Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Howard Government, Dissent and the Pattern of Change in Australia

Even when I disagree with him, I find Neil Whitfield's comments and analysis stimulating.

This is not blogging for the faint hearted. Some of Neil's posts are full blown intellectual essays that push the boundaries of the blog format to the outer limit and even beyond. Further, Neil cross-links his posts in a way that allows the reader to dig down, to see how Neil's ideas have developed.

Often Neil and I agree, but sometimes we come at the same issue from a very different perspective. This post deals with one such case.

In Considering Dissent, Neil writing as Ninglun reports on David Marr's review in the Sydney Morning Herald of the new book Silencing Dissent edited by Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison (Allen & Unwin 2007).

The book apparently argues that the Howard Government has been guilty of a systematic and systemic approach to the suppression of dissent across Australia. Here the Marr review says in part:

"Touted as a contest of values, this was really a party political assault on Australia's liberal culture. In the name of "balance" the Liberal Party agenda muscled its way into the intellectual life of the country."

Based on Marr's review, Neil states:

"It (the book) seems to distil so much that has disappointed and pained me during the long years of the Howard regime, so much that I have experienced in my own field of education and observed in field after field of what we might call our intellectual and moral life."

Like Neil, I have yet to read the book and cannot comment on it. However, I do want to comment on some of the ideas apparently expressed and in so doing bring together some of the threads in my own argument on this blog.

As will be clear from various posts such as those on David Hicks I, too, have reservations about the Liberal Party and the Howard Government. I believe that there has been a coarsening of public debate, a reduction of humanity in policy. Beyond that, I come at things from a very different perspective from that apparently held by David Marr, I think Neil and the book.

I believe that the attack on Australia's so called "liberal" culture, and there has been one, was both inevitable and necessary. I explored this in my post on Pauline Hanson. There I said in part:

"By 1996 there was a large group in society fearful of the future, concerned about the pace of change. Their concerns were exacerbated, their numbers concealed, by the intellectual lockdown imposed by the dominant intellectual elites. There were a range of views that were simply excluded from public discussion."

I wrote this from a very personal perspective, one who had experienced this exclusion at first hand. So I was glad to see things freed up. I also said in that post:

"The previously dominant intellectual elites have struggled to come to grips with all this, suffering from the same sense of isolation, of diminished relevance that they had previously inflicted on others."

Based on Marr's review, I suspect that the latest book is another manifestation of this sense of isolation, of dimished relevance.

At the time of writing that post, early December, I felt with a degree of hope that a new amalgam was emerging, one that I saw as positive, taking the word multiculturalism as an example:

"Change is continuous. Here I have been fascinated by the way in which the dialectic between the two schools - previously dominant, then suppressed, now dominant again to some degree vs the dominant now suppressed - combined with policy and political change is leading to a new amalgam."

I am less positive now because since I wrote that post both orthodoxies seem to have become more rigid, more polarising.

One of my problems in all this is the way in which discussion, at least as I see it, gets very muddied and confused. For that reason , I have tried in a series of linked posts to tease out the different threads in the varying debates and to put them into a historical context.

To explore all this a little, let's start with the Howard Government, beginning with public administration. Here I seem to have written an awful lot, but hopefully not too awful a lot, of posts.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Howard Government has presided over a further decline, a further politicisation, of the Westminster system. Further, that approach is in conflict to some degree to the approach set out in the future Prime Minister's headland speech on the role of Government in June 1995.

To get an indication of the scale of the change over time, you only have to look at one of my still to be completed confessions of a policy adviser series where I painted a pen picture of the Commonwealth Public Service at the time I joined it in 1967 and compare it with now. However, that change has taken place over time and at all levels of Government in Australia, so the Howard Government cannot be blamed for it. Instead, the change raises broader questions that need to be addressed independent of party or jurisdiction.

There also no doubt in my mind that the Howard Government has seen a further move away from a collectivist towards an individualist approach - the death of the old social contract.

Again, the Howard Government here is part of a trend - international as well as local - that has affected Australia since the mid eighties. I tried to explore some of the reasons for this in the migration matters series, as well as the public administration posts (especially here and here).

There is no doubt that Australians feel a sense of loss about the ending of the old ways as shown most recently by, among other things, the ABC radio discussions on the Wisdom of the Elders (and also here on Neil's blog). This sense of loss is presently affecting rhetoric and policy in both Government and ALP.

Now here I think that the Howard Government is in fact caught in an ideological trap of its own making, squeezed between the Prime Minister's populist rhetoric with its ordinary Australian and compassion themes, the increasingly unpopular harshness of its stances on migration and terrorism that seem so at variance with other rhetoric and ideological hangovers dating back to its first election.

Many of the Howard Government's ideological opponents attribute its ideological stance to American neo-conservatism. This is a misreading.

I do not know when the term neoconservative first came into popular use, although it was certainly used in the title of Irving Kristol's 1983 book Reflections of a Neoconservative. Further, there is no doubt that Australian thinkers and advisers were influenced by some American thinkers such as Friedman. However, while the stance did draw elements from US thinking, the Australian position falls solidly in the Thatcherite, New Zealand model.

Here we can trace the spread of ideas from Thatcherism (from 1979) through Rogernomics in New Zealand (from 1983) to the part adoption of the New Zealand model by the NSW Greiner Government in 1988. By the time of the 1993 elections, the Liberal Party under John Hewson fought and indeed lost an election on what would now be called neoconservative principles and policies.

So if we look at this pattern we can see that the ideology espoused by the Howard Government is in fact a creature of broader thinking dating especially to the 1980s and early 1990s, not recent American neo-conservatism as such. Further, this thinking is replicated to greater or lesser extent in all Australian jurisdictions and especially NSW. Here I looked at the current NSW Government's Ten Year plan in part as an example of the application of the New Zealand model in practice.

Now add in the "War on Terror". I have no doubt that the PM was deeply and emotionally affected by his presence in Washington on 7/11. I also have no doubt that this has affected the Government's response, adversely in my view, to the total range of issues surrounding the "War on Terror".

So the Government has a double ideological lock-in, to the economic ideas of the past on one side, to the whole complex of issues surrounding the "War on Terror" on the other. This is what I mean by an ideological trap of its own making.

The Government's opponents are, or so it seems to me, caught in a similar trap.

Those espousing Australia's "liberal values", or at least those values as they define them, are equally caught in past thinking. Further, driven by the imperatives of the political debate, they often attempt to apply international and especially US models to Howard Government thinking.

This links to one of my recurrent themes on this blog, the need for us to recognise and define our own Australian Way reflecting our history and culture. To do this, we have to disentangle issues so that we can see the different influences.

I was going to extend my analysis by taking education. This is an area of concern to both Neil and I, one that Neil gives as an example in support of the thesis of the Howard Government's attacks on our "liberal values." In fact, while Neil and I are in agreement on many issues here, I see education as a classic case requiring identification and separation of different thought streams if we are to have a sensible discussion.

Because of the length of this post, I will look at this in a separate post.

1 comment:

Lexcen said...

Indeed, there certainly does appear to be trans-global ideologies such as Monetarist economic policy, Outcomes Based Education and the War on Terror that appear simultaneously in Britain,UK and Australia.