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Rule by good-hearted elite: unpacking Swan’s theory

Before Wayne Swan’s cri de coeur about the influence of vested interests drops from the media cycle, it might be worth exploring it a little further. When one of the country’s most senior politicians reflects on broader currents in political debate, it’s worth paying close attention, even if the exercise is purely for the purposes of propaganda. Stories, after all, can tell us far more about the teller than the truth.

This’ll be some pretty obscure stuff, and there’ll be some detours along the way, but hang in there. A few select quotes from Swan’s Monthly essay:

The combination of industry deep pockets, conservative political support, biased editorial policy and shock-jock ranting has been mobilised in an attempt to protect vested interest.”

… it’s that tiny 1%, or even 0.1%, who are trying to drown out the others, who are blind to the national interest, and who pour their considerable personal fortunes into advertising, armies of lobbyists, dodgy modelling and corporate and commercial manoeuvring designed to influence editorial decisions.”

There are many Australians of great wealth who make important and considered contributions to the national debate. I always welcome that involvement in the discussion of public policy whether I agree with them or not. What characterises the vested interests that I’m concerned about is how they misrepresent their self-interest as the national interest.”

… we must fight a pitched battle against the influence of vested interests that seek to shape public policy to their own excessive benefit and at the expense of our middle-class society.”

Swan also invoked Gina Rinehart’s media investments in his Press Club address and his essay. At the Press Club, he also welcomed “the involvement of everyone of good heart in the discussion of public policy whether I agree with them or not”.

Much of the criticism of Swan has revolved around his casting of himself as a hapless spectator of all this, when he has been a key player in such moments as the rewriting of the mining tax and the government’s backdown to the clubs and pubs industry over poker machine reform. Indeed.

But note Swan’s contrast, between active participants in debate “of good heart” and the Rineharts and Forrests of the world, who either directly through advertising or indirectly through media manipulation aim to “misrepresent their self-interest as the national interest”.

Omitted from that contrast are the intended targets of that manipulation, voters themselves, whom plainly Swan feels are likely to be successfully manipulated. Ask a politician directly about such matters and they’ll make reference to a pat phrase like having faith in the good sense of Australian voters. The fact that both sides spend considerable money trying to influence how we vote suggests they regard us as considerably more manipulable than they’ll let on.

Concerns about the manipulability of voters aren’t new. One of the persistent arguments against extending suffrage in England (where the right to vote actually shrank between the mid-17th century and the mid-19th) and revolutionary America was the concern that “mechanicks and manufacturers”, who lacked property, would sell their vote to the wealthy or aristocrats. This fundamental vulnerability to “corruption” on the part of the landless exercised elites a great deal.

In contrast, the ideal citizen reflected precepts of republican thought that had transferred from antiquity through Renaissance Florence (readers who’ve studied civic humanism in detail can wince at my summary of it): true citizens owned property, and accordingly could not be bought by others, and engaged in civic affairs on a basis that automatically protected the public interest: they sought to protect their property rights, and thus their liberties, from encroachment by tyranny — whether monarchical, aristocratic or democratic. Such men — and they inevitably were men — lived simple rural lives, and would be able to take up arms in defence of the republic, as no standing army would be tolerated for its threat to liberty.

Landowning, gun-toting elites were of course hardly the disinterested civic participants of republican theory; nowhere was that better demonstrated than in the writing of the US constitution (which in part grappled with ways to limit democratic influence, such as the electoral college, and the Senate, which was initially appointed by state governments) where slaveholders worked to prevent even the possibility of federal regulation of slavery.

But there are echoes of all this in Swan’s rhetoric, with its distinction between wealthy elites “of good heart” whose civic engagement is disinterested and legitimate, and those who would pursue their own interests by manipulating ordinary, less-engaged voters. Though no one, of course, any longer rails against the participation of “mechanicks and manufacturers” in the polity.

A key writer in the transmission of Florentine thought (Machiavelli, principally) into the English political tradition was James Harrington in the 17th century, who lamented that ordinary people can be “deceived by a false image of the good” and manipulated to “desire their own ruin”. Harrington also concluded that the English Civil War, which he lived through, was the product of a divergence between the constitutional structure of Britain and the distribution of land, which determined real power.

While this reductive analysis of contemporary events may not have been accurate, Harrington was among the first to identify the unsustainability of political systems that diverge significantly from the distribution of economic power.

Which brings us back to Swan’s perhaps unconscious description of his preferred model of civic engagement.

The key characteristic of Australian democracy since the 1980s, and probably earlier, is not that of ordinary voters being manipulated, but of their wholesale disengagement from politics, and its outsourcing to a professional class. That class has responded to disengagement by establishing mechanisms to preserve and strengthen its own position. That class has also widened to include a range of occupations engaged in the essential process of public policy: lobbyists; statutory board appointees, government relations advisers, union officials, media advisers and spinners, economists, marketers, pollsters, public servants, journalists, CEOs, consultants.

This class has an iron group on policy-making through their close and regular involvement in it. In comparison, voters are only consulted every three years, or appear via proxy in the form of polling and focus groups. This class is, for the most part, supportive of the liberal reform agenda of the past 30 years, even though key elements of that agenda, and particularly privatisation and deregulation, remain trenchantly opposed by the electorate. And the atomising impact of that reform agenda only serves to reinforce civic disengagement.

This is a new version of the “disinterested” landed elites of civic humanism. And voters have status only as workers, consumers and sources of data for the remorseless growth of state and corporate surveillance. Or, if they can be appropriately manipulated, as intruders into a policy process controlled by elites.

What was most amusing about Swan’s jibe at those elites who won’t play by the rules any more was his attempt to co-opt the language of the Occupy movement, which has as its heart the goal of reversing the elite control of, particularly, US politics, which is far more advanced than here and accelerating, not diminishing. Polling here suggests that, even if they didn’t directly support the Occupy movement, voters share the concern that government is too quick to look after the interests of corporations rather than those of the community.

But that will only be reversed when voters re-engage politically and seek to disrupt the operation of the political class that controls public policy.

At that point, the current structure of Australian politics would become unsustainable.

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  • 1
    Peter Ormonde
    Posted Monday, 12 March 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    But that will only be reversed when voters re-engage politically and seek to disrupt the operation of the political class that controls public policy.”

    Wouldn’t hurt if politicians actually engaged politically either Bernard.

    This dumbed down tweedling and deeing based on polling … each “side” trying to be more like the other one” really sticks in my craw. I think it also sticks in the collective craw - particularly young people. Turns ‘em right off.

    One of the attractions of the Greens is that they seem at least to stand for something beyond economic management. A better society, fairer - a reason for hope. And the public’s perception of the Greens working with the Labor Government has been nothing but positive. I wish we could clone Tony Windsor.

    I am hoping against hope that the ALP National Executive will turf out the pollsters and marketing gurus who delivered that vacuous Kevin 07 slogan and instead adopt a far more politically engaged approach that does not treat the electorate like “political consumers”. We are smarter than that. So are they.

  • 2
    Thorn
    Posted Monday, 12 March 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I thought the piece interesting, and probably fairly accurate. I am appalled at the lack of real knowledge of how the system operates in this country.

    Just one point though. I see that you have once again referred to ….. “the government’s backdown to the clubs and pubs industry over poker machine reform”. Why on earth do you say that the Government backed down?

    The fact was that the legislation was not going to pass through the Reps, so why bother with putting it up for a vote?

    I agree with the reforms, but I think it was encumbent upon Mr. Wilkie to convince his fellow independents to vote for them. The Government delivered the Labor vote, it was up to him to deliver the cross benchers.

    Seeing him all hot under the collar about the Govt withdrawing the legisation was quite frankly rather ridiculous.

  • 3
    Mike Flanagan
    Posted Monday, 12 March 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    The ‘wholesale diengagement’ has many authors. Some of it can be attributed to the medias’ representation of our politics as a ‘blood sport’ rather than a rational debate of the character and future of the nation.
    While the press have revelled in this display of a ‘blood sport’ rather than a contest of ideas, many of the political operatives of both persuasions have tried to curry both press and public favour by participating in this puerile process.
    The recent published introspections of some of our political journalists following the media debacle exposed by the recent leadership contest is a pointer as to why people are disengaged.
    Non of the reports by these people attend to the fact that they all engaged in this blood sport rather than address political policy or proposals. Political journalism today is a constant flow of opinionated diatribes about personalities driven by a collective bias endemic in group of journalists that are numerically dominated by the Murdoch Media Propaganda Machine.
    If perhaps some of these people actually attended to their fundamental responsibility to INFORM their audiences of the FACTS then perhaps all of us including our youth would be more engagaed.
    Whilst opinion and analysis by respected members of the profession has its’ place, the media in general has to recognise that reporting of the details and facts is necessary to engage the popoulation as a whole.

  • 4
    tinman_au
    Posted Monday, 12 March 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    @ Thorn - As it never actually got put forward, I guess we’ll never know what might have happened had it actually come down to a vote.

    Nice article Bernard, you’ve summed up the issue(s) nicely. Now, if you could actually come up with a piece detailing a solution to getting “average” voters engaged again, I expect you’d win all kinds of awards and accolades :)

  • 5
    Warren Joffe
    Posted Monday, 12 March 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Good to read a Crikey essay I want to bookmark.

    But what wishful thinking. “But that will only be reversed when voters re-engage politically and seek to disrupt the operation of the political class that controls public policy.

    At that point, the current structure of Australian politics would become unsustainable.”

    Whatever it is you want reversed it is extremely unlikely to happen while all major contenders for the government benches get better and better at doing enough with other people’s money to pitch successfully for the 50.1 per cent majority without building up a large and sufficiently united body of the seriously discontented. We are at least 50 years away from the hell of Greek politics and even there the political class remains in the saddle.

  • 6
    Paul
    Posted Monday, 12 March 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    The fundamental difference between the political class and people who become obscenely rich using the resources that also belong to others is the all politicians I have known have an interest in developing policies for the betterment of society.
    That is true for both sides of politics, though I suspect Abbott is an exception.
    Miners and their ilk profit from something they do not own and sell to someone who has a need for that something.
    To allow these people to determine the rules for the rest of us is an obscenity. The miners massive support for the anti scientists opposed to climate change action is an example. If it is as severe as many fear, and indications are it will be, then millions of poor people will be displaced, too high a price to pay for Rineharts greed in my opinion.
    The fact that the miners have basically bought the Lib/Nationals makes their influence all the more extreme and scary.
    So I agree with Swan, the sad thing is he will be too intimidated to take any real action.

  • 7
    Warren Joffe
    Posted Monday, 12 March 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    @ Paul - but interesting to hear others comment

    Does “obscenely rich” like “obscene profits”, ever say anything with meaning which is not 99% about the writer/speaker and 1 per cent (OK maybe 90/10) about the facts in the real world, e.g. that the wealth or profits are well above community/industry average (and would one believe even that from the user of “obscene”)?

    Having known hundreds of politicians and not a few of the very rich (hundreds of millions at least) I am, I am afraid, compelled to report that the very rich would, on average, be more likely to put acting in what they honestly, and at least rationally, think is in the public interest above merely selfish concerns than most politicians. (And, incidentally, I would put Tony Abbott with his Catholic views that I don’t share, and a whole lot of personal good works for the disadvantaged, not least Aborigines, which I cannot claim to match, as well ahead of the pack in seeking the good of society and individuals not known to him).

    You don’t have to be a “people person” or particularly observant, sensitive and perceptive to know that Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” has a lot of truth in it - and probably has for the last 100.000 years (certainly for 10000). Politicians are typically on the make and what will keep them elected and advance their careers is, almost of absolute necessity, constantly at the forefront of their thinking and action. The rich have, by definition, pushed themselve well up the Maslow need hierarchy to where it is entirely natural and observably common that they seek public honour, esteem and a reputation for good works and generosity or, more selfishly “self-actualisation” (they are not mutually exclusive: the very rich Jim Wolfensohn played the cello at Carnegie Hall but also became President of the World Bank which would not have added to his wealth).

    While it is true that Andrew Forrest, Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart command companies which are, unlike BHP and RIO, particularly threatened by the new mining tax and perhaps the carbon tax too (which is objectively quite useless in doing anything for the climate but a source of tax revenue for the government which they have made nakedly obvious is to be used to buy votes at the margin for ALP members) you have misstated relevant facts by muddling different ideas.
    They (or their companies, and, be it noted, public shareholders indirectly, meaning a lot of people hoping to finance their own retirements or already doing so) own 100 per cent what they do own and make money out of using, developing, processing, and selling. The public ownership to which you refer is entirely the anterior right of the states to minerals which entitles the states to licence exploration and mining for agreed fees and royalties or taxes which they impose. Unless we are Western Australians we don’t even have a derived ownership interest in those minerals. It is true that the royalty system is open to much objection but I will leave that unless you show some interest and evidence that you might grasp the various points that can be made.

    BTW, I have no shares directly or indirectly in the companies associated with any of the three billionaires mentioned unless my small residual life assurance policies give me some infinitesimal interest.

  • 8
    Mack the Knife
    Posted Monday, 12 March 2012 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    The conservative side of politics, media and rich magnates have pushed many voters past that point where stress can be handled and the voters have switched off caring and interest in finding out the truth.

  • 9
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Monday, 12 March 2012 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    I am afraid, compelled to report that the very rich would, on average, be more likely to put acting in what they honestly, and at least rationally, think is in the public interest above merely selfish concerns than most politicians.”

    So it would seem Mr Joffe, on the surface, although you reveal much about yourself in your assumptions about politicians there.

    Everyone thinks they act in the public interest. It is the extent of the self-delusion that really is the key. The miners, not necessarily the 3 amigos, but let’s face it, them plus the CEO’s of the big 3 mining companies all manifestly confused self interest with the national interest. In fact, they baldly stated, to paraphrase them, that anything that didn’t bow in front of their might and power was bad for the country.

    Kloppers with his ‘soveriegn risk’! Really - in the national interest. Really?

    Claims that the miners ‘saved’ the country during the GFC bad days, when they in fact pulled back in investment at the time, and that they employ relatively few Australians. Of course, excuse me for introducing a few facts to an otherwise fairy tale like narrative.

    Further, it is pretty clear and demonstrable in every facet of society that it is those with the largest egos who are most likely to end up as captains of industry or as political heavyweights. It is not their great desire to contribute, but their great desire to extract that binds them. A few certainly make it by way of sheer quality of character and intelligence bu they are more the exception. It is the ‘born to rule’ mentality that sees people of limited talent put themselves forward forcibly and gain the prize on a regular basis. This economy is not a meritocracy, except on the basis that merit is defined as sociopathic disregard for everyone else.

    But I didn’t come her to fight you, or Bernard, only to set you thinking.

    Bernard’s story, while appearing neat, relies on the idea that the idea that the ‘people’ were ever engaged politically. Hard to re-engage if you never were. I doubt that the real average Joe, since the time of the first fleet, was ever politically engaged. It has always been the rabble rouser, the politically engaged and the journalists who make this assumption, but it is an extremely difficulty proposition to support.

    Worse, having made that assumption, Bernard then suggests or implies that the political operatives that have come and bastardised the whole system did so because the ‘people’ became disengaged. It sounds nice, but even if there is any truth in it there is still the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? I dount there was ever a chicken, and therefore no egg either.

    Here’s something more believable. The vast majority of Australians have never been politically engaged, and only rarely rouse themselves over serious issues, perhaps the Whitlam sacking, wars and conscription and possibly very few other events in our history.

    All that activity happening outside Canberra is the rest of Australia ignoring politics, by and large. If you take out the political morons who vote for the same party every election regardless of policy, and the other morons who don’t know who they are going to vote for until the ballot paper is in front of them (BS I say, but that’s another story) then you are left with a relatively few politically cognoscenti. It has always been thus.

    The rise of the professional politician is almost certainly more connected with demographics, and the rise of the ‘what’s in it for me’ generation. Conviction politician? They all are, it’s just that most of them have the conviction to further themselves, a secret they keep from their knowing.

    So sorry for the long winded post. Pithy it ain’t.

  • 10
    Ceteris Paribus
    Posted Monday, 12 March 2012 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    Off topic- but I enjoyed Swan’s outrage- the only problem is that for the last 5 years, his actions have come no where near his sentiments.

    Swan has been a signatory to: unfair superannuation tax expenditures across income levels, super tax exemptions based upon age rather than need, no Denticare scheme, a Disability Insurance Scheme still in the never-never future, tax trusts, middle and upper-class welfare in respect of children care, baby bonuses, and family tax, starvation income support for the unemployed, confirmation of negative gearing and discounts on taxing capital, industry welfare and on and on and on.

    Do only Green supporters read Labor’s Fair Australia platform?

  • 11
    heysoos
    Posted Monday, 12 March 2012 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Why do not we just realise that “Democracy consists of choosing your dictators, after they’ve told you what you think it is you want to hear.”
    - Alan Corenk
    and go from there.

  • 12
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 13 March 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    It is hard to argue with Swan’s main arguments that Palmer, Forrest & Rinehart have openly misrepresented facts on both the MRRT and carbon tax and their companies contribution to Australia’s success, that they are willing to spend millions upon millions to protect THEIR billions and that they are pushing the conservatives side of politics’ barrow.

    In recent days we have seen Rinehart enlisted Joyce and Schultz to help her rip off her own kids, she has flown Joyce, Bishop and another Lib to India for a wedding and she has picked up Bernardi’s travel expenses as well. Palemer is one of if not the biggest political donor to the libs.

    None of these things would be an issue in isolation but when wecombine them and look at the libs economic policies and see both how damaging they will be to the nation and how beneficial they will be to Palmer, Forrest & Rinehart they become seriously worrying.

  • 13
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 13 March 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Add Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash to the list of recipients of Rineharts generousity.

  • 14
    Steven Warren
    Posted Tuesday, 13 March 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Thorn, they shouldn’t have dropped the vote because it was unlikely to pass.

    They should have had the vote and then when it got voted down it would be on every member of Parliament who voted against the bill’s permanent record.

    That way we’d know which of the muppets to vote out next time. Not taking it to a vote was gutless as it was hiding the background politics of the issue from the general public.

  • 15
    Mark from Melbourne
    Posted Tuesday, 13 March 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Personally I think Swan did OK to say what he did and most of the media coverage has actually misconstrued his words, broadening it to a class warfare, how dare he sort of discussion when he was very specific in his targets and his reason for targeting them.

    As for dismissing this because it has always been thus is just crap. Of course, there have always been people with money/power who use it for their own ends whilst purporting to be acting in the countries interest. Doesn’t hurt to turn the light on them a bit though, does it? And it is rather what democracy is all about, isnt it? Decisions made by the majority from an informed position, and usually for the majority’s good.

    And why anyone would argue that because they are fabulously wealthy, they have either more of a right to have their thoughts heard/acted on, or are more likely to be “right”, is a nonsense. Most of the very successful people I have rubbed shoulders with are pretty one dimensional in their thinking - it kinda comes with the territory - and life is much more complex to allow that sort of narrow minded thinking make the big decisions.

    As for Swan’s particular targets I really think we would do well to do pretty much the opposite of what they say - a pretty greedy, venal bunch from what I have seen.

  • 16
    Warren Joffe
    Posted Tuesday, 13 March 2012 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    @ Dog’s Breakfast

    Quite pithy enough: no need to apologise for length. Can’t disagree with too much though I can see the modern, possibly postmodern, cliché-purveying jargoneer accusing you of being reductionist, indeed “obscenely reductionist” for good measure. (Actually I think you carefully or merely cautiously used “most likely” where it mattered, but that wouldn’t have stopped the average Crikey critic from applying broad brush generalisation).

    I think you missed the place of luck in the creation of most large fortunes. I think that, in Australia since WW2 luck has been more prevalent than the big crime once famously said to lie at the root of every great fortune. Of course good tax lawyers have helped too.

    If I had time to quibble I might agree with your suggestion that people have rarely been politically engaged but point to the huge fall in membership of political parties as significant. It may be that people are now more realistic or just cynical (or may just have so many alternative ways of filling their time outside work) but I suspect that people had more of a sense that they counted and politics mattered 60 years ago. Of course the existence of a real working class of people who could have become highly educated as a matter of IQ but didn’t and the antagonism of the middle classes (Menzies forgotten people) to Communism, socialism and militant unions helped to keep the parties well stocked with serious-minded people. Add in Catholic activists and you have much more political enthusiasm at grass roots level. So I don’t know that demographic change is a good explanation for the waning of political engagement but the fact that there are now far more university graduates competing to get ahead makes it attractive for some of them, and by no means necessarily the most academically gifted, to aim for a political career which may provide a decent salary for one whose spouse is also a professional, lots of travel and expenses, and a pretty good pension, as well as public prominence and a chance to talk. Not surprisngly a lot of people who are not in that mould don’t choose to compete with them or even belong to the same oraganisatons.

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