One for the remainder bin

From my fairly hazy memory of it, Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People ranks as one of the less incisive Australian works of political biography I’ve read in the last decade or so. But if Paul Kelly’s review is anything to go by, her latest book Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class looks set to surpass it as an exercise in egregious hagiography:

La Trobe University’s Judith Brett offers insights into Howard’s success that transcend the progressive intelligentsia’s obsession about a racist little man in a 1950s time warp.

Brett says: “Howard has emerged as the most creative Liberal since Menzies as he has reworked the images, themes and arguments of Liberal Party philosophy to respond to the social and economic changes in Australia since Menzies’ retirement.” …

Brett says that depicting Howard as seeking a return to Menzies’ ’50s is “grist for the satirist’s mill but it is not good history”. Howard’s aim is not to return to the ’50s (a truly absurd proposition) but, like Menzies, to find a new language of social and national unity to marginalise his opponents.

In the ’80s, his Future Directions showed Howard’s dismissal of identities larger than the family and smaller than the nation class, religion, ethnicity, gender, race. He aspired to create a unity of the whole and his opportunity came when Paul Keating’s cultural politics, after an initial success, went off the rails. …

Brett argues that Howard’s lukewarm view of multiculturalism is not driven by racial factors but by his faith in a common Australian culture and his rejection of efforts by cultural elites to use state power in pursuit of national identity re-engineering.

His rejection of policies that enshrine separate indigenous rights (customary law, treaties and sovereignty) reflects the same conviction that this is a dangerous step towards a divided nation in violation of the commonsense Australian notion of equality and fair go. (This is a position Brett strongly criticises.)

Howard’s stance on border protection is a variation of the same theme. This issue mirrors a conflict between a cosmopolitan citizens-of-the-world view and a narrow nationalism that puts “obligations to their fellow nationals much higher than to those outside the boundaries of the nation”, a somewhat commonsense attitude.

Brett argues that in the process Howard has paid a price. He has lost much of the party’s moral middle class, symbolised by the ABC constituency, to his opponents. But she also fingers the blunder made by Howard’s professional critics, arguing that, to understand Howard, his denial of racism must be taken seriously and his policies assessed within the terms that Howard himself advances.

Strangely, Kelly (who with all his faults is usually an intelligent political commentator) makes no attempt to explain why it should be regarded as a “blunder” to refuse to accept Howard’s self-servingly flattering characterisations of the motivations for his own divisive policies.

Actually, I agree with Brett that focusing on Howard’s policy stances as “racist” is mistaken, but for quite different reasons from hers. Howard may or may not be racist (or, more accurately, xenophobic) on a personal level, but it’s politically irrelevant. The salient feature of these policies is not their racism per se but their carefully calculated divisiveness. This is a 21st century polling-driven exercise in Machiavellian “divide and rule” strategies. Race issues are among the most strongly emotive “hot button” issues, and the most easily exploited. Moreover, many working class (and otherwise ordinarily Labor) voters can be successfully hived off the ALP by well-designed appeals to fears about race and ethnicity. The Labor movement has had a rich vein of racism running through its entire history, with many workers convinced that the yellow and black hordes threatened their jobs. The advent of the towering figure of Saint Gough and a succession of subsequent middle class ALP leaders, who eschewed racist appeals, tends to obscure the fact that as recently as the 1960s Labor leader Arthur Caldwell (a proud upholder of the White Australia Policy as post-war Immigration Minister) could unblushingly utter the immortal line “Two Wongs don’t make a white”. Those sentiments have merely lain dormant in many traditional Labor voters over the intervening decades, and they are what Howard has been able unerringly to exploit through his stunningly successful “wedge” politics election tactics.

Brett’s audacity in asserting that Howard has sought “to find a new language of social and national unity” is nothing short of breathtaking in its complete inversion of reality. Despite his strong leadership and steady economic stewardship, Howard is without question the most socially divisive Prime Minister Australia has ever had. Judith Brett has missed her vocation. She should be a political spin doctor instead of an academic historian.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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2024 years ago

Without having read the book, it’s a bit hard to say, but Paul Kelly does point out that she is “a strong critic of Howard”, so I think “hagiography” is probably off the mark.

Brett’s audacity in asserting that Howard has sought “to find a new language of social and national unity”

Bear in mind that the words you’ve quoted are Kelly’s, not Brett’s. Perhaps the “language of unity” could be understood as the set of themes which Howard has adopted to speak across the previously unbridgeable party divide, rather than implying that he has unified the nation per se. One would have to read the book to find out.

Disclaimer: Judith Brett is one of my lecturers. Knowing some of her personal views about Howard gives me another reason to suspect that the book will be no hagiography.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2024 years ago

I was actually going to blog on this myself Ken – but from a somewhat different perspective. I guess I was encouraged by Kelly’s review in that political analysis from an inherently disinterested perspective is a rare and fragile flower in our environment. If, as Kelly seems to assert, she’s approached this study from other than a specific, politically partisan perspective, then it will be worth reading for that aspect alone IMO.

I’m a bit surprised that you should read Judith Brett as a Howard hagiographer. From what little I know of her, this would seem to be very unlikely billing. Dan – from much closer acquaintance – would seem to be saying much the same thing.

An interview with Judith Brett reported by Tony Stephens in yesterday’s SMH “Spectrum” might give you more confidence about both the intent and the potential impact of her book.

I guess I yearn for a more complex analysis of Howard and his effect than that offered by the Dark Prince of our baser instincts on the one hand and the narrow, unimaginative ‘suburban solicitor’ on the other. Clearly, elements of both feature in Howard’s political ascendancy but if Brett has actually extended the explorative boundary beyond that parameter, then I for one will see it as a significant advance.

Here’s an excerpt from Stephens’ piece:

Whitlam was not so much interested in the Australian legend as in making Australia a cosmopolitan, sophisticated place. Paul Keating too was a cosmopolitan. Brett argues “Howard is an unashamed Australian patriot who has captured much Australian vernacular nationalism for the Liberals and in doing so created a workable language of national unity.”

I’ll be interested to see how she develops that…

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago

You may both be right that Brett isn’t a mere Howard apologist, but it certainly wasn’t apparent from Paul Kelly’s article. However, that may flow from Kelly’s limitations rather than Brett’s. Nevertheless, I still think there’s an extraordinary contradiction between claiming a unifying intention for Howard, and doing so by pursuing policies of exclusion, division and even demonisation.

On the other hand, to be strong and cohesive, any group (including a nation) must define itself in opposition to those it excludes. In some respects, that might be seen as the weakness of the co-operative internationalist vision pursued in a bipartisan manner by all Australian leaders from Whitlam until the advent of Howard. It weakens feelings of unique Australian identity.

Personally, I have ambivalent feelings about that. On the one hand, I’m a proud Aussie, barracking for our mob in sporting events and believing (as I do) that our peaceful, tolerant, prosperous democratic country is one of the best in the world in which to live. On the other hand, I’m acutely conscious that aggressive nationalism, and even worse imperialism, has been a force that has generated greater evil and more human suffering than just about any other abstraction, apart from extreme religious fervour.

I agree that a more detached, in-depth analysis of the Howard phenomenon is overdue. Whether Brett is the person to tackle it is another question, best answered by those with greater familiarity with her work than me (my knowledge is confined to reading her Menzies book 7 or 8 years ago).

Tim Dymond
Tim Dymond
2024 years ago

Ken, what did you find so objectionable about Brett’s Menzies book? I have read through it recently and didn’t find it an ‘egregious hagiography’ at all. Surely she was pointing out that Menzies offered a positive vision to voters in the 50s and 60s rather than simply scaring the pants off them about Communism.

Also, if Brett says Howard is trying to “to find a new language of social and national unity” that’s not the same as saying he has found it, or that the results of the ‘new language’ haven’t been divisive. But even the narrowest of election victories require a broad range of voters to identify with what you offer.

2024 years ago

Perhaps Ken finds the assertion that Howard is even *trying* to find a means to social unity particularly absurd, Tim?

Tim Dymond
Tim Dymond
2024 years ago

I guess it all depends on what you mean by ‘social unity’. At the rhetorical level Howard invokes ‘all Australians’ on a regular basis – he promised he would govern ‘for all of us’ even if you don’t think he does. His stress on housing affordibility is a classic Menzies – the purported common desire for all Australians to own their own home. Australia as a nation of middle class small property owners is a social vision promoted by plenty of people other than Howard, but ‘only’ JH can keep your interest rates low. You don’t have to actually believe him but the message is clear.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago


I didn’t state that Brett’s Menzies book was egregious hagiography. I said that my hazy memory of it was that it wasn’t especially incisive. I characterised her new book as egregious hagiography, however, but conditional on Paul Kelly’s review being an accurate summary of its arguments (because I haven’t read it myself).

My principal objection, as I think I made pretty clear, was the apparent attempt to characterise Howard as seeking a new vision of national unity, when in practice his term of office has been repeatedly marked with calculated exercises in fomenting division and hatred for electoral gain. Empty ‘for all of us’ rhetoric and white picket fence imagery are belied by his actual record. Now it’s entirely possible that Brett acknowledges and examines this contradiction in her book, but it certainly isn’t mentioned in Kelly’s review.

Jack Strocchi
2024 years ago

Ld Ken makes a startling claim showing that seven years is a very short time in political history:
Howard is without question the most socially divisive Prime Minister Australia has ever had.

Keating was more culturally divisive than Howard.

Who was it who launched the Republic, which split the nation into three camps and threatened to divide the Executive into two warring sub-branches?
Who was it who championed Reconciliation, which was taken by Aboriginal activists as a licence to promote National Seperatist treaties?
Whose ministers championed “multi-culturalism”, a policy which is nothing if not divisive, the ministers responsible now languish in jail for their troubles?
Who was it who thought that Asian Engagement ie moving away from our traditional security guarantors (the US) towards regional associates of uncertain political disposition, would help Aust become a more “multi-cultural” society ?
Which party was it that “played the race card” ie ethnic Balakanisation of politics, when the ALP rorted immigration policy with family reunions, and refugee policy with bodgy rulings, all to ethnicly-stack ailing ALP branches?
These divisive “Symbolic Politics” of special interest identity groups were the very essence of divisiveness – and were rejected by the working class heartland of the Labor movement before Howard started to shove any wedges in.
In the one issue in which Howard actually initiated a wedge conflict, namely the class conflict associated with the MUA dipute, he was quite properly beaten. MUA is here to stay.
Otherwise, as the rhetorical questions listed above indicate, Howard is fact binding up the things that the Cultural Left tried to tear apart.
Hawke sensibly steered clear of these foolish divisivy things, and was properly rewarded with four terms and relatively clean campaigns.
“Border Protection”, far from being divisive, was supported by the overwhelming majority of Australians.
Howard’s dirty 2001 campaign was a regrettable, but necessary, evil. Clearly the Cultural Left need to be have some sense knocked into them. A brutalised and extended spell in the sin bin seems the only way to do it.
The Aust Cultural Left was unerringly stupid and mischievous in declaring Culture Wars and in prosecuting them corruptly – thereby giving Howard the sword and the reason to use it.

2024 years ago

The Forgotten People is actually pretty good, and does a nice job of articulating Menzies’ reinvention of class within Australian politics. Menzies’ key biographer, Alan Martin, for one, rightly thinks Brett places too much emphasis on a single speech, but it is important speech and a reasonable way into the topic for Brett to take. The fact that she is able to assess Ming’s political worth honestly while not adhering at all to his politics is all to her credit.

The idea that the new book casts Howard in a similar vein–as creatively reworking images of national unity–is a reasonable proposition and I’ll be interested to read it. The fact that Howard is as divisive as Ken rightly says he is, does not necessarily mean (paradoxically) that he isn’t also trying to fashion a new version of national unity that is politically useful to him. Brett’s a good writer, a good thinker, and this is potentially very interesting approach to take, and like I say, I’ll be interested to read the book.

One thing is for sure, hagiography it won’t be.

2024 years ago

I get the feeling Jack’s serious, somehow.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago


I’ll assume you’re advancing this viewpoint in all seriousness, and answer it accordingly. It’s the Howard “spin”, rewriting history by accusing his hated predecessor of precisely what he (Howard) has done ever since: hang onto power through a deliberate divide and rule strategy.

Reconciliation has certainly been exploited by elements of the Aboriginal industry to suck the last drop of milk out of the public nipple by squeezing the guilt gland for all it was worth, and that in turn has helped prolong a welfare dependent culture. However, it’s silly and fanciful to suggest that Paul Keating deliberately designed those features. The Howard government has been no more successful in breaking the cycle of dependency and extreme violence. Keating set out to unite indigenous and non-indigenous Australians through the reconciliation process, as every leader from Gough Whitlam onwards had done.

Similarly, multiculturalism has been exploited and hijacked by ALP factional branch-stackers, but that’s a minor aspect of it. Again, it’s a policy that was embraced and pursued by every PM from Whitlam onwards (including Fraser), until John Howard decided to rewrite the script to characterise this extraordinarily successful policy of cultural inclusiveness as “divisive”. It’s Howard that’s being divisive, cynically embracing the Hansonite agenda for short-term political advantage, and in the process making xenophobia respectable again.

As for the republic issue, there’s a certain unconscious irony in your raising it, given your advocacy that Australia should become the 51st state of the US! Eighty percent of Australians consistently indicate in opinion polls that they favour an Australian head of state. It certainly took a rare evil genius on Howard’s part to derail a referendum on an idea with that level of support. However, the fact that he succeeded hardly provides a basis for concluding that Keating was being deliberately divisive in raising it in the first place.

Keating clearly had a unifying vision for Australia that was rather ahead of where some Australians were comfortable to go, and he manifestly lacked the personality or ability to inspire people with that vision. But, unlike Howard, he didn’t set out to create division or hatred through these policies. Those consequences were measures of his failure. With Howard, the same consequences are a measure of his success. Howard carefully creates or seizes on issues that divide his opponents’ supporters, and uses it for all he’ worth to stay in government. Keating failed to realise that his attempt at a larger vision of Australia would alienate his own supporters, and thereby lose him government. It’s a fundamentally important distinction.

2024 years ago

So for an issue to classify as a wedge issue it has to involve a popularly held belief that if placed on the political agenda is likely to divide an opponents support base. I can’t see why that’s a bad thing – in fact I can’t imagine anything worse than deliberately keeping an issue off the agenda because of a belief by those in power that they know better.

It’s just that whole ‘greater good’ logic taken to an extreme. Political ‘scientists’ and sympathetic journalists want certain issues off limits because they know that in the long run the end result will be a more ‘unified’ population.

Australia was no more or less divided before Howard was elected. It’s just that we now get to vote on issues that we were prevented from voting on before.

Jack Strocchi
2024 years ago

My Ld Ken,

Thankyou for dignifying my rather irate and intemperate post with the soothing balm of your reasoned judgement.
I adore your antimonious distinction:
Keating: idealistic coalition politics fragmenting his own supporter base
Howard: realistic wedge politics dividing his enemies support base
Thus I concede that in subjective intentions, Keating was intending to be inclusive.
But in terms of objective consequences, Howard has achieved more inclusivness.
A fact free argument is pointless.
My evidence for this is that Howard co-opted the feral fragments of One Nation over to the Coalition. Thus a potentially divisive faction has been included into the mainstream party vote. To do this he had to shift the cultural centre of gravity of the coalition (and the Australian electorate) to the Right.
That is being Right wing, not divisive, if as, seems the case, an increasing number (larger majority) prefer Cultural Right wing policies.
It must be also acknowledged that some part of One Nations attraction, that Howard appropriated, lay in it’s ability to appeal to mainstream unity and oppose divisive special interest groups.
Cultural collectivism of this sort is largely an attempt to get cultural dissidents to “fit in” to the silent majority.
It is illiberal, but not necessarily divisive if the minorities are sucessfully co-opted/integrated/assimilated.