to ourselves, to those around us, to the future itself.’49 Crucial to this was his idea of thefamilyas having ‘a pivotal role in the fabric of the Australian nation’:
…it is the influence of the family that has the most direct effect on moulding the character of individuals. It is there that love, dignity, morality and character are crafted. It is there that we are taught faith and loyalty and conscience and integrity.50
This was a classic vision of liberal governmentality, in which subjects do the work of politics on themselves,and in which families can act as spaces of subjectification in ways that governments never could – not only relieving the public of responsibility for welfare, as many Howard Government policies were increasingly forcing them to, but inculcating values that, while portrayed as contributing to a universal ‘national’ good, would in fact work in ways which benefited the particular interests of his party and its corporate backers.
The philosophical roots of this form of governmentality lie in Rousseau’s attempt to derive principles for the running of the state from the family – while in the Cameralists’ idea ofpolice,this also worked in the reverse direction, to direct familial and individual behaviour along the lines of an efficient state. This culminated in Hegel’s view, in the Philosophy of Right,of the individual, the family and the corporation forming successively higher manifestations of the ‘ethical whole’ of the state.51 If there is a psychological tension between the selfish consumer and the public-spirited citizen, as Toby Miller suggests there is, the Howard government sought to efface it completely, to merge consumer and citizen into a single mode of subjectivity – one that was at once pliable to political intervention and discourse, and self-governing in ways which enhanced corporate power at the expense of the welfare state.
Beyond the abstract loyalties to the state and political authority, the ‘family’ was to be one of the few legitimate sites of social belonging and obligation. Certainly not trade unions, Aboriginal corporations, or community groups based around a desire for justice or social change – these were instead to be vilified as ‘special interests’. As Toby Miller argues, ‘to be branded a “sectional interest” is utterly disabling under these circumstances’, to have one’s rights and claims subsumed beneath a ‘white, male, heterosexual, polite capitalist norm’. This was another subtext to Howard’s idea of home, Menzies’ ‘homes spiritual’: ‘the brave acceptance of unclouded individual responsibility’. Disturbingly enough, Howard even sought to deny unwelcome social participants the status of humans: ‘the point at which a person seeks moral refuge in the crowd is the point at which he or she ceases to be an individual human being’.52
Anthony Burke was educated at the University of Technology Sydney and The Australian National University. He has worked as a researcher in communications, environmental and international policy, and taught students in politics and international relations, media studies and cultural theory. He is currently Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Queensland.
This extract from In Fear of Security: Australia’s Asian Anxiety (Sydney: Pluto Press Australia, 2001), is republished with the permission of the author and Pluto Press Australia. Phone +61 2 9692 5111, Fax +61 2 9692 5142.
1 The Weekend Australian,9-10 March 1996, p 18.
2 Deborah Hope, “Poll suggests rejection of political correctness”, The Weekend Australian,9-10 March 1996: 10; Donald Horne, “Paul Keating’s fatal abstraction”, The Weekend Australian,9-10 March 1996: 21; Lindsay Tanner, “How change fatigue lost the vote for Labor”, The Weekend Australian,7 March 1996: 12; John Howard, “Australia and Asia: An Enduring Engagement”, Address to the Australia-Asia Society, 8 May 1997, p 2.
3See Howard’s address, Politics and Patriotism: A Reflection on the National Identity Debate,Grand Hyatt Hotel, Melbourne, 13 December 1995.
4John Howard, The Australian Way,Federation Address presented to The Queensland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Brisbane, 28 January 1999, p 1.
5 International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook,April 2000, p 23.
6Peter Hartcher, “Soeharto’s regime can no longer be tolerated”, The Australian Financial Review,16-17 May 1998, p 9.
7 John Howard, Prime Television Telecast,25 May 1998.
8 Australian Labor Party, 41st National Conference Draft Platform,Canberra, 1998.
9 The Australian,31 August 1998.
10 Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodernity and its Discontents(Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), p 21.
11 See Julia Kristeva, “Strangers to Ourselves” in Kelly Oliver ed. The Portable Kristeva(New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp 264-294 and Anthony Burke, “Strangers without Strangeness: Ethics and difference between Australia and the Indonesian New Order”, Communal/Plural: Journal of Transnational and Crosscultural Studies,Volume 8 Number 2, October 2000.
12 Ibid, pp 23-25.
13 John Howard, “Australia and Asia: An Enduring Engagement”, Address to the Australia-Asia Society, 8 May 1997, p 1.
14 John Howard, “The Inaugural Prime Ministers on Prime Ministers Lecture”, Old Parliament House, Canberra, 3 September 1997.
16 Fiona Allon, “Home as Cultural Translation: John Howard’s Earlwood”, Communal/Plural,Number 5/1997, p 2.
17 Ghassan Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society(Sydney: Pluto Press, 1998).
18 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, In The National Interest: Australia’s Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper(Canberra: AGPS, 1997).
19 Michael Gordon and Patrick Walters, “Howard Embraces Indonesia: PM Backs Closer Economic and Security Links”, The Australian,17 September 1996, p 1.
20 Les A. Murray, “A Brief History”, Subhuman Redneck Poems (Potts Point: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1996), pp 11-12.
21 Gordon and Walters, op. cit.
22 Louise Williams, “Shoot on sight: Cracks show in Soeharto’s rule”, The Sydney Morning Herald,3 August 1996, p 25; Lewa Pardomuan, “Leftist charged over riot”,The Sydney Morning Herald,3 August 1996, p 19; Patrick Walters, “Army cracks down on ‘subversion'”, The Australian,1 August 1996.
23 “Press silent on Army response”, The Australian,30 July 1996, p 8.
24 Paul Keating, Australia-Asia Institute Address, Brisbane, 26 October 1994, in Advancing Australia,p 217.
25 John Howard, “Politics and Patriotism: A Reflection on the National Identity Debate”, Grand Hyatt Hotel Melbourne, 13 December 1995, pp 2-3.
26 Greg Sheridan, “Asian tigers link growth to values”, The Australian, 28 August 1996, p 13.
27 Richard Robison, “Introduction” and “Looking North: Myths and Strategies”, in Richard Robison ed. Pathways to Asia: The Politics of Engagement(Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1996), pp xii, 10.
28 In the National Interest,p vii.
29 Toby Miller, The Well-Tempered Self: Citizenship, Culture and the Postmodern Subject(Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p xv.
30 Adele Horin, “Trying a bit of stick: The most vulnerable may be hit by tough new welfare rules”, The Sydney Morning Herald,18 March 2000, p 44; Toni O’Loughlin, “Making welfare work”, The Sydney Morning Herald,28 March 2000; Virginia Trioli, “The Unwelcome Mat”, The Bulletin,14 December 1999, pp 34-36; Chris Sidoti, “Unlucky voyagers to the Lucky Country”, The Age,28 May 1998.
31 In the National Interest,pp iv-v.
32 In the National Interest,p 25.
33 Jeffrey A. Winters, “The Financial Crisis in Southeast Asia”, in Richard Robison, Mark Beeson, Kanishka Jayasuriya and Hyuk-Rae Kim ed. Politics and Markets in the Wake of the Asian Crisis(London: Routledge, 2000), p 41.
34 In the National Interest,p 61.
35 Susan Berfield and Keith Loveard, “Suharto Under Fire”, Asiaweek, 9 August 1996.
36 Anthony Burke, “White paper sets off alarm bells”, The Jakarta Post, 25 September 1997, p 4.
37 Jim George and Rodd McGibbon, “Dangerous Liaisons: Neoliberal Foreign Policy and Australia’s Regional Engagement”, Australian Journal of Political Science,Vol 33, No 3, 1998, p 411.
38 John Howard, “Australia and Asia: An Enduring Engagement”, Address to the Australia-Asia Society, 8 May 1997, p 2.
39 In the National Interest,p iii.
40 Laurie Brereton, “Foreign Policy under the Coalition: Confused Not Confident, Often Just Plain Dumb”, Speech to Australian Institute of International Affairs, Queensland, 22 February 1997, pp 8-9.
42 Laurie Brereton, “Australia and Indonesia: A Labor Perspective”, Speech to the Second Indonesian Students Conference, ANU, Canberra, 21 August 1996, p 11.
43 Karl Marx, “On The Jewish Question”, in Eugene Kamenka, The Portable Karl Marx(London: Penguin, 1983), pp 108-109.
44 John Howard, Prime Ministers on Prime Ministers lecture,p 3.
45 Carol Johnson, “John Howard and The Revenge of the Mainstream”, Paper given to the Political Science Program, RSSS, ANU, 7 May 1997, p 7.
46 John Howard, 2000 Federation Address, 28 January 2000, p 2.
47 Adele Horin, “Paying a high price for a shareholder democracy”, The Sydney Morning Herald,25 March 2000, p 49.
48 In the National Interest,p iii.
49 John Howard, The Australian Way,p 1.
50John Howard, Prime Ministers on Prime Ministers lecture,p 3.
51Michel Foucault, “Governmentality”, in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller ed. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality(London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), pp 90-92; G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp 148-155.
52 Miller, The Well-Tempered Self,p 221; John Howard, Prime Ministers on Prime Ministers lecture,p 7.