Government by Control Freaks

Last year the radio interviewer Margaret Throsby, a custodian of the ABC mentality, interviewed the merchant banker James Wolfensohn. Her whole approach was that banking and finance were somehow unethical, that people went into business only to obsessively make more money. Wolfensohn patiently tried to explain that his banking career lifted him out of a precarious background, that the World Bank helped failing states out of their malaise and so on, but to no avail, as Margaret Throsby’s mind was wholly closed to the idea that business was OK. The interview was a snapshot of two groups in society which are becoming more and more divergent.

Just as Australia has serial welfare families over generations, it now also has serial teacher, welfare services and public servant families, members of which have no memory of ever being off the public purse, and have few worries about financial security. Lacking an understanding of economics beyond their own cosseted employment position, they support policies that help themselves and their sector, such as higher taxes, government intervention, job security, tough dismissal laws and protectionism, claiming these are good for everyone. This sector is a primary constituency of the ALP.

The other sector, the constituency of the Coalition, is a loose grouping of small and big business, aspirationals and battlers, the self-employed, tradesmen, farmers and other rural dwellers—in general those who don’t depend on governments for their economic existence. This group argues as a rule for less dependency, less regulation, lower taxes, and policies which encourage self-help.

Those who go to school (which is everyone) are taught that environmental degradation is the world’s worst evil. The ALP gets many recruits from this source. The conservative Coalition once had its own easy pool for recruits, ordinary families. But the Coalition base is threatened because to get on in modern society many people, apart from the tradesman sector, have to go to tertiary institutions, which have been taken over by the conventional anti-American and anti-Western wisdom. This creates a new captive market of true believers. As a result the second sector now has to recruit refugees from the first one—those who are smart enough to unlearn what they learnt at university, and to discard group-think. This is a very fluid situation—there are fewer rusted-on party allegiances. A lot of churning is going on.

The first signs of a split between the two groups showed up in voter demographics under Whitlam. Until then the wealthier classes voted for the Coalition and the less wealthy for Labor. Now the tertiary-educated show a bias to the ALP, whereas the battlers voted for John Howard. Under Whitlam, seats with universities in them began to move to the ALP. Canberra, with oodles of public servants and two universities, and little in the way of tradesmen, small business and manufacturing, votes Labor so solidly its lower house and Senate seats are now blue ribbon ALP ones. There is no inherent reason why public servants should vote so strongly for one side.

ALP activists, who increasingly have had no career outside politics, have to use the political system to get employment for themselves and their allies. They foster new constituencies (for example, welfare recipients, the disadvantaged, multicultural and artistic elites, the education industry), which are not like the old natural ones based on class and economic status, but are artificially formed lobby groups. The ALP collects their votes and in turn bankrolls them, a cosy self-enclosed arrangement. As a result the ALP turns to the state as a source of self-supply. Its operatives in government often blur the line between party and state: in-group aggrandisement becomes one of the aims of government. Gillard described her last budget as a Labor budget, not one for all Australians. After a life spent in politics Labor activists arrange for themselves public service positions, sinecures, university posts and other generous benefits rarely available to non-government toilers who pay the taxes which subsidise these advantages. In contrast the second group does not depend on employment in the public sphere. 

The first lessons ALP apparatchiks learn during their early climb up the political ladder is that the party is everything, and virtually anything (“whatever it takes”) can be done to advance its cause. This entails among other things becoming a control freak and a media manager. (The popular term “control freak” is a current version of what used to be known technically as the “proto-totalitarian personality”, that is, those who have intuited in a personal, petit mal form the control techniques which first appeared in a grand mal form last century.) These primal, habit-forming lessons they never relinquish. They have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. They resemble nothing so much as eighteenth-century courtiers, hanging round the throne looking for a patron, retailing current court gossip, hoping to get on by connections, by influence rather than merit, having jobs arranged for themselves, so caught up in their ambition bubble they are oblivious to the worries of the great mass of people outside.

So when they eventually get into power, the only basic principle they have is to serve the party. The state is a honeypot to be raided. They expand the honeypot by taxing successful businesses such as mining and energy-producing companies, and then redistribute the windfall via the schools building program to education, a poor performer but one of their prime constituencies.

I first noticed the tendency to conflate party and state in the career of the affable Mick Young, an ALP party official who became a federal minister, and so invented a new and now much trodden career path. In cabinet he still acted as an ALP organiser and PR man, which eventually brought about his downfall. Unfortunately such behaviour has become so common these days it does not attract penalties.

Of course this activity has its downside—it eventually comes to a sorry end. ALP apparatchiks on the way up have learnt only control, but when they get into government they have to wield power, which is a different thing and which they feel uncomfortable with, being adversarial by temperament. Power, as Hannah Arendt famously pointed out, cannot be held in abeyance like control, which is static, but must be constantly brought into existence by exercising it. Power is intimately connected with authority, which is not got by applying meeting tactics to all issues. Part of the art of wielding power is persuasion, an ability the apparatchiks have forgotten or never learnt. Rudd and Brumby were politically autistic in this way, inside their bubbles, so out of touch with others they did not see their demise coming. Eventually, when the public ceases to respect them, apparatchiks turn their own control skills onto their party and comrades-in-arms in bouts of unedifying infighting, as we have seen with Labor in New South Wales and federally. Long after they have been dropped by the public, Labor governments are able, by careful media sleight-of-hand, to hang on past their use-by date, as the painfully prolonged demises of the Brumby and New South Wales Labor governments, and now the Rann and Gillard governments, demonstrate. 

When you can’t bring the citizenry along with you, you end up with a repeated pattern of behaviour which ends in stasis. Without warning or consultation, ALP governments announce top-down policies (the Murray-Darling report, the broadband network, the minerals and carbon taxes, the live cattle export ban, offshore refugees centres), to which people naturally object; the government then baulks at the obstacles it has created, tries to move to the centre and ape Liberal policies during crises and elections (“I am a fiscal conservative”, “There will be no carbon tax”), loses courage and belief in its own policies, and goes into frozen posture mode. Because it is scared, for good reasons, to spell out its policies, there is no debate. Julia Gillard shuts down issues rather than expatiating on them. The much touted national conversation never happens. When population became a hot button issue during the last federal election, Gillard consigned it to a population review committee, whose later report was a fizzer. That committee’s real effect—and aim—was to prevent a national discussion of population issues.

Many commentators say the ALP has no policies, just spin. No—they have policies but they are the wrong ones. Labor’s worldview derives from the faded excitements of the 1960s and 1970s. Its Baby Boomer activists came to political consciousness by opposing the Vietnam War and the Whitlam dismissal. Many Laborites were brought up not as communists or even Marxists, but they have picked up a worldview which has trickled down from universities, and which ultimately derives from a watered-down version of Marxism, namely that the ruling classes, motivated by greed and fear, are unfairly making money and constantly manoeuvring to suppress ordinary people and to deprive them of their rights, and that in contrast socialist and welfare state societies offer a hope of redistributing society’s benefits to help all. After communism and protectionism collapsed, the bottom fell out of this worldview; however, the cast of mind and the animus remain, but now as a husk, devoid of any actual belief. The only thing left is a desire for power, unhinged from any program, and all the more intense since it is the only remaining goal.

We know from looking at welfare states and failed states what the pitfalls are and how to avoid them: patriotism over self-denigration; unity rather than multiculturalism; self-belief, not apology; practical improvements for indigenous peoples rather than symbolic gestures; regulated, not porous borders; productivity and self-starting, not dependency; freeing up the labour market; the de-ideologising of education; wealth generation rather than wealth distribution, and so on. The real aim of government is not politics but creating a sphere where personal economic improvement is fostered. The ALP, pulled two ways, is in a bind. Sensible economic views, understood by Paul Keating, Peter Walsh, Mark Latham, Lindsay Tanner and Craig Emerson, point one way, but the party’s minders, reared in a dependency culture, drag Labor back to the old failed featherbedding policies, such as doling out $43 billion during the global financial crisis. 

In a 2004 article in the journal People and Place, Katharine Betts showed that the views of Labor candidates were closer to the Greens than to their own party. This is the fundamental reason why the ALP has such trouble differentiating itself from the Greens, because it is lite-Green already. Genuine Labor traditions have died with the decline of the old Labor constituency, so both Labor and the Greens now compete for the same new trendy vote. The federal Labor caucus has a leftist majority for the first time, and as a result is prey to the economically illiterate nostrums favoured by the Greens.

Labor now focuses on how it might differentiate itself from the Greens. This ignores a more important problem—its past decision to differentiate itself from the Liberals. The Rudd government had an ABH policy—Anything But Howard. Hence its decisions to loosen refugee policy, re-regulate industrial relations, spend the surplus, nationalise health, penalise the mining boom, and so on. This backsliding has got Labor into enormous trouble because the Howard policies in these areas were basically sensible and attuned to reality, as ordinary Australians now recognise. Labor has acknowledged this bit by bit, not out of conviction, but because of the pressure of the polls.

Our societies consist of three levels: government, intermediate and personal. Middle level institutions should act independently, free of government control. They should be natural transmitters each way, up to government and down to citizens. In this way they act as social lubricants, protecting citizens from too direct government intervention. But the ALP encourages a political class which has a different model—it tries to take over middle-level institutions and make them work for the government, thus limiting the freedom of the citizen, who faces a formidable government-middle level alliance. In Victoria the Cain–Kirner government wound up many of the semi-independent agencies, such as the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works, which had served Victorians well for decades. Instead they formed a plethora of bureaucratic structures, such as anti-discrimination tribunals, to control people and to turn them from citizens into subjects. The Windsor Hotel debacle in Melbourne revealed the usually hidden mechanisms by which so-called consultative bodies are suborned to produce a desired result, with government-by-backroom-committee rather than by parliament. Over recent decades the building of dams, and programs of controlled burning, were quietly shelved by hidden Green public servants without public discussion or parliamentary vote.

If these deformations of the democratic processes aren’t corrected, Greens and Tea Parties flourish. 

Patrick Morgan reviewed Nicholas Hasluck’s novel Dismissal in the September issue. 

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