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The hurdy-gurdy man

By Bruce Haigh - posted Friday, 13 July 2007

John Howard has been Prime Minister for eleven years. He is a known quantity. He dislikes close scrutiny; he has made secrecy and subterfuge tools of his trade.

He was a reluctant conscript over intervention in East Timor, but it turned out to be a seminal political triumph.

The East Timor intervention turned Howard’s head. For the first time he saw himself as a popular leader. This increased his self confidence. He felt he had learnt the value of direct action - the, whatever it takes, steamroller. He discovered that a crisis with its mix of urgency and emotion was very useful in avoiding debate and public scrutiny.


September 11, 2001 rattled Howard and those around him. Drawing on fear and the experience of East Timor, Howard saw an opportunity to link the arrival of refugees from the Middle East by boat with fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.

A crisis atmosphere was engendered with deployment of a significant number of naval vessels and the SAS. The contrived children overboard and Tampa incident, together with the urgency and emotion that were confected, overwhelmed Beazley and allowed Howard to snatch an election victory.

The ruthless attack on vulnerable refugees arriving by boat, including women and children, was contrived. Howard didn’t say a thing about refugees arriving by plane. Those arriving by boat were locked up in remote prison camps. Howard demonised them as terrorists or terrorist sympathisers: to our eternal shame over half the Australian population and three quarters of the media believed him.

Then came the lead into the Iraq war, with all the spin and lies which were designed to suspend judgment in the lead up to the big invasion. Emotion and fear were the political currency: a lot of people believed, but not enough, giving Howard some real opposition. He dismissed it as left wing but when it seemed as if Australia might lose a $2 billion wheat contract with Iraq, fear of the “lefties” being joined by the big end of town was enough for him to put substantial pressure on the Australian Wheat Board to hold the contract by whatever it took.

A lack of body bags has kept other, less politically desirable, emotions out of the equation so far.

The Iraq War has not worked - Howard backed a lost cause. He is locked in step with President George Bush, in whom he has invested his own prestige. He has chosen to see Australia’s relationship with the United States equating to his relationship with George Bush.


Caught flat-footed over the climate change debate, he has had to make some quick promises.

The availability of the sustainable supply of water in Australia became mixed into the Howard climate change conundrum. Howard has sought to turn this emotional issue to his advantage.

His solution was a federal government takeover of the Murray-Darling Basin, the corollary of which will give it control over land use in the Basin. There was no suggestion of an independent authority being appointed and as time went by it became apparent that no planning, no science and no experience had gone into the proposal. The grant to fix the problem was $10 billion over 10 years which is a small amount of money to fix a big problem. Most observers thought the size and methods of solving the problem should be determined prior to funding commitments.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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