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Federal

Mar 12, 2012

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

Using political theory, Wayne Swan's attack on mining magnates can reveal much about how politics functions in Australia.

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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.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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16 comments

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16 thoughts on “Rule by good-hearted elite: unpacking Swan’s theory

  1. Warren Joffe

    @ 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.

  2. Dogs breakfast

    “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.

  3. Warren Joffe

    @ 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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