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November 01st 2011 print

James Paterson

How Tony Abbott Should Fight the Culture Wars

The best way for Prime Minister Tony Abbott to win the cultural wars might actually be to withdraw the government from them. One of the greatest criticisms conservatives have levelled at the Howard government is that it failed to win the culture wars, despite its eleven and a half years in government and many other successes.

When the Coalition government fell in 2007, the ABC remained hostile to conservatives and an outpost for cultural liberals, universities continued to be not just a safe haven for the Left where conservatives continued to feel unwelcome, but a veritable factory of progressives, and our cultural elite was overwhelmingly dominated by prominent leftists.

To succeed where John Howard failed, Tony Abbott will have to approach the cultural wars in a totally different fashion. Instead of trying to beat the Left at its own game, Abbott needs an agenda that fundamentally changes the cultural wars. It is also crucially important that this agenda has its own rationale beyond simply being seen as an effort to use the power of government to benefit one side of politics.

In short, Tony Abbott needs to get the federal government out of the cultural wars. After all, why should taxpayers’ money be spent fighting partisan or even ideological battles? For a start, there are far better ways to spend taxes—or even better, not spend them at all, and leave them in the pockets of Australians—than an effort to prop up one’s own side of a long-running argument. The use of compulsorily acquired funds to push causes dear to the hearts of our elected representatives is not an activity government should be involved in. Australians should not be forced to fund political causes they may disagree with.

Continuing to use the power of government to benefit one side of the cultural wars over the other will simply ensure that the culture wars ebb and flow as government changes. Recent history has also shown that the Left is much better at using government to favour its side of the culture wars.

A new approach is needed. Direct government intervention in the cultural wars should be wound back so that it has a neutral impact on them. Of course, given the extensive succour government policy has given to the Left in the cultural wars, a reversion to a neutral position would naturally benefit the broad Right in Australia. But it would allow cultural warriors to fight each other on their own merits, rather than with an unfair advantage.

Broadly understood, the cultural wars during the Howard years were about Australian identity. They were about who gets to define what it is to be an Australian, and the terms by which it was defined. Is Australia a xenophobic, cultural backwater that is lucky to be as wealthy as it is? Or are Australians tolerant and creative people who made their own luck? Is our past something to be proud or ashamed of? Key battlegrounds in the cultural wars were Australian history and the way it is taught, the media and public debate, political correctness and patriotism.

In 2003 Julia Gillard, then a humble member of the opposition front bench, issued a call to arms for the Left to take on the Howard government in the culture wars. She despaired that progressives were being outgunned, chiefly thanks to the work of prominent conservative newspaper columnists, who in her words engaged in “pure and simple propaganda” to ensure that “progressive views are lampooned” and “howled down”.

In 2006, shadow Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd also entered the cultural wars, with two seminal articles for the Monthly magazine. The first argued that John Howard used “right-wing Christian extremism” as the “handmaiden in his political project to reshape Australia”. The second, published one month before Rudd’s election as Labor leader, argued that Howard’s economic policy was defined by “free-market fundamentalism” and that the cultural wars were merely cover for his neo-liberal agenda.

During the Howard years, leading Labor politicians were thinking deeply about how to use their eventual return to government to reverse any gains conservatives had made in the culture wars. Now is the time for Tony Abbott to begin thinking about how his prime ministership will influence these long-running battles. There is much to learn from recent history.

In many ways the tactics employed by the Howard government in the cultural wars actually set back the cause they were trying to advance. For instance, the appointment of prominent conservatives to the board of the ABC was unsuccessful at changing the tune of the public broadcaster. Instead, it just gave the Left ammunition in their argument that the Howard government had a political agenda when it came to the ABC. Of course, the Left does not need to stack the board of the ABC in an effort to ensure that coverage is sympathetic to their ideology, because the staff of the ABC are already of the Left. Being drawn from universities taught by progressive academics, residing primarily in the inner cities and choosing to work at a publicly funded broadcaster means that by a simple process of self-selection (rather than sinister design) the ABC is full of people who think in remarkably similar ways.

Another example of an effort to advance their agenda in the cultural wars that backfired is the debate about values in education. The Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, proposed that a statement of values should be used to inform teachers about how to teach students about Australian history and culture. He even drew up a list of nine values and earmarked $30 million of funding to ensure they were taught Australia-wide.

His successor as Education Minister, Julie Bishop, took this development to its next logical step by calling for a national curriculum to be agreed to by the states. Bishop argued that state curricula had been hijacked in many cases by Maoists. Other more pedestrian arguments were also made in favour of a national curriculum, such as the efficiency benefits of having a seamless national education system.

As we have since seen, the Labor government has used the pretext of efficiency set out by the Howard government to draft its own national curriculum of a highly ideological nature. The ALP’s proposed national curriculum is egregiously biased with an over-emphasis on Asian and Aboriginal histories at the expense of teaching children about the history of Western civilisation. It implies that human rights come from modern NGOs such as the United Nations, rather than from the development of Christian philosophy during the Enlightenment. Indeed, one of the key drafters of the curriculum admits that its only mentions of Christianity are unfavourable. The concept of “sustainability” is embedded throughout the document, as are highly contestable ideas such as the problem posed by the “energy crisis” and dwindling natural resources. The document even admits that it sets out to “shape” the next generation of leaders, rather than just teach them.

This curriculum, which amounts to a campaign document of the Left in the cultural wars, will be the basis on which every child in Australia will be taught in the future. And it was made easier by the precedent set down by ministers in the Howard government. It has totally hamstrung the position of Tony Abbott’s Opposition—after all, they can’t rely on the argument of federalism to discredit the scheme, given they were all too happy to junk it for their own curriculum.

The Howard years were not a complete failure on the cultural war front. There is no doubt that Australia was a prouder and more patriotic nation in 2007 than it was in 1996. The celebration of our war heroes on Anzac and Remembrance days has rarely been more widespread. The resurgence during the Howard years of the Australian flag as a symbol of national unity is an important development. Some reforms, like extending the concept of voluntary unionism to students on campus, enhanced individual freedom in concert with classical liberal philosophy, and also marked important victories against the Left in the cultural wars.

But the true test of success in the cultural wars is not what you can achieve while your ideological allies are in government, but how much of it endures after they leave office. By this standard the Howard years and its immediate aftermath demonstrate that the Left is better at using government to fight the culture wars. From an ideology that is based on collectivism and state power, this should not be surprising. But the centre-Right can turn to the basis of their own philosophy, not only to develop a coherent and effective alternative strategy, but also to buttress other reforms that are important in their own right.

Core classical liberal philosophies of choice, individual freedom and small government should inform a comprehensive agenda that advances personal liberty in Australia and has the added benefit of removing the culture wars from state influence. 

Arguably the Howard government’s greatest victory in the cultural wars was the significant expansion of private school education. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the proportion of students enrolled in non-government secondary schools increased from approximately 34 per cent in 1996 to nearly 40 per cent in 2007.

Private education was a significant battleground in the culture wars during the Howard years. The union movement, particularly the strongly left-wing Australian Education Union, accused the Howard government of undermining public education. The Labor Opposition at various times promised to reduce federal government support for private schools.

The growth in private schooling was a win for conservatives in the cultural wars because fewer students were being educated in the highly unionised public system, and more were attending private and religious schools where many parents believed that a greater emphasis was placed on values. Many conservatives fear that students in public schools are either being taught in such a politically correct manner as to degrade the quality of their education, or else they are exposed to biased teaching that gives them a skewed view of the world. As a graduate of public schools, I experienced and witnessed an educational culture that was both insufficiently academically rigorous and which tended to discriminate against conservative views.

Significantly, reforms to support private education were also consistent with liberal principles to facilitate parents’ right to choose an education that best suits their children. And the reforms were so successful politically that they created their own constituency to keep the system in place, something that has prevented the Rudd and Gillard governments from overturning them. It also makes good policy sense—private school students generally perform better academically than their public system counterparts, even when controlling for the education and income of their parents.

This serves as a good template for reform for an Abbott government. In fact, it is one policy which could easily be taken further both for its own sake and as a tool in the cultural wars. One way to enhance parental choice in education is to move towards a system of vouchers that would fund all or part of the costs of educating students in the private sector. Significant proportions of parents in the public system say that they would like to transfer their children into the private system if they could afford to. Why not unlock the thousands of dollars that are spent on giving a “free” education to students in the public system, and let their parents spend that money at the private school they would prefer?

However, perhaps an even more important reform in education is to tackle the appallingly drafted national curriculum. Unfortunately it appears that, politically at least, the idea of a consistent curriculum nationwide has advanced too far to be totally dismantled. Whilst many on the Right would prefer to return responsibility for the curriculum to the states, that seems unlikely unless state governments stand up against the national curriculum on the grounds of states’ rights.

A more plausible solution is to license multiple private curricula at the federal level. Through a competitive process, private companies, religious institutions and school and community organisations could design a curriculum that met minimal broad standards. Then, schools and groups of schools would be free to choose from a wide variety of curricula based on what they believe best suits their students. Some might place a greater emphasis on learning foreign languages, others might focus on transmitting practical workplace skills, and others still might adopt a rigorous maths-and-science-focused curriculum.

This is a worthwhile reform because it allows for educational variety, helping parents to choose a school that suits their child’s needs. Empowering parents in this way would also mean that they can opt for an academic curriculum that will ensure their children can read, write and add up competently rather than one which indoctrinates them about climate change or social justice. But those parents who really did want their children to have that sort of education would be free to choose it.

It’s also likely that these tailored curricula would be too popular with parents for a future Labor government to overturn. Importantly, such a reform takes power away from the federal government in determining exactly what children are taught, and instead places this in the hands of parents and schools, moving the culture wars out of the realm of government. This avoids the mistakes of the Howard years, which in effect handed their political and ideological opponents the perfect platform to institute a highly politicised curriculum for all students. 

Universities are another area where the Howard government failed to have a major impact. Whilst worthwhile reforms did take place, particularly in the government’s earlier years, universities remain inefficient organisations and havens for left-wing ideologues who subsist on public money. Various proposals were aired during the Howard years to tackle this problem. Any proposal to involve the federal government to a greater degree in education, whether to stamp out bias or supposedly enhance the standard of education, is both unlikely to work and would be too easily used by activists of opposing political stripes to simply slant the field in their direction again when they return to government.

Instead, further market-based reforms to the higher education sector are needed. For a start, caps on the number of students that can be enrolled in each course should be lifted, so that universities can admit as many students as they see fit. Price caps should also be deregulated. Currently low caps mean that universities typically charge less per student than the actual course costs to deliver. The cost of education should be reflected in the price, even if government continues to subsidise students directly to undertake higher education. A price that more accurately reflected the cost might lead to students being more conscious of the need to undertake study that actually enhanced their earning capacity, rather than subjects that have little application in the real world.

As with secondary education, government funding could be redirected to each student via a voucher system rather than going straight to the institution. This would help transform the relationship between the university and its students to more closely resemble a customer–provider relationship, and empower students. This might encourage academics to be more responsive to student demands rather than their own political peccadilloes. Furthermore, this is clearly a reform which fits comfortably in the liberal tradition of promoting choice for students, and would also reduce the role of the federal government in regulating higher education. 

Australia’s national broadcaster has long been regarded as enemy territory to those on the Right. To be clear, bias at the ABC is very rarely of a crude partisan nature. It is true, as the defenders of the organisation protest, that both Labor and Liberal politicians almost always get an equally tough run on its flagship political programs. Nor is bias at the ABC likely to be part of some conscious, sinister plot to indoctrinate the Australian people. It is simply the product of the homogenous worldview of staff who are overwhelmingly drawn from similar cultural and ideological backgrounds.

Many ABC staff genuinely believe that the only reason you would be a climate change sceptic is if you are mad or the recipient of funding from a major polluter. The idea that a tough approach towards refugees is a reasonable response to increased arrivals of asylum seekers is frowned upon by many. And the idea that some people genuinely oppose gay marriage and are not also religious fundamentalists or intolerant bigots is hard for some to grasp. That is the inevitable product of being educated amongst, socialising with and working alongside people who have similar views.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. As a publicly funded broadcaster, the ABC is obliged to treat the views of all Australians with respect and ensure that its reporting remains free of bias.

The public policy rationale for a government-funded broadcaster is also not nearly as strong as it once was. The availability of digital spectrum means that commercial broadcasters are providing a much broader array of programming than ever before. Niche channels and programs are now financially viable, unlike the times when limited spectrum forced commercial broadcasters to appeal to the broadest possible audience. The development and growth of the internet also mean that virtually cost-free content of every imaginable variety and to suit every possible taste is now extraordinarily accessible.

So there is a case for changing the relationship between the ABC and the taxpayer. Whilst public support for the outright privatisation of the ABC may be decades away—or never materialise—the further corporatisation of the ABC and the requirement that it raise more of its own revenue is reasonable, particularly in fiscally straitened times.

Already, the ABC operates commercial outlets that sell books, DVDs, CDs and other ABC-branded and private products at a profit. Naturally, the next step to securing more revenue for the ABC from private sources is advertising. This case is particularly strong with its online presence, which although high quality, is directly competing with private providers, including newspapers who are having their business model undermined by free content online. If successful, it could be expanded to other media offered by the ABC.

The advantages of this reform are two-fold. First, the ABC, which currently costs taxpayers almost $1 billion per annum, would become more self-sufficient and require less public funding. Second, by taking on advertising, ABC management would have much greater incentive to deliver content that is actually in demand by Australians, rather than pet projects of ABC staff or programs that only appeal to a very narrow proportion of Australians.

Institutionalising the need to appeal to a market would also do far more than the appointment of conservatives to the board of directors to ensure ABC content was relevant and accessible to Australians. As with other reforms proposed here, it would at least begin the process of reducing government participation in the cultural wars—the more self-sufficient the ABC is, the less legitimate interest politicians of any stripe will have in intervening in its management and programming. 

Although all governments have been occasionally guilty of using public funds to fight ideological wars or for partisan advantage, this has increased markedly in recent years. A number of overtly political and ideological organisations now receive significant taxpayer resources to engage in activity that is much more appropriately funded by private supporters.

For example, freedom of information requests by the Institute of Public Affairs recently revealed that the Climate Institute, which campaigns for the introduction of a price on carbon, was awarded $70,000 to help fund a supposedly independent report that argued that Australia was falling behind the rest of the world in its efforts to tackle climate change. The government then went on to quote this report as evidence that Australia needed to take greater action to address climate change. In an effort to bolster its credentials the government has also touted the support of the Climate Institute for its carbon tax package.

This kind of overt politicking using public money is highly improper. Other recent IPA research has shown that a slew of environmental groups receive significant public funds that could be used to cross-subsidise their political activities. Nor are they the only ones. Refugee advocates have also been on the receiving end of public money. Even the union movement received millions of dollars in a recent federal budget, purportedly to help train workers about health and safety, but you don’t have to be cynical to suspect that the funds had political motivations.

The answer for conservatives is not to turn around in government and simply replicate this process but with a conservative bias. Instead, an Abbott government should establish clear regulations or even legislation that prevents the federal government from funding organisations that engage in ideological campaigning. This would help get the government out of funding participants in the cultural wars. Admittedly, it is entirely possible that a future government would simply overturn this legislation and recommence supporting like-minded organisations. But at least they would be forced to publicly reverse this policy and bear the resulting public opprobrium.

The generous public funding of the arts in Australia has been a highly successful tool for progressives in advancing their side of the cultural wars. Aside from sustaining the Left’s ideological bedfellows who would otherwise potentially have to seek employment elsewhere in the economy, government support of the arts sector has arguably contributed to its loyalty to the Left of politics. It is no coincidence that so many of Australia’s actors, artists, writers and musicians favour left-wing politics.

The political preferences of artists are a matter for them, but public money should not go towards projects that are ideological in nature. In an excellent article for the June edition of Quadrant, Michael Connor wrote about the overt politicisation of publicly funded artistic events, including writers’ festivals (which rarely, if ever, invite conservative authors), drama festivals and support for creative works through bodies like the Australia Council and the Arts Industry Council.

While it would unquestionably be politically difficult to withdraw all government support for the arts, there may be ways of delivering support that would be less likely to lead to politicised outcomes. Rather than the current system of grants administered by bureaucrats, which encourages artists to pitch ideas that are politically trendy, support could instead be delivered in the form of expanded tax-deductibility for artistic endeavours. This would introduce at least some element of market rationality to the sector, as successful—that is, popular—events and works would benefit more than works that have little interest or resonance with the community. It would also encourage the sort of risk-taking in art that every entrepreneur has to face when starting a business. Again, it would represent the government taking a backward step out of the culture wars instead of weighing in on one side of the fight. 

The clear lesson from the Howard years is that the Right should be highly wary of using the power of the state to advance their side of the cultural wars. Often, it was unsuccessful. Worse, it sometimes backfired and made the job of their ideological opponents much easier. It would be far better for the next Coalition government to adopt a totally new approach to the cultural wars.

Tony Abbott should get government out of the cultural wars. Not only is this much more likely to advance his own side of the conflict, it is also consistent with conservative principles. The true strength of this approach is that because of its lack of reliance on control of government spending and regulatory power to fight the culture wars, the important wins that are achieved stand a much better chance of enduring a change of government. What’s more, applying liberal philosophy to a comprehensive cultural reform agenda will also lead to much-needed sensible policy changes that will enhance individual freedom and reduce the size of government in Australia.

This will not guarantee that conservatives triumph in the cultural wars. But it will ensure that the cultural wars are not fought by taxpayer-funded mercenaries. The alternative, simply to re-engage government in the service of one side of the battle over the other, guarantees that it will continue on forever and waste an extraordinary amount of taxpayers’ money in the process. 

James Paterson is the Associate Editor of the IPA Review at the Institute of Public Affairs and a former adviser to a Liberal senator.