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Building a land fit for heroes

By John Tomlinson - posted Wednesday, 16 March 2005

The Howard Government has set out on an extraordinary adventure which has the potential to tear apart the social fabric of this nation. Howard and his leading ministers have waged a clever and at times subtle campaign in the struggle to win the hearts and minds of the electorate. Individually, the items on their agenda are not too surprising, and are in line with some of the Government’s strategy to convert Australians to the true path of the Liberal Party’s particular amalgam of social conservatism and economic liberalism. Many members of the Coalition are avidly counting the number of sleeps till the Government has control of the Senate.

The main components of their agenda are: 

  • an escalation of the number of Australian troops in Iraq;
  • a frontal assault on the trade union and arbitration systems;
  • a reinvigoration of the abortion and other conservative social issues debates;
  • the privatisation of Medicare;
  • an expanded imposition of “mutual obligation” to include single parents, unemployed people and disability support pensioners;
  • the insistence that government funded agencies don’t criticise governments;
  • a destabilisation of Indigenous institutions and an extension of the obligations forced on Indigenous community members; and,
  • a continuing preoccupation with locking up asylum seekers in concentration camps.

The confusing jangle of reasons provided by ministers for each of these policies makes it difficult to understand they are connected and provides the illusion that each of them is a stand alone policy. Public mystification is increased by the proliferation of supporting statements by pseudo “experts” from well-funded right-wing think-tanks, a compliant media controlled by rich white conservative owners, a tamed ABC and a government willing to prevaricate, dissemble, distort and lie whenever the occasion requires.

The Labor Party is regularly wrong-footed on many of these issues because it:

  • invaded Iraq in 1991and maintained the sanctions against Iraq until it lost office;
  • lauded economic fundamentalism and started the deregulation of the labour market;
  • invented the mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers;
  • bleated about “welfare dependency” from 1987 till 1996;
  • started social security cutbacks;
  • toyed with Medicare co-charging;
  • cutback funds to welfare organisations which criticised its government; and,
  • announced, in 2004 , it would abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) if it won office.

Some Labor members are as reactionary as members of the Coalition on abortion and other social policies (such as gay marriage). Howard, the master of the wedge, frequently gets shadow spokespersons coming and going and he will be able to continue doing this for as long as Labor refuses to resile from many of its past reactionary policies.

It is important to understand these Coalition policies are connected and to identify the potential longer term losses likely to accrue from their implementation. Short term winners can easily become long term losers in the policy stakes.

The Howard Government has used the bombings of the World Trade Centre and Bali to severely limit  Australians’ civil liberties and has conned us into going along with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by asserting that it is all part of a so-called “war on terror”. Initially many citizens believed if Australian soldiers went overseas and killed people the nation would be safer. The use of military and paramilitary police to subdue civil populations here and overseas is the most extreme aspect of the present Government's control activities.


The Government’s determination to revoke the requirement that smaller firms act fairly when dismissing workers may make some employers happy but such happiness might be short lived. There is a looming shortage of skilled labour due to the failure of government and business to adequately expand education or train the workforce. Employers who unfairly sack employees might find that other workers, whom they want to retain, leave in sympathy with their sacked comrades. It is true that arbitrarily sacking a worker might instil a fear in others that they too might be sacked unless they increase production. However, fear is a very poor motivator in the workplace and frequently leads to reduced productivity. Still the Government believes such changes will have a general disciplining influence upon the workforce.

Government attempts to demoralise and downsize the Arbitration Commission, to abolish State Arbitration systems, and to cut back on workplace health and safety agencies springs from a desire to have no opposition to its pro-employer stance. Attempts to crush the trade union movement derive from the same source.

The revitalisation of the abortion and other socially conservative debates might warm the cockles of the ideologically driven supporters of the Coalition. It may even result in a retreat to the mentality of the days of the back-yard abortions but as such it would amount to a pyrrhic victory. It comforts the misinformed and religious fundamentalists while simultaneously creating the situation of apparent compliance and actual resistance. Yet the Government believes this will move the population in the direction of its social conservatism.

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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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