10 Nov

Up early in the morning: the Anglican Archbishop’s conversations. I’d remembered that Peter Freier was going to be speaking with Robert Manne. The other guest, I’d forgotten the name. So I’m sitting there, waiting for the show to begin, and down the aisle walks an elegant, elderly gentleman in a very expensive three-piece suit that looks like Malcolm Fraser only smaller. Ah, it is Malcolm Fraser. Time is cruel.

The topic under discussion for those who haven’t clicked the link was Spin or Vision? And the trialogue concerned the events of the last election which left the country with a minority government and its attendant implications for the upcoming state election. Actually that’s not quite true. The  last election was, rather, an example of problems in Australian political culture. My prejudice before the event was born of a cynicism viz the dichotomy. Spin or vision? Hah! Vision is one of the spin doctor’s favourite riffs. Thankfully neither Fraser or Manne seemed much enthusiastic about vision. The archbishop inserted the word into the conference once or twice but it wasn’t taken up. This gives me hope. Vision is not what the country needs, it needs true leadership.

The difficulty faced by the ALP at the last election was thus: the ALP are the workers’ party, the blue-collar party. So it’s said. They are also the party, until recently, favoured by the urbane intelligentsia. That section of the highly educated, well-off upper middle-class who aren’t bankers and lawyers, what is called the latte left, the luvvies – those George Orwell referred to as bearded, sandal-wearing, fruit-juice drinkers. On the left there has always been a schism between the working class agents and their upper-middle class allies. The former are generally thought to be culturally and socially conservative, thus they aren’t enthusiastic about some of the latte left’s more avant-garde concerns: the treatment of refugees, gay marriage, the environment.

John Howard exploited this, appropriating some of Pauline Hanson’s vibe and mobilizing the xenophobia of traditional Labor voters in order to pinch their vote. Kim Beazley came very close to beating him and then the Tampa affair rendered him speechless. He tripped over his tongue. If he spoke in favour of the refugees he risked the ire of his blue collar constituency. Against, and he brings on the hostility of the intelligentsia. Howard won. And so Julia Gillard sought to win her election by giving both the rednecks and the sandal-wearers what they want. She promised to cut immigration in the name of the environment. Quite a nifty strategy, rhetorically speaking. It started off reasonably well but was punctured almost immediately slowly deflating during the three-week crawl to election day.

The talk was of the imagery, rhetoric and personalities of the leaders. There was Julia Gillard’s fake personality: the ‘caring’ maternal voice that kept telling us we should be ‘moving forward’. There was Tony Abbott’s personality, total absence of. And despite the genuine difference between policy programs (Keynes v Friedman), the parties appeared entirely homogenous. Abbott had his own version of moving forward. Does anyone remember it? Oh that’s right ‘Real Action’. So we have these two muppets endeavoring in earnest to say nothing offensive whilst inserting ‘moving forward’ and ‘real action’ into as many sentences as possible.

All this has been discussed. I only repeat it to set the context. There was much talk of causes this morning. Most of it we’ve heard. But what struck me were the words between Fraser’s lines. He believes that the focus-group style of policy development is wrong because those groups do not know what they’re talking about. His example, if you asked Melburnians in 1950 if they wanted their city to become home to the largest number of Greeks outside of Greece they would’ve overwhelmingly voted no. True. Yet these days it’s all good. Melbourne without wogs would be a very boring place.

The words between the lines came up again with the issue of party machines and their increasing control of candidate pre-selection. Fraser believes it is now very difficult for the independent of mind to gain selection. And, of course, Manne pointed fingers at News Ltd – Andrew Bolt’s fans, Murdoch’s 70% market-share in newspapers. He asked Fraser if he would’ve allowed Rupert Murdoch to gain such dominance in the market. Fraser’s response was that he would’ve ‘found some way to prevent it’. He bemoaned the decline in standard of the Wall Street Journal since News Ltd bought it. It used to be ‘up there’ now it’s down ‘below the table’.


Fraser is one of the last of a certain breed: the Australian Tory. They don’t really make them anymore. None of the ‘leftist’ issues he has advocated since retiring from politics really belong ideologically to the left. Aboriginal land rights are simply property rights. Socialists aren’t known to be too enthusiastic about such. Tories  alienate us because of their attitude which assumes entitlement to positions of leadership. Born to rule. This doesn’t sit well as an idea with Australians but it sits well enough as a choice on the ballot, the Liberal Party and its precedents have dominated government during our history.

The absence of the independent-minded candidate, the development of policy by finding out what people want and then giving it to them, the lowering of the standards of public debate and the scrapping of the agreement not to play the race card amongst the political classes. In short: the removal of traditional ethical rules of conduct and of the hierarchies that maintained them. All in furtherance of ever more naked competition.

What Fraser objected to was much the same as that decried by left-wing commentators  from a different perspective.  He didn’t come right out and say it but in his opinion the ‘lower orders’ have too much swing in politics. The parties and their allies in the media are simply feeding the beast. In Fraser’s eyes there’s something lacking and what they needs a damn good whacking. What has gone wrong in the Liberal Party is not that its too elitist but that it’s not elite enough.

The capacity of an individual to make up one’s own mind about good policy is integral to political leadership. There is no need for actual leadership if policy is simply the reflection of popular opinion as distilled dubiously by the techniques of the advertising and marketing industry.  Such independence of mind does not necessarily mean ‘vision’ but simply the will and courage to shut out other voices and consider matters one’s self. To make one’s own decisions. This capacity is not just essential for leadership  but is desirable to an extent on the part of every citizen.

Time was that Malcolm Fraser and those like him governed by example. Aristos kratos – rule by the best. The industrial revolution and the subsequent acquisition of political power by the bourgeoisie, both by revolution and such as the Reform Act of 1834, did not immediately remove the aristocracy. World War One did a good job and World War Two finished it off. Out the fertile ash arose the 1960s and on matters of rank all bets were off. Such as Fraser may have retained the money and the connections but the influence, the assumption of rank was no longer there. Patricians no longer had the cultural authority to tell bogans and rednecks to pull their heads in and behave. No-one did.

I walk into a library at exam time and there are laptops switched into movies and Facebook. There’s a carnival atmosphere about. Ten years ago the custodians of this place would’ve been very stern about such behaviour. Ten years ago mobile phones were to be switched off and those that did not do so faced a curt reprimand .  Now the place has compromised and almost every room is noisy.  Any reprimand is met with astonishment and mirth.  No-one is in charge and we are not in charge of ourselves. And the more  out of control we are the more the statute books rise in piles.

Fraser is right, standards have fallen and the obsolescence of independence is very much part of this.  But this is not simply the consequence of technocratic, electioneering politics; of tabloid media spinning the lowest common denominator ever downward; of  the willingness to indulge the most base aspects of human nature to win office. Behind all that is the tendency in government and business, even in family life, to utilize techniques of control to avoid the undesirable at all costs. The assumption is that no-one is in control of themselves and for this we are all blameless. We cannot rule ourselves and no-one is worthy to rule us so we end up being ruled by the ghost in a vast machine. No, not a ghost, a ghost suggests an actual entity. We are ruled by an electronic mist of databanks and cameras.

Hannah Arendt oft-repeated her observation that what finally characterized totalitarian regimes from other types of authoritarian dictatorship was the use of technological means of control to eliminate spontaneity.  You do this by creating an atmosphere whereby all independent thought must submit to some kind of corporate oversight. Everything expressed must be subjected to a disinfectant that removes any rough surfaces rendering a ubiquitous standard of vapid consternation. Nothing is owned and no-one, finally, is responsible for anything.

The use of focus groups to develop policy is part of the same phenomena that inspires parents to acquire software to trace the whereabouts of their children.  Everywhere individuals are submitting to control by impersonal system, every human activity is being micro-managed, every human interaction is expressed in terms of a public relations notion of commerce.  We are slowly becoming totalitarian and the communists have nothing to do with it. We are choosing it, freely.



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