September 12, 2011

The Australian newspaper

Left, Right, Left

By Robert Manne
Left, Right, Left

Why have I decided to begin a blog? In part I relish the opportunity to write more freely and with greater immediacy than is possible with print. In part, as I have just entered an area fraught with danger—a critique of the Australian, the most aggressive newspaper in the country—I feel the need to have a space available to me to engage in any ensuing debate. And in part I like new challenges. I have no idea whether “Left, Right, Left” will interest readers or in what direction it will go.


Twenty-Seven Per Cent 

In recent public opinion polls, the federal ALP has learned that if an election were held today, twenty-seven per cent of voters would give it their first preference. I cannot recall a more dismal poll result for one of the two main competitors in Australian politics—Labor and the Coalition. Although I have learnt to be cautious about such predictions—like most political observers I thought John Howard was history in early 2001—it is obvious that if this trend continues Labor will be destroyed at the next federal election whenever that occurs.

There are two ways Labor might respond to the crisis it now faces. The first is to put on a brave face, scramble to win back some of the “centre ground” of politics by imitating the populist conservative attitudes and policies of the Howard era, and pray either for a miracle that will save it or for a disaster that will undo the Coalition. The second is to act like the Labor Party of historical memory once did.

Given present circumstances, if Labor had courage and leadership, the relevant historical memory they might hold in mind is not the highly successful period of government under Hawke and his Treasurer, Keating, but the great achievements, despite the conservative hatred and the chaos, of the Whitlam years. Whitlam’s government established Australia’s national health system, Medibank, the ancestor of Medicare. It created the foundations of the modern Australian welfare state. It brought the question of the dispossession of the Indigenous people and its consequences to the centre of Australian politics. It vastly extended the size of the university sector and provided children of the working and lower middle classes with the opportunity to seize the opportunities it offered them. The Whitlam government injected an understanding of the special needs of women into active political consideration. It opened up the possibility for the first time in our history of an independent Australian foreign policy. It lent vital state support to the creative arts. It dramatised the end of White Australia and provided at least the outline of its replacement ideal—multiculturalism.

Some of these changes—like the expansion of university education—would have taken place, although more slowly, without Whitlam. Some, like Medibank-Medicare, might not have taken place at all. Is there anyone worth listening to in Australia who thinks the country would be better off without Medicare and with an American-style health system?

Whitlam governed for three turbulent years. At the end of those years his government was thrown out of power in one of the greatest landslides in Australian political history. And yet in those three years it did more to make Australia a better country than most other governments have been able to achieve in ten.

What is vital to understand is that Whitlam and his Ministers only managed to achieve all this because their eyes were focussed not on the opinion polls but on their goal of making Australia a more decent, more humane, more civilised country.

Australian politics is at present in a curious situation. A party polling at twenty-seven per cent controls the House of Representatives because of the support of three independents and a Green. It controls the Senate if it wins the support of the nine Greens. The mood of the country favours the Coalition, overwhelmingly. The numbers in the two houses of parliament, however, strongly favour the progressive side of politics.

This situation is not only fraught with danger for Labor. It is also replete with opportunity. If Labor is lucky—if God smiles on the members of the House of Representatives majority and if Craig Thomson somehow manages to keep out of jail—the progressive side of politics has before it the prospect of two full years of legitimate parliamentary power.

What is to be done?  One alternative is to obsess about the opinion polls, mimic the populist conservative policies of the Coalition, and scramble to win back the “centre ground” of politics. This is almost certainly what Labor will do. The alternative is to forget about the opinion polls, abandon populist conservatism, and decide to use the two years of power to make Australia a better and more civilised country through a series of reforms whose benefits are so obvious that the incoming Coalition—even one led by Tony Abbott, a reactionary in many ways but also essentially a decent human being—would think twice or even three times before they decided to repeal them.

What might such a program look like? People will differ on this but here’s my personal suggestion.

* Policies to increase the price of carbon substantially during the coming decades.

* Accompanying this, industry policy schemes to foster investments in renewable energy.

* Robust defence of the gains to be made, especially in rural and remote Australia, by the full implementation of the plan for the national broadband network.

* The entrenchment of a plan for the introduction of disability insurance along the lines suggested by the Productivity Commission.

* The entrenchment of a plan for a very significant increase in expenditure on mental health

* The entrenchment of a plan for dental treatment for those on low income.

* A thorough review of the federal intervention into Indigenous affairs in the Northern Territory; including the appointment of a genuinely pluralist Indigenous advisory committee representing the many viewpoints stretching from Noel Pearson to Patrick Dodson..

* A new asylum seeker policy combining an increased annual intake to 20,000; the end of mandatory detention; and, following amendment of the Migration Act, a well-administered system of offshore processing under Australian control on Manus Island.

* An education campaign pointing to the dangers of the hostility to Muslim citizens expressed by sections of the Right and defending the ideals of multiculturalism—ethnic and religious plurality within the framework of the rule of law and common language.

* A super-profits mining tax along the lines of the one suggested by the Henry Committee.

* A requirement to ensure Australian manufacturers are not disadvantaged in bids for mining corporation contracts.

* Modest but non-negligible increases in income tax for the wealthy.

* The gradual reduction of certain forms of “upper middle class” welfare, like subsidies on the medical insurance for the wealthy and state expenditure on the elite private schools.

* The break-up of the Murdoch stranglehold on newspapers setting a maximum ownership for a corporation of, say, 30%; the strengthening of cross media ownership rules and of the laws for the protection of privacy.

Some elements of this program merely involve continuing present plans but defending them with greater conviction and eloquence. Some elements are new. One element will be disapproved of by the Left. Many elements will certainly excite the hatred of both vested corporate interests and the conservative establishment that now dominates the commercial media and intimidates the ABC.  Everything within the program would need to be carefully costed. The program involves increases in both government expenditure and revenue. Plausible pledges would need to be made concerning adherence to the principle of rough budgetary balance over the economic cycle.

As things stand, if Labor continues in its present mood, it will suffer ignominious defeat in two years time or earlier. If it adopted a program of this kind—that is to say if it acted as if it believed in something, and if that something was inspired by the ideals of good global citizenship and social justice—it would most likely also suffer a no less decisive defeat but at least leave the country a better and more civilised place.

If Labor adopted such a program, its relations with the Greens would certainly improve. This is no small matter. It is obvious that if there is to be a progressive politics in Australia, its sine qua non is an informal version of what the Europeans call the “Red-Green alliance”. Best of all, if it acted with daring and conviction, Labor might even find itself making converts among those who occupy the hallowed “centre ground” aka the Australian political mainstream.


The Silence of the Wolves

Ever since I parted company with conservative Australia, I have grown accustomed, every time I so much as sneeze, to a volley of savage mockery. In recent times it has come principally from Andrew Bolt and his merry band of devoted bloggers; from Dr Gerard Henderson, not so much in his respectable Dr Jekyll mode in the Sydney Morning Herald but in his Mr Hyde persona at Media Watchdog; from Keith Windschuttle and the far Right Quadrant Online; and from Christopher Pearson, Janet Albrechtsen, Greg Sheridan and the ‘cut and paste’ crew at the Australian.

A week or so ago I published a Quarterly Essay, 'Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation'.  The essay is 40,000 words. It involves an analysis of thousands upon thousands of articles concerning the Australian’s support for Windschuttle’s revisionist history of the Indigenous dispossession; the paper’s cheerleading for war prior to the Iraq invasion and the near-complete absence of remorse following it; the ideological prejudices and intellectual confusion which has determined its destructive coverage of climate change; the personal role of the editor-in-chief in the campaigns that helped precipitate the fall of Kevin Rudd; the paper’s jihad against the Greens; the vituperative arm-wrestle with the ABC’s Media Watch; and the strange tale of two tweets--the defamation writ issued by the editor-in-chief against Julie Posetti; and the astonishing character assassination of the Indigenous academic, Larissa Behrendt.

After publication, I braced myself for a personal onslaught and prepared myself for what I hoped the essay might provoke—a broadranging political debate about the influence of the Murdoch press in general and the Australian in particular. Apart from the Weekend Australian’s ‘cut and paste’ and a comment from Peter Coleman in Spectator Australia, so far however, to my considerable surprise, the essay has been more or less entirely ignored by my enemies on the Right.

The essay has so far sold well. Bob Brown has tweeted his 29,000 followers urging them to buy a copy. Jay Rosen of New York University, one of the most eminent media scholars in the Anglophone world, has commented very favourably. It is difficult to believe that the Right sincerely believes the essay so beneath contempt as to be unworthy of comment. How, then, are we to explain the silence of the wolves?

The pessimistic interpretation is that there is a view that the questions raised by the essay can be avoided by pretending that it simply does not exist. If this conclusion turns out to be true, what it will mean is that even the matter of what is debated in Australia is politically or ideologically determined and that the divide between the intellectual camps of Left and Right is now so wide that they have no ability or will even to talk to each other, as seems to be the case in the contemporary United States. The optimistic conclusion—for which there is some evidence—is that the Australian is preparing a careful and detailed response. If so, you will read more about it on this blog in the next week or so.

[An apology to readers: I have become aware of two errors in Bad News. Forty-eight nations in one way or another supported the invasion of Iraq. The edited text inadvertently made it appear that they all offered military support. Of course this is not the case. The essay also mistakenly claims that Christine Jackman and Chris Mitchell married in 1996. They married in 2006. Neither error affects the interpretation.]  

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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