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Getting the Meta Politics right.

By Graham Young - posted Friday, 15 December 2000

If you type the words "Pamela Anderson" into a search engine you’ll find a lot of porn sites. But if you type in "John Howard" you won’t find any compassion sites. "Pamela Anderson" and "sex" go together. So if you are running a porn site they are two of the terms you will probably add to the key words in your meta tags – those invisible pieces of text that search engines use. "John Howard" and "compassion" don’t.

Why is this important? Because the Liberal Party is in the process of making over John Howard as a more voter-friendly type of a guy, but electors already have a strong visceral view of Howard’s character. It will be a difficult task to change that view.

The Liberals seem determined to do so. This signals a tectonic shift in Liberal Party tactics. Before Malcolm Fraser it was common wisdom that elections were won by capturing the middle ground. Then came Fraser and the "Kemp thesis"(named after Fraser’s speech writer and now the Federal Education Minister, Dr David Kemp) that elections were won by highlighting the differences between you and your opponent.


A similar approach deliever Reagan government in America and made Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister in Great Britain. They also suited the times as a revolution in economic management pushed back the edges of the welfare state.

Now we are enjoying the economic dividends of that revolution and the international trend is back to the centre. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton have made the journey from the left, while at least the rhetoric of "Compassionate Conservative" George Bush suggests that he has made the journey from the right. Perhaps the Liberal move is a reaction to those trends. Or it might stem from uniquely Australian conditions.

The latest move by Howard to change image occurred on Wednesday when he delivered the Menzies Lecture - Perspectives on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Issues.

Reconciliation is a difficult issue for Howard because so many of the people passionately supporting it are his enemies and will use it as a weapon against him. An interesting light on this is the insistence that the Howard Government say "sorry". I deliberately put the word "sorry" in inverted commas because the Government has apologised. It expressed "regret" and the form of words was brokered by Democrat Senator Aden Ridgeway. To say that it won’t apologise is disingenuous.

Yet, what was written in the sky above the Reconciliation March across the Sydney Harbour Bridge? The word "Sorry". Why was it there? One reason would have been to highlight the charge that the PM won’t use the word. This was not an act of reconciliation, but of aggression.

When Nelson Mandela recently visited Australia he was asked what was different between Reconciliation in South Africa and Australia. Mandela evaded the question, pointing out that the two situations were significantly different. It is a pity that Mandela did not point to one of the stunning differences – that in South Africa reconciliation did not mean having to say you were "sorry". This demonstrates that while many of us, including me, think an apology is a necessary ingredient, many genuine people have disagreed in other attempts at reconciliation.


In the Menzies Lecture Howard stresses the practical steps that have been taken to address Aboriginal disadvantage over the past 30 years: a $2.3 billion annual budget – "a record for any government"; Indigenous home ownership up from 25 per cent to 33 per cent; infant mortality cut from 20 times to 4 times the national rate; Aboriginal enrolments in higher education up by 60 per cent in the 1990s; and 15 per cent of the continent Aboriginal owned and controlled.

The role of so-called practical reconciliation in repairing the government’s reputation is interesting. It has the potential to play to two different audiences. The blue-collar conservatives who deserted Labor, flocked to Howard in ’96 and are the back-bone of One Nation and its offspring, are very antagonistic to the academic. Experience rather than analysis is the peak of knowing for them. Reconciliation for these people can look highly theoretical and therefore unreal and phoney. Practical reconciliation is much more likely to satisfy them.

Not that there isn’t a respectable intellectual aspect to practical reconciliation. Religious practice has long recognised two ways of approaching god. One is the way of the theologian, an approach through knowledge and intellectual exploration. The other is the way of the doer. Not seeking to understand, but to become holy by going through the religious ritual and practice. This is embodied in the debate between Protestant and Catholic as to whether it is faith or good works that saves.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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