THE election of right winger Nicolas Sarkozy as President of France this week has capped off an extraordinary consolidation of power by the more conservative side of politics around the globe in recent years.

It’s a trend that shows little sign of abating.

Worse is to come.

When John Howard is re-elected to an historic 5th term in office later this year there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth, much navel gazing and retrospective interpretations on how Labor could possibly have lost the unloseable election.

Right across the Northern Hemisphere a tsunami of right wing electoral victories has literally changed the face of global politics — in the USA (George Bush), Germany (Angela Merkel), Canada (Stephen Harper), Mexico (Calderón Hinojosa), Russia (Vladamir Putin) and the Vatican (Joseph Ratzinger). Tony Blair, a Tory in all but name, should be added to that list.

Whilst it is true that left-of-centre parties have recently won in Spain (José Zapatero) and Italy (Romano Prodi), those victories were clinched only in the immediate wake of extraordinary events (the Madrid train bombing and Italy’s corporate magnate, Silvio Berlesconi, being besieged by corruption turmoil).

The left-of-centre has enjoyed morsels of victories in a handful of tiny, impoverished nations — most notably Bolivia (Juan Morales) and Liberia (Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf). Welcome victories, yes, but even these actually a pathetically small backlash by the poor, underlining the brutish avalanche that was happening in the rest of the world.

Hope springs eternal, and I don’t wish to dampen the enthusiasm of those who have already spelled the demise of Bush’s Republicans and John Howard in the next 12 months.

But I won’t join the chorus as yet. In 1992, I chanced upon a group of British holidaymakers in New Delhi and broke the news to them that the Tories had just been re-elected to office in Great Britain that morning. Labour had lost the unloseable election to John Major, despite all opinion polls forecasting the opposite result. The young travellers were beside themselves with grief. (So confident were they in the opinion polls that not one of them had bothered to cast a vote.)

So, why is Howard likely to win again?

It is a serious mistake to analyse John Howard’s extraordinary run of victories in terms of his persona and prowess or indeed the persona of any big names in the major parties. Or even landmarks such as the ‘children overboard’ saga. Howard’s success has to be viewed mainly in the light of a global pendulum swing. Moreover, that pendulum represents a global cultural phenomenon, and, I believe, has yet to reach the end of its trajectory. It is driven by a very powerful sociological force, and a disturbing one at that.

It all started way back when I was a dim-witted young man.

Activists of my generation of youth look back on the 1960s and early 1970s with some nostalgia. These were heady times …  the dawn of rock music, The Beatles, flower-power hippies, Woodstock, anti-apartheid protests, Vietnam war protests, feminist power, the end of capital punishment, the end of military conscription, acceptance of Aborigines as Australian citizens, Lake Pedder, the dawn of serious environmental activism …  all of this bunched up in the blink of a few years.

The policy gains and social gains that were made during those heady times were tremendously significant. Citizens were empowered to stand up to authority. Governments were forced to introduce elements of democracy that had hitherto been seen as way too liberal. Women got out of their kitchens. Domestic violence became a crime. Civil protest became legitimised (even if begrudgingly at first). NGOs of every description started to fill vacuums, learning how to wield power for the first time.

How the worm turns?  If all that ‘people empowerment’ and stoning-of-the-Bastille sounds exciting and grand, that boisterous era unfortunately had its pernicious, dark side too. In short, my youthful generation was unwittingly creating the seedbed for the political shift-to-the-right that is happening right now.

We weren’t to predict it, but, in helping to liberate and empower ordinary citizens from the shackles of government stolidity, we in the zany 1970s were sewing the seeds that have grown into the ‘Me Now’ society that we live in today. Much though it grates to say this, our revolutionary energy created the thin end of the wedge from which the crass, self-centred individualism of today has evolved.

In 2007 we citizens are empowered all right. Empowered to consume. Empowered to satiate our lives with things. To live our lives at the expense of others, at the expense of the planet even. To ‘live the dream’, as the advertisers tell us.

I don’t know at what point citizens’ empowerment became coopted and subverted by the advertising agencies. I don’t know exactly when it transmogrified and debased itself from a romantic force for positive change to the dominant, selfish force that now threatens our shining little planet.

What I do know is that once the ball got rolling, it developed a momentum that has become seemingly unstoppable. The ‘Me Now’ phenomenon has grown so enormously, it has ended up radically changing the body politic, public morality and how people vote.

But wait! John Howard can be defeated. I am hoping against hope that I am wrong and that the pendulum has reached the end of its trajectory.

Oh yes, he will try to focus our self-centredness on fear for jobs if climate change is addressed, and fear for our national security and fear of Muslim migrants and so forth. But those base fears are becoming finely counterbalanced by a rapidly growing knowledge that we are all heading for the proverbial brick wall —  unless we do something very different. I see it every day in the language and the thinking of the most unexpected people, people who were only yesterday sitting on the other side of the fence.

Personally, I, like many others, can support Labor over Liberal barely more than I can support Coles over Woolworths, or Pepsi over Coke, or Optus over Telstra.

Dumping John Howard has to be seen as the start of a makeover that is much more fundamental. But what a beautiful way to start!

Chris Harries
May 2007

Chris Harries

It is a serious mistake to analyse John Howard’s extraordinary run of victories in terms of his persona and prowess or indeed the persona of any big names in the major parties. Or even landmarks such as the ‘children overboard’ saga. Howard’s success has to be viewed mainly in the light of a global pendulum swing. Moreover, that pendulum represents a global cultural phenomenon, and, I believe, has yet to reach the end of its trajectory. It is driven by a very powerful sociological force, and a disturbing one at that.