Sunday, October 10, 2004

Australia embraces an American way

In The Age
Alistair Mant offers his final reflection on Election 2004 from the point of view of the overseas observer.

...John Howard's message throughout the campaign has been: this is not really a country - it is an $800 billion corporation and the CEO and board of directors are doing a first-rate job. This is not really an election - rather an extraordinary general meeting to confirm the directors' remuneration packages.

Lost, (as in Britain since Thatcher and in the US ever since the founding fathers) is the sense of noblesse oblige that used to dignify conservative politics. The Howard line is that the business of government is business.

At his Press Club lunch on Thursday he said: "If it serves the Australian interest, I'll do it... the only test is 'is it good for us?' " It might have been George W. Bush speaking.

As the wags say in Washington: the US is the only full member of the global golf-club - all the other countries are associate members. I have remarked on this adoption of a business metaphor to my friends and colleagues throughout the contest. The surprise to me is their surprise that I should even raise the issue. Something has changed profoundly.

The French have a wonderfully dismissive term for government ministers of limited capacity who conduct great offices of state as if they were suburban service stations. The term is "garagiste".

It is a snobbish way of saying there is more to good government and effective international relations that business success. This election has confronted Australians with that same, essentially ethical, dimension. The net effect of this new world view in government is an increasing polarisation between confident, educated people and fearful ignorant people.

Hunter S. Thomson used the phrase "fear and loathing" to express the hatred of American east-coast liberal intellectuals felt by the rednecks and the complementary terror of the redneck hordes felt by the educated classes.

Australia is not quite there yet, but there is little doubt that many educated Australians have found themselves, for the first time, contemptuous of those of their fellow countrymen who seem to be oblivious to the iniquity of the new-style, business-as-usual, government.

Meanwhile, Alan Jones, the local Rush Limbaugh, fans the flames of the resentment and insecurity felt by ill-informed battlers.

This new American-style way of doing politics may explain some of the dogs that didn't bark in this curious campaign. Was the virtual invisibility of Iraq a function of Labor spin-doctors' decision that the subject doesn't play with the "battlers"? What about the invisibility of Mark Latham's university medal in economics, given he was under economic attack by a couple of lawyers throughout?

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