The Dark Legacy of John Winston Howard

In 2001, desperately behind in the polls, John Howard turned to the dark side.

Howard appealed to fear. He vilified an innocent group of people. He did it to placate a growing group of xenophobes, and as a distraction from boosting immigration rates.

In August Howard attempted to block the delivery of rescued refugees to Christmas Island by the Norwegian vessel Tampa. He portrayed the refugees as unwelcome and dangerous aliens. Soon after, I wrote

Prime Minister John Howard has set Australia on a slippery slope … he has promoted a dynamic in Australian society that, left unchecked, will deliver us into fascism.

That dynamic was left unchecked. The level of fear has had to be steadily raised by the fear mongers so as to distract people from rationally assessing the low or non-existent risk from asylum seekers.

The difference between the Port Arthur gun massacre of 1996 and Friday’s Christchurch massacre is that the deranged Port Arthur killer shot randomly at anyone he encountered whereas the Christchurch killer, an Australian, sought out a vilified immigrant minority to attack.

After Tampa came the 9-11 attacks in New York and Washington. Howard exploited those attacks to further vilify Moslems and foreigners, though the attackers were from our alleged ally Saudi Arabia.

The ‘children overboard’ affair came just before the 2001 election. Howard and co-conspirators let the misunderstanding run that refugees had thrown their children overboard when in fact the refugees’ boat was sinking and our navy was rescuing them. Propelled by this fear-mongering lie Howard fell over the line and won the election.

In 2003 Howard enthusiastically backed the US invasion of Iraq. That invasion was based on quite false intelligence, questioned at the time, and was illegal by international law. It resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents and led directly to the formation of the vicious Islamic State militia attempting to defend Islam and Middle Eastern territories from Western invasion.

The Iraq invasion and Howard’s earlier support for the typically misguided US ‘War on Terror’ also put Australia in the sights of Islamic extremists, as predicted at the time. The 2002 Bali bombings were a direct retaliation and the 2014 Lindt Cafe siege perpetrator invoked anti-Islamic rhetoric and symbols.

Through this period Coalition Ministers have overtly lied that asylum seekers are illegal. They have dog-whistled media fear-mongers and reactionaries to amplify the false claim that boat-borne refugees reaching our shores include terrorists.

Civil liberties have been steadily wound back and surveillance of the whole population greatly expanded, in the name of protecting us from the terrorists incited by the actions of Howard and his successors.

From the first Labor has been unwilling to resist the fear-mongering and as a result has been complicit either overtly or by omission.

The trend to increasing police state apparatus may have peaked last year when Peter Dutton attempted to wrest the Liberal leadership from Malcolm Turnbull. Dutton was already the most powerful minister, of the Home Affairs department, and he had implemented many police-state components. As Prime Minister he would have proceeded apace to complete the job.

Fortunately Dutton couldn’t count and came a cropper. The push of the radical Right is now in disarray and they are being challenged by moderate candidates. If we are smart, and lucky, Australia will begin a slow retreat from the brink of fascism.

John Howard set us on this path in 2001 because he had implemented the highly unpopular Goods and Services Tax and was desperate for a way to regain popularity.

He had initially cut Australia’s immigration intake but this was unpopular with big business, who wanted cheap labour. Ever the cunning politician, Howard hit upon the strategy of vilifying boat-borne refugees to distract the xenophobes while increasing immigration again to placate his sponsors.

Ever since, asylum seekers have been arriving by air and have been received and processed with no fuss from politicians and complicit media. Asylum seekers, by whatever means of transport, have never comprised more than a small fraction of immigrants. If our cities are overcrowded, services faltering and employment insecure it is not because of refugees.

Howard’s strategy was abetted by media more interested in ‘news’ than a healthy society. In particular the business model of the Murdoch media is to frighten, outrage and divide people for profit. This, and Labor’s desertion of its origins in 1983, was enough to keep Labor from resisting.

John Howard’s 2001 re-election strategy was based on deception, distortion, overt lies and an explicit appeal to fear. We are still counting the consequences of his dark legacy.

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