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A sorry responsibility

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Thursday, 29 November 2007

The issue of responsibility under the Howard government was a curious one. A refusal to say “sorry” to dispossessed Aboriginals on the one hand suggests a lack of agency: I am from a generation not responsible for these crimes, and the past is another country. “I was not responsible” implies a lack of control over decisions, a denial of original sin, or at the very least that it was the responsibility of someone else.

Grand historical crimes which require an apology by the perpetrator’s descendants have certainly spun a commemorative industry that does imply responsibility at first instance. Responsibility is seemingly inflated when, on the ABC, there are apologies in advance to unspecified Indigenous members for screening films or documentaries that represent the dead. This is so even if their only role in the whole display is to have played the program in the first place. Commercial networks, unsurprisingly, have no time for that.

Robert Manne has issued a stern riposte to the idea that responsibility can be shirked for such historical events as the stolen generation. Decisions occur within an historical milieu that implicate all of us. The German existential philosopher Karl Jaspers did entertain such notions in his work on German responsibility for World War II. The taxonomy of guilt and responsibility is a complicated one, but we have an obligation to ensure that such events as the Holocaust are never repeated.


In the field of civil rights, the Howard government tended to be incapable of asserting responsibility of any sort whatsoever. At times it assiduously cultivates a sense of irresponsibility. The treatment of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib (both curiously absent as discussion points in the election) suggests that: Australian citizenship is about as valuable as the brown paper bags it comes in. The Americans call in the cavalry to rescue their citizens; Australians look to see whether the Americans might do the same for them. Canberra is not responsible for the fate of those accused of terrorist acts, and is happy to allow them to decay in the carceral confines of a legal limbo.

Responsibility was, for the Howard government, only entertained in the economic field, but it is a false responsibility. In an interdependent market economy governed by neo-liberal ideologues, the idea of taking control of economic destiny jars with agency. To take responsibility for economic progress when the market is its own regulating mechanism, its own divine hand that must be unshackled, is a contradiction in terms.

Peter Costello was technically a manager on autopilot, a zombie in the Treasury with about as much historical agency as King Canute over waves. Minimal government is the slave to the invisible re-ordering of market forces: it is these forces the neo-liberal zealot worships; while governments are merely obstructionist goons who should abdicate.

Then there is the structure an international economy which centres itself around the force field of Wall Street and such treacherous schemes as the sub prime mortgage. America still remains both beacon and barometer of global economic health. Federal Reserve Treasurer Alan Greenspan had more to do with Australian success than Costello ever could, but then again, one doesn’t shirk the responsibility one benefits from. The same goes for the commodities boom. Responsibility for iron ore and uranium deposits is geological fate, not political design, but rhetoric overcomes the barrier: Canberra was responsible for that too.

So, at the Coalition policy launch in Brisbane, Howard thanked Costello for being one of the “architects” of Australia’s Wirtschaftswunder. The matter is different when the economy performs badly: “Peter Costello and I take responsibility for a strong economy”, Howard can be heard telling his coterie of radio shock jocks, but when it comes to a rise in interest rates six times since 2004, he is mute. Rising rates are merely the result of an economy belching profits.

In a sense, the Reserve Bank of Australia is entitled to be slighted by such political nonsense - no one mentions them as the only real force in the Australian economy, the ones who actually regulate the interest rate. According to the Coalition, and by default, Labor, they are the zombies and the Canutes of history.


Then why apologise? Howard was “sorry” to Australian families for enduring another burden on their mortgage payments. He had painted himself into a corner. Maybe he was responsible for interest rates after all? He was not sorry to the Reserve Bank for stealing their thunder. He was patently irresponsible in asserting his control over interest rates in the first place. He had not anticipated a rate rise, which should have indicated to all around him that he was not even responsible for them. But in the Bantustans of meaning that are common in Coalition spin, to say sorry did not mean one was “apologetic”. One could feel sorry without issuing an apology: they were not the same thing. Howard, like the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman once claimed, felt a sense of guilt without having a guilty conscience.

Asserting responsibility in economics is always hazardous, and the Coalition should now have realised why. The German author Tucholsky provides a firm, aphoristic reminder of these dangers: when the capitalist reaps the profit, it is his and his alone, a product of genius, worth and enterprise; when a loss results (such losses are never the “fault” of the capitalist), the workers must carry him - it is the burden we must all share.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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