Friday, November 23

Politics, a better Australia, and the pleasure of motor cycle riding

It seemed like a good idea at the time. To the friend who criticises me for anti-Liberal Party bias, I sent this email well over a week ago.

I may try one heavier piece before the election on Saturday week. Not so much party-political, but a list of what I'd like to see to make a better Australia. For me, I guess that would lead to a Labor vote, but perhaps you'd read the same list and say, yeah, that's what you'll get if you return the Coalition. It would still be somewhat biased, I suppose, but perhaps without the negativity you've seen in the past.

But what an extraordinarily difficult task it's proved to be. It's easy when you stick to labels like mateship – which Prime Minister John Howard once tried to have inserted into a preamble to the Australian Constitution – and fairness, which Howard, quite sincerely, has sometimes called a fundamental Australian value.

But what happens when you try to extend the ideal of tolerance and fairness to a celebration of the diverse foundations of Australian society?

What do you say of someone who attacks “political correctness” by sacking or publicly humiliating people with whom he disagrees? (I have in mind Dawn Casey from the National Museum and Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty after he agreed that Australia's joining the Iraq war had made us more of a target for terrorism – but I could draw up a much longer list.)

How do you explain that some of the basic tenets of liberal thought are hard to find in the people and policies of the Liberal Party?

Classic writer's block. Awake about two, ideas fermenting but not formulating, check a few references from books beside the bed, make cups of tea, switch on computer, make more cups of tea, words still won't come.

If I get this wrong, perhaps I'll risk losing a friend. Just as important – perhaps even more important – I may risk something I rather pretentiously call intellectual or moral integrity. I don't want to be called a Howard-hater. I don't want to be defined by what I hate.

I want my friends and family to know me for positive values, and if I criticise the Howard Government, it's for its failure to carry forward those values, and I want my criticism to be fair, balanced and based on evidence.

On the road, the view is so much clearer (once you get round the lorries)

Finally, Merry is fed up. Fed up with my pacing through the house, sick of my opening and shutting the fridge door. She orders me to get on that motor cycle and don't come back till I settle down.

Up the F3, turn for Freemans Waterholes, Kurri Kurri and Maitland. Not a good choice – from before Freemans almost to Dungog, there are long delays at one section of roadworks after another, and processions of speeding trucks, semis or with dog trailers, carrying stone from the huge quarry at Martins Creek, then racing back for the next load.

When you're riding at five to ten kays over the limit anyway, there's something frightening about being tailgated by a Mack or Kenworth which wasn't even in your mirrors a few hundred metres back.

Almost as frightening is sipping a long black under the verandah of the Country Cafe in Paterson as the huge trucks come barrelling around the right-angled Post Office corner, so close you feel their slipstream.

On to Dungog. The roads are opening out, the country looks green. Dungog, as always, is an attractive town. At last I'm feeling on top of the world.

A beer and a hamburger in the Bank Hotel while I read the papers, and I feel able to return to the real world. Or is this closer to the real world, people moving around a pretty town set down in a scenic countryside, while politics and big-city society are artificial constructs which torment the human soul?

I'm still pondering this as I ride back through Clarencetown and Seaham, pausing for coffees at the Maccas McCafes at Raymond Terrace and the twin servos on the F3. In my mind, I begin to debate another issue of global importance: Who let Americans believe they know how to make coffee, and that it's OK to serve it in waxed cardboard cups?

Back at my keyboard, I still can't get the ideas together and put them into words. And now there is only one more sleep till we vote. What I think doesn't really matter – my few readers are unlikely to change their votes – but perhaps there are times when one should stand up and be counted.

I could list achievements of which John Howard can be proud – the GST, gun control, taking over water management of the Murray-Darling Basin, his closer relationships with Asian leaders (which seemed to defy his earlier rhetoric), and the fact that he and his tyro Treasurer managed to continue the economic boom for which the Paul Keating reforms had set the foundations.

I'm genuine. These are areas in which Howard's actions have given us a better Australia.

Or should I focus on his shortcomings. Do I need to list them? How long do you want this blog post to be?

Perhaps one should look beyond Saturday. If Kevin Rudd romps in with an overwhelming majority – as most disinterested (not uninterested!) commentators predict – will he run a good government which helps create a better Australia?

Many things make me hopeful. First, his standing up to the old Labor system which sees so many party hacks elevated to state and federal ministries as the result of factional wheeling and dealing. In the past, Labor leaders had the right to allot portfolios, but could not choose which people were to be ministers. Rudd should also have the right to choose the pool from which he will allot the portfolios.He can choose his Cabinet purely on merit.

Second, the hope that Rudd has the integrity to try to keep his promises, not sort them into core and non-core. That he will use his first term to review the aims and the strategies needed to carry this nation forward, and that after three years we will have the confidence to to re-elect him with a more progressive agenda.

Third, that he will wind back the politicisation of the Public Service, where incoming ministers push aside well-performing professional public servants to install political bedfellows as department heads (Labor's not blame-free – John Della Bosca did it in NSW when he became Education Minister).

And all those other hopes – that he will resume Paul Keating's economic and industrial relations reforms to allow further adaptation to the global economy, while still winding back the nastier provisions of AWAs, that he will reverse the trend to take welfare from the needy and hand it to the middle classes, that he will restore the role of secular public education, that he will continue to improve the superannuation system, and that he will maintain the American alliance without becoming a lickspittle to the neo-cons.

Turnbull facing Rudd – the nation will benefit

For the Liberals, I do hope they lose office. I hope the vote will show the party it has followed a leader who took too many wrong turns and betrayed our trust too often.

But I hope the loss is not so devastating it throws the party into turmoil, allowing hard-right extremists to take control. The Liberal Party's future lies in moderate and progressive policies and leadership.

Our parliamentary democracy requires a strong Opposition.

For that reason, I hope Malcolm Turnbull survives what looks like a close fight in the eastern Sydney electorate of Wentworth. In Opposition, the Liberal Party rump will not be bound by Howard's anointment of Peter Costello as his successor.

Turnbull could restore liberal values to the Liberal Party and pave the way for a return to the Government benches in as little as six years.

He has a brilliant mind, demonstrated in law, merchant banking and journalism. Before his political career took over, he espoused many progressive causes – republic, Australian flag, reconciliation, climate change. He could steal back the middle ground if Rudd disappoints.

Such a scenario – initially, Rudd as Prime Minister and Turnbull as Opposition Leader competing for the hearts and minds of moderate Australians – must give this nation a brighter future.

There. I think I've managed to wind up on a positive note. [Any readers disappointed at the lack of a full-on Howard-hating rant may get their fix here.]

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