Norman Abjorensen’s mess of a book

I’ve not thought much of Norman Abjorensen‘s work for a long time, but his latest book John Howard and the Conservative Tradition disappointed even my low expectations. It is a mess.

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.

14 Responses to “Norman Abjorensen’s mess of a book

  • 1
    Rafe Champion
    February 5th, 2009 07:46

    Reports from the US suggest that the Bush Derangement Syndrome has been replaced by a “Bush Deprivation Syndrome”, like, who do we blame for everything now that Bush has gone? Expect something the same here.

    All theories of sovereignty are paradoxical, the short way to give people more meaningful control over their lives is to reduce the extent of Government, instead of trying to make everyone fight political battles constantly.

  • 2
    Rajat Sood
    February 5th, 2009 08:03

    Maybe it takes a decade to cure? I noticed during the latest public transport breakdowns and electricity load shedding events in Melbourne, there was no blaming of Jeff. Mind you, he, like Hewson (and Nixon), has reinvented himself somewhat. I could see Howard coming back in a few years as a spokesman on older people’s health issues, what with his daily walking routine and generous funding of private health insurance and support of community rating.

  • 3
    Pedro S
    February 5th, 2009 08:28

    Is there a good book for an over view of the Howard years?

    Howard hate has always been rather sad. It’s different to disliking Bush. Bush started two unwise wars and damaged US government finances. Howard introduced a much needed tax reform and fixed government finances. He also quashed the rise of a potential far right party. You’d think the centre Left would give him some credit for that.

    It is a great pity that so few on either side of Australian politics are prepared to be magnanimous to their opponents. Given that Australia is governed alternatively by fairly capable centre right and centre left governments it’s pretty sad. Few journalists seem to be able to do it either, Paul Kelly is one of the few exceptions.

  • 4
    Rafe Champion
    February 5th, 2009 09:44

    Paul Kelly has seriously spoiled his record by going ga ga over Rudd. That has always been a latent problem, after all he is a child of Whitlam and his heart is firmly with the ALP.

  • 5
    Andrew Norton
    February 5th, 2009 11:13

    I think I read that Kelly has a book coming out later in the year on the Howard government, which on the basis of End of Certainty will be the pick of the books about the Howard era.

  • 6
    ennui
    February 5th, 2009 12:00

    Re Abjorensen, the quality of this book is to be expected. His work often seems as if more time is spent on gathering the raw material than is spent on developing a consistent theme to reflect that basic data. The result – an appearance of sloppiness in regard to both analysis and presentation!

    Of more interest (at least to me) is the issues that underly the point raised by Pedro S in (3) . Objectively judging the performance of recent politicians.

    Do we do this by adding and subtracting their performance in regard to selected major issues, weighting them, and then saying “on balance” ….?
    In the case of Howard,for example, one could say – gun laws; GST; broad econ mgt ; all pluses. Subtract workplace reform; lack of honesty eg non-core promises,children overboard,AWB etc Net result ? Seems far too simplistic!
    Clearly translating a politician’s performance re individual issues into some sort of overall rating is fraught with technical let alone subjective problems. (Historians with time would most likely get it right but that is irrelevent for contemporary pollies when we are considering maybe two or three electoral cycles.)

    I would suggest that typically people form an impression of the particular politician and then selectively interpret issues to support that view. (That impression would only change if a negative issue of extraordinary proportions could not be rationalised away.)

    BTW the political process in a democracy is a robust, adversarial activity – one should not be too disappointed by the lack of magnanimity being displayed when the players are still on the field.

  • 7
    Rafe Champion
    February 6th, 2009 06:34

    Abjorensen is one of many academics, quite likely the overwhelming majority in some schools (check out the website for his department) who share so many leftwing, anti-conservative beliefs that they rarely encounter any contrary opinion to introduce a reality check. They are the people who say they don’t know a single person who votes for the Coalition. The historical explanation for this state of affairs is probably the conscription issue during the Vietnam war.

    Three factors appear to be at work in this, one of them (no 3 on the list) first flagged by Andrew Norton .
    First, the lamentable standard of scholarship in much of the social sciences and humanities, despite the explosion of activity in the last half century.

    Second, the politicization of large tracts of the social sciences and humanities. (the Vietnam effect)

    Third, a shift in the progressive political program from economics and equality to a whole range of issues, and with it, an overwhelming tone of moral snobbery.

    More on that theme in this book review.http://www.catallaxyfiles.com/blog/?p=2310

  • 8
    Andrew Norton
    February 6th, 2009 06:52

    Rafe – The problem with this in Abjorensen’s case is that though his current political prejudices take precedence over what scholarly work he has done, he does have a long history of involvement with the Liberal Party. So he does know Liberal voters, and indeed has been employed by Liberal MPs.

  • 9
    Rafe
    February 6th, 2009 13:06

    A telling rejoinder! What does this tell us about the Liberals? I suspect that some have taken the path described by Hayek, taking on board leftish views at an interval after they have been made fashionable by leftwing propaganda. In NSW there appears to be a strong body of Liberal opinion that resisted the rise of deregulation and the like, under the guise of being “moderate”. That is one of the reasons why there was so little internal resistance to Howards taxing and spending. It is also the reason why the party backed away so quickly from Workchoices and other policies which they thought had “failed” just because a small majoritiy of the electorate voted the party out of power. As though one day policies are good and the next day they are bad, just because a handfull of voters ticked box A instead of box B. The party could have gained respect from a lot of people (like small business) if they had stood up for labour market deregulation in the way they are resisting the current dash to spend cash.

  • 10
    AlanC
    February 7th, 2009 10:08

    I wouldn’t be so keen to anticipate Paul Kelly’s next book.

    I haven’t read them for a while, but as I recall his previous efforts treated years of Coalition rule as merely the prologues and/or epilogues to chronicles of Labor governments.

    Kelly also has a tendency to trivialize both policies and people’s pursuit of them, reducing politics to a contest between ambitious personalities.

  • 11
    Jack M. Strocchi
    February 8th, 2009 19:15

    # 3 Pedro S February 5th, 2009 08:28

    Is there a good book for an over view of the Howard years?

    Howard hate has always been rather sad. It’s different to disliking Bush. Bush started two unwise wars and damaged US government finances. Howard introduced a much needed tax reform and fixed government finances. He also quashed the rise of a potential far right party. You’d think the centre Left would give him some credit for that.

    It is a great pity that so few on either side of Australian politics are prepared to be magnanimous to their opponents. Given that Australia is governed alternatively by fairly capable centre right and centre left governments it’s pretty sad. Few journalists seem to be able to do it either, Paul Kelly is one of the few exceptions.

    Pedro S has made the most fair-minded comment on Australian political culture for more than a decade. Should be put on the mast-head of every newspaper.

    Intellectuals are not really that interested in truth or justice, especially if it spoils a good story. And we all know that good stories require good guys wearing white hats and bad guys wearing black hats. That makes for emotionally satisfying morality plays but has little to do with real politics “the slow boring of hard boards” as Weber put it.

    I would put our esteemed host Andrew Norton in the category of fair-minded. A little bit back followed by Quiggin.

    The reason why AUS’s parties are pretty decent is because AUS has a fairly populist political system, largely based on tall-poppy syndrome, ockerism and our relatively small provincial mentality. The AUS people are pragmatic centrists and no-nonsense not prone to cut extremists much slack.

    This makes AUS a bad place for elites (which is why the better ones head for the Northern metropolises as soon as they can afford the air-fare). But a good place for the common man.

  • 12
    Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » How useful is ideology in political analysis?
    March 5th, 2009 17:17

    […] ideologies in anlaysing politics? There are certainly rival explanatory theories. In journalism, as commenter Alan C complains, the focus tends to be on personalities and personal ambitions, downplaying other forces that are […]

  • 13
    Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » A fantasy think-tank history
    March 5th, 2009 17:20

    […] Abjorensen must have a masochistic streak, because he emailed me with the news that he is a contributor to The Culture Wars: Australian and […]

  • 14
    Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » Am I a ‘moral conservative’?
    March 5th, 2009 17:21

    […] Carelessness. There is evidence for that; but on the other hand surely anyone who had bothered to do enough research to find a 2002 […]