This is Judith Brett’s second Quarterly Essay on John Howard. The first was called Relaxed and Comfortable. I’ve just taken a peek through my posting for the first Judith Brett essay. From memory I recall Brett saying that she was neither for nor against the Howard government, taking a strangely neutral, almost apolitical position.
My notes say that Relaxed and Comfortable was a bit of a rebuttal to the so-called Howard Haters, who she said had got the man wrong. He was not some insidious new form of right wing politics, but rather a continuation of the Liberal Party philosophy.
Reading through Exit Right: The Unravelling of John Howard, I was surprised by how rigorously critical she was of the Howard government this time around. Just about everything the Howard Haters had found appalling, she herself has now criticised. Not in the same manner of course. She doesn’t take a hatchet to the Howard years, but her final analysis is quite revealing. For someone who had remained bland on Howard, she has now turned around and provided a very thorough going critique.
In essence, Brett describes Howard as a ‘strong’ leader. Strong leaders, she says, are notoriously short on policy. They thrive on confrontation and war (hence Howard’s culture wars etc.). This strong man approach may be successful for a good while, but will eventually show its many shortcomings.
Basically, Howard in the end completely boxed himself in and made himself look ridiculous on things like climate change and reconciliation.
Brett’s section on the new industrial laws is absolutely brilliant. She shows how the new laws would definitely short change workers, and that the government basically knew it. Once they could not deny the very obvious they had to backtrack (the fairness test that was later introduced).
Brett also discusses how much middle class welfare his government doled out, especially to the older generation in freebies and give aways. At the other end of the spectrum he did very little for the young, leaving them with poorer tertiary education, inflated housing prices and industrial relations laws that gave more power to employers. As Brett writes: ‘He has left a legacy of generational inequity which will be very difficult to reverse.’
In summing up, Brett says Howard’s biggest achievement in government will be his leaving us with a booming economy (something many may dispute). His worst failings she says are his inability to address climate change.
As for his own party, Howard has left it in a parlous state. ‘Menzies did not do this’, Brett says. ‘When he retired, there were powerful Liberal state premiers like Henry Bolte in Victoria and Robert Askin in New South Wales.’
This essay is a good critical look at Howard’s years in government, and if you have the time, I’d strongly recommend you read it along with Judith Brett’s first essay to see if you can discern any changes in her thinking.
The first essay seemed to almost praise his skills at remaining in government, while the second shows the many short comings of his 'strong man' approach to politics and leadership.
My original post for Relaxed and Comfortable you can read here.