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December 14th 2009 print

James Allan

What’s in a name?

Almost all of the disagreements between people take place down in the quagmire of detail and of what precisely the role of government should be.

Recently the executive director of the think tank Per Capita wrote a column for The Australian. The piece amounted to an encomium, or spin-doctoring job, on behalf of what he labelled the ‘progressive’ side of Australian politics.

For anyone in any doubt, he meant that to be taken as the good side of politics. Of course it is also his side of politics. And here is his definition of the term: “Progressives believe in progress: that change is inevitable, is healthy and can be positively influenced by social and political action.”

Much of that is just meaningless gobbledegook, the use of which seems to have increased since the last election. It is patently obvious that everyone believes in progress in the sense that change is inevitable and does and will happen. Technologies change. Circumstances change. Demographics change. Attitudes change. No one with a brain doubts any of that.

Of course the word belief is ambiguous. What our Per Capita executive director is really suggesting is that people on his side of politics welcome change. They believe in it in that sense of welcoming it.

But the minute you make the assertion plain in that sense you run into problems. One immediately wants to ask whether he, and other self-styled progressives, welcome all change. I thoroughly doubt it. Did they welcome a more liberalised labour relations regime, one that still left Australia’s regime more regulated than many if not most rich western democracies (and that’s after Work Choices)? Do they welcome lower taxes, say on companies down at Irish levels of about 12 per cent or personal ones way down at the level of Singapore or eastern European countries like Estonia? After all, lower taxes are a relatively recent change in many parts of the rich world.

And what about energy issues? Would he welcome immediate measures to promote nuclear power which could well be the most effective way of reducing carbon emissions, especially if, like me, you think an ETS will do nothing?

My bet is that our self-styled progressive think tank head honcho was, and is, against all three of those, namely nuclear power, lower taxes, and more liberalised labour relations. But all three are changes. And all three are widely adopted in various rich countries around the world.  And more importantly still, all three show that his claim that conservatives “hold that the social and economic status quo should be maintained” is a patent falsehood. The world is more far more nuanced than that.

My point is that it is trite and in one sense patently false to claim anyone anywhere welcomes all mooted changes, just as it is patently false to claim anyone anywhere rejects or opposes all mooted changes. What the executive director of his own self-styled ‘progressive’ think tank really meant, on examination, is that he welcomes some changes, but opposes others.

Gosh. I wonder if anyone disagrees with that insightful position?  As usual, the devil is in the details of which changes and when.

Mr. Per Capita’s trick is simply to make sure that the changes he happens to favour are the ones that get the emotively appealing label ‘progressive’ appended to them. And changes he dislikes are the ones that don’t get the rhetorical advantages of the label.

Nothing new about that, of course. People play that labels game all the time. Just think about how the meaning of the term ‘democracy’ is used by those who want more judicial input and also by those who don’t.  If the term itself has good connotations, then people will want to claim it for their own set of preferences, beliefs and political attitudes.

Our self-styled progressive think tank director didn’t stop there, though. Aside from suggesting that Mr. Turnbull is more at home on the Labor side of politics, and on that claim I think he may well be correct, our think tank director also indulged in some speculations about what Australians think. “While Australians don’t believe government should fix everything, they accept it has its place.”

In the eternal words of Homer Simpson, dah! I doubt there’s more than a handful of Australians who would reject the assertion ‘that government has its place’. That’s just an everyday banality, a near tautology. The issue that divides people is what that place should be. We’d almost all accept government has a huge role when it comes to policing, to defence, to education, to health, to ensuring some minimum level of support for everyone, and more.

But some of us might think competition with a private sector improves state provided education. And the same for health. In fact almost all of the disagreements between people take place down in the quagmire of detail and of what precisely the role of government should be. It does not take place up in the Olympian heights of moral abstractions, of near on meaningless ones at that, where one side is portrayed as thinking government has its place, and the other (the bad guys, needless to say) as thinking it hasn’t.

From there we get the breathtaking claim, the sheer chutzpah of which can only be admired, that Australians reject ideological dogma from either end of the political spectrum. Our executive director is implying to the reader that bien pensants like him are comfortably average and near the median in their views.

Alas, this is just more hot air and probably empirically false when it comes to many issues. On top of that, advocating a middle-of-the-road approach to change is just as much an ideology or manner of thinking as any other. The same goes for whatever speed of change one happens to prefer.

Isn’t it remarkable that with all the myriad views out there in Australia our self-styled progressive executive director is lucky enough to have his finger on the pulse of the exactly correct speed of change for us Australians, just as he knows which changes are good ones and which aren’t.

And what’s his prediction if you happen to be an Australian that disagrees with his preferences? Well, “it will be a long time before [Liberals with your views] are again an electable mainstream proposition”.

Maybe our executive director was looking for a job on the ABC.

James Allan is the Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.