John Howard famously said the times were his, and for more than a decade it seemed they were. Australia experienced the greatest and most sustained boom in its history. Yet at its end Australia's indigenous population was in a ruinous state, its extraordinary environment was threatened on numerous fronts, and its people were beginning to ask where the wealth had gone: public schools and public health were in crisis, social welfare was straitened, housing was unaffordable for many, and wages and conditions were being cut under Howard's industrial reforms...
In the wake of his defeat the attacks on Howard's legacy will turn ferocious, but at their heart will be an unease, a ritual exorcism of something deeper that Australians would perhaps rather not admit. For a decade Howard's power had resided in his ability to speak directly and powerfully to the great negativity at the core of the Australian soul - its timidity, its conformity, its fear of other people and new ideas, its colonial desire to ape rather than lead, its shame that sometimes seems close to a terror of the uniqueness of its land and people.
At the end of his concession speech, Howard claimed to have left Australia prouder, stronger and more prosperous. But it didn't feel that way. It felt like it had been a lost decade. It felt like the country was frightened, unsure of what it now is, unready for the great changes it must make, and ill-fitted for the robust debates it must have. There was a strange sense that Australia, which had seemed so often to sleepwalk, mesmerised, through the past 11 years, had suddenly woken up. But where it might go and what it might do and be, no one any longer knew.
From The Guardian. Richard Flanagan is a novelist.