peteg's blog - noise - books - 2008 02 21 QuarterlyEssay28

Quarterly Essay #28, Judith Brett: Exit Right: The unravelling of John Howard

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Judith Brett returns with another Quarterly Essay. This one is a distillation and filtering of the news of 2007, and some of 2006, and as such added almost nothing to my understanding of Howard's final term in office. (It may be of use to future scholars, though, particularly those who weren't politically aware at the time.)

I remarked a while ago about her call-to-debate in her earlier Quarterly Essay (#19 Relaxed and Comfortable: the Liberal Party's Australia, 2005), and her analysis here seems somewhat incongruous with that work; it is as if she is still seeking the perfect metaphor for these "conviction politician" Strong Leaders, and what square pegs she found last time have now been discarded. Here is the direct quote I alluded to earlier (QE19, Howard's Australia, p39):

Many intellectuals are suspicious of nationalism. They know its power to harden boundaries between people and to make them hate and kill each other. But are nations necessarily pathological? Is any appeal to a national "us" a sort of warm-up attack on a non-national "them", a dog-whistle letting people know they really can hate the other? I know many of Howard's critics think so, and this has in my view shaped much of the Left's commentary on his prime ministership. It is also the basic reason for its ineffectiveness, because it has made it impossible to devise successful oppositional strategies.

Because whenever hes has evoked a national "us" he has been accused of really demonising a non-national "them", Howard's critics have been unable to develop any effective or plausible counter-strategies for talking to their fellow Australians. If you regard any talk of "us" as illegitimate, it is not clear to me whom you are going to talk to. Nations are not simply formed and defined by their opposition to or difference from some Other; they are also formed and defined by shared experiences and collective memories. They have centres as well as borders. As I have been arguing, Howard speaks persuasively from that centre. One does not counter him by arguing that the centre is empty, or does not exist, and that he is really only ever policing the borders. One stands in the centre with him and argues about its meanings and its responsibilities, and tells different stories to one's fellow Australians about their past and present and the bonds they share.

As she observes in the current issue, her earlier speculation that the Workchoices industrial relations legislation might be a bridge too far was spot on; Howard's special connection with the centre was more-or-less severed by it, whereas Labor and the unions were listened to as they have not been in years.

Conversely, almost the entirety of QE28 shows that her proposal to go toe-to-toe with the Strong Leader on any of what have become "Left" issues (the arts, social justice, ...) was a waste of resources and doomed to fail, simply because Howard could often not budge without losing Strength. (Paul Keating was no different, of course.) The weak and chaotic capitulation of the Liberal party on any number of recent issues (the apology to the Aborigines and industrial relations being the obvious two) shows how much he held his party in thrall, and just how Faustian they had been while in power.

So yes, "progress" in the traditional Leftist sense is possible, now that the Strong Leader has been laid to rest. I do agree with Brett that one can hope that the election drew 17 or so years of aggression politics to a close. Rudd may not be the everyman RJL Hawke was, but his early efforts to establish bipartisan projects (the flagship focussing on Aboriginal housing) mark a welcome departure towards bureaucratic politics. Now, will they make technically superior decisions, I wonder? [*]

Four Corners covered similar ground with their "we told him to go" interviews with ex-ministers last Monday 2008-02-19. The lack of loyalty was a bit breathtaking, e.g. from Minchin, who one may expect still aspires to something.

[*] Well, I think we're still stuffed on the communications front, with the ALP's net-nanny policy apparently going ahead. Remember kids, if you opt-out you're clearly a pervert.