The temporary possessors and life-renters, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it amongst their rights to commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them, a ruin instead of an habitation. By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. —Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
It’s hard to keep up with fast-moving developments, which are at present creating an alarmingly flaky and unsettling atmosphere. The Philippines President supports extra-judicial killings; the US President loves WikiLeaks, which aims to disable his own country. There seem to be no firm rules left. We need to resist being carried away by sudden wild mood swings in public opinion. Edmund Burke’s reflections help us orient ourselves today. He distinguished between two types of organisation: organic ones which rise naturally in civil society over time, in contrast to artificial, instant, top-down structures, like the Committee for Public Safety, conjured into existence out of nowhere.
A panic attack recently suffered by the Australian Football League (AFL) is an instructive example in microcosm of the weaknesses today’s institutions are prey to. The AFL’s designated role model for youth, Bashar Houli, and its diversity manager, Ali Fahour, were both caught out bashing fellow players on the field, hardly tolerant or inclusive behaviour. Weakened by this debacle, the AFL’s bigwigs panicked when two office affairs involving senior male officials were revealed. Though the sexual affairs were consensual, no complaints were made and nothing unlawful happened, the two officials were forced out. Within a week the AFL had swung from a trendy embrace of politically correct policies, including Muslims, to enforcing traditional Christian morality. The AFL claimed they acted because the two Muslims and the two affairs were trashing their brand, but in fact the AFL hierarchy had already trashed their own brand by radically changing the nature of their organisation, from one devoted to football to one ridiculously aspiring to a be a moral guardian to the community, moving the AFL in Burke’s terms from an organic towards an artificial organisation.
Each activity in life has rules intrinsic to its nature which govern its behaviour, and damage occurs should these rules be changed or blurred. Journalists should report the news, and academics should conduct dispassionate research, but many in both professions want to become political actors themselves. The wild swings in AFL behaviour are a sign of a lack of any firm belief at its core. The ground on which such bodies attempt to stand—diversity, tolerance, inclusiveness, multiculturalism—are not values or beliefs in themselves, but admirable dispositions only after you have firm beliefs and values. Otherwise these become mere buzzwords used by the politically correct to enforce their opposites, intolerance and non-inclusiveness. This is because postmodernism is based on anything-goes and all-is-equal, not fixed, deeply held beliefs. Today we have identity politics, which puts each identity in a silo (Muslim, Aboriginal, feminist, fluid gender) and privileges it over others, the exact opposite of multiculturalism.
Most institutions grow naturally. Tennis clubs in nineteenth-century Victoria after some time gradually came together and formed a state co-ordinating body, the LTAV. Then some time later these state bodies formed a national body above them, the LTAA. The LTAA exists per favour of the state bodies; it is a natural federation like our Commonwealth. If the state bodies dissolved there would be no LTAA; the LTAA would be like a roof with no building underneath to hold it up. But if the LTAA disappeared, the state bodies would continue to exist and function. The AFL, having gone nationwide, is in danger of losing touch with its local supporter base.
The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, artificial federations of disparate parts, did not emerge over time from civil society, as our democratic structures did. Both came into existence in the chaos after the First World War, when supernational political structures were created out of nothing by powerful unelected forces in order to control, that is to suppress, the legitimate national aspirations of their constituents, the northern and southern Slavs, who were not asked their opinion. Under pressure with the collapse of communism in 1990, and with no real glue underneath to bond them together, both federations disintegrated overnight. The speed of their going was the giveaway, no civil strife, no supporters even, though “polls” had regularly shown over 90 per cent support. Today we have a mixture of organic and imposed structures, so we need to understand and internalise the rules of the former, and to be wary of the behaviour of the latter.
This essay is one of highlights from a recent edition of Quadrant.
Those who support Quadrant with their subscriptions read it weeks ago
In the past, domination by one group—army, king, revolutionary activists—precluded freedom for citizens. In our democracy we have fine-tuned our institutions over centuries so that no one group has absolute power. We are ruled by the lower house of parliament, the prime seat of power, but one restrained by a system of checks and balances—separation of powers and balance of power. The lower house is advised and curbed by the upper house, by the opposition, by the governor general, by the states, by the legal system, by international treaties, by civil society, and by, most importantly, elections, all of which are sanctions on absolute power. So no one group, including parliament, has absolute sovereignty.
But recently these review bodies have been seeking power in their own right, by choking the proper workings of government. The gridlocked Senate is the most publicised case, but other balance-of-power bodies now compete with the federal government as rival centres of power, launching pads against the government they were inaugurated to help. The federal opposition, having got us into massive debt during their years in power, now blocks about $13 billion in savings designed to remedy this situation, calling them zombie bills. In fact, blocking the bills is the zombie behaviour. The British House of Lords is obliged to eventually pass budget bills for the proper working of government. By going it alone on its failed energy system, South Australia makes a national energy system hard to achieve, so COAG meetings are, like the Senate, often deadlocked. So much for a federal system.
Commentators are now attempting to get around democracy and the civil society which gave it birth. In the Age/Sydney Morning Herald of June 23, four “silvertail subversives” called for radical changes in our system. Richard Walsh, believing “our system is broken”, called for “what amounts to a revolution”. Our system is not broken—these silvertails are trying to break it. Walsh wants an unelected advisory council of “national treasures” supporting a president, which sounds like elitism gone mad. Our legal system is now used in some cases to bypass parliament, for example on refugee issues. When Minister Dutton tried to deport an Iranian family who had taken a holiday in Iran while claiming a justified fear of persecution, he was overruled by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. In both the republic and Aboriginal referendum issues, we are being asked to agree to a motherhood proposition, only to find out later that there is “unfinished business”. In the Aboriginal case it is a body to negotiate a treaty, which implies the Aboriginal negotiating party is itself a sovereign entity. Some Labor supporters of the republic favour, after abolishing the position of governor-general, also abolishing the Senate and the states; Bob Brown wants a world government. No matter what is conceded, the thirst for more change is never assuaged. Supporters of the independence an Australian republic would supposedly bestow on us are the same people who enthusiastically support our signing UN treaties which diminish our independence.
In Double Take (1996) Les Murray wrote of the creation in Australia of “an unelected para-government made up of the media, humanities faculties in the universities and a system of semi-governmental boards and authorities”. This para-government, the public voice of the new establishment, is the conveyor of the current mindset to the wider public. It creates a misleading impression of what public opinion is by constructing a one-sided narrative on, for example, border protection, Muslim immigration, same-sex marriage, the republic, welfare recipients, educational policies and climate change, issues on which media grandstanders are often well out of sync with pub talk. The true role of public bodies should be to listen as well as transmit, but they have ceased listening. As a result the state cannot hear its own citizens.
Large, well-funded public institutions persuade ordinary people they are victims of social injustice, a form of grooming of prospective clients. These people then become vexatious complainants, join the grievance queues and apply to these same bodies for financial compensation, a closed system. People are forced to remake themselves, for their own short-term benefit, as victims of the system, rather than citizens of society. In the past, organisations represented their members and argued to a wider audience on their behalf. Now this direction has been reversed, and new bodies try to convert their members, whom they consider old-hat, to their unrepresentative agendas.
The UN, the EU, quasi-government bodies like the Human Rights Commission, and many government bureaucracies and NGOs, are elitist, fashionably progressive in their views, uncontrollable, and most important, undismissible. The EU revealed its nastiness and true colours when one member wanted to leave. These bodies are outside democratic structures and beholden to no one, not even their own members. Self-aggrandising and with untrammelled power, their main mission is to extend their grasp, as the EU puts it, “ever closer union”, even when Brexit, the Greek meltdown, euro weaknesses and immigration overload showed the unified system of “one size fits all” was not working.
Volker Turk, an Austrian who is a senior UNHRC official for the protection of displaced peoples, told the world our government had broken an agreement, a serious charge. When you drilled down it amounted to a matter of seeking ministerial discretion over a small number of individual cases, a minor everyday occurrence in inter-governmental matters, not a formal agreement. It was the insolence of Turk’s attitude that was the real problem. After having made a bogus claim, he berated us for our border protection policies, which, unlike those of the EU, are effective. Allowing unorganised refugee flows into Europe goes against the UNHRC’s own policy of orderly dispersal of the many refugees waiting for years in its own camps.
Russia and China are the worst forms of top-down artificial structures, not totalitarian but imbued by the mindset of their past, and much more malign than the UN and the EU. They are not so much nations as aggressive imperialisms, forcibly yoking together disparate regions and swallowing unwilling parts, both internally and externally. Elections, free speech and an open economy are all curtailed. Russia hopes to set up a new CIS with its reluctant neighbours, meanwhile taking Crimea and bits of eastern Ukraine and Georgia, as well as threatening the former satellite countries of Eastern Europe, and interfering in the Middle East. China dominates Tibet, Hong Kong, the Uighur areas in its west and the South China Sea to its east. Both agglomerations project “soft” and economic power backed by the threat of military force, using cyber disinformation and hacking to act as a spoiler. China is more dangerous because more rational in its aims, with a rapidly growing internal economy, whereas the Russian economy is in recession, and its infrastructure neglected. With the other overarching superpower blocs—the UN, the EU, the USA and Russia—faltering for various reasons, the way is open for China to become even more dominant.
When lobbyists and schemers, such as Anthony Scaramucci and Paul Manafort, and those who met with Donald Trump Jr, rise to the surface and come close to power, you fear deep-seated social instability. When President Trump said, “We are killers too,” and “I love WikiLeaks,” he revealed himself not as a patriot making America great again, but as a typical New York liberal Democrat who believes in moral equivalence and excoriates his own country. The CIA rightly claims WikiLeaks is the prime conduit through which Russia spreads its cyber disinformation, trying to wreck what it can’t control, yet the President supports it (until his next change of mind). The US liberal media has until lately been acting as cheer leader for Assange, Manning and Snowden, and was soft on Russia. It is now suddenly anti-Russian, holding hands with the McCain Right, since it hopes to skewer Trump over his pro-Russian stance, his great weakness. The New York Review of Books (July 13) ran an article correctly pointing out all the contradictions and deceptions in the behaviour of Julian Assange. Good, but opportunistic because the sudden swing from one view to its opposite betrays an absence of permanent underlying beliefs. In Nineteen Eighty-Four the masses barrack one night for Eurasia and the next, after a sudden change of political alignment, barrack on cue for Oceania or EastAsia. As with the AFL, we should notice, not the present “position” taken, but that the enthusiasms are confected.
The US has had a long and wonderful track record, initially freeing itself from British imperial overlordship, then abolishing slavery, saving Europe in both world wars (including ourselves in the second), and preserving freedoms by winning the Cold War. If the undefined phrase “draining the swamp” refers to the workings of Washington, as it seems to, it is completely the wrong metaphor. Our consolation is that long-established and sensible US institutions now continue to run the country, without and to some extent against Trump. The swamp is the para-government consisting of East and West coast liberals, the universities and parts of the media, which don’t love America. We must wait to see how the Trump adventure turns out, but things don’t look promising. His election held out hope that the politically correct Left, the real swamp, might be reined in. But if, as looks possible, he discredits himself, it will also discredit the attempt to de-authorise the progressives, and give them a new lease of life.
Instead of focusing on Trump we should be alert to a developing problem in our region. The Philippine President Duterte is like Trump on steroids. In a hissy fit he announced he was dropping the US alliance and was turning to, of all partners, China, which itself was reprimanded by the World Court for illegally commandeering maritime areas near the Philippines. Next came the attempt at a caliphate at Madawi in the southern Philippines, an area not controlled by Manila. (A caliphate is the most extreme form of artificial, top-down, non-elected structure you can imagine.) When the Madawi insurrection persisted, the Philippine army chiefs called in US military help without informing their leader, and are now working in co-operation with the terrorist outfit, the Moro Liberation Front, not a sensible strategy. As with Trump, Duterte’s unpredictable behaviour has sidelined him. The Madawi caliphate problem is now linked to a sudden Muslim extremist insurgency in Indonesia, as the Indonesian legal system caved in to outrageous demands to jail the mayor of Jakarta.
At some periods popular opinion creates a sudden tsunami of charged ideological attitudes. The playwright Eugene Ionesco once warned against these “mental mutations”, which cause people to adopt regressive herd instincts, charging around like rhinoceroses. We need to retain a sense of proportion and to work through the civil society bodies so as not to succumb to the dangerous mood developing in various parts of the world.
Patrick Morgan’s most recent book is The Vandemonian Trail. This article is based on a talk he gave in August to the Turks Head Club in Melbourne.