Twenty years ago, on Sunday, 3 March 1996, Australia awoke to discover it had elected a new federal government. Prime minister Paul Keating had been defeated in a landslide, to be replaced by John Howard, who would go on to occupy the job for eleven and a half years.
At the time, as I remember it, the feeling was not so much “What have we done?” – for no-one much had a clear idea of what a Howard government would be like – but “How has this happened?” How could it be that a government that seemed to so outclass its opponents, and in the midst of economic recovery, could be so heavily defeated?
Of course, it’s easy to slip into the idiom of “the nation” making a decision, and to forget that it is only individual voters who decide. Even in a relatively big swing (which 1996 was), most Australians stick with the parties they are used to: 46.4% (two-party-preferred) voted against Howard in 1996. But of those who did make the change, what did they think they were doing?
It was tempting at the time to regard it as a mistake, a protest vote gone badly wrong. Voters were discontented with the Labor government, for a variety of reasons, and wanted to give it a bit of a kick, to send it a wake-up call – without believing it was in serious danger of defeat. Support for this view was given by polls at the time that showed most people believed the government would be returned, even though at the same time they showed (accurately) the majority voting against it.
While this may be part of the story, I think there’s more to it than that. There was a general sense that changing government was a safe thing to do; that it would involve a change of personnel but little overall change of direction. Labour had been in power for a long time, and there was a natural desire to shake things up a bit, to try something different. I think most voters thought it would be possible to do that without making any sort of fundamental shift – indeed, although I did not vote for Howard, I shared that view myself.
This was the attitude that Keating tried to counter with his warning that “when you change the government, you change the country.” Most of the time that’s not a very good generalisation, so it’s understandable that many didn’t believe him. But he spoke truly.
No doubt there was real anger at the Keating government as well; there were those who most emphatically wanted it replaced. They blamed it for eroding the old cultural and economic certainties of the Australian Settlement, for its hostility to industrial protection, white supremacy and the monarchy. But while people in that group may have become more vocal, it’s hard to believe they were the ones driving the anti-government swing: very few of them would ever have been Labor voters in the first place.
Whatever the reason, change is what Australia most certainly got.
It’s hard now to recapture the feeling of Australia before 1996. It was a country proud of its successful multiculturalism; pursuing reconciliation with its indigenous population; gradually moving towards a republic and closer engagement with its Asian neighbors; shifting successfully to needs-based welfare; dismantling trade protection and moving away from centralised wage fixing in (sometimes uneasy) partnership with the union movement.
More than any specific policies, it was a country that felt open, optimistic, oriented towards the future. Australia had made a break with at least some of the demons of its past.
Let me not give the impression that the Keating government was some perfect ideal. It had many black marks on its record: rampant centralism, contempt for some of the institutions of parliamentary democracy, deference to Asian dictators, mandatory detention of asylum seekers.
But it was not hated for its sins, it was hated for its virtues. Its worst features were amplified by its successor, while its achievements, if not actually undone, were denigrated and halted.
Because we have forgotten the lost world of 1996, we have forgotten just how much the Howard government represented a leap into the past, a repudiation of optimism, a slap in the face of modernity. Our recent experience of Howard’s loyal disciple, Tony Abbott, has perversely reinforced our forgetfulness; with Abbott the standard of comparison, almost anything can be made to look good.
The last six years of political instability also contrast with Howard’s long tenure, as if we were content with him in office and then suddenly lost without him. The truth, however, is that Australians voted to get rid of the Howard government after just one term – the first time that had happened since 1931 – but were denied their choice by the caprice of the electoral system.
So when, for example, Michael Fullilove, last year’s Boyer lecturer, treats (as he did at the Wheeler Centre on Tuesday night) the period 1983-2007 as a unity, for the purpose of unfavorably contrasting more recent experience, he wilfully misses the point at which Australia changed direction. As if – to pick just one example – anything that recent governments have done in the field of foreign policy could compare with the damage of having Alexander Downer as foreign minister for almost twelve years.
Australian democracy is a tough beast. We survived Howard, as we will no doubt survive worse in future. But it is due to him that the open, forward-looking Australia of twenty years ago now seems like another world: and it is not clear when we will ever be able to get it back.