The culture war and moral politics

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Five of David McKnight, 'Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and the Culture War', (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005).

[Apart from the Iraq war]'there is another war of values, and it is the culture war being fought within the West. This is the war between those who feel that on the whole our values and traditions are sound, and those among the intellectuals who argue that they are simply a cloak for racism and brute power.

- Editorial, The Australian, 12 April 2003

At its heart Howardism is about the culture war. Howard knows that Australia must change and he has long championed economic liberalism and deregulation. But Howard sees no need for cultural reinvention driven by the urban intellectual elites.

- Paul Kelly, The Australian, 27 October 2001

In early 2004, the Prime Minister, John Howard, sparked a brief but intense national debate about the values taught in public and private schools. Parents were increasingly sending their children to private schools because, he said, 'they feel that government schools have become too politically correct and too values-neutral'. The acting Education Minister, Peter McGauran joined in, adding that too many government schools were 'hostile or apathetic to Australian heritage and values'. Treasurer Peter Costello backed his leader. Parents turned to private schools, he said, because they delivered hard work, achievement by effort, respect for other people and strong academic standards.

At first glance these comments seem oddly misplaced. The public-private divide in education was perceived as a weak point for John Howard's coalition. In 2004 his government had given $4.7 billion to private schools, including some of the nation's most elite, doubling the $1.9 billion it gave when first elected in 1996. Moreover, school education is largely a responsibility of the states, not the federal government.

Why then was he intervening? His remarks made sense on two levels and they give an insight into how a new dimension has entered Australian politics. In the short term, the values-in-education issue was good politics. Said one commentator: '[Howard] wanted Labor to respond by engaging him on that issue because by doing so he would turn the debate on education (on which he is weak) into a debate about political correctness (on which he is strong). The unions and others bit hard-.[Mark Latham] refused to engage the debate on Howard's terms. He knows that most people in his electorate agree with Howard.'1

In the longer term, the values issue was part of a broader strategy. A perceptive editorial in The Age commented that it was difficult to discern any real difference between and state and private schools. It added, 'This is all about Mr Howard's view that there is an ongoing culture war. It is not that schools are values neutral but rather that he does not like the values taught in schools - public and private.' 2

In the short term, the culture war is about shaping and mobilising certain values in the community in order to win elections. In particular it is about dividing your opponents on the basis of issues about values. A revealing indication of this came after Labor's defeat at the 2001 election, Paul Kelly of The Australian had predicted that Howard 'is going to focus on social policy this term and set out to smash the post-Whitlam political alliance between the working class and the tertiary educated Left that defines modern Labor - [Howard] senses that the 30 year alliance of the Australian Left is collapsing because of its fundamental contradictions'.3 Kelly rejected the idea that this strategy was merely about 'wedge politics' to win elections. Instead it was about carving out a new policy direction on social issues which had been the preserve of the Left for many years. No doubt both statements are true.

But the culture war is also about giving the Liberal government a moral legitimacy. Just a couple of days after Howard's comments about values and education one of the most ideological members in the government, Tony Abbott, attacked the 'chattering classes' and the 'politically correct establishment' at a conference of Young Liberals. To most of its critics 'the Howard Government is not just mistaken but morally illegitimate,' he said.4 This taint of moral illegitimacy worried Abbott, particularly in an election year. He responded that 'moral courage is doing what's right when people who should know better declare you're wrong'. The Howard government had demonstrated such courage on tax reform, East Timor, work for the dole and stopping refugee boats and joining the war on Iraq. On Iraq he noted that the government 'sent Australian forces into action in the teeth of public opinion' because it was the right thing to do. Abbott conclude his moral defence of the Howard Government by arguing that 'it's the Government's participation in the 'culture wars' which has most put out its habitual critics. Especially in an election year, the moral case for the Howard Government ought to be made - because the best government since Bob Menzies deserves a fair trial.'

It's true that government sometimes get public respect when they are perceived to be doing what's right, rather than what's advantageous. There is a new hunger what is called 'conviction politics'. But this situation marks a change in the way governments and oppositions conduct political discourse. It's rare for politicians to openly debate their success in terms of morality. Most politicians conceive of government in terms of the material benefits, resources and policies it produces, rather than the shaping of culture and values.


1. Michael Costello, The Australian, 30 January 2004.

2. The Age, 22 Jan 2004

3. The Australian, 7 August 2002.

4. Tony Abbott, 'The Moral Case for the Howard Government', Speech to the Young Liberals issued by the Minister for Health and Ageing, 23 January 2004. (Extract also published in SMH 23 Jan 2004).