by Stephen Holt.
Near the end of Billy McMahon’s prime ministership, Manning Clark conceived an article, later published in Meanjin, in which the pre-Whitlam era was denounced as "the years of unleavened bread". He deplored "the moral disgrace" of the Vietnam war and conscription.
In the same article Clark also admitted that, in 1949, he had, in part, greeted Labor’s expulsion from office with "indifference". He felt at the time that Labor lacked vision.
These days the non-Labor cause again holds sway nationally. Its ascendancy is the theme of the The Barren Years: John Howard and Australian Political Culture, a collection of media articles written between 1998 and 2001 by the Melbourne academic Robert Manne.
Manne’s title, with its connotations of sterility and unpleasantness, echoes Clark’s reference to "unleavened bread" and yet the symmetry does not end there. The resonances are manifold.
Manne gives us a take, lucid though not entirely unique, on the ideas and feelings that comprise the political culture of turn of the millennium Australia. The picture is dark. We are, it seems, all too eager to disown a recent brave experiment. To be more specific, our current national political leadership is still bent on exorcising the ghost of Paul Keating.
Keating, significantly, was Manning Clark’s final great Australian hero. He planned to obliterate the last traces of Australia’s legacy of colonial dependence and fragile self-esteem. As Treasurer, he sought, through deregulation, to make Australia a virile competitor in a globalised economy. Later as Prime Minister he sought to bury old time British Australian prejudices for good by advocating a republic, fostering reconciliation with indigenous Australians and engaging with Asia.
Keating’s boldness made him a worthy Clarkian visionary but as such he was bound to have a fatal flaw. The Barren Years touches on his vulnerability, albeit in terms of public policy rather than inner demons. Keating’s pursuit of economic openness tended to sort us out into losers and winners. The losers saw his "big picture" strategy as remote and threatening while, it may be added, many would-be winners, because of their heightened aspirations, were stressed and insecure. On 2 March 1996 the adverse currents converged and Keating was swept from office.
The pressure was not lessened by a change of government. Labor’s foes, Manne reminds us, could not ease up on economic restructuring since they considered that Keating’s reforms did not go far enough. To maintain the rage they had to rely instead on social and symbolic points of differentiation and in particular on directing resentment against uppity "elites" and ethnic minorities.
Manne highlights the fatal impact that this deliberate choice of focus has had on Australia’s post-1996 political culture. Public discourse has been debauched by the whipping up of populist sentiment. Xenophobia gave Pauline Hanson crucial political leverage while a fear of shadowy elites undermined Australia’s republican potential.
The collateral damage that Manne can point to has been extensive. The hoped for birth in 2001 of an Australian republic was aborted, reconciliation has been sidelined (this involved monstering the stolen generations report of 1997), asylum seekers have been demonised and multiculturalism has fallen out of favour. These negative developments sprang from uncharitable attitudes. Insecurity is now the order of the day. Such are Australia’s barren years as delineated by Robert Manne.
Manne, though a compelling critic, is by no means an innocent party. The Barren Years ably contextualises the ugly practice of legitimising populist resentment. Yet Manne himself fails to acknowledge his own past role in administering "oxygen" (to use a recent cliché) to demonisers. In this he is less candid than Clark whose Meanjin article acknowledges a past willingness to wonder whether Labor stood for anything worthwhile.
In the early 1990s residual anti-communist passion fuelled Manne's enthusiasm for his then role as editor of the magazine Quadrant. Self-appointed critics of "political correcteness" supported the magazine as well and were fed with suitable fare. In 1993 Quadrant published Geoffrey Blainey’s thoughts on the so-called Black Armband view of our history. Manning Clark, on the strength of a few journalistic pieces, was posthumously outed as its begetter.
Manne also published a headline grabbing article by Peter Ryan which repudiated Clark’s A History of Australia, five of whose six volumes Ryan had published. Ryan gave the impression that Clark’s status depended on an academic conspiracy of silence. The views of Blainey and, in particular, Ryan undoubtedly served to cloud the vistas of Keating’s big picture. In so far as Clark was discredited so, by extension, was Keating, Clark’s final anointed hero. Under Manne Quadrant sowed some of the noxious weeds that flourished during the barren years.
Manne has now undergone an Australian form of "blow back". He could not hope to keep the lid on fear and loathing once it was released and eventually it turned on him. Ryan’s article was followed by the Courier Mail’s totally unacceptable allegations of August 1996 (which were endorsed by One Nation). At the same time the growing remoteness of the Cold War drove Manne back to a default position as a social democrat. As such he found Australia’s new political culture not to his liking and was ready after a single term of Liberalism to support a change of government.
A divorce with Quadrant was only a matter of time. When it came in 1997 it followed a run in with that formidable bush bard, Les ("Order of Lenin") Murray.
After exiting from Quadrant Manne was free to concentrate on writing the enlightened articles that comprise The Barren Years. Having, as a highbrow editor, fomented some highly charged cultural debates it became his duty as a columnist to mop up the undesired political flow on.
Perhaps his earlier role in helping to forge Australia’s spooked political culture has made the post-Quadrant Manne all the more eager to shame wrong done in high places and, like the prophets of old, drive out narrowness of spirit. The yearning for greater expansiveness, once felt so deeply by Manning Clark and now expressed by Manne in The Barren Years, has gone through a fiery cycle of desolation and, thankfully, rejuvenation.