Review: Exit Right

Cover of Quarterly Essay: Exit Right

Quarterly Essay has provided me with plenty of in-depth analysis over the last couple of years, and Judith Brett’s “Exit Right: the unravelling of John Howard” is no exception.

Brett presents Howard’s downfall through the prism of the “Strong Leader”, one of three leadership types put forward by political psychologist Graham Little. (The others are the Group Leader and the Inspiring Leader.) Howard failed, Brett says, because his leadership style was ill-suited to the political environment of 2007.

A Strong Leader needs to be at war, since they’re all about winning. As Brett writes:

Despite his repeated claim that as a leader he was more interested in the things that unite us as Australians than those which divide us, Howard thrived on division. After all, it is only with division that you can have a contest, show your strength and win. Whatever the issue, Howard turned it into a contest of opposites, in which there were only two possible positions, black and white, right and wrong, with him or against him. Under Howard’s leadership, conversations about our national past, our present and our future were re-configured as “The History Wars” and “The Culture Wars”, all nuance and complexity reduced to a simplistic confrontation of claim, denial and counterclaim.

But of course Rudd simply refused to fight on Howard’s turf, and proceeded to tour the country making policy announcements and setting his own agenda.

With Rudd refusing to fight on the government’s terms, Howard and the government seemed more and more like men boxing with an enemy who was the projection of their own ideological imaginations.

In my opinion that became particularly obvious with the relentless attempts to portray unions as the devil incarnate. Howard continued to fight his imaginary enemy while failing to present anything remotely like a coherent vision for the future.

Brett presents an easy-to-follow analysis. While one may not agree with everything she says, that’s what essays are for: triggering discussion. This is a valuable contribution to the emerging body of material on Howard’s End.