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Does Father know best?

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 22 October 2002

There has always been a disturbing patriarchal character to John Howard, but it is becoming far too prominent as the pressure grows to sort out the Iraq mess. His reluctance to allow parliamentary debate and his unwillingness to answer questions put by the media reflect a tendency to assume that really only he has the right to all the facts and that only he can make informed judgements.

John Howard is a canny political operator, now doubt about it. He has a developed sense of how to manoeuvre within political structures, including the Liberal party itself, to achieve and maintain power – even if it took him a few tries to get it right. He also has a demonstrated ability to read the electorate and exploit that understanding. The dark side of this ability was shown only too clearly with the last election and his deft handling of the Tampa affair.

But along with this aspect of his character is the man most at home in the 1950s when happy families lived in modest houses with white picket fences and Australia battled the old foe England in the cricket. And the role of the benevolent father, who knew everything and felt no need to explain his actions, was unchallenged, as epitomised in the popular sit-com, Father Knows Best.


Howard’s tendency to take the lofty view has been reaching new heights lately as the pressure has mounted in relation to how he and his government have handled the Iraq situation. In particular the inept performance of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has placed the focus directly on Howard to provide some consistent leadership. By and large, he has taken the position that he has special knowledge, and that only he is able to judge the situation and make decisions. He even resisted a parliamentary debate – formally the most important decision-making process in the country – on this matter. I have no idea whether he behaves this way in his own party room, but if he does it must be a very frustrating experience to be a Liberal parliamentarian.

In the Parliament Howard’s hardness is obvious. He attacks the opposition with all the ferocity of a man brought up in the green bear-pit, essentially adopting the bleak but time-honoured political strategy of ‘when you see a head, kick it’. He is not alone in this approach, however, in a parliament increasingly devoid of much other than this macho arm wrestling.

Where Howard’s fatherly authority really comes out is in television and radio interviews. On television he smiles benignly at the interviewer and then quietly chooses which questions he will answer and which he will only respond to with a gentle but firm chiding about how shallow the interviewer is being. On both TV and radio a common response to a tricky question is to use a term like "it serves no purpose" to avoid answering. This sounds very reasonable but what he actually means is "it serves no political purpose to me", or just, "I don’t want to". And when Howard has decided he just does not want to answer a question, that’s it.

Howard’s refusal to pretend that he takes the electorate into his confidence reflects his confidence in his role as benevolent father of the nation. His children (Parliament, the media, the electorate) do not need to know all the facts – on the genuine threat of Iraq, for instance – nor what he intends doing about particular issues.

Perhaps there was a time when such obviously patronising leadership was acceptable. After all Howard is not the first to adopt this attitude, indeed for some time it was the fashion (here we should recall his hero, the arch patriarch Robert Menzies). Australia seemed to get along all right under such benign rule.

But things have changed. Australia is faced by a series of intractable problems, like global warming, unstable international relations, a volatile global economy, radical social change and Aboriginal reconciliation. These challenges will only be met by open information sharing, sustained debate and inclusive decision-making. Solving them involves such far-reaching changes to basic socioeconomic conditions in Australia that it can only succeed if there is sustained and comprehensive information distribution and consultation.


Furthermore, Australian society itself is changing into the much mooted information society. In this society information has to be spread around for people to use and generate more information. It is not to be hoarded by those who claim to be in the know in order to avoid discussion. Everything has to be open and decisions made by transparent processes so that we can see the process at work. It is decreasingly legitimate to claim a privileged position that enables secrecy and lack of accountability.

Whoever replaces Howard as the chief decision-maker in Australia had better acknowledge the limitations of the benevolent patriarch as political leader and let his or her other colleagues, along with the rest of the population, in on what is happening. Father Knows Best was a popular TV show in the 1950s and 1960s, but it wouldn’t rate now.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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