The identity politics of Reschs

David Davis – the most prolific expat Webdiarist this year and the man who’s intrigued many of you with his political mood swings throughout the year, has a serious go at defining his politics. Then advice for December from Polly Bush and a year wrap from David Redfearn. To end, a review of Webdiary for March and April.


The Australians against Racism TV campaign on refugees – to which many Webdiarists have generously donated, is under way. Co-organiser Eva Sallis advises:


Faces in the Crowd’ went to air on Monday night across all capital cities and is still on in Darwin. The response has been huge, both positive and negative. This suggests that it is doing what it should: rallying people and raising the temper and tenor of open public debate.


At present we are exploring all avenues for getting the ad into stations as a filler and as a Community Service Announcement. Both will be free to air and will be in regions where the traffic station manager decides that he or she would like it on air, so this will be dependent on goodwill.


We are also costing SBS airtime to see if this will be possible.


We are also looking into the possibilities of getting the ad into cinemas, a context in which we believe it will come into its own. This will cost a few thousand dollars in technological remaking of the ad in appropriate form but we will be asking cinemas to cut it into their reels for free. We’ll start with Melbourne on this project and then call on you all to approach your local cinemas. Wait on this, as we need to check that the plan is viable (and affordable).


Many country viewers have been disappointed that the ad didn’t go to air on WIN and other country TV stations. We are exploring the CSA/filler possibilities with this. We would also encourage you to organise independent whiparounds in your district to get the ad on air on your regional station. If anyone comes to us with an adequate amount of money and says this is for getting the ad on primetime on our regional station, we would be delighted to organise the booking and make this happen. If we pay for airtime, we have better chances of getting filler and CSAs on as well.


The website is growing steadily. We now have a resources section with some articles already up. This will be expanded.




Genus complexitus


By David Davis in Switzerland


I hope you will forgive me but I am in a pre silly season mood and am going to go through each of the models in Defining your politics and define mine. We all seem to agree that the terms left and right have lost much of their meaning, however I am not so sure the alternative models are particularly conclusive either. Perhaps I am just a rare bird defying all attempts to be classified. Genus complexitus.


Donald Brook says the only ideological division that counts is the one between the neo-liberals and the egalitarians. I have my feet firmly planted on either side of this so called division so I don’t really understand the gap he sees. Perhaps he interprets egalitarianism to mean equality of outcomes. I prefer to look at it as equality of opportunity and I am very happy for society to organise itself in such a way that we can achieve more equitable access to opportunity for all. My interpretation of neo-liberalism isn’t a dysfunctional society. I think you can be a bit of both neo-liberal and egalitarian. Such is life in the radical centre.


Under Mark Pengryffyn’s system I tend to be toward the anarchist-green-globalist-tolerance end of his multi-dimensional universe. But then that doesn’t sit very well. Perhaps I can better define it under his system by clearly stating what I am NOT: totalitarian, brown, nationalist, bigot. These labels seem so extreme. I know he is talking about continua but can one really be part totalitarian or part anarchist? Anyway at least under his system I know what I am not even if it is uncomfortable to say what I am. So many axes to travel under Pengrffyn.


The James Paterson model presents fewer conundra (is that the plural of conundrum or some place on the Sunshine Coast?). In his model I am a “tempered neoliberal”. Tempered sounds kind of tepid though and it would feel more pure to be either hot or cold on basic philosophical positions.


In Matthew Pearce’s system I would be classified as a “progressive”, as being a person who wants some change and I would apply it to both the economic and cultural spheres. I am not happy with the status quo but on the other hand am not particularly inclined toward revolution.


The easiest method of classification is presented by Peter Parker. Under his method, I am a social and economic liberal.


Last and certainly by no means least, Don Arthur suggests four camps: traditionalist, humanist, rationalist and bohemian. This is becoming like “Twister” because I think I have a foot in two of these camps and two hands in the remaining two. I’ve been and continue to be bits of all of these. I think I’ll go bohemian for the holidays.


It’s possible of course that I have a natural aversion to labelling but if I must be labelled can I not label myself and simply be an “upbeat, future-oriented, moderate liberal with a strong progressive agenda and a distinct but not overbearing internationalist bent”?


I’ll announce how I have defined myself to the mates when I get back to Sydney at Christmas. I expect to be told I am a wanker, it’s my shout and not to get Reschs like I did last round. Trying to convert people to Reschs is part of life in the radical centre!


Accepting the tyranny of the VB paradigm is just not on. It robs one of identity. Defiantly sticking with the minority brew of Reschs is all about being separate but equal. Not elite but able to differentiate between competing mass market brews. It is also about preferring the taste of Reschs and the joy in the knowledge that in the end there’ll always be a place in the sun for the Reschs drinkers!




Polly Bush in Melbourne


The silly season has begun. Time to dust off the boardies and measure the amount of Winter chocolate consumption. Time to sweat, (a) if you’re fortunate to live somewhere where December does resemble Summer and not some hangover of the Melbourne Winter, and (b) to perspire away the remaining must do’s, must finishes of the year.


Mental thought is currently scrambled and the winding down of time provides unnecessary urgency. Remember there are things that can wait. You don’t need to have a pre-Christmas drink with every straggler that rears their head around the time of giving. And don’t feel guilty when you receive a Christmas card from a friend you were meant to call five months ago. If it’s meant to be, they’ll be back.


Work. No one’s doing much anymore so why should you. No more hard slog, you’ve done that, or at least you’ve attempted it or thought about it, so drop the excess, drop the overtime, it’s time to unwind. You have plenty of time to work hard next year. Or the next.


Try to avoid your work Christmas party if possible, but remember it’s the occasion when colleagues get spastic and colleagues talk. It might be in your interest to go, at least to keep an eye on things and yourself. Alliances can be cemented or torn. Coups can occur in the New Year.


You have alcohol as the excuse to push the envelope and cause a small riot. Emphasize small. Be careful not to vomit on anyone – it’s embarrassing and people will talk. This goes without saying but don’t become the Christmas office pash. It’s cheap. And transforming from office nerd to Pete Townsend air guitar genius, windmilling and carving up the dance floor, may look a bit suss. Alternatively bake a special Christmas cake, complete with all spice to spice things up.


Don’t spend more than your Kris Kringle (shudder) limit. It’s been set for a reason and others aren’t as generous. Remember, they probably voted for one of the major political parties. Make sure you pick someone you know, and if you don’t, perform a swap. Nothing worse than being confronted by your unknown gift giver and another colleague who says, “Who gave you that?” to which you rudely point and say to the guy’s face “him”. Trust me, it’s been done.


If they barrack for a footy team, it’s sorted. Go the mug, sticker, key ring, fluffy die, stubbie cooler, coasters, or a bloody big ridiculous inflatable finger. Give them the big finger, it may make you feel better, and next season they’ll look like a wanker at the game. If they drink, go the bottle of vino – a six pack of VB may not have the same effect. If they smoke, whatever colour of the rainbow, head down to your nearest tobacconist. Be wary that a gigantic poster of Bob Marley choofing on a kick-arse reefer may not go down well in front of other colleagues. But remember, it is anonymous.


Christmas shopping (another shudder) bites. Remember last year’s vow to collect pressies throughout the year to avoid another deficit in December? No, bugger. Since it’s the live to give season, why not instead ask your loved ones to bypass the money on your Christmas present in favour of a charity. Do it, it will make you feel better and others might follow.


Christmas Day. Going home versus staying home. If you go for the whole family reunion event, be careful. If confrontation is inevitable, get out any long or short term issues early before you get drunk and have a climactic brawl. Stick to your principles. Don’t put yourself through the whole God doesn’t love sinners sermon if you know it will stir you up. Put your foot down and tell your Mother on arrival there’s no chance you’ll sport a frock and you don’t care if Auntie Beryl thinks you look like a bull dyke. She’ll get over it and her crocheting sucks anyway.


Avoid politics as a topic of conversation. It’s not the occasion to hear what a fantastic job Philip Ruddock or Mr Burns from The Simpsons is doing. Chances are you’re going to be outnumbered. Remember your uncle voted One Nation and it was only a few years back, and your precious cousin who never ventures beyond the leafy burbs is freaked out by “ethnic” crime. And don’t forget your father labelled you “dangerous” because you partially convinced your sister to vote for Peter MacDonald in November, breaking for the first time her normal Liberal vote. Stand proud, but gnaw gracefully on your tongue.


If you can’t avoid the topic roll with it. Get one of your small nephews or nieces whose parents believe the hype to stand and greet other guests at the gate with the words “We will decide who comes here and under what circumstances”. Elbow around your great aunt at the kitchen table, excusing yourself with, “Sorry, did I jump the queue?”. When someone asks if you’re happy, reply “I’m just so very relieved our borders are being protected. Finally I’m sleeping again.” And when there’s talk about terror, why not throw Timothy McVeigh into the fold.


If you feel compelled to pass out make sure you do it after lunch, not before. Keep an eye on the oldies. Remember when your late great uncle made the dog spew on rum balls it was not funny, as first thought.


If you stay home, bunker down and enjoy. Get the calls out of the way early and then take the phone off the hook. Crank up the Polly Jean Harvey and thank Christ you don’t have to listen to Neil Diamond’s Christmas carols at home (eye yi yi yi dreamin of a why yi yi yi Christmas). Yes, thank Christ, it is his birthday. Pre-order the food, and be adventurous. You’re not obligated to eat you mother’s bean salad if you’re not there. Drink and be merry, that’s what it’s supposed to be about.


New Year’s Eve? Worry later. The less expectations the better. The less planning the better. Ensure your grocer isn’t taking off for the Woodford Folk Festival. You don’t want to buy crap, and you certainly don’t want to end up the subject of a coronial inquest in 2002. You want to be here. There’ll be so much to do.




David Redfearn


Thank you for Webdiary and to all those who have made the effort to contribute. I have made a couple of paltry contributions but I promise to try harder next year!! It has indeed been a fascinating ride this year; I am not sure if I have really enjoyed coming along but I have found many of the contributions very stimulating especially those from humane and thoughtful conservatives like David Davis whose sojourn in distant Switzerland seemed to make him both wonderfully detached and yet most intimately engaged in the affairs of our nation.


I think the election resolved nothing. Howard won but I don’t necessarily think he won the so-called culture wars. The election was still too close to be able to say that.


I now hope that the ALP (of which I am a long standing member) will take the issue of policy development and its structure seriously. I hope it can be done without union bashing because it only gives Howard and Abbott something to talk about (although If Abbott keeps it up he might drive a few people back to the unions) and because the unions, despite declining numbers in recent years, are actually relevant stakeholders in our society.


I hope too that the ALP actually articulates what it stands for and yells this loud and clear from the roof tops. Let’s stop being obsessed with hating Howard and believing everyone else does. Clearly many do not hate him and, if they do, didn’t think the ALP worth examining as an alternative. We should get on with the job of defining our values and principles, develop relevant policy and putting this before the electorate even at the occasional risk of short term unpopularity.


Having said this, I am still ambivalent about the ALP stand over refugees and the Tampa issue in the recent election. Should we oppose Howard on principle like Calwell did Menzies and Holt over Vietnam and cop an electoral thrashing? Vindication there was a while coming but come it surely did.


Could we have done the same over Tampa and the refugees? Or was it better to remain a small target in order not to be decimated and let Howard definitively win the culture wars (by siding with him on this issue we risked doing that anyway)? I guess I will reflect on that for a while yet and I still don’t know the answer to that strategic question although my heart certainly says that the former response would have been the right one.


Next year will no doubt reveal more and we armchair critics, analysts and assorted members of the chattering classes will no doubt continue to pore over whatever entrails we chance upon. I hope you and all your contributors have a very happy Christmas and come back refreshed for 2002. It will be a busy year.


Webdiary review – March/April


Greg Weilo, our One Nation theorist, wrote in March:


“Well it seems undeniable that One Nation has achieved more in the past two weeks than the Labour opposition has in the past two years. The government has backflipped on the sale of Telstra, petrol pricing, foreign ownership of Woodside (MARGO: not yet) and provided more funding for the Alice Springs to Darwin railway. Just imagine their achievements when they hold the balance of power after the next election!”


Such was the general mayhem in politics post the Ryan election result. I wrote:


“For the third straight election this year, voters have delivered the political and media establishment a surprise. In WA, the Libs were supposed to crawl over the line. a substantial Labor win ensues. In Queensland, Labor was supposed to crawl over the line. It won in a landslide. Labor was supposed to win Ryan in a landslide. It’s too close to call. Why oh why does the media keep getting it wrong? When will we address our endemic disconnect with the people?”


“Howard produced his brand of leadership in the Ryan campaign. He threw his credibility into the mix, explicitly, with that letter (vote for me or Beazley will think the election’s in the bag for him) late in the last week. Beazley, as usual, played safe. Safe is not good enough. Without positive positives he was, as usual, an ineffectual bloke with nothing to say”.


And so he stayed. Despite becoming serious alternative prime minister material after the close win in Ryan, he did nothing to fill the positive space with new policy or big speeches setting out his priorities. Instead Howard filled the gap with backflips and budget giveaways, forcing Labor to accept each move for fear of a backlash, rendering any ideas they had impossible to pay for. Meg Lees became a GST victim after an awful result for the Democrats in Ryan.


After Ryan, bitter Webdiarist attacks on your moderator for alleged unfair tirades against Beazley as Webdiary shifted its focus to policy debate – the working poor, energy, Kyoto, political structures, the banks, corporate governance – and introduced regular columnists – Jack Robertson with Meeja Watch and Don Arthur with The politics of ideas. Both have made sensational contributions to the Webdiary this year.


If you’re new to the Webdiary and want to read their early work, here’s where to go.


Don Arthur:


1.Oprah Winfrey and the Third Way (the new welfare philosophy): Beyond Ryan (Don, a former public servant, is doing his Phd on “The new battlers: How working Australians get and stay poor and what we can do about it.”)

2. The (sometimes) working poorAdvising the Meeja.

3. Truth, lies and spin: Spin by post

4. An appetite for lies: Australia: Green enough for Kyoto?

5. `Coalition unleashes youth crime wave,’ says ALPA client state

6. Professional politics – cynical voters: Demand for milk


Jack Robertson


1. A call to cerebral arms?: Advising the Meeja

2. By George!: Disclosure and you

3. Boswell, Kernot and intellectual will: Winning by sacrifice

4. Watching the watchers: Cut and paste

5. Get the damned “MARKET’ off the front page, thanks: What’s the point?


March 30 saw Webdiary go into full bore policy debate when a 7,000 piece on dairy deregulation by Tim Dunlop lobbed in. It was the first time I devoted an entry to a long contributor piece – Pull the udder one – and, not being interested in the topic at all, wondered if it was worth it.


What sparked my interest was an exchange with Tim on WHY he was interested?


“I wasn’t really interested at all, but it is a rather symbolic topic in debates about the role of government, the notion of free markets, and the place of economy versus society in our lives. It started because I heard Mark Latham on Lateline, I read Paul Kelly and Imre Salusinzky, and they all sound so authoritative about what an unequivocal “good” dairy deregulation is (and neo-liberalism in general) that I decided to check it out for myself. Thanks to the internet an immense amount of material is available and I thought the claims of the various advocates just didn’t add up. So I decided to put what I’d found down on paper and see what I came up with.



“A couple of things make it attractive as an example. One is that it is about something that nearly everyone knows something about, that is, we all buy milk. The other is that it shows how ideology can simply overcome common-sense in that, even if deregulation worked exactly as they say it should, the net benefit to consumers is so bloody small that you have to wonder what the point is. I show in the article that even if it reduced the price of milk to ZERO, on average we would be only $3.20 a week better off. And this against the loss of 4000 dairy farms and $2 billion out of rural communities. Nutty in my book.



“So I knew nothing about it going in and had no previous interest in cows, farms or even milk before in my life. It just seemed like a good example of how the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality, which is why I tied it to a wider discussion of democracy and citizenship, which is something I do have an interest in. My thesis topic is on the relationship between intellectuals and citizens in Australia.”



The response was incredible, drawing in so much comment and flying off in so many directions that I pulled the debate together on a separate page, and a picture of a cow led the page for ages. Bondi Leftie Andrew Stapleton matched Tim blow by blow in his defence of the economic rationalist position on the matter. Democrats Senator John Woodley ran off copies of Tim’s piece and distributed it to dairy farmers at protest meetings. Tim, whose thesis had been completely theoretical, included a chapter on dairy deregulation, proving that yes, approached right, the intellectual could enter the public debate with effect. His piece was extracted in a high school text book.


The dairy debate also saw Webdiary mentioned in the mainstream press for the first time, and to this day still defines it in some neo-liberal columnists minds.


In April, I started to work out what the Webdiary might be about. I wrote:


“As it’s turned out, the page has become an open ended-conversation with me as facilitator, as well as general rave merchant.


“What’s the point of that? A big thing in its favour is that no-one believes anyone HAS the answers/the complete picture, anymore. We are in a transition of thinking, ideologically and philosophically, about our society and its values. To scream at and deride those who have different starting points castrates the debate, not enlivens it. It’s also depressing.


“What I love about this page is that intelligent people from many starting points are interested in other thoughts. It’s exhilarating. It cleans out cobwebs and lifts feelings of disempowerment or hopelessness.


“It’s also a pretty big challenge to the mainstream, in that it’s privileging ideas over who has them, and intellectual debate over rhetoric and conflict-thrill.”


By late April I’d got around to writing a Webdiary charter.



I believe:


* that widely read broadsheet newspapers are essential to the health and vibrancy of our democracy


* that they are yet to adapt to a multi-media future pressing on the present


* that there is a vacuum of original, genuine, passionate and accessible debate on the great political, economic and social issues of our time in the mainstream media, despite the desire of thinking Australians in all age groups to read and participate in such debates


* that newspapers have lost their connection with the readers they serve


* that the future lies in a collaboration between journalists and readers



The mission of the Webdiary is:


* to experiment in the form and content of the Herald online


* to assist in the integration of the newspaper and


* to help meet the unmet demand of some Australians for conversations on our present and our future, and to spark original thought and genuine engagement with important issues which effect us all


* to link thinking Australians whoever they are and wherever they live


* to insist that thinking Australians outside the political and economic establishment have the capacity to contribute to the national debate


* to provide an outlet for talented writers and thinkers not heard in mainstream media




April also marked the start of continuing debate about Webdiary content and design. Weeks of debate saw us finalise a new design which was aborted in June when the Herald online lost 25 percent of its staff after online budget cuts.


Several readers complained that the Webdiary was becoming a chat show for PhD students, frightening normal people from putting in their two bobs worth. I adjusted the mix, only to be accused of gender bias, with several people noting the preponderance of male contributors. Female readers quickly advised that they read the thing too, but had little time to write. Since then the gender balance has partly corrected itself.

Defining your politics

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the `progressive’ discourse not only converted no-one, but alienated many, to the extent that Howard loved it as much as progressives did. Reinventing the discourse is crucial to a fight back.


The tin tacks question is how to define and describe the political divide these days, now that the traditional left/right labels don’t work any more. There were several suggestions in March, and I’ve pulled them together for your consideration. Define yourself for Christmas!


In case you missed it, I’ve also reprinted an excellent piece by Don Arthur published on the eve of the election in Could we start again please, which begins thinking about how people in his political categories – traditionalists, humanists, rationalists and bohemians – might speak to each other constructively. Don’s contributions to Webdiary this year have been a highlight for me. Thanks, Don.


Donald Brook (in Foreign Control)


The only ideological division that counts in Australia today is that between the neo-liberals (go for it, and the hell with the widening gap) and egalitarians.


The problem with the egalitarians is that they split disastrously into those who conceive of equality as likeness (we white Anglo-Saxon protestant migrant-haters) and those who conceive of equality as the reconciliation of difference (how shall the child of a poor black Hindu family ultimately come to find life in Australia as rewarding as it will be for the child of a Liberal cabinet minister presently attending private school?).


So I suggest that instead of Left and Right we might have Up (radical gap-extending)Down (radical gap abolishing) and Sideways (radical gap-reconciling). Slotting each of the presently observable antics into one of the new categories might call for a moment’s thought; but isn’t that what we want?




Marc Pengryffyn in Katoomba (in Foreign Control)


The absurd oversimplification of a bipolar political model was encouraged by the propaganda excesses of the cold wars but has never really been of much use for understanding the political scene. Look at the Spanish civil war, for heavens sake!


However, if you start to add a few more axes (thats plural of `axis’), then you start to get a more interesting picture. The classic is of course the Totalitarian-Anarchist axis, which gives you Right-Wing Anarchists (Libertarians), and Left-Wing Totalitarians (Stalinists). I tend also to think in terms of a `Green-Brown’ axis, and a `Nationalist-Globalist’ axis. I believe it was Tim Leary who came up with the `Neophile-Neophobe’axis, and you might be able to make a case for a `Tolerance-Bigotry’ axis.


Thus we have the advantage of endless flexibility- we can always add more axes, and with a little effort you can come up with quite impressive labels for people. (I tend to the mid-Left Green 1/2 Anarchist Tolerant Neophile position, but my ex was a Totalitarian Right Green Bigot).




James Paterson (in AMP and Woodside go Green)


There are four meaningful political categories today, two large ones and two minor ones:


1) Neoliberalism with a pronounced solicitude for the rich and white males,


2) Neoliberalism tempered by a certain solicitude for women, gays, ethnic minorities and other subordinate social groups,


3) Anti-neoliberalism with a pronounced solicitude for the rich and white males, and


4) Anti-neoliberalism with a pronounced solicitude for women, gays, ethnic minorities and other subordinate social groups.


1) and 3) equals the old right and 2) and 4) equals the old left – but it’s not clear that the crucial division is soon going to be between 1) and 2) on the one hand, and 3) and 4) on the other.




Patrick Drake-Brockman (in AMP and Woodside go Green)


In trying to define political ideas in the “post cold war”, our terms are trying to encompass too much. Our Ideas are breaking down into smaller groupings or cliques. Most of these are more based around personality than any overarching ideology.


This makes reporting in short and succinct manner nigh on impossible. The old tags which have had years of discussion to build up the images behind them are no longer valid. To help reporting on the issues we need to look for the new ideas and ideologies that have the necessary social definitions to use, and accept that there are now more than 2 sides to our ideological debate.




Matthew Pearce (in Don’t kick me: I’m down, mate)


We can better use the terminology of progressive (those who want some change), radical (those who want great change) and conservative (those who want no change). Furthermore, we can apply those terms to two main areas: economics and culture.


In this context, the economic rationalists of the late 1980s and early 1990s were definitely economically radical. They tried to overhaul the whole welfare state and redirect expenditure.


Similarly many of the S11 protestors could be described as economically conservative, because they deny the so-called necessity to open up national borders for trade. Certainly, regarding trade, the S11 protestors are similar to the conservative Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party.


But culturally, to make generalisations, the S11 protestors and One Nation supporters couldn’t be more different. The S11 protestors were often culturally radical, doing their best not to subscribe to society’s conventions. The One Nation party, however, would definitely appear to be culturally conservative.


Some people, such as Michael Warby of the Institute of Public Affairs, like to refer to liberal and conservative when refering to the political spectrum. But I think there is much disagreement, and has been for a couple of hundred years, over what liberal means. It’s such a contentious term that its value in public debate is pretty limited.


Regarding the two main areas of culture and economics, referring to progressives, radicals and conservatives is much more fruitful, and more relevant to today’s society, than speaking of left and right.




Peter Parker (in Don’t kick me: I’m down, mate)


I agree that the old left and right classification has become less important since the collapse of communism. Both the Labor and non-Labor parties have been affected by this trend. This has been because of two factors.


The main parties of the `Right’ have lost their common enemy of communism. The common enemy of communism united both liberals and conservatives in the one party. Communism masked the differences between liberals and conservatives.


The main party of the `Left’ has suffered a loss of faith in collective solutions following (1) lack of public support for socialist solutions (2) the collapse of communism (3) consumerism and widespread material affluence (but not necessarily widespread wealth) and (4) a degree of suspicion of government (though less strong here than in the USA).


I also see four categories: Social Liberals, Social Conservatives, Economic Liberals and Economic Conservatives


Examples of policies favoured by each group


Social Liberals


Strong support for multiculturalism and active encouragement of diversity

Non-judgementalism over people’s lifestyle choices

Moral relativism (except when criticising absolutism)

Support for drug decriminalisation and injecting rooms

Support for homosexual rights

Support for apology to Aborigines

Sympathetic towards `affirmative action’ to improve position of disadvantaged groups in society


Sympathetic to boat people refugees

Oppose censorship


Social Conservatives


Suspicion of overt encouragement of diversity; need to maintain social cohesion

Moral absolutism – clear idea of right and wrong for all

Opposition to drug decriminalisation

Opposition to homosexual rights

Opposition to apology to aborigines

Belief that Aboriginal and ethnic rights should be equal rights


Less sympathetic to refugees

Support censorship


Economic Liberals




Less government involvement in economy

Support for market forces

Labour market de-regulation to increase `flexibility’ for business


Economic Conservatives


Support for national economic sovereignty


Government involvement in economy to protect national interest

Suspicion of market forces

Labour market regulation to ensure fair wages and conditions


Let’s see how prominent figures show up. John Howard: Economic Liberal, social conservative. Jeff Kennett: Economic Liberal, social liberal. Kate Carnell: Social Liberal, maybe economic liberal. Malcolm Fraser: Social Liberal, economic conservative. Gough Whitlam: ditto. Kim Beazley: Economic Conservative, social conservative. Richard Court: Economic liberal, social conservative. Peter Costello: Economic liberal, social liberal (some issues).


Of course there are imperfections in the above. For instance a feminist may be socially liberal, but support censorship of sexist pornography. Also some of the social liberals are heavily into identity politics and group rights, while some social liberals emphasise the primacy of the individual (especially those who are also economic liberal). Also I haven’t found a place for environmentalism on this spectrum. However I would suspect that many environmentalists are economic conservatives and social liberals (though serious environmentalism would have to eventually curtail the `right to consume’ or the `right to produce’ to reduce resource depletion).




One nation, four cultures: Not all your political opponents are ignorant, stupid or wilfully evil – that’s the problem


By Don Arthur


Australian politics is getting nasty. It’s not just that people disagree over issues like asylum seekers, the stolen generations and economic rationalism – it’s the way they disagree. Confronted by an opponent who refuses to recant, partisans in these disputes become convinced that that they are dealing with a person who is refusing to accept the facts, is too stupid to draw the logical conclusions or has deliberately decided to support a cause they know is morally wrong. Maybe it’s time to ask whether these are the only options.


I suspect that politically engaged Australians have very different ideas about what makes a political position morally and intellectually defensible – we differ about what we think is a good argument, and sometimes about whether an argument is what’s needed. It’s as if we’re all on the one playing field but some of us think we’re playing soccer, others rugby, and others still, Aussie rules. None of us can understand why the other teams are always cheating.


I’m not sure I completely understand what’s going on here but here’s a tentative first go.


Two dimensional politics


Most of us are used to dividing the players into left and right. Politics understood this way is a continuum along a single dimension. At some stage in our lives most of us have hit upon the idea that maybe it’s not a straight line but a circle – if you go far enough left you end up on the far right. The first time you think of this it seems profound and original. It’s not.


What the circle idea suggests is that maybe there’s another dimension to politics. Maybe we need an up and a down as well as a left and right. Obviously we could go on adding dimensions to our political map. At times I’ve played around with models that have five, six or seven dimensions – maybe you have too. The real question is not how many there really are but what is the smallest number that will explain most of political disagreement we’re interested in. I think that number is two.


The first dimension is moralism. People who are strong on this dimension believe that issues of right and wrong are central to politics. They see the government as a legitimate moral agent. Not all moralistic thinkers agree what it means to be just, fair or ethical but they do agree that governments should actively pursue a vision of the good.


People who are low on moralism believe that morality is, at most, a private matter. They would argue that it’s none of the government’s business to impose any particular vision of morality on citizens. They regard such efforts as repressive and a threat to individual freedom.


The second dimension is authoritarianism. People who are strong on this dimension believe that it’s the government’s (or perhaps the family or civil society’s) job impose a framework of rules or moral norms on citizens. Authoritarian thinkers do not regard this framework as something that can be legitimately disputed politically. For some it might be an austere and amoral market framework while for others it may be a traditional way of life.


People who are low on authoritarianism tend to see state imposed rules and customs as a kind of oppression. They may argue that individuals and groups ought to be free to follow their consciences or to be true to themselves.


With two dimensions you get four political `cultures’. On this account left and right are not cultures in their own right but alliances between cultures. There are six possible alliances.




People who are strong on both moralism and authoritarianism we could call `traditionalists.’ These thinkers believe that the ideal society is one with strong institutions which impose moral order on citizens. For example, parents and teachers who show children the difference between right and wrong and impose firm discipline. The law is not just a formal dispute resolution system but something which is grounded in morality.


Traditionalists do not believe that people are innately good or pro-social. Some individuals are neither. If citizens are going to be able to live decently and peacefully together they need to be taught how to behave and given a firm framework to guide them as adults.


The ideal traditionalist leader has firm convictions. They know the difference between right and wrong and have enough strength and self discipline to impose their will on those who step outside the boundaries or fail to live up society’s expectations. Good leaders will make sure that citizens get what they deserve. Those who work hard and live decently should be rewarded. Those who don’t should suffer the consequences.


Bad leaders allow themselves to be swayed by emotional appeals, self interest, or overly intellectual arguments. Bad leaders indulge citizens who are weak and allow anti-social and self-defeating behaviour to continue. For example, traditionalists believe that welfare recipients need to be subject to firm discipline and that law breakers should be punished. If people are allowed to blame society or rely on excuses for personal failure then social order will break down.


Columnist Dennis Shanahan suggests that traditionalism is the Australian way when he writes: “Order, stability and process, they are the Australian way and there are a lot of quiet people in the electorate waiting to vote for those watchwords.”


Political opponents often accuse traditionalists of ethnocentrism and xenophobia because they identify morality with the traditions of their own society.




Like traditionalists the humanists are moralistic but they believe that the foundation of morality is human nature. All of us are by nature good and pro-social. Humanists believe in things like universal human rights and self actualization.


As children each of us is like a seed which has the potential within it to develop and flower. When society fails to provide the resources people need to develop their potential then individuals can become stunted like a seedling without the enough sun, water or nutrients.


Traditionalists see crime and poverty as largely the result of a breakdown in social discipline or self control. Humanists see these problems as stemming from the failure of society to adequately nurture its citizens.


While traditionalists are suspicious of multiculturalism (they believe that some cultures are just less moral than ours) humanists are confident that other cultures are just different expressions of our universal human nature. As a result humanists are relaxed about immigration and ethnic diversity. They tend to regard opposition to multiculturalism and attempts at assimilation as irrational prejudice or unjustifiable ethnocentrism. Traditionalists are likely to see cultural diversity as inviting social breakdown and leading to disorders such as crime and dependency.


Because humanists see morality as grounded in our natures they tend to equate immorality with `inhumanity.’ People who inflict suffering on others and repress their natural feelings of empathy and horror are less than human. They are `stunted’, `warped’ or `twisted’ individuals.


The idea that people are naturally pro-social also means that humanists tend to `medicalize’ social problems. For example, their response to sex offenders or young people who refuse to accept work is likely to be some kind of therapy – a treatment which identifies the unnatural or socially imposed barriers that prevent the individual from developing to their full potential. Traditionalists are appalled by this kind of approach. They see it as either indulgent (weak and hence immoral) or as patronizing.


In a recent Herald column Hugh Mackay imagines John Howard repenting his wicked traditionalist ways: “I see now that my resistance to the republic and my failure to embrace wholehearted reconciliation with indigenous Australians acted like roadblocks in this nation’s journey towards maturity.”




Rationalists do not regard moralizing as a legitimate function of government. Economic rationalists see human beings as having `interests’ or `preferences’. The role of government is to create a rational framework that allows all citizens to pursue their interests without interfering with others.


As columnist Padraic P. McGuinness writes: “…the purpose of political activity is not to spell out a vision or a grand eschatological goal, still less to bring a particular ideology to power, but rather to deal with conflicts of interest in the community for the purposes of good government. Good government is a much more modest purpose than the onwards march of humanity towards some kind of utopian vision.”


Bad governments have things like `values’, `ideological commitments’ and `visions for the future.’ All these moralistic pathologies are likely to impinge on individual liberty and economic efficiency. Good governments, according to economic rationalists, are strong but limited.


Rationalists believe that the framework the government imposes on citizens ought to be morally neutral. It will be the kind of system that any rational citizen would agree to if only they thought it through properly. The worst kind of criticism a rationalist can make is to call an opponent irrational, emotional or crazy – the kinds of things Imre Salusinszky says about Web Diary contributors.


Economic rationalists don’t believe in `social’ or `distributive’ justice. Justice is purely about procedure – about following the rules. As a result they don’t see any problem with disparities in wealth or income. They have no sympathy for traditionalists who complain that they haven’t got what they deserve. “Life is not fair – grow up!” is a typical rationalist response.


There used to be another common kind of rationalist – the socialist rationalist. There aren’t many of them about these days. These people believed that it was obvious the most efficient way to meet human needs was for the government to plan and control the economy. In practice this didn’t work out so well in places like Eastern Europe. However some modern social democrats have a strong rationalist streak. They are more likely to talk about `needs’ than `preferences’ or `interests’ and to look to Scandinavia rather than the USSR.


Rationalists despise any kind of moralizing. They see it as irrational, oppressive or quaintly old fashioned. Unlike traditionalists they are happy to solve the problem of poverty by giving money to poor people and letting them spend it how they want. While traditionalists would like to have an army of bureaucrats or Salvation Army officers supervising the unemployed, economic rationalists would be happy to give them all the sack, use the money for tax cuts and let ‘dole bludgers’ do what they liked.




It may be that P. P. McGuinness was a bohemian in his youth. Like economic rationalists bohemians are fervently anti-moralistic and highly individualistic. Many bohemians believe that the government ought to `empower’ them with a large grant so that they can live an authentic and creative life free of the constraints of parents, bureaucrats or employers.


Bohemians are anti-authoritarian like the humanists but unlike humanists they do not believe that people are inherently good. Instead they would say that `good’ and `bad’ are arbitrary social constructs and that there is no such thing as a `human nature.’ They sometimes think of humanists as quaint and naive. However when subjected to humanist `therapy’ they are more likely to condemn humanism as a kind of `fascism’ or `totalitarianism.’


Bohemians are not so much beyond left and right as beyond good and evil. They tend not to believe in leadership (unless they get to be the charismatic leader themselves) and see leadership as inherently repressive. They do not acknowledge any legitimate grounds for authority. `Authority’, for a bohemian, is just polite name for power.


The bohemian ideal is a life devoted to creativity or pleasure. Heroes include French existentialists like Sartre and Camus, the German philosopher Nietzsche and, for some, the Marquis de Sade. In place of morality the bohemian life is guided by taste – Bohemians like to appear `cool’ and favour a personal style of knowingness and ironic detachment.


While traditionalists risk xenophobia, bohemians risk nihilism. The fervent pursuit of social justice definitely isn’t cool. Violent revolution might be – especially if you can dress like Che.




The `right’ is an alliance between traditionalists and economic rationalists. The rationalists tolerate moralism in the personal family and civil society spheres in return for support for the free market. Traditionalists tolerate a certain amount of amoralism in the market because they see the market as an important disciplining institution – a valuable tool of social order. Both have an interest in rejecting the `blame it on society’ approach of the humanists and their support for claims on society’s resources by those who refuse (or are unable) to accept market discipline.


The `left’ these days is an alliance between bohemians and humanists. Humanists agree to promote things like individual and welfare rights in return for not mentioning social obligations. Bohemians accept a certain amount of benign moralizing on condition that medicalized humanist institutions of social control allow enough loopholes for them to escape. Both share an interest in overcoming `the establishment.’


The old populist left was an alliance between traditionalists and humanists. Humanists accepted that the traditions of society were the best way to nurture and develop citizens (eg women at home, men at work) while traditionalists put up with humanist anti-authoritarianism as long as it was directed against corporations and the rich and powerful. Both shared an interest in resisting the amoral libertarianism of bohemians and rationalists.


Libertarianism is an alliance between bohemians and economic rationalists. Bohemians accept that the market allows them enough freedom to live as they choose while rationalists accept a measure of disrespect for property rights (eg vandalism or graffiti). Both share an interest in resisting the moralizing tendencies of the other two cultures – particularly claims on their resources. Humanists are always taxing to fund the welfare state while traditionalists want to subsidize deserving citizens like farmers and parents.


The `third way’ is a kind of rationalist/humanist alliance with the free market acting as a resource for human empowerment.


Bohemian/traditionalist alliances are dark and mysterious affairs which are likely to be hostile to ideas of reason or modernity. Padraic McGuinness might have something like this in mind when he writes: “The spirit of D.H. Lawrence and his fascination with the dark forces of the human soul haunts the modern (or postmodern) elites; unfortunately, as has been found so often in the past 100 years, the intellectuals who rely on such irrationalism rarely survive it, unless they actually enlist in the service of the new dictatorships and terrorism, as so many have.”


Cultural conflict and the boat people issue


Responses to the boat people issue divide fairly sharply along cultural lines.


Traditionalists see the appearance of people smugglers and their cargo of asylum seekers as an attempt to subvert the legitimate order of Australia’s immigration system. The boats also represent an attack on right to control our borders and our national security. The behaviour of the asylum seekers is seen as an attempt to manipulate Australians by making us feel that we are morally responsible for self-inflicted threats to their safety


The most important virtue a traditionalist leader must show in the face of these challenges is strength. He or she must never give in or compromise on the rules we have established for accepting migrants or on our right to control our borders. By deliberately boarding unsafe vessels and disabling them when confronted by the navy the asylum seekers and the people smugglers have acted irresponsibly and immorally. Their behaviour represents an attempt to exploit our sense of decency and compassion. The correct and moral response is ensure that this behaviour is not rewarded – we must not give these people what they want. That would be like giving in to a child’s tantrum – an easy but wrong option.


Humanists immediately empathize with the boat people. They regard any attempt to turn the boats away or to incarcerate the asylum seekers as inhuman. The only possible explanations for the traditionalists harsh response could be that they are twisted or sick individuals (perhaps abused or neglected as children?) or are selfishly and callously seeking political advantage.


As a result humanists respond by attempting to educate and shame the traditionalists – a strategy a traditionalist would regard as yet another test of their moral resolve. Traditionalists would regard the humanist response as emotional and morally weak. Under no circumstances should the government give in. As far as traditionalists are concerned it’s `that time of month’ 365 days a year for silly humanists.


Rationalists regard morality as beside the point. The real issue for them is whether this whole debacle will damage our standing with our neighbours and make the pursuit of our national interests more difficult. Offending military allies or major trading partners is an important concern. This is the kind of line the Australian’s Paul Kelly is advancing: “Forget the nonsense about Australia losing its compassion. The issue is whether an election mandate will lock Australia into a series of self-defeating national policies that will weaken our country.”


Bohemians aren’t showing much interest except to occasionally remind fellow citizens that immigration is good for the nation’s cuisine. The war in Afghanistan makes much better TV – it’s got jet fighters and explosions.


So what do we do?


If this perspective on the conflict is right one of the major problems is the lack of mutual understanding between those inclined to traditionalism and those inclined towards humanism. Each of them makes the conflict more intense by doing what they think is morally right.


Traditionalists see the whole crisis as a test of their virtue. Not only are the people smugglers and the asylum seekers attempting to crack their moral resolve but at home attacks by weak, emotional and naive humanists are making the business of virtue more difficult.


The more virtuous a traditionalist leader is, the more of a monster he will appear to be to the humanists. The more strongly he resists the more evil he is. Humanists respond by trying to `dispel myths’ and provoke feelings of shame and the more they do, the more strongly a traditionalist will resist. It’s a vicious circle.


If John Howard is a genuine traditionalist then the conflict is fuelled by a mutual misunderstanding and his opponents need to take a different approach. If he turns out to be an economic rationalist in disguise then shaming still won’t work. The best approach would be to highlight the damage the government’s behaviour is doing to our standing in the region. It seems pretty unlikely that Howard is some kind of humanist or bohemian.


The real tragedy would be to discover that Kim Beazley is, at heart, a humanist who has been forced to play the role of a strong traditionalist leader. That would make him an opportunistic populist and shaming might have some effect. The funny thing is that’s exactly what Howard wants voters to think.

Polly Bush Walkleys

I asked Polly Bush to come to the Walkley awards in Melbourne last Thursday night as the representative of Webdiarists.


I’d never seen or spoken to her before we met on the night, just before which I realised I was about to have my first blind date and knew nothing about her non-virtual identity. As it turned out she was as she appears on Webdiary. We also discovered another connection. Her mother had babysat my sisters and I in Maryborough, Queensland, while her grandfather directed my parents in plays at the local theatre. My Mum still has two of her grandfather’s paintings.


Here is her report.


Polly Bush, Joan Smith and that other bird


A 55-year-old bloke strolls into a dimly lit bar of a Melbourne hotel foyer. He scratches the bald spot on his head as he skims his eyes across the room in search of Margo Kingston, who’s invited him as a Webdiary rep to the Walkley Awards. In front of him sits the brooding great, sipping on mineral water, sucking on a fag. He bends his tired old frame down to her seated level. Clearing his throat burnt by too many Winnie Reds he coughs, “I believe you’re expecting me – Polly Bush,” he offers with a limp hand.


Margo rolls her eyes ignoring it. She pauses for a second before puffing out her inhaled smoke. Stamping out her fag in one cool swipe of the ashtray, she calmly oozes “I half expected as much”. Holding up her remaining mineral water, she takes aim for his bald patch, dumps it and flees, leaving him in a pathetic foetal position sobbing “I didn’t lie, I really am a 24-year-old woman!” The guests inside the bar point and cackle wickedly at his rejection. He’s evicted out on the street, lying briefly heaped in the gutter before disappearing into the obscurity of my nervous head. And Margo’s.


Breath. Cyber scenario introductions aside, the pen name was going out for the night as a Webdiary rep. An honour, as the diary is a place I’ve escaped to many many times, sometimes to write, but more so to read the perspectives of the contributors I admire so much. This bold public space woven together by Margo was up for a Walkley for Online Journalism. Representing what an un-nominated commentator labelled as “the looniest members of the citizenry” was certainly something to live up to.


Climbing the escalators of the Hyatt on Collins was a disjointed taste of the night ahead. Behind us was Crikey editor Stephen Mayne, towering behind us two or three steps down, dressed in a bright red suit. Santa. But as we rode up the stairs a sea of black awaited us. Suits. Lots of blokes in suits and lots of scrambled noise.


We’d decided my name for the night would be my pen name Polly as that was the reason I was there. Margo stuffed the obligatory name tag in my hand, but it wasn’t my name and it wasn’t Polly Bush’s. The curses of a nom de plume and confusion over what to call me led to my registered guest name of Joan Smith. The elusive Joan Smith, quite a character. It was all very weird. Talk about an identity crisis – now I had three.


We were late. Certainly not fashionably, just late. Mary Kostakidis was gracing the stage and we had to duck and weave around the TV cameras and tables of suits and glammed up types to find our seats. The entrees had already been served and mostly cleared away. Marinated non-descript mush. The fork was dumped in favour of a liquid dinner, and the amount of untouched meals being cleared away seemed like others had the same idea.


On screen, we were met with a look at the year that was. You always know these sorts of grand summaries will never really portray what they set out to, even with the fine art of editing and back up music. Obviously there were the overplayed images of the tumbling down of the World Trade Centre towers, but it couldn’t all be doom and gloom, so we were provided with some comic relief shots of naked bums bent over the side of the Yarra, mooning in the name of art. It all seemed a bit trivial.


We left the moving pictures and crowd hisses to images of Jonathan Shier and Philip Ruddock pretty early on in favour of a fag in the foyer. We were not alone. In fact, half the party seemed to be mingling outside the function room, grasping glasses of alcohol, puffing on beyond the no-smoking signs – eventually ignored as the night progressed.


The whole evening seemed divided. Physically because half the audience was outside drinking and smoking. Physically because the room seemed divided by the corporate interests and the talent. The suits and the colour. The sponsors had their representative spots on each table. There were the faces in front of the stories, the faces behind the stories, and the machines of the media, the big guns. The suits that hold the power, or at least think they do.


The Online Journalism Award was positioned mid-way through the night. As Margo expected, the winner was the Sydney Morning Herald’s Sydney Games Website, but as Margo didn’t expect, Webdiary scored a highly commended. Double whammy. She grinned, congratulated the Games site winners on our table and took off, I guessed for a fag.


Everything seemed a little rushed, and a little staged. This was evident when one of the winners on our table made a phone call to share the news – but the news was already out there. The winners had apparently been published on the Internet. Remarkably, the nominees up for awards for their news had been beaten by the news of the awards itself.


I had a hold of the prize our competition had snatched from us. As one of the winners explained, the protruding pen nib statue was suitably heavy so he was suitably pleased. It was real. The awards had branched out into so many categories over the years, including Online, and the nib was a reminder of the Walkley’s history, the pen, or, more accurately print journalism. I guess a silver keyboard just wouldn’t cut it.


Around the table the winners of the Games Site spoke of the hard work and efforts put into their creation. They also spoke of how important it was for them personally to be recognised for their efforts. It was a pity they didn’t get to share this with everyone when accepting them award.


The presentations for the bulk of the awards (except for the biggies at the end) consisted of a quick slap from the chosen sponsor and a quick slap from the Victorian Premier Steve Bracks. No moment for reflection, no insight provided from the winner about what it meant to write or produce the story. No inkling about what it meant to them.


It was lame. Like a lame Logies without as much glitter, without Bert. On the upside at least the Walkley “celebs” were Roy and HG, who made a couple of presentations which just seemed to add to the disjointedness of the proceedings.


Perhaps the night would have been less disconnected had more people got their say. For example when the Gold Walkley winner Andrew Rule was allowed an acceptance speech, he thanked the braveness of five women for speaking to him for his story `Geoff Clark: Power and Rape’. You could have heard a pin drop. Here was a totally engaged audience, momentarily soaking up his words before scampering outside for where the fun was.


And it was. Outside at the end of the ceremony were some of the big names patting each other on the back and slotting into some ol’ remember when talk. I shook far too many hands than I probably should have as Margo hoisted me into some of the fold. As she explained my three identities it was more about introducing the contributors as a whole.


Finally, almost everyone had abandoned the function room and united in favour of the foyer for cigarettes, alcohol and conversation. Journos in their element. I’m just sorry I missed the punch up.

Rebuilding the left

Today, Tim Dunlop opens the batting on reforming the left, and Cathy Bannister has more thoughts on the Lasch factor in John Howard’s victory in the culture wars.




In Naming the minority, a new group, Australians Against Racism, spruiked for donations to fund televsion advertisements on refugees and received a big response from Webdiary readers. The website is now up –australiansagainstracism where the ad can be previewed. Organiser Eva Sallis warns that “a quite serious virus is being circulated purporting to be related to this project in some way – if you receive a message that is blank but comes with an attachment, do not open the attachment, regardless of its name, and regardless of whether or not you recognise the address/name of the sender. This virus sends itself to everyone on your address book.”





Some late night thoughts on what to do


By Tim Dunlop


First things first: cheer up. Despite appearances, the time has never been better for the left – call it what you will – to get their ideas out and win the hearts and minds of the ordinary punter.


In the wake of the September 11 attacks; in the clear and present glow of the so-called war on terrorism; in the aftermath of a third consecutive Coalition victory; as neo-liberal policies fail to deliver to the majority a better, more secure life; as the gap between rich and poor increases; and as poverty persists in a time of economic growth, people will be more receptive to alternative solutions and new ways of defining a common good than they have been in a long time.


Mainly, they are looking for ways to operate as a society again.


New opportunities


For thirty years we’ve had pushed down our throats that there is no alternative to the all-against-all policies of the neo-liberals; that private is always better than public; and that me is always more important than you. Part of the reason this agenda has made headway is that we’ve also had pushed down our throats a straw-man image of the left as the proponents of big, coercive government; as non-respecters of individual rights and identity; as tax and spend cowboys and as advocates of social control.


This has been done by dangling before us the false dichotomy between the individual and the collectivity and insisting that we have to choose between the two. The neo-liberal right characterise this as choice between big government and individual freedom, between bureaucracy and entrepreneurialism, between you deciding what’s best for you and the government telling you what’s best for you. No wonder anything vaguely left looks unpalatable. But the truth is, there is no such choice to make.


The truth is and if you want to live in a society again you’d better start thinking about the logic of this – the individual is society and society is the individual. They are indivisible. Or if you like, they are interdependent.


In the coming world recession, people are going to notice that the welfare nets and protection policies put in place after the 1930s depression and in the aftermath of World War 2 have been dismantled. And they aren’t going to like it. As unemployment, which the neo-liberal whizz kids never really solved anyway. rises, insecurity and uncertainty are just going to increase.


It is also going to increase as people realise that some of our most basic presumptions about what governments do no longer hold. Basic, life-supporting services water, electricity, communication have been sold out from under us to private firms with private aims.


We’ve already seen on-sellers like One-Tel collapse in the telecommunications industry. Wait till you see what happens when the same sorts of players go belly-up in the soon-to-be fully privatised power industries (bankruptcies are happening in the US as we speak). Wait till our water supplies are threatened by profit-driven operators. Wait till you see the last of our productive topsoil blown away or turned to salt under the onslaught of relentless land clearing, driven by deregulated rural industries.


The public are ready to listen, but they are going to want to hear more than vague promises and empty catchphrases. We used to talk about projects like the Snowy Mountains Scheme; now we talk about a knowledge nation. The abstract has replaced the concrete. But solutions in the abstract are not good enough.


We clever-dicks on the left who claim to care about society should be making a case now. We should be offering good, hard-headed analysis, identifying the areas of concern, discussing with people the need for public policy that is designed not to further the purity of a particular economic orthodoxy, but to protect people from the worst excesses and ongoing failures of the market. Because even the market purists will tell you, markets always fail.


Getting back our nerve


We have to re-enter the fray and stop being bluffed by propagandists at the Centre for Independent Studies, the various business lobbies and most of the economics commentators in the media. This means joining political parties, joining interest groups, participating in public discussions, writing articles, writing books, (reading articles and reading books), organising grass-roots events, protesting, standing up for what you believe in. It means collective action, not individual whingeing, and it means knowing who the real threats are.


There is fertile ground on which the left can make its case. Many Australians have never completely bought into the individualist rhetoric that so pervades American society. They have always seen government action and collective action in general as part of the solution, not the intractable enemy of the good life. They have always organised themselves effectively, whether it be into industry-based unions, the CWA, the PTA, or into more informal interest groups.


As political scientist Ian Marsh points out, “The Directory of Australian Associations lists 6000 individual groups in over 700 categories, though this listing concentrates mainly on national-level. More specific directories provide more numbers – for example, 1,200 environmental groups nationwide, 2,450 ethnic community organisations in 107 ethnic communities, 1,500 business groups and 1,200 welfare groups in South Australia alone. The welfare sector as a whole is estimated to embrace some 37,000 organisations ranging from large umbrella or special-purpose groups to local, self-help or community organisations.”


Australians are all for collective action and defining a common good, but to work with this tendency, the left really has to reinvent itself. So let’s get a bit self-critical.


It’s the grassroots, stupid


The basis of all democratic action is that it has to take the people with it. The democratic left (a tautology as far as I’m concerned) is committed to the people or it is nothing. This doesn’t mean big government, coerced involvement, or over-riding individual rights and choices, though this is how it will be portrayed by those in the thrall of atomistic market approaches that delight in pitting all against all. It does mean finding better ways of designing collective responses that don’t disparage and seek to over-ride peoples individual choices. Unfortunately, the singular achievement of the left in recent years has been to let itself get annoyed by, and even hostile to, the ordinary bods for whom it should be working.


The left has lost faith in the ordinary people


At one level this lack of faith has manifested itself in the bully-boy tactics of the Labor factions as they have preferred factional yes-men (generally men) over representative members of communities as political candidates. Fortunately, after election loss number three, there is some evidence of Labor recognising this. Lindsay Tanner said recently, “The real issue is why our membership is so small and uninvolved. Empowering and expanding our party is the prime organisational challenge. The place to start is to get the members electing their state presidents and state executives. It’s about changing the party’s culture.”


At another level, the left or more accurately, a fairly vocal faction within the left has decided that there is, not so much the deserving and undeserving poor, but worthy and unworthy constituencies. Increasingly, it seems more concerned with those at a distance (cultural or geographical) than it does with those living in the same street, or suburb, or city.


I call it Sting Syndrome or the Bono Effect, where organising a concert against the devastation of the Amazon rainforest or in favour of the cancellation of third world debt is seen as worthier and certainly sexier than, for example, writing a cheque for some youth centres in Dublin or a drug rehabilitation centre in Manchester. In Australia we might say analogously that the Tampa refugees are seen as more worthy of our time and concern than the people who live in a rural town devastated by the loss of business and industry arising through deregulation of agriculture and loss of services. It’s the former and not the latter that gets the compassionate left writing letters and switching their votes away from Labor.


Sometimes the distant and remote are better at igniting our compassion than the close and familiar. Now, this is not altogether a surprising thing, nor is it entirely undesirable. There is something to be said for filtering our benevolence through the sieve of distance or detachment. Arguably, this is one of the unrecognised achievements of the welfare state.


Michael Ignatieff has written of the poor on the streets of London, noting that “their needs and entitlements establish a silent relation between us”.


“As we stand together in line at the post office, while they cash their pension cheques, some tiny portion of my income is transferred into their pockets through the countless capillaries of the state. The mediated quality of our relationship seems necessary to both of us. They are dependent on the state, not upon me, and we are both glad of it. We are responsible for each other, but we are not responsible to each other.”


Such mutual independence supported by collective responsibility through state institutions seems like a good thing to me.


Perhaps, then, as the capillaries of a welfare state are blocked or severed by new paradigms of assistance like work-for-the-dole or mutual obligation, we are subtly forced to confront a relationship that is no longer mediated by the state, that is now too overwhelming, and that, in short, causes familiarity to breed contempt. I’m really just thinking out loud with this, but there must be some reason for the rise of what we might call the indignant left, that group who hold so many of their fellow citizens in the type of contempt that makes them unworthy of serious consideration and often times, subject to angry dismissal.


Perhaps this faction of the left, especially its educated, well-travelled and successful members, find it easier to relate to matters beyond the level of the nation state. Their basically sound instinct to universalism may, then, actually act as a deterrent to local engagement. It’s worth thinking about as we are more and more confronted by the reality of an interconnected world.


Robert Reich, Secretary of State for Labour under Bill Clinton, has suggested, for instance, that the new class (whom he calls “symbolic analysts”), detach themselves from the rest of the community. “Will our current and future symbolic analysts,” he asks, “lacking any special sense of responsibility toward a particular nation and its citizens share their wealth with the less fortunate of the world and devote their resources and energies to improving the chances that others may contribute to the world’s wealth?


“Here we find the darker side of cosmopolitanism. For without strong attachments and loyalties extending beyond family and friends, symbolic analysts may never develop the habits and attitudes of social responsibility. They will be world citizens, but without accepting or even acknowledging any of the obligations that citizenship normally implies.”



The frequency with which this group (I know, loosely defined) champions the cause of global issues but has little time for the local lends some weight to this proposition. It often amazes me to hear the blase way in which universal governance is invoked as a solution to all problems when national institutions remain unconsidered, and what’s more, apparently impervious to serious reform.


Maybe all of this is way off track, I dont know.


Whatever the reasons, however, there is a shrillness in how the notionally left confront the conditions of their fellow citizens. whether those citizens are the actual losers in the economic race or merely those who aspire to be winners, and this shrillness is disastrous in trying to win support for alternative programs and approaches. You can’t bully people into accepting your ideas. You can’t expect them to take you on trust if you don’t trust them and you seem more concerned with the romantic distance than the quotidian foreground . You actually have to provide ways for people to involve themselves in the public arena in ways that make a difference for them.


Ways and means


Traditionally, this focus was provided by the Labor Party itself, but the key practical question might actually be quite a big one: does the Labor Party continue to be the vehicle through which progressive reform is made, or does there need to be a new mainstream left party built from the ground up? Regardless, opportunities for alternatives exist and they must be investigated.


Look at it this way. You don’t think for a moment that people actually like or admire John Howard, Tony Abbott and Peter Costello do you? You don’t think they like being pushed around by more-or-less unaccountable business as the functions of government are increasingly outsourced and privatised? You don’t think they enjoy the fact that their quality of life has become directly proportional to their income? They don’t.


But they have to live in the world; they have to survive from day to day. So if the only alternatives given them are market based, individualistic, reward-the-rich-reward-the-ruthless sorts of policies then that is what they are going to be forced to work with. Too often, those on the left don’t recognise this and they develop a blame-the-victim attitude and dismiss people as either too lazy, ignorant or selfish, when in fact they are just trying to survive as best they can in the circumstances available to them.


The left used to recognise this and they’d go after the real culprits, the real elites who pull the purse strings. Or rather, what we might call leftist presumptions about the balance between the role of the state, the market and the individual were more common. Under such presumptions, institutional solutions based upon egalitarian principles were much more the norm and more forthcoming. Today the left seem more interested in blaming what they see as the narrow-minded rednecks and aspirationals they find lurking behind every bad thing that happens.


Repeat after me


But all this guff about aspirationals is just that. Repeat after me: there is no aspirational class. It’s part of the wedge and we shouldn’t fall for it. It plays into the hands of the conservative right as they try to convince people, that is the thinking, compassionate, potentially inspiring left, that the vast majority of Australians are an inward-looking, insular, me-too bunch of disengaged swinging voters only on the look out for their own selfish ends. If we swallow it, then there is nothing to fight for, the game is lost, and we might as well pack up and move to Nimbin (circa 1970).


Unfortunately, the Labor Party in particular has velcroed itself to the idea that it must must appeal to aspirational voters, when in fact this is just a marketing term that serves the purposes of the underlying neo-liberal agenda. It serves to convince us that there is large body of people who are merely self-interested, inward-looking and consumption oriented. Of course, this describes all of us at some time or another, but it shouldn’t be used to define us.


Like many of these terms, aspirationals has just enough truth in it to make it believable. But if we start acting like it’s the whole story – as Labor has shown every indication of doing since the election – then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: politicians, the media and the various policy elites start to offer only those approaches that fit the narrow parameters of the definition (cue Mark Latham). The debate (and perceived solutions to various problems) can then only be offered within that framework. We have to reject the framework from the beginning.


But there was Simon Crean, ten seconds after being elected leader, doing a listening tour of the western suburbs of Sydney because, nearly everyone assures us, this is where Labor lost the election and it lost here because it didn’t get the aspirational vote. We, the ones committed to something more than market outcomes, really have to call their bluff on this one. Fortunately, there is some indication that this is happening.


For instance, Tim Colebatch, economics editor of The Age, offers this analysis: “If you were reading Sydney columnists such as Sally Loane in The Sydney Morning Herald, you would think the election was won and lost in Sydney’s western suburbs, where Labor lost by being mean to the rich and too nice to refugees. Sydney people are richer, we are told, and even in the western suburbs, they have “aspirations”. Hence they react against Labor when it proposes to switch grants from rich schools to poor ones, or when, in 1998, the Victorians running the party’s economic policy proposed to remove the tax break for four-wheel-drives and focus its income tax cuts on low-paid workers. The facts, however, show the opposite.


“Labor’s best result in Sydney in the past three elections was in fact in 1998, when it won a huge swing in “aspirational” western Sydney, averaging 5.6 percent. The swing to Labor in 1998 exceeded the swing to the Coalition this time in all but four of western Sydney’s 15 seats. It is a myth to think Labor has to win Sydney to win government.”


Tom Morton, writing in the SMH, also points out the marketing origins of the notion of an aspirational class: “As Crean travels westward, the sirens of spin will be whispering to him still, intoning their seductive mantra that the ALP’s salvation lies with the aspirational voters. Let’s hope he plugs his ears because the whole notion of the “aspirationals” is a con job. There is no new aspirational class. It’s a product of the fevered imagination of the marketing gurus, a slick repackaging of the upwardly mobile lower-middle class.”


More importantly, he expands on why it is such a shallow concept and why it will ultimately only serve the purposes of the market-obsessed right-wing elites and the me-toos in the Labor Party and notionally left organisations like the Whitlam Institute: “Aspirational politics assumes that our hopes are purely private hopes. Its acolytes project a Thatcherite me first set of values onto the lower-middle class, assuming that they will prefer private schools for their children, private hospitals for their health care, private housing estates fenced off from the lower orders from which they’ve only too recently escaped. Charlotte Thorne, a British social commentator, puts it this way: if you believe in aspirational voters, you believe that people will vote for prosperity, for growth, but not for redistribution.”


And as Morton says: “Yet redistribution is ultimately what any social democratic party such as the ALP must be about; and not just the redistribution of wealth, but the redistribution of hope.”



How we do it is as important as what we do. The constraints new programs have to work within are not those provided by neat catch-phrases and market-derived sub-categories of citizens like aspirationals. Actually, constraints arise for precisely the opposite reason. It is the fact that society does not fall into neatly homogenous groups of like-minded factions who can be singled out for particular messages that complicates matters. The difficulty begins when we recognise that all groups are heterogenous and fluid and that the programs that work for some will not suit others and they might not even suit tomorrow those they suit today.


Thus the problem is procedural and the left must commit itself to those procedures ways of governing and making decisions that allow for constant revision and self-supervision: it requires institutional design that recognises this heterogeneity and fluidity and works with it not against it.


So our starting point is all wrong. The aim should not be to provide programs that purport to overcome particular deficiencies. Society is not a problem for the left or anyone else to solve.


The aim should be to join with all groups to the extent possible and find through discussion what points we share in common. Any imposition of a pre-formed program is necessarily going to isolate those to whom it doesn’t apply or who object to it. The only process that makes sense in a plural democracy that wishes to honour that plurality and not constrain it is one that allows solutions to emerge through consultation, not one that presents pre-digested prescriptions from on high.


In the early stages, how you arrive at an outcome is more important than the outcome itself. People have to believe they are being listened to. This means letting as much variety into the conversation as possible, a dictum that shouldn’t be too onerous for those who claim to support free speech. But free speech without institutional means to convert it into action is pointless.


Fortunately, work is being done and it is helpful if those who are concerned keep up with what is being said. In fact, there is a breath-taking amount of work out there, locally produced and from overseas, and although it is not possible in an article like this to enunciate and analyse every option, I can at least point to some of the work being done so people can look for themselves. So here’s some (only a few) examples, not all of which I would endorse by any stretch, but all of which are worthy of our attention.


Some sources of new ideas


Within the Labor Party, Carmen Lawrence, Kevin Rudd, and Lindsay Tanner are all talking structural reform of the party, which is good. Lawrence has a website, Rudd is all over the media, and Tanner wrote a book a few years back called Open Australia which is worth a look, particularly his comments about factions. There’s also Mark Latham’s ongoing output, but in particular the book he co-edited with Peter Botsman called The Enabling State. I’m no fan of third way prescriptions, but there’s a lot of really thoughtful work here and it is worth a look.


For great analysis of infrastructural problems and why market solutions are sometimes no solution at all, a must read is Waters Fall by Christopher Sheil. A book like this is important because, firstly, it is written by someone not adverse to the market, but who shows in a clear-sighted way the limits of such an approach. In the same vein, Privatisation: sell off or sell out by Bob Walker and Betty Con Walker is good.


It’s been around since 1994, but Work for All: Full Employment in the Nineties, by John Langmore and John Quiggin is worth studying. In fact, virtually everything John Quiggin writes is worth reading three times, and you can access it easily at his stupendous website at quiggin


My argument is that the left ultimately needs to look at reasonably major institutional reform and `Im attracted to the ideas presented in the field of what is called deliberative democracy. On this topic, Deliberative Democracy in Australia by John Uhr is important (if a little dry), while a great introductory book is Deliberative Democracy and Beyond by John Dryzek. Both these guys are at ANU.


Two other more recent books that outline important and innovative approaches to institutional reform are Don Edgars The Patchwork Nation and When the Boat Comes In by Boris Frankel. Edgar argues cogently for a more regionalised structure for government, where, as much as possible, those actually affected by decisions whether they be about schools, training, or community services are involved in the process.


Frankel is looking for alternatives to the neo-liberal prescription in the name of policies that serve a common good rather than market profit. He suggests the formation of a number of new institutions that could move us towards what he calls a new Australian settlement. Included in these are a national Investment Fund; a Incomes Commission; a National Environmental Sustainable Development Commission; a Reconciliation Authority; A Federal Regional Commission; and a National Development Commission to replace the Productivity Commission.


Actually, I’m not thrilled by settlement approaches, so if you want to read some broad theory on alternative approaches the collection called Contesting the Australian Way edited by Paul Smith and Bettina Cass is well worth a look. For a more traditional liberal approach to institutional reform that nonetheless recognises the necessity of non-market solutions, see Beyond the Two Party System by Ian Marsh.


None of these theorists are out-there weirdo lefties who want to bulldoze everything we do now and replace it with a radical overhaul. Certainly some of their ideas would move us in directions substantially different from the ones we operate with at the moment, but so they should. The thing is, they offer thoughtful and doable alternatives worthy of serious attention.


Build it and they will come


Politics isn’t just about good ideas and wishful thinking. It is about perception, agenda setting, and the art of the possible. So dominant are the rights prescriptions in all the forums of influence the parliament, the parties, the media that alternatives are going to have to fight to be heard. Consequently it is more important than ever not to get sucked into non-debates and non-issues and to stay focussed. But as I’ve said, the signs are not good.


Already the Howard government has opted for tactics rather than policy for the coming year. It is wedging Labor on workplace relations, immigration, and the role of unions. Instead of calling their bluff, Labor is falling for it. So is the media who keep wringing their hands about the domination by Howard’s policy agenda. The usually highly intelligent Mike Seccombe said on The Insiders program on the ABC (1 Dec) that John Howard is some kind of genius in getting people to play on his turf.


Note to all journalists who think this way: then stop talking about Howard’s agenda. As Bob Ellis commented during the election, journalist after journalist talked about Labor’s policies being overshadowed by other issues and not getting any traction, but it is the journalists themselves who choose what is overshadowed and they then spend time lamenting their own decision. It’s idiotic. It reflects less on Howards genius than on journalists insularity.


Perhaps it reflects an even deeper disconnect, to use the American expression: that between the citizens and what we might call the political class (yes, all highly problematic terms). It is significant, it seems to me, that Seccombe was speaking on a show called The Insiders. As the title recognises and acknowledges, there is an insider stratum of commentators who get to decide what is discussed and who consequently get to invent the story that is told about our political life. This stratum we might call them the coordinators are a major structural impediment against new thinking.


But a significant section of the left isn’t even thinking about all of this. It has instead transformed itself into the indignant left, and is more concerned with talking to itself about how morally pure it is than offering an achievable and popular way forward that honours the very things they think are important. It uses what they construe as the ordinary persons wrong thinking on matters like immigration as a way of explaining to itself its own estrangement from the electorate. Its not us, it’s them. And once again we are back to talking about divides and two nations and aspirationals, la de dah.


I said in a Webdiary article during the election that the Two Nations theory, the endless hand-wringing about an elite/popular divide, was a distraction from the main game, a Clayton’s issue that just plays into the hands of the conservatives. I say it again.


Enough with the endless analysis of who is and isn’t an elite; of what we mean by aspirational; of how John Howard has tricked everyone and how everyone except us is a racist troglodyte anyway. The games afoot and the real game is to make your arguments humanitarian care, public education, public health, fair taxes, sustainable future, value-added manufacturing, institutional reform while the neo-liberal world is falling apart around our ears. Build a better democracy and they will come.


Its time to wake up and smell the cafe latte.





Cathy Bannister threw Christopher Lasch’s ideas into the continuing “elite” debate in Blaming Lasch. Here’s her rethink.



Cathy Bannister


Since I wrote that piece the other day, I’ve been wondering whether I’m just shooting the messenger. Robert Manne has been writing about the elite-ordinary divide for several years now. Mark Latham, with his emphasis on social capital also subscribes. Of course, the gnashing classes (or the right wing media who purport to speak for ordinary people) make incredible use of it. There must be something which resonates in the Lasch theory, even if logic is flawed.


What rings true is the Lasch description of that social grouping he terms ordinary people. Yes, there is a stereotype of middle-class and lower-class Americans, and Australians, which is not in the least flattering. Yes, it’s creditable there is a social malaise causing large groups of people at best to feel dissatisfied, at worst, to struggle economically and socially.


However, from there Lasch executes a few logical leaps Barishnikovian in their nimbleness. When he named the cause of the societal malaise as the (evil) Elites, and defined them, not as government, or academics, or the media, or business leaders (as does Chomsky) but as anyone with a dissenting opinion, completely without proof, and then described the consequences of this social divide (apparently, Armageddon), he and Mr Reason parted company. Lasch’s conclusions are both moralistic and completely devoid of any scientific rigour whatsoever. His is just another conspiracy theory. Lasch, conveniently, regarded science as the domain of the Elites.


For the theory to work he would have needed to demonstrate that the people who conform to this stereotype not only feel powerless in the face of the elites, but they feel more powerless now than ever before. The assertions that Western Society is suffering social and spiritual malaise, and moreover that this is directly the fault of the Elites would need to be demonstrated using replicable scientific techniques before it is given credence, not just stated as fact. Finally, every other potential cause of this social condition needs to be identified and discounted before Lasch’s theories can be accepted.


This is not to say that a scientifically unproven theory is invalid. Of course, it may be. But Lasch’s work is shrill, judgemental and counterintuitive, none of which stand in the theory’s favour.


There is at least one genuine, statistically demonstrated socioeconomic divide, that between country areas serviced by farmers and suburban fringe areas, and the suburbs and inner city areas. Country people have borne the brunt of the lifting of tariffs and withdrawal of state, government, bank and business services from the regions. While it would need to be demonstrated in some replicable form, this particular malaise seems to have clear causes which have absolutely nothing to do with the Chardonnay-swilling leftist elitists. Unless, you refer, as did Robert Manne in his 1998 essay “The Two Australian Nations”, to the monetarist elite, who are a completely different kettle of fish.


You can see how Laschian language is regurgitated by the gnashers. Lasch’s term “talking classes” was the inspiration for the “chattering classes”. Elites, ordinary people, the whole Laschian kit and caboodle has been swallowed whole and spewed up by the likes of McGuinness, Zemanek, Ramsey, Divine, Bolt. This Wednesday’s Bulletin contained an Les Carlyon piece, described as rapier sharp by Alan Ramsey, was nothing more than one-handed chest-beating. I’ve read it several times now, and the only information I can glean from it is “We won, so we must be right, nyar-nyar-nyar.” It’s not worth even trying to argue with that.


It is interesting to substitute any other minority group for the elite into any piece of text by any of the above. It makes the prejudice abundantly clear.


I keep being reminded of the Milton Friedman argument that it doesn’t matter that the foundations of a theory are rubbish, if it accurately predicts results it has validity. (Highly unlikely though it may seem, it is nonetheless a valid point.) But the converse is more true. Consider how the Lasch elite-ordinary gulf theory is applied. Invariably both in this country, and in the US under Clinton, it has been used to promote sheer populism, with no improvement of the social conditions Lasch railed against whatsoever. It is used extensively to champion one social grouping at the expense of another, which should ring warning bells.


Underlying Lasch’s work, and therefore also the gnasher’s bile, is the concept (a strangely warped Marxist concept) that populism is the only true democracy. “By the people, for the people” becomes “By at least 51% of the people, and probably not much more than 51% of the people, for those people alone, and everyone else can just sod off.”


Populism doesn’t work for the same reason as the local P&C board would be terrible at collectively fixing a cracked head gasket. To fix a car, you need a mechanic, and to run a country, you need a bunch of intelligent politicians who know what they are doing. Not a committee comprising the whole country.


Mark Latham believes in direct democracy (read, populism) on moral issues. I have a lot of time for Latham’s aims, at least the social capital theory is nice even if it falls down in the detail (in the same way Lasch does – and I won’t bore you by going into it here). But even populism restricted to moral issues only is flawed.


What happen when the majority decide they don’t want to pay taxes? What happens when the majority decide to persecute others? People will always argue that because the majority are the majority therefore have the democratic right to do whatever they damn well want, but there comes a time when it is not in the interests of the country to enact their morals. Look at what the populist regimes of Fujimori, Peron, Hitler (so popular that Austrians were overwhelmingly in favour of annexation), Mussolini, Venezuela’s Chavez and Bolivar before him, etc did for their respective countries.


Populism also ignores the fact that people will be influenced by what politicians say, thus sending the population into a spiral of influence. An interesting example of this is the opinion regarding boat people. In June 1999, a small boat containing asylum seekers sank and 5 were rescued by a passing yacht. This was reported on quite favourably, and there was even an extensive air search which failed to find any of the fifteen missing people.


In November 1999, Phillip Ruddock issued a warning to the population that there were in the order of 10,000 “illegal immigrants” in Indonesia, about to seek illegal passage to Australia. From that point onwards, the press coverage became less sympathetic, and Australians started to become openly hostile. More frightening rhetoric followed, and the hostility increased. And as the hostility increased, the government responded to it.


Lisa Hill, who at the time was a fellow at the Research School of Social Sciences (Political Science) at ANU, wrote in 1998 of the dangers of common sense policy and the dangers of anti-intellectualism. policy She concludes:


“A just and legitimate political order which seeks to operate complex, mass societies cannot and should not rely entirely on `common sense’ approaches to the business of governing. The idea that cutting off the single mother’s supporting pension will prevent teenage pregnancy might seem commonsensical but the advice of experts seems to be that it is simple minded and potentially hazardous to the welfare of mothers and children.


“The suggestion that slowing down immigration is a solution to Australia’s unemployment problem also seems sensible whereas this is by no means clear to the economists who have investigated the issue. `Common sense’ no doubt approves the rationalisation that Australians who weren’t present at the moment of invasion (or during the worst periods of Aboriginal repression) are not responsible for the miseries to which indigenous people have been subject ever since. Yet legal and moral consideration of ‘what is just?’ in mature liberal orders generally goes beyond examining physical or direct relationships of cause and effect. Indirect beneficiaries of invasion may indeed have some juridical or moral obligation to make amends to those who suffered by it.


“All of this is another way of saying that, although mainstream Australia may not like its intellectuals very much, it may need them if it wants a political order based on just principles and a sober approach to public policy.”


Lasch was fundamentally anti-intellectual. In a Laschian Nirvana, capitalism has collapsed, allowing people to find identities separate from their consumer status, the state has become redundant, people’s rediscovered religion has imparted on their lives a spirituality currently missing, everyone works together in city-sized collectivist groups, and no-one would feel in the least disenfranchised any more. Religion was vitally important in Lasch’s world – while he was not religious himself, he could see that religion gives cohesion to society. It’s difficult to imagine a view more cynical and patronising.


The only problem in Lasch’s Shangri-La-di-da would be dodging the droppings of passing pigs on the wing. I wonder what Lasch proposed doing with the evil Elites (who, let’s face it, would be bright enough to come and exploit this happy system of lawlessness for their own benefit). Guess they’d end up shipped to Nauru.


That said, it isn’t enough to disprove Lasch to expose Howard. Unlike some of the humanist commentariat, Howard’s vision in reality bears little resemblance to Lasch’s. He has simply pilfered the most potent images and symbols. It is possible that some of Howard’s anti-Elite rhetoric borrows heavily from what Thomas Frank has described as the secular religion of Market Populism.


Thomas Frank, writing in the Nation Magazine in 2000, speaks of targeting of the left-wing progressive elite, but this time by market theorists. By the late 1990s, the dogma of economic rationalism was accepted ubiquitously by every commentator in America. The market, comprising as it does individuals making independent purchasing decisions, has been equated with “the people”, making the market the perfect populist democratic decision maker.


He wrote:


“And as business leaders melded themselves theoretically with the people, they found that market populism provided them with powerful weapons to use against their traditional enemies in government and labor. Since markets express the will of the people, virtually any criticism of business could be described as an act of “elitism” arising out of despicable contempt for the common man. According to market populism, elites are not those who, say, watch sporting events from a skybox, or spend their weekends tooling about on a computer-driven yacht, or fire half their work force and ship the factory south. No, elitists are the people on the other side of the equation: the labor-unionists and Keynesians who believe that society can be organized in any way other than the market way. Since what the market does – no matter how whimsical, irrational or harmful – is the Will of the People, any scheme to operate outside its auspices or control its ravages is by definition a dangerous artifice, the hubris of false expertise.”




“How did populism ever , become the native tongue of the wealthy? Historically, of course, populism was a rebellion against the corporate order, a political tongue reserved by definition for the non-rich and the non-powerful. It was a term associated with the labor movement and angry agrarians. But in 1968, at the height of the antiwar movement, this primal set piece of American democracy seemed to change its stripes. The war between classes somehow reversed its polarity: Now it was a conflict in which the patriotic, blue-collar “silent majority” (along with their employers) faced off against a new elite, a “liberal establishment” with its spoiled, flag-burning children. This new ruling class-a motley assembly of liberal journalists, liberal academics, liberal foundation employees, liberal politicians and the shadowy powers of Hollywood-earned the people’s wrath not by exploiting workers or ripping off the family farmers but by contemptuous disregard for the wisdom and values of average Americans.” (The Rise of Market Populism: America’s new secular religion, by Thomas Frank, The Nation magazine, October 30, 2000.)


There is more than a little resemblance between the Elite defined above, and that decried by Australia’s right-wing press and politicians. Frank’s defined concept, market populism, seems to underlie the Liberal Party’s economic strategies up to the point of the Shane Stone memo. In the hands of Howard (and his strategy team) market populism finds itself in a shotgun wedding with the Lasch theory as a very powerful propagandistic tool. Thomas Frank, again:


“Barbara Ehrenreich, one of its most astute chroniclers, points out that the backlash always hinged on a particular appeal to working-class voters, some of whom were roped into the Republican coalition with talk of patriotism, culture war and family values. Class war worked for Republicans as long as it was restricted to cultural issues; when economic matters came up the compound grew unstable very quickly. Lee Atwater, an adviser to Presidents Reagan and Bush, is said to have warned his colleagues in 1984 that their new blue-collar constituents were “liberal on economics” and that without culture wars to distract them “populists were left with no compelling reason to vote Republican.”


Clearly, the elite-ordinary rhetoric is being used as a smoke screen in Australia as well.


So, there you have it. That’s how he does it. The last thing that all you on the “elite” side of politics should do is accept the proposition that you are elitist, that this means you have shown distain for most of the population, and as such you have brought Howard on yourselves and should hang your heads in shame. Don’t buy into it: it’s unmitigated propaganda intended to silence you.


Again, I’m reminded of Muldoon’s last term in office. In 1984, a visionary by the name of David Lange completely blew the complacent populism of Muldoon out of the water, simply by appealing to the New Zealand population’s higher morals. (It may also have had something to do with an embarrassing Muldoon ad showing dancing cossacks taking over the map).


I’m not saying that I agree with everything Lange did, or that he was spectacularly successful thereafter (there is some suggestion that he was punished for breaking up the ANZUS treaty). However, he was an infinite improvement on Muldoon and set the moral standards for New Zealand thereafter. Labor, take note.