Before the 2010 federal election Julia Gillard was reported to have questioned the merit of increasing the old-age pension by saying that “old people don’t vote Labor”. A dastardly cabinet leak to be sure. She denied saying it. Noteworthily, whether she said it or not, no one was the least surprised that such a thing could be said by a modern-day politician. It is where we are: partisan politics favouring one group over another; the principle of governing for all becoming lost in vote harvesting.
Let me give a more recent example. Earlier this year Australia’s shadow treasurer excused a policy of increasing taxes on a section of retirees by pointing out that 92 per cent of the population would be unaffected. Turn this around. It means that Chris Bowen was quite happy about imposing a burden on 8 per cent of the population, mainly retirees. He later changed this to only 4 per cent; presumably by counting children or by some other sleight of hand, I don’t know. Why was he happy? He calculated that most of those burdened would be unlikely to vote for his party in any event. Thus, few votes would be lost. In fact, in a show of disdain, he invited them to vote against his party if they felt aggrieved.
Every generation of men … have a claim [of politicians]; perhaps not so much a claim to be made happy (for there may be no means of making a man happy) but a claim not to be made unhappy. —Karl Popper
Bowen is just one among a political class who have lost the sense of representing the interests of all. But it gets much worse once politicians strut the international stage. Then, they have an increasing tendency to think globally rather than nationally. Hang the disadvantage and misery this brings to segments of the population whose interests they are supposed to champion. International trade, immigration and climate change provide rich pickings for globalists. The modern history of trade and immigration can be traced back to the late 1940s; climate change, of course, is of more recent origin.
There is a fetish with free trade among globalists. Only heretics object. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade took effect from the beginning of 1948. It was succeeded by the World Trade Organization from the beginning of 1995. From around 10 per cent of world GDP in 1948, international trade has since burgeoned to be now around 25 per cent. The free trade agenda has been driven primarily by the libertarian-cum-classical-liberal side of the political divide. Let me be heretical. There is no well-based rationale for free trade. Unless, that is, you think that maximising the availability of cheap stuff outweighs all other considerations.
Free trade brings significantly reduced industrial diversity within nations. It brings a loss of skills. It brings entrenched regional unemployment and despair. It brings long and vulnerable supply lines which threaten national security. International trade is like cabbage, broccoli and other leafy greens. Some is an essential ingredient of a balanced diet; yet more is very good for you. But they don’t make for a complete eating regime. Let me be clear, the issue is not one of trade versus protection. It is about the extent to which the interests of all of the citizens of a nation are brought into account by their political representatives when they are eliminating trade barriers. The wholeness, integrity and security of the nation-state should not be bartered away for a mess of pottage.
This essay appears in May’s Quadrant.
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“Refugees are welcome here” is a popular sign held aloft by virtue-signalling do-gooders. Europe takes in many refugees, as do the United States and Australia. (Incidentally, on this criterion, Japan and China are not the least bit virtuous.) Refugees are costly to settle. Many have language difficulties; many are low-skilled, bring culturally-clashing values, and remain a drain on taxpayers and public services. Yet political points are often scored on the “virtue” of bringing in more refugees. Tellingly, refugees are usually settled outside of the enclaves of their enthusiastic supporters. John Howard put it fairly well: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” But who is the “we”? Does the “we” include those who become marginalised in their own neighbourhoods?
Outside of refugees; immigrants more generally, including those brought in on work visas, have become an easy means for business to hire cheap labour rather than go through the challenge of hiring and training homegrown labour. Growth in real wages, particularly at the lower end, has been miserly at best over recent decades. There is no mystery. That’s what happens when migrants flood the labour market.
Whatever you think of climate change, the measures to counter it, promoted by its international cheer leaders, are calculated to damage the industrial base and living standards of advanced Western nations. India and China, among other non-Western nations, have been given a pass. And that isn’t the end of it. Western nations are enjoined to take from their denuded treasury coffers to enrich their poorer cousins. In part, apparently, to expiate their guilt for having in the past put so much life-giving gas (pardon, polluting gas) into the atmosphere.
Notice something about the three articles of faith of modern life canvassed above. All in one way or another impact deleteriously on some citizens more than they do others. All pay homage to globalisation and, as part of that, to the interests of those who used to be called foreigners—though I am not sure whether this descriptor is still politically correct.
We need to take stock. Politicians and governments have lost sight of whose interests they represent. President Trump is clearly one of the few exceptions. Whether he is renegotiating trade deals, or trying to secure US borders and reform immigration laws, or rolling back onerous environmental regulations, his goal, as he says, is to put America and Americans first. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban is another in the Trump mould. There aren’t many in the West who have not forgotten that their job is govern in the interests of their citizens; all of them, and no one else.
Think of the way Angela Merkel betrayed Germans with her reckless come-hither call to Syrian refugees. Think of the way Emmanuel Macron is careless of the living standards of the French working class in his vanity project to change the world’s climate. Think of the way the Coalition government burdens Australian taxpayers and those living in particular working-class outer suburbs with excessive migrant and refugee intakes. Think of the way it has increased power bills and damaged Australian industry with a quixotic quest to lower the world’s temperature. Now think of Bill Shorten promising (“threatening” is a more apt word) to almost double the refugee intake and to plague Australia’s electricity grid with lots more intermittent, unreliable and costly energy. From about 15 per cent now, Labor intends to have renewables providing up to 50 per cent of total electric power by 2030. To benefit whom? Certainly not the old and the poor, stuck with unaffordable cooling and heating bills.
Is there an answer? Sometimes the key to the way forward is to go back. I will go back in place and time; to America in 1776. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” says the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Much of the Declaration is devoted to enumerating the alleged offences of King George III against the “thirteen united States” or “Colonies”—as, formally, they still were. But when it came to inalienable rights the concern was the potential of them being abridged by elected government. “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these [inalienable Rights], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government … as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and [here it is again] Happiness.” Presumably Safety, in this context, is standing in for Life and Liberty.
Life and liberty are fundamental. The pursuit of happiness, on the other hand, seems somewhat superficial in comparison. But it isn’t. As couched in the Declaration, it is central to national wellbeing. Thomas Jefferson, together with his fellow drafters (Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Robert Livingston), had profound insight and foresight in including the pursuit of happiness.
In the context of the Declaration, happiness wasn’t to do with the ups and downs of individual human beings living out their lives. That was not the focus. The focus was the role and responsibility of government. An onus was put on government to uphold the circumstances within which the governed in the thirteen territories had the opportunity to flourish. Or, perhaps, more to the point, to go to my opening quote by Karl Popper, to avoid creating circumstances which engender unhappiness.
The Declaration was a product of its time and place and sat awkwardly, to put it mildly, with the institution of slavery and the inferior status of women. But, putting that aside, it’s a safe bet that the Congressional Representatives at the time did not see their role as pitting the interests of some free men against others or of furthering the interests of mankind as a whole. Times have changed for the better and the worse.
Slavery is long gone in the civilised world and men and women have equal status. Unfortunately, selectively dispensing gifts and hurt among the governed has become part and parcel of political life, as has a proclivity to barter away their interests to curry extranational kudos. We have moved a long way from the sentiments of the Declaration. The key, I suggest, to remedying the poor government which plagues modern nations is to again place the happiness of the governed as an explicit raison d’être of governments. Simplistic? I don’t think so.
Principle is usually paramount at the beginning of things. It’s when things get rolling along that principle becomes hostage to corruptible human nature. That is seemingly inevitable in all walks of life. What this means is that renewal and new starts have always to be part of the future. Eliot Ness did not permanently overcome corrupt dealing between the Chicago police department and criminals. The Australian banking royal commission will not result in bankers becoming forever less greedy and unethical. Equally, politicians and governments need to be regularly brought to account—hopefully short of insurrections and revolutions. Ideally, we need a regular royal commission into politicians and government. The question to be answered would be how far they have strayed from their primary obligation to create the circumstances within which those whom they represent can pursue their individual happiness. The idea of politicians and governments subjecting themselves to scrutiny is a flight of fancy, so I will short-circuit the process. They have strayed beyond any tolerable bounds.
The world is a troubled place. It always has been and always will be. This means that national governments are often put in position of making difficult choices. Imagine how difficult this becomes if furthering the interests of one’s own citizens as a whole ceases to be an absolute imperative; if relativism enters the equation. Not much imagination is required. Western national governments have increasingly practised relativism since the Second World War.
By some barely understood insidious process we have elected and re-elected parliamentarians and governments who see themselves as trafficking in favours for votes at home while, at the same time, peddling the interests of all mankind, or should I say personkind. This is not the sole reason for the cultural and social mess we find ourselves in but I am certain that it forms a major part. Politicians of most stripes have strayed from the imperative of safeguarding and enhancing the interests—the happiness—of those they purportedly represent.
Why people have allowed this betrayal to happen is the pertinent question. In fact, it is the nub of the issue. Apparently, the Brexit vote was largely driven by a rejection of culturally-discordant immigration. Fine, but that had its beginnings in the late 1940s. In case no one was paying attention, Enoch Powell provided a stark wake-up call in 1968. Closer to home, as noted above, the Labor Party is promising to increase the annual refugee intake to 32,000; up from the already excessive number set by the Coalition government of 18,750 for 2018-19. Welcome to more welfare spending, more crime and more cultural discord. Whose interests are uppermost in the minds of political leaders when they devise these policies? Refugees, of course. How about the happiness of Australians? Evidently, that is a racist question. Will Australian voters in sufficient numbers see through it? They haven’t yet.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith speculated that if there were hope it rested on the 85 per cent of the population of Oceania who were not Party members. However, the “proles” had their minds filled by “physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer and, above all, gambling”. What has filled the minds of contemporary voters in the West?
In my own family television took over our evening and weekend lives from the mid-to-late-1950s onwards. Free-wheeling discussions and debates ceased. Any view worth having was projected by learned people (then predominantly men) via the television screen. Now, the internet and all of its offshoots have completed the takeover of all non-working waking hours. It’s no wonder the Left saw a defining opportunity in gaining control of the dissemination of news and views on electronic media. Is this the explanation? Have people outsourced their opinion-making to electronic media and to the Left-centric tech companies which manipulate its content via secret algorithms? It seems likely to be at least part of the explanation; up there, arguably, with the Left’s takeover of schools and university humanities departments.
What is going on inside the heads of those with “refugees are welcome” signs? According to the UN there were almost 70 million displaced persons in 2018. How many are welcome? It’s pointless to ponder on this if your mind instinctively orders the wellbeing of family above neighbours, neighbours above other citizens, fellow citizens above foreigners. Those holding the signs are looking at the world in a quite different way. The happiness of their fellow citizens has been relegated to a place behind the happiness of the excluded other. Their minds have been filled beyond anything in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Odd people have always been around. George Orwell had his own unique way of describing some of them in The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937: “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” This is a bit unkind to those who drink fruit juice, and I am sure he would come up with a somewhat different list in the modern world. But come up with a list he undoubtedly could and would. And it would be much more heavily populated with adherents.
When Orwell was writing, the common sense of the broad populace ensured that politicians remained grounded and wedded to national wellbeing. Not so much now. Now, common sense has become victim to a media and educational blitz intent on replacing thinking nationally (in other words, wickedly and selfishly) with thinking globally (in other words, nobly).
Globalisation is well on the way to bringing us to ruin. In principle, the remedy is simple. We, the people, need to elect politicians whose overriding goal is to create the conditions which preserve and nurture the life, the liberty and the happiness of the citizens of their nation-state; who will always promote their country’s claims over the claims of others; who, even though President Trump has said it, will always put their country and its citizens first. However, in practice, there is a sting in this tale (to corrupt an idiom). Perhaps, in this current age, most difficulty lies not with a paucity of potentially sound-thinking politicians or would-be politicians. Maybe it lies with “we, the people”.
We, the people, are not what we used to be. For example, conservative politicians are afraid to call out the cant that surrounds the global warming agenda for fear of electoral retribution. We know what Tony Abbott really thinks but having said it once he had to genuflect to the mob. And can you ever imagine the utopian (in reality dystopian) drivel in Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal ever seeing the light of day, never mind being supported by prominent Democrats, in a past time when everybody outside of the fringes had common sense? Of course not.
These days a large and growing body of the population seems intent on being led in a determined pursuit of unhappiness. Maybe the tipping point has not been yet reached in America and Hungary where there are still enough people of sound mind to keep the torch of reason alight. How about in Australia? Use Zali Steggall as a barometer. If she gets even close to defeating Abbott in Warringah, it might be time to consider giving up hope. We, the people, will have shown that we really do get the globalist politicians we deserve.
Peter Smith wrote on “Christianity and the Economic Order” in the January-February issue.