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Mar 3, 2014

Country for old men: little diversity in Abbott's picks

A federal government that is composed nearly entirely of old white men is relying heavily on old white men for advice. It's unbalanced and not in the national interest.

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See if you can spot a pattern among the following appointments by the Abbott government.

In October, the government announced that a National Commission of Audit would be headed by 69-year-old Tony Shepherd. In December the government announced a financial services inquiry, to be headed by 65-year-old David Murray. In February the government announced 72-year-old Dick Warburton would lead a review of Renewable Energy Target. The Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Panel is headed by 76-year-old Maurice Newman. It has two female members out of 12 and an average age of 59 years old. In January, 66-year-old Peter Cosgrove was named the new Governor-General. Sixty-three-year-old Patrick McClure will head a welfare review. Seventy-year-old Dyson Heydon will head the royal commission unions; 67-year-old Ian Hanger will pursue Labor through the pink batts inquiry. Nick Minchin, 60, is off to New York as Consul-General; 62-year-old Alexander Downer is off to London as ambassador. Ziggy Switkowski, 65, was brought in to head NBN.

It’s not that there aren’t female appointees of the Abbott government: Amanda Vanstone is on the Commission of Audit, along with Peter Boxall (65) Peter Crone (47) Tony Cole (66) and retired WA public servant Robert Fisher. Carolyn Hewson is on the Murray Inquiry, along with Prof Kevin Davis (65), Craig Dunn (49) and Dr Brian McNamee (56). Shirley In’t Veld is on the RET review, along with Matt Zema (53) and Brian Fisher (63). Heather Henderson, who is 85, was appointed to the Old Parliament House Advisory Council, along with 72-year-old David Kemp and 80-year-old David Smith (in place of 63-year-old Barrie Cassidy, appointed by Labor).

It’s not that Labor didn’t have a similar pattern. Who is the most quoted name in education reform? Sixty-year-old David Gonski. And if you remove the once-ubiquitous Heather Ridout (and Christine Bennett, who headed the health and hospitals review), the profile of a number Labor reviews wasn’t that different to the Coalition’s.

But it’s one thing to ask older, and often retired, figures to conduct reviews — they have the experience and, at least ostensibly, the detachment to bring an objective but informed mind to public policy. It’s quite another for almost the entirety of a government to be made up of such people. The first Rudd ministry had four women; Julia Gillard’s did as well (plus up-and-comers like Tanya Plibersek and Kate Ellis in the outer ministry). Tony Abbott’s cabinet has Julie Bishop. And the average age of Abbott cabinet is a tick below 53. That compares to well below 51 for the cabinet of John Howard’s last term. And that last Howard cabinet had three women (Julie Bishop entered cabinet when Kay Patterson retired), with another five in the outer ministry.

Some of its appointees are highly competent. But this is a government with less diversity and greater age than John Howard’s last ministry in the cabinet as well as a predilection for old white male figures to review and investigate things.

“The Abbott government, to a degree remarkable even for the Coalition, is hopelessly unbalanced.”

And consider the institutions that support the Coalition. The Business Council now has a female CEO, but Gail Kelly is the only other female board member. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has only one female board member out of 12, although Kate Carnell is the incoming CEO. The Liberal think tank the Menzies Research Centre has one woman on its board of nine; no prizes for guessing the demographic of the remaining directors (check out the Centre’s event list for how often they hear the views of women). News Corp is controlled by a geriatric billionaire, with its Australian newspaper editors and commentators almost exclusively middle-aged and old men, an eternally raging prostatariat.  The Minerals Council of Australia has a board composed entirely of white males, mostly middle-aged or old. The views of these organisation are highly influential within the government.

Old white men (and I’m 46 and Anglo-Celtic, so I’ll soon be one myself) have their place. Males over 60 make up about 10% of the population. Their views and experience, which are of course as diverse as those of any other demographic, are a welcome addition to the policy mix. But these aren’t just any old white males. For example, there are no older former blue-collar workers who know what it’s like to struggle to adjust to economic reform. There are no old environmentalists, and hardly anyone from outside traditional business circles, or academia (provided they’re sufficiently conservative) or former senior public servants for conservative governments.

This means that some of the traits of old white men, and in particular old white men drawn primarily from the business sector, come to be predominant in public policy. Australian polling consistently shows climate denialists are disproportionately older, usually male, usually conservative. British and American polling data shows the same. So it goes with the government’s appointments: David Murray, Dick Warburton and Maurice Newman are all climate sceptics; Shepherd has warned Australian mustn’t lead the world in responding to climate change (as if there has ever been any danger of that); Brian Fisher was the famous statistician for the Howard government’s denialism.

And such men tend to confuse the national interest for their own interests, believing that anything that benefits business, like lower corporate tax rates and less regulation, is automatically a good thing for Australia, even if consumers have to pay more tax to make up for it, or communities and the environment are damaged because of lax regulation. They also clone themselves. As the dearth of women and non-white men on Australian boards attests, put some white men together and they’ll perpetuate their own kind, continually renewing their ranks exclusively from people like themselves.

This will doubtless be construed as an attack on older men. But the problem isn’t the views of older men, or even those of old businessmen. It’s what happens when you have nothing but such views driving public policy. Governments must always balance experience, competence and representation of the community they are governing. The Abbott government, to a degree remarkable even for the Coalition, is hopelessly unbalanced.

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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54 comments

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54 thoughts on “Country for old men: little diversity in Abbott’s picks

  1. Wayne Bingham

    I beg to differ, it has nothing to do with age. check some stats at http://www.knowledgepool.com.au . This is not about age or gender, to perpetuate the OLD whitemen story is to miss the point. being old doesnt mean you stop thinking, “Oh I’m 60 I can’t apply critical analysis anymore.” This lot choose their friendlies who are not in jobs, statistically that means people over 60. this is the most partisan govt I have seen for a while, in Australia anyway. The suggestion there is an inherent intergenerational conflict is garbage. Sorry to say this but there is no shortage of young dullards, nor old ones. The real intergenerational conflict was created through vote buying with Howard. Its just this Govt has a preference for compliance over thinking. Nothing to do with age. The great legacy of John Howard is the young dullards are funding the old ones. Thank you so much.

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