Friday, August 25, 2006

Australian Conservatism: Lessons for the GOP

E. J. Dionne argues in today's Washington Post that Australian Prime Minister John Howard's approach to political strategy holds lessons for the Republican Party in the U.S.:

Last week, Howard organized a "history summit" to call attention to the decline of Australian history as a subject in high schools. In most states here, history has been subsumed within (and thus displaced by) a broader social studies curriculum focused on "studies of society and the environment."

"I think we have taught history as some kind of fragmented stew of moods and events," Howard declared, "rather than some kind of proper narrative."

This is the sort of cultural and educational fight familiar to Americans. My gut is with those who see history as a distinct subject. Wherever we live, we should know our country's national story.

Notice what has just happened: This writer, on the other side of politics from the Australian prime minister, has embraced his argument that old-fashioned history is worth teaching.

Howard has a genius for picking the right wedge issues. In this case, his argument appeals to conservatives who don't like what Howard has called "black armband history" -- i.e., a history that is primarily critical of Australia's white settlers. But it also draws in many from outside the ranks of the right who have moderately traditional views about school curriculums.

This has been Howard's way since he defeated Paul Keating, a Labor Party prime minister, in 1996. Oddly, the two political enemies have a lot in common.

As George Megalogenis argues in his new book, "The Longest Decade," both Howard and Keating believed in opening up the once highly protected Australian economy to global market forces. The two, Megalogenis writes, "bombarded us with change."

But there was a big difference. Keating was also in favor of cultural change -- bravely so, in the eyes of his friends. He proposed that Australia get rid of its old flag. He wanted the country to stop being a constitutional monarchy theoretically under the queen of England and instead become a republic.

Howard, on the other hand, thought that in a time of rapid economic change, Australians needed to cling to some of the old sources of stability, including the symbols. He was for the old flag and against the new republic. David Kemp, a former member of Howard's cabinet, said his old boss understood the reaction against globalization and economic change among conservative voters.

Howard has also waged war on political correctness. His liberal Australian critics see him as appealing in code to racist sentiment by, among other things, taking a hard line on refugees. Howard's supporters see him instead as defanging hard-core racism. He has acknowledged that Australians have "badly treated our aboriginal people, shamefully treated them." But he insists that "in the greater sweep of history, Australia has been a very tolerant, humane society." Voters like to hear that sort of thing.

What's exportable about Howard's politics is his shrewd understanding that conservative parties embracing hard-line market economics need to provide those threatened by economic change with something to hang on to -- tradition, nation, family, flag -- so that their world doesn't fly apart. Except on the immigration issue, where he used a sledgehammer, Howard has pulled off in a subtle way what Republicans in the United States have pursued with less finesse and a greater emphasis on religion than would work in this more secular country. Interestingly, though, the political role of religion is on the rise here.

Particularly interesting is how Howard embraces the political culture of the British Commonwealth, triumphally seeking to carry on the Anglo tradition of reverence for continuity in history. The British past represents a trajectory of true conservatism. The British, perhaps more than any other people, maintain political legitimacy though reaffirmation of cultures and traditions -- like the monarchy -- whose primary purpose is to maintain regime legitimacy in the face of greater diversity, democratization, and the decline of British imperial grandeur.

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