THE principal reason the public should take the opportunity to kill off the Howard Government has less to do with broken promises on interest rates — or even its draconian WorkChoices industrial laws — and everything to do with restoring a moral basis to our public life.
Without this, the nation has no standard to rely upon, no claim that can be believed, not even when the grave step of going to war is being considered. When truth is up for grabs, everything is up for grabs.
Cynicism and deceitfulness have been the defining characteristics of John Howard and his Government. They were brazen enough to oversee the corruption of a UN welfare program. And when they were found out, not one of them accepted ministerial responsibility. Not Downer, not Vaile and certainly not Howard. What they were doing was letting the cockies get their wheat sold through the AWB while turning a blind eye to the AWB's unscrupulous behaviour — illegally funding a regime Howard was arguing was so bad it had to be changed by force.
John Howard took us into the disastrous Gulf war on the back of two lies. One, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, capable of threatening the Middle East and Western Europe; the other, that Howard was judiciously weighing whether to commit Australian forces against an evolving situation. We now know he had committed our forces to the Americans all along.
If the Prime Minister cannot be believed, who in the system is to be believed?
When opposition leader in 1995, Howard told us he would restore trust in government, when at that time trust in government was not in question. He also told us he would make us more "relaxed and comfortable". Well, some relaxation and some comfort. These days, there are many parts of the world where Australians dare not go, something new for all of us.
But bad as all this is, how much worse was it for John Howard to begin the fracturing of his own community?
Think about his tacit endorsement of Hanson's racism during his first government, his WASP-divined jihad against refugees — those wretched individuals who had enough faith in us to try to reach us in old tubs, while his wicked detention policy was presided over by that other psalm singer, Philip Ruddock. This is the John Howard the press gallery in Canberra went out of its way to sell to the public during 1995. The new-made person on immigration, not the old suburban, picket-fence racist of the 1980s, no, the enlightened unifier who now accepted Australia's ethnic diversity; the opposition leader who was going to maintain Keating Labor's social policies on industrial relations, on superannuation at 15%, on reconciliation, on native title, and on the unique labour market programs for the unemployed.
These solemn commitments by Howard, which helped him win the 1996 election, bit the dust under that breathtaking blanket of hypocrisy he labelled "non-core promises". Even on Medicare, contrary to his commitment, he forced each of us into private health or carry the consequences.
During the 1996 election campaign, a number of people I regard well said to me, "Oh, I think Howard will be all right"; meaning, while not progressive, he would not be reactionary or socially divisive, or opportunistically amoral. Well, Howard wasn't "all right". He has turned out to be the most divisive prime minister in Australia's history. Not simply a conservative maintaining the status quo, but a militant reactionary bent on turning the clock back against social inclusion, co-operation in the workplace, the alignment of our foreign policies towards Asia, providing a truthful and honourable basis for our reconciliation, accepting the notion that all prime ministers since Menzies had — Holt, Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and me — that our ethnic diversity had made us better and stronger and that the nation's leitmotif was tolerance.
Howard has trodden those values into the ground. He also trod on the reasonable constitutional progression to an Australian republic, even when the proposal I championed had everything about it that the Liberal Party could accept: a president appointed by both houses of parliament (meaning by both major parties), while leaving the reserve powers with the new head of state.
The price of Howard conniving in its defeat will probably mean we will ultimately end up with an elected head of state, completely changing the representative nature of power, of the prime ministership and of the cabinet.
To compound Howard's transgressions, he has run dead on the continuing obligation of structural economic change, just as he did when he was treasurer in the 1970s. He and Costello have simply made hay while the sun has shone from the great structural reforms introduced by the Hawke and Keating governments. Those changes — open financial and product markets, and the new decentralised wages system of 1993 — were married up with $1 trillion in superannuation savings, to completely underwrite the country's prosperity and renew its economic base.
Howard's sole example of reform is his GST — the one he told us in 1996 he would not give us, a regressive tax on all spending regardless of income.
Nations get a chance to change course every now and then. When things become errant, a wise country adjusts its direction. It understands that it is being granted an appointment with history. On this coming Saturday, this country should take that opportunity by driving a stake through the dark heart of Howard's reactionary Government.
Paul Keating was prime minister of Australia from 1991 to 1996.