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>First rate politicians – 1 vs Second rate intellectuals – 0

>This article by The Australian’s senior political writer Paul Kelly is one of the best of recent years describing the intellectual left’s failure to understand why we have been so successful.

In Australia we have leftists that put themselves on an intellectual pedestal including Clive Hamilton, Robert Manne and Julian Burnside while a bevy of supportive journalists – David Marr, Phillip Adams et al – provide moral support through their regular media columns and appearances.

These Australian self-appointed intellectuals identify with their international counterparts such as Noam Chomsky, Seymour Hersch, John Pilger, Germaine Greer who are supported by journalists like George Monbiot and Robert Fisk.

Looking through that list there is one thing that jumps off the page – they have contributed nothing of any value to society and, in most instances, been spectacularly destructive.

The other thing that really stands out when one reflects on the contribution of this list of the ‘best and brightest’ of the intellectual class is how little regard they have for truth or reason. For them, it’s OK simply to be well intentioned – and I have no doubt that, for the most part, they are – without having the inconvenience of facts and outcomes to consider.

IT is more than 40 years since Donald Horne defined Australia as “a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck”. It was a branding that captured the Australian suspicion of authority and frustration at the longevity of the Menzian age.

Horne’s masterful label is seductive for a people that applauds the wisdom of the common man and assumes the venality of the political class.

The idea of luck in Australian history is recruited to denigrate politicians with a litany of examples, so the remarkable progress of the 1950s was nothing to do with Robert Menzies, who just happened to be an especially dominant prime minister of that age; likewise we are told our present prosperity is China’s gift to Australia and little to do with John Howard and Peter Costello’s economic governance and their quest to prolong the original Paul Keating expansion that has extended into 16 years.

Luck is a powerful device to explain the otherwise inexplicable: how Australia has done so well with its second-rate leaders.

In the Howard era, however, the explanatory device has become a fusion of luck and cunning. The mantra of the intellectual class is well known: Howard has corrupted our public life, silenced dissent and stifled debate but kept winning because of luck and unscrupulous cunning. This narrative has deep roots in our intellectual culture, revealing more about that culture than it does about Howard.

For Horne, an intellectual alienated by the long success of Menzies, “Australia has not deserved its good fortune.” This was a condemnation of the political class but it mirrored another powerful theme: a scepticism about the people.

The alternative to this axiom was the concession that Menzies, somehow, in some way, during 16 years may have had something to do with Australia’s immense good fortune. This notion was not to be tolerated.

If, however, Menzies was not entitled to credit for Australian achievements he was to be squarely blamed, by Horne and other intellectuals, for nearly every Australian failure: our mediocre artistic life, Anglophobia, White Australia policy, racism, cultural cringe, provincialism and ineptitude in Asia.

Here is the first refuge of Australia’s intellectual life: that leaders have little to do with national enhancement but everything to do with national debasement. Rarely has this belief been advanced so ferociously for so long as during the Howard era.

But Horne had a deeper worry: that the Australian people would not pass muster, that they might be too dull, weak and provincial to rise to future challenges. After all, you had to be pessimistic about a public that kept re-electing Menzies. For Horne, Australia was a nation that seemed “to have lost both its sense of a past and its sense of a future”. For Australia, the question remained: Could it surmount its own hopelessness?

In the final chapter of The Lucky Country, which was first published in 1964, Horne warned that unless Australia’s outlook changed fundamentally then “the present kind of Australia will go under anyway”. He was an alarmist on what he saw as the two great national tests that “cannot possibly be evaded”: managing Asia and staying prosperous. These were the cardinal issues of foreign and economic policy.

Horne was sceptical about managing Asia, fearing Australia “might be overwhelmed whatever it does”. And he was sure that Australians would fail the economic prosperity test: “The answer to the question, ‘Can we keep our standards of prosperity and our present way of life?’ or to put it more bluntly, ‘Can the racket last?’ appears to be NO.”

But he was wrong on both counts. From the 1980s a new generation of Australian political leaders, inheritors of Horne’s second-rate tag, emerged and proved to be embarrassingly first-rate. This was the generation of Bob Hawke, Keating and Howard. They delivered the longest prosperity expansion in our history and they delivered in Asia. Their success confounded Horne’s pessimism and demolished much of the theory of political leadership held by the intellectual class.

Of course, it is hard to categorise Australia’s intellectual class because, in essence, it defies categorisation. What is easier to categorise, however, is that distinct group of public intellectuals who write for a wide audience, aspire to shape public opinion, attack Howard for his sins and lament the collapsing standards and morality of our political leaders.

Its message is now accepted as fact in much of the public debate: Howard is a chronic liar, the rot began under Keating, the political system is being debased and the Australian people have themselves to blame. The critique is notable for its moral fervour, weak analysis and alienation from the nation’s heartland.

Once again, its cultural roots are deep. The Lucky Country concluded with a rush of optimism about the coming generation but this did not conceal Horne’s profound suspicions about the Australian people. Herein lies the second benchmark of our intellectuals: doomed to disappointment by a public that fails to meet their high expectations.

So Howard’s success has become the prime exhibit to reveal a people weak on ethics, morality and racial justice (unlike enlightened publics of other nations).

During the Howard era, public intellectuals have played an influential role in hijacking political debate. The poverty of their analysis is conspicuous and they often see little explanation for Howard’s success other than in a nasty regression of public racism, provincialism and selfishness.

In his recent Quarterly Essay, titled His Master’s Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate Under Howard (Black Inc), David Marr laments that in Australia there’s “no time for this malarky about debate, truth, good sense, calm and liberty”. Such virtues are “for other folk in other countries”.

So poor little Australia has no time for truth or liberty. This is what purports to be our intellectual debate. Contempt for Howard becomes a contempt for the people and for the democracy that elected him.

There are few limits to Marr’s fantastic romanticism. Capture his conclusion that “Australian children are taught not to speak”: this is his view of Howard’s Australia where the traditional repression of the classroom has translated into acquiescence before authority “when Canberra (under Howard) tells us what we can say, what we can know, when we can speak”. Is this supposed to be serious?

Poor little Australia is pathetic because “we’ve never fought to be free” (preferring free choice at the ballot box to taking up arms), because unlike the US, we got on “with the business of being a British society” with Crown, horsehair wigs and the Westminster ethos of governance (carefully avoiding so many of the manifest flaws of the US system) and, finally, in the ultimate condemnation offered by our intellectuals, Australia is morally deficient because it remains the last Western outpost without a national bill of rights (having the wisdom of the common man to leave such powers with politicians and not judges).

It is as though Howard’s success has seen much of Australia’s public intellectual class metaphorically blow its brains out.

While Horne lamented the quality of our leaders, much of today’s intellectual generation is obsessed about political immorality. The intellectuals have become moralists; their main task is to make moral judgments about politicians and to identity the source of their evil. There is almost no limit to their self-righteousness and pomposity.

For Raimond Gaita, writing in an earlier Quarterly Essay, Howard is “systematically mendacious”. This would be a hard claim to prove and Gaita, sensibly, does not even try. It is an extraordinary claim: that Howard’s mendacity is integral to his office. It is the classic delegitimisation of the political class.

Having closely reported on and analysed every Australian PM from Gough Whitlam to Howard, including their lies, great and small, the notion that any of these post-1972 leaders is “systematically mendacious” is nonsense.

But not for Marr, who is a staff writer and columnist at The Sydney Morning Herald. He asserts Howard was “a liar from the start” and that over 11 years he “has cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced non-government organisations, neutered Canberra’s mandarins, curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, censored the arts, banned books, criminalised protest and prosecuted whistleblowers”. This is part true, part myth, part exaggeration. It is certainly caricature.

It is designed to provoke cheers and, no doubt, it succeeds. It demonstrates, above all, the role of the public intellectual: as passionate moralist, as opposed to enlightened analyst, as polemicist as distinct from scholar.

Marr does not help our understanding of Howard’s governance and there is no sign whatsoever that is his purpose. Indeed, he leaves behind confusion and contention. His aim is polemical: to fan anger, outrage and resentment and that purpose is achieved.

Melbourne barrister Julian Burnside found Marr’s essay at once “dazzling and depressing”. That would hardly surprise. Burnside has compared Howard’s manipulation of language to Hitler’s Germany. “The Nazi regime were masters at it,” he said of doublespeak. “The Howard Government is an enthusiastic apprentice.” For Burnside, Howard has a “congenital dishonesty”. For Burnside, the press engages in its own dishonesty by not exposing Howard’s dishonesty. Such are life’s tribulations for an honourable man.

There seems no limit to Burnside’s search for political dishonesty. Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd should take note. For Burnside, when politicians stay “on message” they are avoiding “truth, accuracy or anything remotely approaching an answer to a question”. Burnside has become a hero, exposing our little Hitlers. Marr has long seen a link between Howard and Hitler, likening Howard’s technique of criticising elites with the Fuhrer’s own such device, both geared to the same goal: to counter critics of right-wing politics!

Burnside is dismayed and puzzled by the moral failure of the Australian people. The public knows Howard is lying, yet “it seems that we do not mind”. Since he finds Howard “immoral, hypocritical, un-Christian” Burnside will take heart at his expected election defeat.

Following his logic Burnside argues for amendments to the Trade Practices Act to make misleading and deceptive conduct by politicians illegal. “If it is possible for a politician to be jailed for misleading the public, we will hear a lot more truth from them,” he says.

He’s wrong, of course. Burnside misjudges the nature of politics. His solution is to empower judges and jail our prime ministers, each of them, since each would be guaranteed to fail his test. Surely a special punishment could be imposed upon Keating and Howard by requiring they share the same cell.

One of Howard’s “lies” that offends Burnside is his denial of climate change for so long. The notion that Howard may have been sincere and believed he was acting in the national interest (what other motive would he have?) is not even considered. For Burnside, if the politicians had been “forced to express an honest opinion” then “we may have begun the conversation about global warming a decade ago”.

It’s simple, really.

Truth in politics is a valuable public good. The role of intellectuals and media is to expose lies and promote truth. But to be effective this demands a recognition of the nature of politics, the foundational point being that personal morality and political morality are overlapping yet different concepts.

Political leaders are called upon to make decisions about war, tax, deportation, public finance, law and order that involve trade-offs between the public interest and the interest of individuals. Such decisions frequently inflict hurt upon individuals (higher taxes, lower benefits) that would be unacceptable in moral relations between two individuals. Decisions by governments cannot necessarily be fair or just for everyone. The easiest argument against political leaders is that their decisions have hurt an individual, a group or a society.

At another level Gaita argues for Kant’s principle that “no person should ever be treated as a means to our ends” and evil (for example, killing civilians) cannot be justified for a good end. The trouble is that few, if any, war leaders have upheld this noble ideal; certainly not Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman to name some of our heroes who slaughtered civilians en masse, let alone George W.Bush.

Decisions to go to war mean that innocent civilians will be killed. If unintended deaths of civilians in war is morally unacceptable, then war is morally unacceptable.

The sincerity of intellectual moralists cannot be doubted. What can be doubted is their construct of politics and their view of politicians.

In the opening to his Quarterly Essay, Marr attacks Howard over his visit to Vietnam last year in which the PM, unsurprisingly, declined to offer an opinion about Australia’s role in the Vietnam War. Anxious to promote bilateral ties and still a supporter of the war, Howard, when asked, declined to offend his hosts by endorsing the war or repudiate his own views by offering a renunciation. He acted as a responsible leader.

For Marr, this was unforgivable. It showed that Howard “thinks it beneath him to admit mistakes” and it revealed that “conceding the truth wasn’t his style”. Evidently the function of our leaders is to satisfy the moral vanity of our intellectuals.

Let’s consider one of Rudd’s “lies”. Before the 2004 election Labor leader Mark Latham embraced the policy of immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, a position Rudd opposed and believed to be wrong. Yet Rudd upheld the Labor policy in preference to his own beliefs. The moralists would see him as a liar; the realists know he did the responsible thing.

Cabinet solidarity demands the individual surrender personal views before the collective view. This idea is basic to our political life, yet it cannot satisfy a narrow morality test. Ministers must proselytise policies they don’t always support and sometimes oppose. Politics is about persuasion in an adversary climate. It is about step-by-step tactics towards a distant goal and requires high selectivity in public advocacy.

Gaita argues that a mendacious politician “might lie, he might evade, he might intentionally muddy the waters and he might do any of these things sincerely” but they have the capacity to “degrade a body politic”. This is correct but it is also correct that Abraham Lincoln did much of this much of the time. In politics the waters are muddied to begin with. Political decisions are often based on disputed facts and imprecise knowledge.

What moral judgments should be passed upon Lincoln? Here was a leader who for most of his life upheld the existence of slavery and merely opposed its extension; a leader who entered a war of choice precipitating the greatest slaughter in American history because he was not prepared to tolerate the south dissolving the Union.

The political leader has multiple responsibilities: to the national interest, public opinion, party, faction, electorate, colleagues and conscience. These are often in conflict. This precipitates confusion, compromise or fatal attempts at escape.

Consider Keating. Before the 1993 election he offered the L-A-W tax cuts designed to match John Hewson’s income-tax cuts but avoid his GST. The denouement was painful, leading directly to his 1996 defeat. His critics say it was the greatest fiscal fraud for self-interest ever offered at any election in our history, but Keating would say it was an arguable pledge that saw half the promise given finally as deferred superannuation.

Consider Howard’s three great “lies”, over the GST, Iraq and children overboard. Rolled together by public intellectuals as integral to their dishonesty polemic, each event is different and each reveals a separate story.

The GST is a classic example of mandate honesty. Having been elected in 1996 pledging “never” to have a GST, Howard, upon changing his mind, sought and won a mandate at the 1998 election for a detailed GST-inclusive tax package. This is the way democracy is supposed to work.

The lesson from Iraq is that Howard did not lie but lost the trust of the public. This is an instance of a seriously defective decision. The evidence is that this war was misconceived, its justification was false, its implementation was disastrous while its consequences have been counter-productive. The breach of trust is fundamental. But did Howard lie? It remains an important question. Either he knew or suspected Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and lied to the public, or he was sincere.

The evidence, contrary to many claims from public intellectuals, is that he was sincere. But sincerity does not forgive strategic folly or disastrous misjudgment about the nature of the war.

On children overboard, this was both a breach of trust and a lie flowing from the government machinery. The incident began with a public-service mistake followed by the absence of a correction. Officials and ministers (Peter Reith) declined to tell Howard what he didn’t want to know. On election eve it seems (though Howard disputes this) that a version of the truth was put to him that Howard deflected because the electoral discomfort was too great.

The public intellectuals are right to argue that what counts is policy: Howard is still being judged by Iraq and his Tampa policies. If he loses the coming election it will reflect not just an “it’s time” sentiment but a collective rejection of his policy failures, in their political and moral dimensions. Such failures will loom large in his history.

This is the road of Australian politics. The demise of political eras is accompanied by repudiation of their sins — witness Whitlam’s in the Khemlani loans affair and recession, Fraser’s in the 1975 legacy and recession, and Keating’s in his polarising personality and recession. The recuperative power of democracy is displayed, with hopes vested in an incoming government.

Howard has not corrupted our governance or brought our democracy to despair, despite Marr’s claim that “the old philistine culture of Australian politics” has returned.

There are two keys to understanding Howard’s administrative technique. The first is prime ministerial governance as its central method and, in this sense, Howard extends the long trend begun by Whitlam. The second is the pervasive politicisation of the system of government driven by executive authority under the pressure of the 24-hour media cycle and Howard’s shift towards the permanent campaign.

How much a Rudd government might reform and how much it might keep for its own benefit is difficult to judge. But Labor has signalled important changes, towards Westminster tradition in the public service, more reliance on the bureaucracy as a source of ideas and repairing the government advertising rort.

For public intellectuals, however, Howard is the symbol of a deeper problem: their distaste with the new Australian settlement engineered by political leaders during the past generation and a half. Their complaint, unlike Horne’s, is not what the leaders have failed to do, but what they have done.

Australian public intellectuals face an unfortunate historical outcome: an alleged second-rate political class has provided first-rate leadership in transforming Australia’s prospects. It is their worst nightmare. The intellectuals, properly disillusioned with the old Australia, find they dislike much of the new Australia created by the political class.

Since the onset of the reform age in 1983 Australia has had three prime ministers, Hawke, Keating and Howard, two dominant treasurers, Keating and Peter Costello and three foreign ministers, Bill Hayden, Gareth Evans and Alexander Downer.

It would be difficult (not impossible) to find another Western democracy with national leadership across three decades to match Australia’s and with comparable public policy outcomes. The mere writing of such words is enough to inflame rage, hostility and mirth.

The comparable list of leaders from the US would be Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Which line-up would you prefer? Try the comparison for other nations.

A healthy democracy will see a healthy gulf between its politicians and its intellectuals. But this gulf in Australia is a chasm that demands serious attention. The explanation transcends the immorality of the politicians and extends into the dysfunction of the intellectuals.

As Owen Harries recently wrote in The American Interest, on political matters intellectuals share two characteristics: “They are slaves of fashion and, on the big questions, they tend to get things hopelessly wrong.” He quoted American art critic Harold Rosenberg branding intellectuals “a herd of independent minds”, a sublime vision of contemporary Australia.

The defining feature of intellectual life is its divorce from governance. This is its strength and its flaw. Politicians, by contrast, are driven to find solutions. They have a responsibility to govern and an obligation to win votes. This creates a tension between the public interest and self-interest but it maximises pressure upon leaders to achieve this fusion at the optimal level.

Much of our public intellectual class has been on the wrong side of the big debates in Australia since 1983. Let’s take what are arguably the four main overarching issues.

First, the economy: many intellectuals opposed the pro-market, low-protection, competition policy revolution, the defining policy transformation in their lifetimes. This is either because they misread the economics, misinterpreted the 1991 recession or relied on the false precept that markets are immoral. Many still sulk about or discount Australia’s economic success or, incredibly, blame the people for being selfish.

As former Reserve Bank of Australia governor Ian Macfarlane said in his 2006 Boyer lectures, reflecting on the nation’s mood in 1991, with unemployment almost tipping 11 per cent: “A brooding pessimism seemed to affect all shades of economic and political opinion and little hope was held for our economic future.”

Since then Australia has seen the longest economic expansion in its history. As Treasury secretary Ken Henry has pointed out when reviewing the past 15 years, Australia’s gross domestic product per person has risen from the bottom third to the top third of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s ratings such that “the standard of living in Australia now surpasses all G7 countries except the US”.

Australia’s intellectual class is probably unique in coining the term “economic rationalism” to discredit the bipartisan framework pursued by Hawke, Keating and Howard that has transformed the lives and opportunities of so many Australians.

On foreign policy, with an 11-year perspective, Howard’s main achievement is obvious: to have deepened simultaneously Australia’s ties with East Asia and the US. Yet this was also the main achievement of Hawke and Keating, though the means varied. It reflects a bipartisan strategic outlook with deep roots in an Australian national-interest perspective. This was symbolised at the recent Sydney Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation gathering in the bilateral meetings that Howard and Rudd conducted with President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

There have been many twists and turns since Horne wrote The Lucky Country, yet the magnitude of Australia’s engagement with Asia is impressive and is accompanied by deeper institutional ties to the US. The sense of a national strategy is palpable. It is the achievement of political leadership, a feat that could never be branded as second-rate.

The leaders stumbled along the way as they pushed forward. They received many lectures from a range of intellectuals: that Keating was too pro-Asian or that he compromised our integrity with Indonesia; that Hawke was too soft on China; that Howard was too racist, too pro-US to succeed in Asia and that his Iraq commitment would ruin our Asian ties. The foreign-policy debate has been contentious yet the outcomes vindicate a national strategy superior to laments from critics who have been more wrong than right during the past 30 years.

Third, many intellectuals have missed the defining recent trend in our country’s existence: that Australia is becoming more nationalistic and more internationalist. Political leaders have operated on this basis for a long time. Intellectuals tend to be suspicious of nationalism and romantic about internationalism. Some advance the sophistry that there is no such thing as Australian values, an insight into their intellectual poverty. It guarantees their alienation from the task of statecraft: to manage a reconciliation between the two impulses of nationalism and internationalism.

Witness the synthesis of increased immigration with a deeper commitment to Australian citizenship values, the revival of the Anzac cultural ethos amid a more multicultural society and, in Howard’s case, the conundrum of a cultural traditionalist who presides over an immigration intake that is entrenching Australia’s diversity via historic high levels of migrants from Asia, the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

For Australia, there are two bedrock realities: we live in a region where nationalism and religion are on the rise and in a world where the progress and welfare of Australians is almost solely determined by public policy successes of their nation-state.

Finally, intellectuals insist that political leaders are destroying Australia’s egalitarianism by their disregard of the inequalities caused by a more market-based economy.

It is true that markets tend to create more inequality while increasing overall prosperity. Yet leaders from Hawke to Howard have put a premium on income redistribution via the tax-transfer system and retention of the social safety net, making Australia one of the most progressive OECD nations for redistribution.

The Treasury and the OECD find that Australia has one of the most powerful redistribution mechanisms among rich nations. Economist Ann Harding has previously argued the system works to redistribute income from the top 40 per cent to the bottom 60 per cent. In this sense Howard, like Hawke and Keating, follows a traditional Labor policy. Indeed, this has been basic to his voting successes.

IN summary, Australia’s post-1983 progress is a direct function of national leadership. Hawke, Keating and Howard, despite their differences, are best understood in an historical continuum finding similar solutions to the same problems.

Party rivalry, honour and belief cannot tolerate any such view. Nor can media coverage that feeds on partisan disputes. But the policy evidence is indisputable, with the stunning feature of 2007 politics being not the difference between Howard and Rudd but the similarity. Policy convergence, the trend since 1983, has reached a zenith. Rudd attacks Howard as a symbol of the past yet identifies with most of his underlying positions.

They differ over Iraq, education investment, industrial relations, infrastructure, climate change, indigenous affairs, broadband and elements of public administration. Such differences should not be underestimated. But aside from industrial relations, they fall short of fundamental.

On most fundamentals they are together: a pro-market economic policy, skills-based immigration, Medicare, the GST, the US alliance, engagement with Asia, size of government, overall tax burden, international competitiveness, participation and productivity strategies, a national emissions trading scheme, the Afghanistan commitment, a hard line against Islamist terrorists and the present national security laws.

The evidence is that Rudd, if he wins, will maintain and renew the central direction of Australia’s policy tradition from Hawke to Howard. How will our public intellectuals respond? Rudd is an opportunity for them. While a populist of the centre (like Tony Blair and Howard) Rudd is an intellectual and a modernist. He is the bridge that could provide not harmony between intellectuals and politicians (nobody wants that) but what has been missing: the foundations for rational conversation on the same page.

Quality in our politics has always been thin. Leadership in each generation relies upon a small number of ministers and, in Australia today, the recruitment base continues to shrink. The Australian character means that politicians will never be regarded as heroes but policy outcomes since 1983 suggest national progress has been conspicuous.

It reminds us that Australia is still a lucky country. It has moved beyond Horne’s brilliant portrait, having enjoyed a generation-plus of first-rate national leaders and second-rate public intellectuals who share its luck.

Congratulations to Paul Kelly for his clear thinking and writing.

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