Book Excerpt

What an Arrogant Elite Always Fails to Grasp

The crushing defeat of the recent Voice referendum, where every state in Australia solidly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to provide privileged access by elite Aborigines to the Federal Parliament, is a powerful example of a cultural folly of the highest order. The overwhelming No result was not only a vindication of the common sense of ordinary Australians but, once again, a timely reminder that today’s elites have little to teach us about how to deal with real life problems, let alone understand how others are thinking.

There is an earthy common sense about middle Australia. Its denizens understood that a referendum is not just an opinion poll, but one involving important decisions, particularly changes to the Constitution, which have to be carefully thought about and analysed. To simply make a decision based on emotion was not only lazy but a dereliction of the duty of the citizen. They also acutely understood that when politicians are not prepared to provide details or argue their case, but just keep asking them to “do the right thing” they smell a very large rat.

Despite the high stakes involved in seeking to change the national Constitution, Professor Marcia Langton, one of the leading protagonists for the Yes case, committed a cardinal sin on a par with Hillary Clinton’s unforgettable put down of “the deplorables” when she claimed that the No case arguments were fuelled by “base racism” and “sheer stupidity”. Instead of seeking to persuade, she and her partner in advocay, Noel Pearson, ridiculed and cajoled, preferring to demonise their critics and threaten a future of increased censorship with their cries of “misinformation”. At no stage would they engage in debate, with Aboriginal Affairs Minister Linda Burney resolutely refusing to cross swords with her opposite number, Jacinta Price. I think we all know why.

Together, these otherwise highly intelligent individuals probably delivered the moment when the Yes case started to fall to pieces. It was a graphic demonstration that Australians will not be insulted by sectional elite members not prepared to engage in serious debate — the essence of free speech. The arrogance of these tier one elites in believing they didn’t have to debate, let alone persuade middle Australia, may well be one of the main reasons their project self-imploded — the ultimate own goal!

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with elites if they stick to their areas of competence. But who wants to know whether some famous film star is terrified by global warming, or that Cate Blanchett effectively favours an open door refugee policy, especially when they never bother to argue their case. Elites might be smart in their specialties but they don’t understand politics — even worse they don’t want to, as they are convinced of the righteousness of their moral crusades and don’t need to be concerned about the merits of opposing arguments.

As the Labor Government vividly demonstrated, you can spend upwards of $400 million on campaigning for the Voice but change very little, while losing an awful lot of political skin in the process. The outcome was not what Prime Minister Anthony Albanese envisaged when he set out on his doomed crusade, backed by a mega phalanx of the great and the good: corporates, celebrities, institutional, professional and sporting bodies on a scale unprecedented since World War II. He boasted to Parliament:

Every major business in Australia is supporting the Yes campaign. Woolworths, Coles, Telstra, BHP, Rio Tinto, the Business Council of Australia, the Catholic Church, the Imams Council, the Australian Football League, the National Rugby League, Rugby Australia, and Netball Australia are all supporting the Yes campaign.

To these heavyweights can be added hundreds of community and professional organisations. What all these had in common was a felt need to stay on side with the government in case they needed a favour or, even more important, a financial handout. No doubt many also had a well- founded fear of retaliation. They didn’t feel the need to consult their shareholders, members or customers, just assumed they would quietly go along.

So why did the elites fail so badly? Because they refused to respect voters enough to appreciate the basic common sense of middle Australia, whose members decide every election.

Many of our elites have become locked into the state and its resources and, in this instance, gripped by Labor’s identity-politics view of the world. The self-interest of our major corporations and businesses in going along with a government that delivers access and benefits overwhelmed their fiduciary duty to shareholders and respect for the differing views of their customers and supporters. It would be very surprising if any of them sought any legal or other expert advice. Much more likely they simply took a self-interested political decision, not a thought-through or carefully analysed one.

The political elite knew that admitting the Voice would involve an unchangeable shift in the national power structure, in favour of a minority of the community defined by race, would be very unpopular. So instead of explaining what the Voice could or would do, its proponents treated the project as just another game of politics and steered clear of providing any details, no doubt for fear of frightening the horses.

The rest of the Western world saw the result as a watershed moment, not just because it put paid to the idea of ill thought out radical ideas for constitutional reform but drew stark attention to the woke behaviour of major corporations, which should cause serious soul-searching among the members of their boards. Many of these signed up to the government’s proposals before the ink was dry in the naïve belief that early positive opinion polls would hold fast. Instead, the longer the public debate went on the less the public were enamoured of what they quickly realised was a radical and racially divisive proposition.

No doubt there were a mix of reasons why big business fell for this Trojan Horse — a cost-free virtue-signalling exercise; wanting to stay on the right side of the government just in case they needed assistance down the track; a form of rent seeking for companies like Qantas, once widely admired, until its highly unpopular CEO was happy to be the corporate face of support while the government did it a huge favour in blocking competition from Qatar and other foreign airlines.

One of the most disappointing and hypocritical explanations came from BHP, where its chairman Ken McKenzie told the AGM that “there were clear business reasons” for contributing $2 million to the Yes case. By this he meant being seen to be supportive of indigenous communities. This could easily have been done by making a meaningful contribution to an important indigenous project. Instead he and others took the lazy way out. Woodside Petroleum advanced the same limp line of argument — another insult to the intelligence of the Australian community and a clear breach of its civic obligation to act in the national, not just sectional, interest.

These corporate behemoths couldn’t be bothered attempting to research the potentially divisive implications of a proposed change to the Constitution but instead took the political decision to throw some money into something they didn’t really understand.

I am reminded of my time in London in the early 2000s when the climate change “debate” was warming up. I spoke to a number of leading CEOs and the then chairman of Rio Tinto and asked them what their research into this complex issue showed. To a man (sic) none of them had given the matter any serious thought, let alone informed themselves in any detail. They simply accepted the zeitgeist and followed the way the popular wind was blowing.

Ultimately, supporting the Yes vote became a vanity parade for many corporations, large and small who, at the first whiff of grapeshot, imbibed the herd instinct and sought safety in numbers by jumping on the Government’s virtual gravy train.

The fundamental problem with elites is that they pursue their own narrow self-interests, with little or no concern for the welfare or priorities of the middle class, who just happen to be the people who decide the outcome of elections. Democracy is of little interest to them — they either take it for granted or write it off as hopelessly flawed. Being often high achievers, and comfortably well off, they don’t need to worry about bread and butter issues, which are the main preoccupations of hard working lower-income citizens.

We can hope that elites will self-correct. But as this is unlikely we should instead continue to treat their antics as a sideshow and not be distracted from our real life obligations to think, reflect and make decisions on the basis of logic and self-interest, taking the world as it is, not as others might wish it to be.

This is an excerpt of The Trouble with Elites: Elitism and the anti-democratic impulse by Richard Alston and published by Connor Court. Newly released, the book can be ordered via this link

Richard Alston AO has been a barrister, a senior Cabinet Minister, Australian High Commissioner to the UK and Federal President of the Liberal Party. He is currently a businessman and company director.

14 thoughts on “What an Arrogant Elite Always Fails to Grasp

  • Sindri says:

    Mike Henry of BHP was reported in the Australian to have said: “A referendum not only demands political courage, it demands courage from all of us.” Really. What “courage” was involved in supporting the yes case? None whatsoever.

  • Ceres says:

    No way can Linda Burney be described as an “otherwise highly intelligent individual”. Her inane, nebulous words about the Voice, such as it will be “nimble” were an insult to voters
    Likewise Marcia Langton who could only throw around racist names. Likewise Noel Pearson who resorted to name calling opponents like Jacinta Price. Not too much intelligence there.

    • lbloveday says:

      Read the article lying on the bed and got up to make a comment:
      Linda Burney “highly intelligent”? Did you leave out the ?
      But you had effectively beaten me to it.

    • john mac says:

      You and LBL beat me to it ; “Highly Intelligent”? Not even close, and this highlights a trait of many conservatives in the media . While we err on the side of respect and politeness , the left never reciprocate in kind , ever happy to slander , slur and sink the boots in on any issue . No Queensbury rules for them .

    • Hinchinbrook says:

      Langton said that there would be no more “welcomes to country” if the referendum failed. I wish she had been truthful on that at least……

  • padraic says:

    While “The Voice” did not get up at Commonwealth level it seems to be succeeding by stealth at State and Territory level, where there is no need for a referendum. These activists cannot take no for an answer.

  • ianl says:

    ” … took the political decision to throw some money into something they didn’t really understand” [corporate yessers]

    Oh, they understood it all right. As this article points out in a different paragraph, the “elite” assumption was that we deplorables didn’t understand it … too dim. you know.

    While I agree that this underestimated the middleclass b/s detector, the x-factor – the one not at all anticipated – was the advent of Jacinta P and Warren M on the NO side. Jacinta in particular was politically brilliant – the best measure of this was the direct observation that the ABC was terrified of her, refusing to give her clear air as is their wont with people they are fearful of.

  • pmprociv says:

    While it’s certainly true that Queen Marcia et al. “ridiculed and cajoled, preferring to demonise their critics”, what was the real clincher for many was her promise to never again provide a welcome-to-country ceremony if the No case won.

    As for BHP and those other corporates that gave big money in the hope of future “fair” consideration, all they revealed was their own incredible naivete. The “big men” in most remote communities seem not to believe in a quid pro quo, but display a sense of pervasive entitlement, grabbing whatever they can whenever they can, from anybody — were China the highest bidder, that’s where they’d run (and, from the way China’s behaving in the Solomons and elsewhere, I’d guess her leaders are just as naive, and extravagant — with other people’s money).

  • David Isaac says:

    Neither the ‘yes’ nor the ‘no’ case told the truth during the referendum campaign. Meanwhile Australia, having drunk the abortifacient draught of feminism, put on active wear and changed zir pronouns is committing suicide at the rate of 1500 migrants per day.

  • Twyford Hall says:

    Elites like Marcia Langton succeed in life because of good networking skills. They suss out who to influence and how to get to them, whether through flattery, promising favours or threatening. While they are very successful at one-on-one contact, these people often have no idea how to win over a crowd of people who they don’t know and with whom they can never make direct contact. So they often lose out when it comes to referenda or elections.

  • Hinchinbrook says:

    I’ll bet Albo regrets saying words to the effect that it would take a very strong government to ignore the advice of the Voice committee. That statement to my signed its death warrant.

  • Greg Lloyd says:

    Old snake eyes can’t possibly deal with a crowd. A snake can only deal with one prey at a time.

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