If you want to work out who won what was billed as “the culture wars” during the time of the Howard government, tune into SBS One at 8.30 pm tonight. This is the first episode of the three-part series titled Liberal Rule: The Politics that Changed Australia, which is produced by Nick Torrens Film Productions and written by Nick Torrens and Garry Sturgess.
Liberal Rule is a shocker and a disgrace. Torrens obtained interviews with key figures in the former government including John Howard, Peter Costello, Alexander Downer and Peter Reith along with some former Liberal Party staffers. They were all identified according to their relationship to Howard or the government he led.
Sturgess had been the senior researcher on the successful ABC TV documentary Labor in Power series, which aired in 1993. It is likely that those supportive of the Howard government who were interviewed for Liberal Rule anticipated a similar style of documentary. In Labor in Power, the key figures in the governments led by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were allowed to state their case and viewers were allowed to draw their own conclusions.
Not so in Liberal Rule. Torrens put it in a directors’ statement which accompanies the SBS publicity: “Being aware that interviews with our ‘cast’ of John Howard and his senior cabinet figures would elicit recollections with an eye to history’s favourable view, the crucial decision was how to present a balanced picture … Garry and I sought an atmosphere of co-operative engagement. To this we would add the necessary layers of subtext.”
You can say that again. There would have been no problem if Torrens and Sturgess had sought to present a balanced picture of the Howard government by seeking a diversity of opinions from academics and journalists and perhaps some Labor and National Party politicians. This would have entailed that Howard’s critics and supporters alike would have been heard and his government would have been critiqued from both left-of-centre and right-of-centre.
This did not occur in Liberal Rule. Of the academics and journalists who were interviewed for the program, a couple of journalists took an empirical stance. However, the overwhelming majority of commentators heard on Liberal Rule bagged Howard, Costello and the like all from the leftist or left-of-centre perspective. The directors could not find even one conservative or right-of-centre commentator suitable for interview who was not presented as associated with Howard or the Liberal Party in some way. It was as if the only so-called “balanced” commentators are all on the left.
Over the three episodes, the left has free kick after free kick with the support of the documentary’s narrator, who added what Torrens described as “the necessary layers of subtext”. In fact, the “balanced picture” of the Howard government was provided by such Howard-haters as Norman Abjorensen, Judith Brett (the one-time editor of the leftist Arena Magazine), Mark Davis (author of The Land of Plenty), Andrew Jakubowicz and James Walter among others.
None of these commentators has worked as a political staffer or in the public service and most would have trouble being noticed without the assistance of such programs as Liberal Rule. For example, Abjorensen’s book John Howard and the Conservative Tradition, which was published last year, has sold fewer than 100 copies. It is worth noting that Abjorensen’s over-the-top praise for Liberal Rule is being used by SBS to promote the documentary in which he stars.
Liberal Rule should not have passed SBS’s editorial quality control process. That it did, speaks volumes for the contemporary SBS. The Howard government was accused of stacking the SBS board. If this were the case, Liberal Rule demonstrates that part-time directors do not run public broadcasters. Once again, the Liberals have allowed themselves to be analysed by their critics. This also occurred with the 2008 ABC1 production The Howard Years.
Last year John Moore and 360 Degree Films used funds provided by the Howard government to produce Menzies & Churchill At War which aired on ABC1. Moore ran the left-wing line against Robert Menzies. The documentary gave considerable time to left-wing commentators but censored all contrary views. Even the ABC came to admit that this documentary lacked balance. The saga is told in the current issue of The Sydney Institute Quarterly.
Howard was a dominant Liberal leader. However, like all his predecessors, he failed to prevail in the battle of ideas. Unlike the Labor Party, the Liberals do not take their history seriously. The Opposition frontbencher George Brandis is one of the brightest Liberals. Writing in The Spectator, he complained that that Liberals are not celebrating the 100th anniversary of the formation of the inaugural Liberal Party. But Brandis could have arranged such a celebration himself. And he and his parliamentary colleagues could ensure that all leaders of the Liberal, Nationalist and United Australia Party are depicted in the Liberal Party room in Canberra. Including Brandis’s hero Deakin.
The Howard government had many achievements. But victory in the battle of ideas was not one of them. Liberal Rule helps to explain why.