Abjorensen states himself to be in favour of popular sovereignty, and sees the efforts of liberals and conservatives to limit it to be their most important, from his perspective, feature. The great success of Australian conservatism, ‘has been to serve a ruling elite under a pretence of caring for all’. But after having run through some 19th century conservative resistance to the then maturing Australian democratic institutions, for the 20th century Abjorensen seems to have forgotten how he started. Much of the book is just a summary of the political lives and times of successive ‘conservative’ parliamentary leaders, with no particular emphasis on democratic developments or how the interests of the ‘ruling class’ were served.
In an unusual move, however, he has tacked on the end of the main text several previously published book reviews, and in one – on Clive Hamilton’s Silencing Dissent – the anti-democracy theme is developed. As I noted when that book was published, while the Howard government did not always deal ideally with its opponents, its overall account is tendentious. Vigorous debate continued throughout the Howard years, including constant and often vitriolic criticism of the government. And of course the democratic system smoothly removed the Howard government in 2007.
Though Abjorensen claims to be in favour of popular sovereignty, when Howard does something that has overwhelming popular support, such as enforcing strict immigration policies, Abjorensen doesn’t like that either. Instead, he praises Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan for being ‘courageously opposed’ to the ‘government’s more extreme measures’ in this regard. That’s the problem with uncritical embrace of ‘popular sovereignty ‘ – it requires a lot of faith that the masses will always make the right call, and more faith than Abjorensen has when the result does not fit with his other beliefs.
Howard’s critics used to enjoy comparing him unfavourably with Menzies, but like the others Abjorensen can’t get his argument straight. He claims that Howard was unusually close to big business, while Menzies regarded business ‘as just another voice among the competiting clamour’. But earlier in the book, and more accurately, he describes Menzies as part of the ‘consensual conservatism’ of 1949-1972 ‘in which the role of the state is seen as an aide to private enterprise’. The protectionism of the Menzies era was a shabby exercise in putting business interests above consumer interests. Howard wasn’t as diligent in getting rid of corporate pork as I would have liked, but he was much better than Menzies, and better than Rudd too.
Abjorensen seems to be a case of Howard Derangement Syndrome. He is a former Coalition staffer, and in 1993 published a largely sympathetic biography of John Hewson, the clearest Liberal example of the ‘neo-liberal’ politics he now condemns. But Abjorensen loathes Howard as a politician and thinks little of him as a man. In a review of the recent Howard biography he republishes, he describes Howard as a ‘man who is a politician and nothing else, a man who has plotted and schemed and intrigued rather than lived’.
So for all its failings this book does answer one question: is Howard Derangement Syndrome cured by removing Howard from office? It seems that the answer is no.