Pity the conviction politician. As Machiavelli said half a millenium ago, help people and they’ll take it for granted. Hurt them and they’ll remember. Or as an old boss of mine, Senator Button, used to say about politics “never rely on gratitude”.
So most politicians prefer being “small targets” - minimising the offence they give. Then again, as recent polling shows, it’s not that simple. Precisely because of the ubiquity of “small targets”, the public crave politicians who stand for something - like John Howard, rather than those who don’t - like Kim Beazley.
Most dominant and successful federal politicians have usually been conviction politicians. But getting the mix between conviction and pragmatism is necessary - and difficult. You have to persevere and risk making mistakes.
John Howard followed this formula. Beazley could too - even from the disadvantaged position of Opposition. That’s if he could discover those convictions within and find a compelling way to express them. Let me explain.
If you recall, Howard tried and failed to sell fear of foreigners to the Australian electorate twice before his great triumph - the Tampa incident.
He floated restrictions on Asian immigration in the mid 1980s but failed to gain traction. A decade later, Pauline Hanson reopened the issue. With studied insouciance in the face of ritualised calls to repudiate Hanson, Howard enthused about the new air of free speech.
With hindsight it looks like a political masterstroke - the prelude to Howard’s absorption of Pauline Hanson’s political constituency. But that’s only because Pauline’s cause collapsed under the weight of her leadership flaws - despite the “oxygen” of publicity that Howard’s tacit endorsement initially gave her.
Tampa was the defining moment of Howard as a conviction politician. Though he’d failed twice before, he’d put in the groundwork vilifying boat people as “illegals” and “queue jumpers”. He was also very lucky. Within a few weeks of Tampa, security against foreign threats crashed into our consciousness as New York's twin towers crashed to earth.
But even before 9-11 Tampa worked as a kind of street theatre - symbolically rather than rationally. We were drawing a line in the sand. “We decide who comes here” - never mind the decades old international refugee conventions we’ve signed. Xenophobia as patriotic nationalism.
But there are other currents running deep within the Australian psyche.
A while ago I attended a speech. Travelling with more bodyguards than our own prime minister, then US Ambassador Tom Schieffer was introduced with fawning courtesy and listened to in silence.
But once the second question from the audience turned to David Hicks, the hostility was palpable. The essence of the audience’s rising ire was bluntly summarised in an incredulous question from the floor. Was the ambassador saying that Hicks was being denied due process because he was Australian, whereas American citizens in similar circumstances like Jose Padilla had received a proper trial? The answer could not be faulted for straightforwardness. “Yes”.
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