Left Stranded By An Ebbing Tide

In his column in the Australian Financial Review last month, former Labor leader Mark Latham denounced Nick Cater’s new book The Lucky Culture as of no cultural consequence, merely “an ideological text vainly searching for evidence … a call to arms to the lunar-right political fringe”. Yet in a posting of almost 3000 words aimed at Labor followers on the Chifley Research Centre website, Latham treated the book far more seriously. It was a formidable threat to all his own party represented: an “attempt to demolish everything Labor might reasonably stand for this century: action on climate change, support for the Hawke/Keating economic model, ongoing higher education expansion, Whitlamite service delivery and sensible human rights safeguards”.

At the same time, in his column in Spectator Australia, Peter Coleman wrote that every fifty years or so Australians needed a new book to mark the end of one era and the start of something new. Fifty years ago, the book was Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country, which mocked the old Anglophile ruling elite of the Menzies era and prepared the intellectual groundwork for its eventual replacement, Whitlamism. Cater’s The Lucky Culture is destined to perform much the same function for the next long wave in Australian cultural history. The difference this time is that the ruling elite under siege is that of the Left while the potential inheritors of the coming era will be from the Right.

Despite their different politics and the historical distance separating them, The Lucky Country and The Lucky Culture have a lot in common. Donald Horne’s book was a celebration of ordinary Australians and a critique of its political, business and intellectual elites. Though an intellectual himself, Horne broke the mould by rejecting the fashionable disdain for suburbia that emerged among his kind in the 1950s and 1960s. He endorsed the largely suburban society that fulfilled the dreams of most people for a peaceful and prosperous family life. He especially praised Australian egalitarianism and its droll disdain for pretension and authority. He reserved his sharpest barbs for the intellectuals of his time—they were provincial, insular, unoriginal, afraid of risks and, worst of all, conservative.

Nick Cater’s book has much the same structure (and even some of the same content, in its critique of Robin Boyd’s 1960 anti-suburban polemic The Australian Ugliness). But Cater is even better at articulating the egalitarian character of ordinary Australians that so impressed him in 1989 when he arrived here as a young journalist from England. Egalitarianism, he found, was the nation’s primary operating principle. No other country held egalitarian values in such high regard. Australians instinctively understood the American metaphor of log cabin to White House: its abounding optimism and democratic embrace are common to both nations: 

In the Australian version, however, the pauper-to-president narrative is turned on its head: Rooster one day, feather duster the next. Told this way, it is less a story of inspiration than one of caution; it is not an ode to Redemption, but a parable of the Fall. Yet it is no less powerful a statement of the egalitarian promise: everybody deserves a fair go, what happens next is entirely up to them. 

Ever since he discovered these qualities, however, Cater has witnessed a growing threat to their survival from the emergence of a new social class. Like most other Western countries since the 1960s, Australia invested heavily in higher education. And while the investment paid off in terms of a better-educated workforce with a sophisticated approach to solving problems in science and technology, the enlarged educated cohort brought unintended consequences in its train. The members of the new class gradually undermined the egalitarian ethos by assuming their own moral and intellectual superiority to the less-educated.

With traditional religion in decline, the educated elite morphed into a priestly caste, with its own secular evangelicalism proclaiming new moral absolutes. It identified new interest groups and, through mass moral exhortations, public apologies and persecution of any outspoken dissidents, enforced a rigid code of manners and beliefs on its members. The outcome was groupthink, or in Cater’s words: “the generations who departed on personal journeys of intellectual discovery returned agreeing about practically everything”.

This is not to say the new elite’s opinions are static. In fact, its groupthink is always a work in progress. Its members are wedded to change, or “reform”, as they insist on calling it. They see change as the natural condition of society and have a keen eye for causes worthy of their support. If causes are in short supply, they can always conjure up pseudo-reforms like gay marriage, which came from nowhere in 2010 to be the burning issue du jour by 2012. Moreover, their ultimate inspiration is the international human rights industry, the source of an almost limitless supply of issues and campaigns to underpin their moral outlook. As a result, Cater says, the divide between the elite and the rest has become the dominant fault line in our cultural, political and social landscape. 

Much of this analysis will be familiar to anyone following contemporary political or cultural debate. The influence of the tertiary-educated “new class” on media, politics and the arts has been discussed for almost as long as Cater has been here. But his chapters that update its latest manifestations in the ABC, the universities and Australia’s nine (yes, nine) human rights commissions, not only confirm his case but are often very funny.

As one proof of his thesis, Cater offers the republican referendum of 1999. Despite vocal support for a republic by the entire news media and much of the political class, the referendum failed to get the numbers. The clearest determinant of the vote was not party political allegiance but degree of education. Republicans were revealed to inhabit the affluent middle-class suburbs, monarchists tended to live in less fashionable districts with fewer university graduates. The twenty seats with the highest levels of education voted for a republic; all but five of the ninety-five electorates with the lowest education levels voted against.

Cater argues that the new political fault line transcends traditional political, religious and social boundaries. “It has made all but redundant the old notions of Left and Right, Protestant and Catholic, or town and country. At heart the divide is cultural, not political, a separation of ideas not ideologies.” However, much of the evidence from his own discussion of politics demonstrates this is not so. The reforming zeal of the elite is confined to the Left of the political spectrum, and on some issues like the preference for “sustainability” over economic growth, the far Left. Moreover, as the republican referendum showed, the educated elite is sizeable but still a long way short of a majority when an issue is put to the vote. Together, these facts show that Cater’s fault line poses a far greater threat to the Labor Party than to the Coalition.

For Labor has plainly been captured by the values and the activists of this elite. Since the Whitlam era, Labor courted the intellectuals and enshrined them within its structures of management and policy development. Yet it still depended on its traditional constituencies of unionists, workers, ethnics and welfare recipients to gain enough votes to win government. It was inevitable that issues would arise to divide the intellectuals from the masses, and to provide the party with some discomforting dilemmas.

As long ago as 2001, one of those who recognised this was Mark Latham. The educated elite supported the boat people arriving on our shores, but most suburbanites and their immigrant neighbours who had come here legitimately, regarded them as queue jumpers. Cater quotes from Latham’s diaries written at the time of the Tampa incident: “We face an identity crisis. We abandoned our dialogue with suburban Australia, while the gentrified Left abandoned us for the Greens and Democrats. A wedge has been driven through the middle of Labor’s ranks. We have to close the gap between our dual constituencies.”

In the short term, Latham used this dilemma to his own advantage, writing articles and books arguing Labor should return to traditional Australian values. But as opposition leader in the 2004 election campaign, he was unable to deliver. Famously, in a deal to retain the votes and preferences of environmentalists, he betrayed Tasmanian timber workers, thereby driving them into the arms of John Howard. Even though Julia Gillard was Latham’s deputy at the time, his fate was completely lost on her when, to form government in 2010, she entered an alliance with the Greens that saw Labor’s electoral support plunge to its lowest levels since the 1930s.

So, all up, I think Peter Coleman’s prediction is right and Mark Latham’s fears for his party are not misplaced. As long as this new intellectual class dominates Labor, conservatives will enjoy a long period of electoral success which, if they use their opportunities wisely, will amount to a new era. It will be new not just in political terms but socially and culturally too, with a reaffirmation of some of Australia’s traditional values and the overthrow of the odious moral authoritarianism we have endured for far too long. Anyone who wants to understand how and why this is all coming about will find many of the answers in Nick Cater’s terrific new book.

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