It was often said in the lead-up to this year’s election that many of those voting for the first time knew no other Prime Minister than John Howard. And even though I was 19 when the Howard government was elected in 1996, I have much the same sensation. I simply can’t remember a time when the words “the Prime Minister” referred to someone other than the Hon J.W. Howard, and it’s going to be quite an adjustment.
Those of us who work for The Chaser also face a seismic shift in the political landscape. The new territory is still far from familiar. When we started our tiny newspaper in 1999, the Howard government had already been re-elected for the first time a few months earlier. So we simply aren’t used to having any other primary target, and it was with surprisingly mixed emotions that I have watched him power-walk off the national stage this week. It will take a long time to adjust to the idea that tracking down the Prime Minister with a silly stunt won’t be as easy as simply rocking up to the Kirribilli foreshore before dawn. Kevin Rudd has proven far more inaccessible – I know, who’d have thought he’d tightly control the media? – so it’s probably lucky we’re finishing making television for the year.
As the outgoing PM departs, we should take a moment to remember that John Howard gave so much to so many, primarily in the advertising industry. But his rule was also a bountiful period for satirists, and this was in part due to his remarkable consistency. The man simply does not change, and in the end this was his undoing – when he tried to appear in touch with issues such as climate change, the electorate simply didn’t believe him. But the predictability of Howard, which led to him being trusted as a safe pair of hands at the last two elections, meant that the same jokes that served satirists at the beginning of his government still worked in 2007. The refusal to say sorry, the hatred of unions, the doting regard for George Bush and the Queen, the dorky cricket fandom, the Wallaby tracksuits and above all those glorious, bountiful eyebrows were as constant and immovable as Rudd’s hair. And if you don’t believe me, check out Casey Bennetto’s brilliant Keating The Musical – the anti-Howard jibes seem as fresh in late 2007 as when they were when written nearly three years ago.
Howard was the grandmaster of repetition, beating the electorate about the head with his carefully qualified phrases until we yielded in submission. Who else could win an election with a statement as awkwardly legalistic as “We decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come”? And he could kill the most awkward of leadership tensions with the phrase “I’ll stay as long as my colleagues want me to, and it’s in the best interests of the party”, whose brilliant use was exhaustively categorised by Crikey. And then, most ironically for Peter Costello in hindsight, the suggestion that he would become PM “if I go under a bus … ” Well, it was a public conveyance that got him in the end, and it took both of them out. Nevertheless, in his pomp, Howard’s love of playing difficult deliveries with the same straight verbal bat was an absolute gift to satirists.
Now he is gone. So where to now for Australia’s satirists? I must confess to having had concerns during previous elections. Kim Beazley provided some fodder for satire, particularly given his inability to use words that the average Australian could actually understand, but the end result was so dull that there was no joy, and little humour, in it. Surely under him, satire would have withered and died as everyone lost interest in politics completely. On the other hand, Mark Latham was a brilliant source of jokes about uncontrollable violence, but other than his fixation with teaching kiddies to read and fierce class hatred of private schools, we saw little that could be properly satirised before he flamed out.
But in electing Rudd, voters have anointed a prime minister who is, on the evidence to date, even more of a gift to satire than John Howard was. Having spoken to friends “right around this country of ours”, as Rudd likes to put it, since the win, I know that I am not the only one to have been significantly underwhelmed by our new leader from the very moment he claimed victory. Rather than Howard’s trusty “My fellow Australians”, the incoming PM chose to start his speech with “OK guys”, sounding much like a head prefect unsuccessfully trying to be on the same level as his underlings. And then the rest of the speech became mired in bureaucratese.
There are no memorable words from his speech at all. No “sweetest victory of them all” or “one for the true believers”. Instead we had talk of “forging a consensus”, of a “mission statement” and “an agenda for work”. “We have a job of work to do,” he intoned by way of conclusion. The former bureaucrat didn’t sound prime ministerial; he sounded Yes Prime Ministerial. Bob Hawke should be urgently called in for training, because this is the first Labor leader in history who doesn’t sound convincing when he says the word “mate”.
And the cliche count was preposterous. “Without family we are nothing,” apparently. “My local community is the rock upon which all other things are built,” he told us. We heard repeatedly of a “new page”, “sacred trust”, “blood, sweat and tears” and “this great nation of ours, Australia”. It left me wondering what his marriage proposal to Therese was like. “Therese, this underemployed diplomat who can speak Chinese’s heart needs new leadership with fresh ideas. And you know what? I want to put my single life out the back door and establish a working family with you.”
Rudd needs a new speechwriter urgently, and he needs to read Don Watson’s Death Sentence, in which Keating’s former speechwriter explains how cliches and management-speak are leaching meaning from our language. Because, on Saturday night, Rudd made John Howard seem like an inspiring orator.
Rudd’s campaign was based on providing all the things the nation liked about Howard, and then a few extras. He will clearly do the same for those who write about politics for a living. In Rudd, Australians have chosen a PM whose unbreakable addiction to management-speak and glib soundbites will deliver great things – perhaps not for working families, but definitely for working satirists.