Book Review: An Australian Ruling Class?

Book Review: An Australian Ruling Class?

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John Roskam reviews one of the most important books of 2013

In 1964 Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country was published. Horne had one basic argument—‘Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.’ By the mid-1960s an emerging class of tertiary-educated professionals found a lot to like about Horne’s criticism of their country. This new class disliked Australia’s prosperity, its success, and its conservatism. According to the members of the new class, Australia would be a much better place if it was run by people like them—instead by ‘second-rate people’.

Gough Whitlam was the hero of this new class. As Nick Cater brilliantly explains in The Lucky Culture and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class, Whitlam understood that the new class could deliver his vision of social revolution. He made the Labor Party the party of intellectuals. In 1965 Whitlam proclaimed ‘Intellectuals and white collar people know that their decisions will be more effective and their advice will be heeded more under Labor. The Liberals regard them just as employees. We regard them as well-trained people to be heeded… This party needs intellectuals and intellectuals need this party.’

A few years earlier the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald had cried ‘What Australia badly needs is not a ruling class, but an educated class’. Whitlam made his new class Australia’s ruling class. It is the class that today rules the taxpayer-funded broadcaster, the bureaucracy, many of the professions—including teaching and law, and much of the public debate in this country.

Cater charts the rise of the Whitlam’s intellectuals and explains in devastating and thought-provoking detail what happens when those intellectuals get to rule. Andrew Bolt being taken to court, and the Gillard government’s attempts to regulate freedom of the press, and under the guise of ‘harmonising anti-discrimination law’, to make it unlawful to tell a political joke that offended someone are just some of the results of a process that’s been going on in Australia for half a century.

In 1970 Kim Beazley Sr famously said ‘when I joined the Labor Party, it contained the cream of the working class. But as I look about me now all I see are the dregs of the middle class.’ Three years earlier Gough Whitlam had been made federal leader.

Whitlam was a lawyer, his deputy in the lower house Lance Barnard was a teacher. The Labor leader in the senate was Lionel Murphy a lawyer, and his deputy was Samuel Cohen, also a lawyer. As Cater says, Labor’s leadership, then as now, was less interested in nationalising the banks and the airlines, and more interested in nationalising the business of everyday life by ‘social engineering, supervised by technocrats trained for the task.’

Social engineering was justified because social engineers believed themselves not simply ‘better off but better than their fellow Australians.’ The new class was ‘cosmopolitan and sophisticated, well read (or so they would have us believe) and politically aware. Their presumption of virtue set them apart from the common herd; they were neither racist nor sexist, claimed to be indifferent to material wealth [and they] ate healthily [and they] drank in moderation…’ Cater highlights the inevitable as the ‘class that claims the moral high ground will be tempted, sooner or later, to resort to censorship, since notions that challenge good ideas are, by necessity, bad.’

Social engineers don’t like freedom of speech, and they don’t have much time for democracy either. A former president of the Human Rights Commission once admitted that human rights are ‘much too important to leave just to governments.’

Cater emigrated to Australia from Britain in 1989. Back then ‘sneering was taboo in the Australia I arrived in; today it is ubiquitous.’ The new class sneer at their country and those who enjoy their McMansions, their McDonald’s, and their air-conditioning. For Cater it’s Australia’s culture that made the country lucky. A combination of Australia’s history (namely being settled by the British), geography, and environment gave rise to deeply egalitarian and democratic disposition.

Egalitarianism is the nation’s primary operating principle, the key to its success and its saving grace. There is no other country where egalitarianism is held in such high regard, nor where any hint of aristocracy has been so firmly slapped down. Egalitarianism fosters enterprise in a pioneer society where settlers put the old ways behind them to build civilisation afresh.’

In 1847 after being in Australia only four years, John Stephens the editor of the South Australian Register published an article in London designed to lure workers to the colony—it was entitled Address to the Starving or Suffering Millions of Great Britain and Ireland. Stephens summed up what made Australia special: ‘Our laws are essentially English, and equitably administered according to the forms in use in Great Britain. It is true that we have not as yet the power of self-government, but our taxes are light, impartially imposed, and easily collected, and there are no class interests to lead to class legislation. There is one law for all, and it is administered without fear or favour by salaried and responsible functionaries…I need scarcely add, that the press being free, the complaints of the poor man are as readily made known as the just pretensions of the rich.

It doesn’t fit the narrative of Australian history as every school student in the country is going to be taught under the National Curriculum but there was once a great deal of enterprise and ingenuity in the country. Not everything was a fight to the death between bosses and unions. There was the merino sheep, the stump-jump plough, and HV McKay’s Sunshine harvester. While Henry Ford was establishing mass production lines, McKay was doing the same thing. When McKay died in 1926 his factory employed 2500 workers. At the beginning of the nineteenth century The Westminster Gazette reported : ‘Australia is apparently destined to rival America in time in the matter of inventions of world-wide application and utility.’ That Australia didn’t was because of the deliberate government policy of industry protection and centralised wage fixing. Australian businesses faced little competition and capital and labour became complacent and lazy.

In May this year the Institute of Public Affairs had the privilege of hosting Geoffrey Blainey at the Melbourne launch of The Lucky Culture. Not that it’s necessary to provide any more evidence of the validity of Cater’s contention other than what he provides, but nonetheless within a few months of the book’s publication yet another example emerged of exactly the phenomenon that Cater identified as so dangerous.

At a public forum discussing tax, Bernie Brooks the chief executive of the retailer Myer made the perfectly obvious point that if consumers paid higher taxes they would have less money to spend in shops. He was commenting on the effect on consumer spending of higher taxes to pay for the Gillard government’s national disability insurance scheme. He was not remarking on whether the scheme was a good or bad thing. In response to what Brookes said the Disability Commissioner, Graeme Innes (one of seven commissioners) launched a campaign against Myer via the leftwing website Change.org.

Innes said on Change.org that ‘Myer CEO Bernie Brookes’ comments that a levy to fund the national disability insurance scheme is “not good for our customers” and “is something that would have been spent with us” are incredibly disappointing. They demonstrate a lack of understanding of Australians with a disability, half of whom live below the poverty line…I appreciate Mr Brookes has issued an apology, but I’d like to see Myer to commit to an employment target of 10 per cent of people with a disability by firmly slapped down. Egalitarianism fosters enterprise in a pioneer society where settlers put the old ways behind them to build civilisation afresh.’ In 1847 after being in Australia only four years, John Stephens the editor of the South Australian Register published an article in London designed to lure workers to the colony—it was entitled Address to the Starving or Suffering Millions of Great Britain and Ireland. Stephens summed up what made Australia special: ‘Our laws are essentially English, and equitably administered according to the forms in use in Great Britain. It is true that we have not as yet the power of self-government, but our taxes are light, impartially imposed, and easily collected, and there are no class interests to lead to class legislation. There is one law for all, and it is administered without fear or favour by salaried and responsible functionaries…I need scarcely add, that the press being free, the complaints of the poor man are as readily made known as the just pretensions of the rich.’ It doesn’t fit the narrative of Australian history as every school student in the country is going to be taught under the National Curriculum  This would be a real demonstration of Myer’s commitment to both people with disability and the broader Australian community.’ There is no legal requirement on Myer to any such employment target. The petition on Change.org that Innes started got 38,554 signatures.

president of the commission explained why it was appropriate for Innes to use his taxpayer-funded, government-appointed position to launch a campaign against a private company whose chief executive had made a wholly unremarkable statement of fact.

What Cater says about the Human Rights Commission was proved absolutely true in the case of Bernie Brooks. The Commission regards itself as outside the democratic process, yet uses the legitimacy of government to pursue its own agendas. It doesn’t fight to protect freedom of speech, but it does fight against companies whose CEOs have the temerity to comment about tax increases.

‘Interventions in public debate by human rights commissioners are given the moral authority once afforded to bishops; their reports into discrimination, social exclusion, sustainability, rights and restitution are afforded the status of sacred encyclicals and their integrity is rarely challenged. The commissioners are treated as neutral umpires, sitting above the cut and thrust of popular democracy, immune from any suggestion of self-interest, status or empire-building.’

No-one at the ABC would enjoy The Lucky Culture. The mindset of the ABC hasn’t much changed since the 1970s. Back then the prevailing approach of the ABC’s editorial line was described in an academic study quoted by Cater as:

‘doctrinaire, intolerant, even illiberal…[it has] a tendency to place beyond the pale all those who do not share the conglomerated values and beliefs of the moralisers. And the interests of those oppose the ideologically determined goals and policies are seen, prima facie, as illegitimate and not deserving of any consideration.’

When Cater appeared on the ABC’s Q&A program earlier this year to talk about The Lucky Culture, the host Tony Jones admitted he’d read the book, but then declared ‘I am not recommending it!’ Surely there can be no better endorsement for this wonderful work.

This article originally appeared in the IPA review’s August, 2013 edition. 

 

The original IPA Review Article can be found here.

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