Why did the 'Man of Steel' get scrapped?

April 18, 2008

'Exit Right: The Unravelling of John Howard'

By Judith Brett

Quarterly Essay, Issue 28, 2007

Black Inc. $15.95 (pb)

The 2007 election had everyone holding their breath. Would the great escapologist, John Howard, bring off another miraculous escape after his come-from-behind-the-polls victories in 2001 and 2004 on the back of terrorist, refugee and interest rate scares?

Judith Brett's post-mortem on the 2007 election attempts to answer why, this time, Howard failed.

"Was Mohamed Haneef to be the Tampa of the 2007 election, an occasion for the government to display its tough stand against terrorism and it credentials on national security?", Brett asks. It wasn't — the fit-up of Dr Haneef turned into farce and "after Tampa, children overboard and David Hicks, the public was becoming immune to scare campaigns".

"National security" had lost its cutting edge for Howard, whose "past uses of national security and his mistakes, deceptions, evasions and improbable denials undermined his credibility". War, too, had cooled as a conservative hot button — Howard clung doggedly to Bush, but after the lies and fiasco of Iraq, Bush was "no longer a political asset to anyone".

That left Work Choices squarely in the frame and it proved the "biggest misjudgement of [Howard's] political career". Work Choices threatened to dismantle "centuries of trade unions and labour market regulation", which had helped to protect wages and conditions and had given "workers some security and control in their working lives".

Publicly funded advertising campaigns to "inform" the electorate of the merits of Work Choices merely added to the cynicism. Work Choices directly affected many Australians, whose hard-pressed ranks were swelled by unaffordable housing and tertiary education debts.

Howard's credibility gap also yawned wider under his decades-long global warming denialism and last-minute about-face with its "grossly inadequate" policy response, including 25 thoroughly unwanted nuclear reactors.

On the environment, Howard looked out of touch, bereft of ideas, a latter-day fiddling Nero who will be "remembered only for wasting precious time in our battle for survival".

The political sideshows (Howard's age, the Liberal leadership succession issue that "had become a public spectacle somewhere between a Greek tragedy and a soap opera") didn't help his new aura of tiredness, old ideas and inflexibility.

The "Strong Leader", the "Man of Steel" (as Bush had dubbed him) was unbending and rusted. Howard's next stop was the scrap-heap.

Brett tells this story well, although her "leader-focused" political analysis over-emphasises the personal and implies that it was Howard's "leadership failings" that did in the government rather than its collective eleven-year history of deceit and failure.

A greater problem, however, is Brett's seduction by Rudd Labor's "new consensus" politics of bipartisan, ideology-free, "practical" solutions and a government "for all Australians". The 2007 election tossed out a nasty government to well-deserved tears of joy — it didn't, however, overturn Australia's inequalities of power and wealth. Only in "consensual" realms of fantasy do lions lay blissfully down with the lamb, and rich and poor join hands in equality.

Despite Brett's calls for "fresh thinking", government policy settings, despite some welcome tinkerings, will remain largely unchanged under the new management. Brett's generally solid political obituary on Howard (Exit Right) will need its companion piece on Rudd (Enter Right).

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