John Howard is profoundly uncool. In fact, the Prime Minister is perhaps the uncoolest person in Australia. With his ten-year anniversary approaching there will be vigorous debate over John Howard’s legacy, leadership and policies but also a general acceptance that he is just so uncool.
The young John Howard played cricket and rugby. He was a permanent member of the second grade team: never quite good enough to make the firsts and not the sort of irreverent underachiever who enjoys playing in the thirds. He lived with his mother until he was 32 while working as a suburban solicitor. David Barnett and Prue Goward’s biography has been criticised on several fronts, but the tone and valerian sleeping pill effect of that book could not be more faithful to the man and his life. John Howard, Prime Minister is a manual on how to be uncool.
Michelle Grattan has cited his “awesome ordinariness” as his most outstanding trait. In his first term as PM, Howard refused to meet the Spice Girls despite the fact they supported the Tories. He hugs and holds babies with all the dour discomfort of Mr Burns who would steal their lolly-pops if only he had the strength. The Prime Minister adores sport, but his tracksuits are awkwardly matching and prudishly zipped up with his polo shirt collar neatly folded out. The PM sometimes wears FILA, but Ali G would have only scorn for him, “Booyakasha John Howard! Big Up Yourself!”
In pointing out these facts, none of them surprising, I am not calling for the uncool to be ejected from parliament and ostracised from society, or for coolness to be equated with goodness. I only want to ask how it is that the nation’s uncoolest man became its most powerful and what this means for Australia.
Allow me first to address a more general point regarding definitions. In the vast spectrum between cool and uncool there are a few figures whom we can confidently place: James Dean, the Fonz and Scarlett Johansson are as certainly cool as Bill Gates, Michael Bolton and Pamela Anderson are not. Coolness has something to do with being innovative, vibrant and a little bit funny, but gauging it is usually very tricky. One person’s cool is another’s uncool and some people are so uncool as to be ultra-cool - take the Hoff for instance.
Cool’s amorphous nature makes it all the more extraordinary that John Howard could be consistently regarded by a wide range of people as deeply uncool and yet stay in power for ten years.
His success is in part due to the fact we find safety in his constant dourness. He is the steady hand steering the ship, never distracted by Zegna suits or drinking records. John Howard is totally committed to the job with seemingly nothing else to do on Saturday night.
In a world of spinning and shimmering images we are also reassured by the authenticity and completeness of his dreariness. Howard is genuinely uncool and never feigns otherwise. During elections he does not try to make himself more liked than his opponent, merely less despised. It took the Prime Minister over 20 years in parliament to gain power in part because he had to wait for his body to shrivel and his wispy hair to turn grey so that his appearance could better complement his fusty demeanour. Weathered old-timers are more appealing to voters than gawky young nerds.
Luck and an ineffectual opposition have also contributed to John Howard’s decade. Ironically, the only other contender for the uncoolest person in Australia is Kim Beazley. It is more difficult to judge whether Mark Latham is or ever was cool. What is certain is that Latham was defeated by a campaign to illuminate his badness, brashness and the L-plates hanging around his neck. He was crushed under the weight of the PM’s uncool.
The opportunity costs of John Howard’s decade are immense. Our relaxed and comfortable attitude towards our own coolness (vis a vis the Prime Minister’s) has resulted in a sense of cultural complacency that inhibits us from questioning who we are, breaking down barriers and going beyond cool and uncool. In his first term, Howard released a policy document named Future Directions which had on its cover a blonde wife and her nuclear family behind a white picket fence. A Bryce Courtney ditty was played at the launch, “Son, you’re an Australian now, that’s enough for anyone to be”.
It is enough, proclaimed John Howard in his 2006 Australia Day address, to find solace in a single historical narrative celebrating Judeo-Christian ethics, British political culture and Western Enlightenment ideals. The Prime Minister still fears the “m” word and is ignorant of the rich synergies and perspectives that grow out of empathising with others. John Howard’s “practical multiculturalism” is hovering on the horizon. The uncoolness of that adjective will no doubt kill the noun.
In economic, political and environmental terms this has been a decade of lost opportunities. We have fallen well short of Fraser’s vision of a 21st century Australian superpower and Keating’s creative nation. It pains me to whisper it, but the truth has long niggled me like a pebble in my shoe that must be shook out, “New Zealand is much cooler than Australia”.
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