Says Professor Ross Garnaut at The Guardian:
The crisis in Australia’s political system is less about the quality of individual politicians and more to do with the “majority media” and business lobby groups drowning out the independent centre for their own self-interest, distinguished economist, Prof Ross Garnaut has said.
Garnaut, speaking during a panel discussion at the 2018 Outlook Conference in Melbourne, said the big economic reform period of the 1980s came to an end with the rancorous debate about the GST before it was introduced in 2000, “followed by years in which major policy change, reform, in the national interest became rare, more difficult, and temporary”.
Governments since had attempted big reforms, such as the Howard government’s industrial changes, WorkChoices, the Rudd government’s macroeconomic policies to avoid recession during the global financial crisis of 2008, and the Gillard government’s climate policies from 2012, which were working and “would have allowed Australian contribution of its fair share to an international effort without economic disruption or substantial cost”.
All were repudiated, with the “macroeconomic policies that kept Australia out of recession … shouted down by the majority media and the then opposition parties to an extent that will create barriers to Australia responding wisely next time we face recessionary pressures from the global economy”.
Garnaut, a senior economic adviser to former prime minister Bob Hawke and author of a landmark review into the impacts of climate change in 2008, told the conference “Australia is in trouble”. A key reason was “a thinning of an informed, engaged, independent centre of our polity”.
“The majority media and the business lobbies have drowned out the independent centre, with raucous assertion of opinions that are convenient to their private interests. The words that are shouted most loudly are now taken by their proponents as facts.”
Most damaging to economic policy was the “promotion of cash-for comment economic modelling, where the truth is incidental to promotion of outcomes that suit the private interests that commission them”.
He said the most obvious examples were climate policy and the taxation of corporate incomes. The result had been community distrust in institutions.
“The loud voices do their best to shout down the institutions that have retained public trust. A sullen electorate is inclined to doubt its political leaders, and disinclined to follow them, both when they are right and when they are wrong.”
Garnaut declined to specify which parts of the “majority media” were responsible. The outlook conference is sponsored by the Australian and the University of Melbourne.
He told Guardian Australia there was a need for a better resourced and competitive media, and there was “a case for fiscal support for smaller voices.”
Good on The Guardian for picking it up. But there is an irony in its doing so given it is a prime example of the “loud voices” that shout over the sensible centre. I humbly suggest that it only ran the story to plant the idea in people’s heads that it should be supported by public funding. Day after day The Guardian rips away at the “informed centre” with a focus on its handful of chosen issues, usually in complete ignorance of the “informed centre”.
Professor Garnaut is right but he does not go anywhere near far enough. Let me explain. Or, at least, let Francis Fukuyama do so:
“This thing [identity politics] was really motivated by the rise of populist nationalism all over the world,” the noted American political scientist Francis Fukuyama tells me. Notice how Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping feed their popularity at home by stoking resentment at the way an arrogant West disrespected their countries?
This is similar to the feelings of “rural voters in the US who felt that the urban bicoastal elites were similarly ignoring them and their problems”, says Fukuyama, the same people who turned to Trump to “make America great again”.
“The practitioners of the politics of resentment recognise one another,” writes Fukuyama in his new book on identity politics, helpfully titled Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, to be published in Australia by Profile Books.
“The sympathy that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have for each other is not just personal, but rooted in their common nationalism.”
Trump, of course, is the high priest of the low order of angry right-wing identity politics. Muslims are terrorists and must be banned from entry; Mexicans are rapists and must be sealed off behind a wall; women are objects that can be grabbed by the pussy; and the Ku Klux Klan aren’t really all bad.
“You didn’t have this white identity politics till the last couple of years in the US,” Fukuyama says, or at least not in a mainstream political party. “It’s Trump – he’s basically a racist and he’s encouraged others so it’s not surprising they’ve come out of the woodwork.”
But just because the right’s deployment of identity politics is ugly and intolerant doesn’t exonerate the left. Indeed, Fukuyama says that the rise of the angry Trump-led right is partly a reaction against the excesses of the left.
The movements that emerged in the 1960s championing the rights of America’s minorities came first: “After the 60s, inequality was interpreted in terms of these specific groups,” and the response to those groups was seen as the neglect of the majority. “That accounts for the level of defections of the old working class because they felt the old parties had deserted them.”
“The populist reaction is against political correctness,” says Fukuyama. Political correctness is the censorious self-righteousness of the left. It denied overlooked whites the language to protest and to make their own claims. “You are not listening to what’s been happening in the last few years if you think there’s no connection between the two.”
The Republican Party under Trump “has become the party of white people, and the Democrats increasingly are the party of minorities – that’s not a good outcome”, says Fukuyama, himself a Japanese American. In this way, identity politics is becoming the overwhelming force in American politics.
In Australia the phenomenon of identity politics has gone much further. The fragmentation of national consciousness into vertical market identities has formed its own self-sustaining political economy structure. The Guardian is the media arm of the “champagne left” identity. It is fully integrated with sympathetic policy engines in think tanks like the Grattan Institute. It has its own political party in The Greens. This is a niche recreation of the nation state, a mini ‘identity state’ if you will, inside which circular logic and ideology swirl uninterrupted by criticism or dialectic.
The “champagne left” identity state is not about the truth of an independent centre. It is about the promulgation of a narrow set of values within a chosen worldview: global warming, favouring immigration, championing social justice and Trump-bashing as reality.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not picking on The Guardian. The point is much, much larger. The same ‘identity states’ have now spread across the entire political economy. There is a business ‘identity state’ now. It has its own sympathetic think tanks, its own political party in the Coalition and its own media echo chamber in the The Australian as well as, increasingly, the AFR. There is a real estate ‘identity state’ which has multiple think tanks, a political party in the Coalition, and a media echo chamber in Domainfax.
None of this has anything to do with traditional Left versus Right politics and, therefore, even the notion of the independent center is nonsensical. “Australia” itself does not exist in this emerging construct. Replaced by a cluster of ‘identity states’ which battle to impose their own perverse world view on everybody else. The ultimate irony is that it means the various vertical markets often end up in furious agreement while wasting 99% of their energy on pretending that they disagree.
How did this happen? Many reasons. The destruction of the media by the internet is key. But that seems to me to be a late, exacerbating factor. The real driver is the rise of post-structuralism in education. Post-modernity is an ideology that has no truth. It sees the world in “discourses” of endless and equal value, created and recreated by the power and bias of language. The corollary is that changing language gives you the power to change reality. Thus the labeling of everything becomes the act of empowerment in any movement ahead of actually doing something when history comes calling. This obsession with how everything is “represented”, versus what it actually is, means the traditional power relationships – capital versus labour – that make up the contest of the centre are lost and politics becomes a fake game of yelling your own “discourse” louder than anybody else’s.
The sadness of it is that the underlying reality of history rolls on. Capital and labour are still locked in an epochal conflict. And without any way to resolve their contest in favour of the majority – the independent centre as Professor Garnaut describes it – we get wild lurches between ‘identity states’ that settle for the appearance of change over its substance. Witness great celebrations as tampons are made a little cheaper while the same women are ravaged by an energy cartel at a scale a hundred times greater without a mention. Or preposterous celebrations for gay marriage when slave labour is being embedded across the entire economy via mass immigration without a mention. Or furious debates about the sanctity of Opera House sails deliver reams of script as a new Cold War erupts that could denude of us of our very freedom doesn’t get a mention.
The problem is not that Australia is in “trouble”, it is that “Australia” is dead.