The late J.K. Galbraith had a remarkable capacity to coin memorable epigrams and quotable quotes. The idea that the conventional wisdom is always wrong was one of them.

Galbraith has been deeply unfashionable for some time. Indeed, I recall that at lunch with former Liberal minister Rod Kemp, he remarked with some amusement that I must be the last person in the world to regularly quote the economist, diplomat, prices and incomes controller, novelist and public intellectual.

Yet the insight about the conventional wisdom is one that  tells us much about how attitudes are shaped, how hard it is to change them and how the general consensus influences political debate.

The conventional wisdom on the Victorian state election — to which I subscribed with some provisos — was that the Victorian government would be returned. Being interviewed on ABC radio on the Friday morning before the election I expressed a cautious view but followed it up with another insight from another quotable character, Sam Goldwyn, that it is dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future. To all those about to point out that it wasn’t Goldwyn, I admit it has also been variously attributed to Yogi Berra, Niels Bohr, Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, an ancient Chinese proverb and others.

When by Saturday night I was proved wrong it was interesting to reflect on how wrong so many of us are about so many things. One expects US political and public debate to be limited by erroneous beliefs and notable silences — where else after all do quite so many people believe in creationism and where so many people know so little about so much — but Australia is not much better in many respects.

Just think about some of the major issues determining the course of current debate and discussion in Australia?

Our debt levels are too high. Australia’s government debt levels are enviably low compared with almost every other country in the world. Ditto tax levels by the way.

It is essential that we cut government spending to aid economic recovery. Some government spending could be more wisely spent, but the latest growth figures demonstrate what will happen if stimulus is withdrawn too hastily.

Cutting government spending will improve business and consumer confidence and create more jobs in the private sector. That sentiment was expressed in a letter to the UK Telegraph, signed by 34 business leaders, supporting the UK coalition government’s spending cuts. As Private Eye pointed out, 23 of the 34 ran companies that had recently shed 18,432 jobs. The situation in Australia is probably similar if the record of business leaders calling for spending cuts is examined.

Australia is being swamped by a refugee tide. Compared to most European countries we have insignificant numbers of refugees arriving, while at the same time we were a major contributor to creating one of the world’s biggest refugee crises — the exodus of Iraqis from their homes and country after we invaded Iraq.

Crime is out of control and it’s not safe to go out at night. In fact, for the average person, it’s safer to go out than stay home because the bulk of violence occurs in the family home.

Alcohol consumption is out of control and binge drinking is at crisis levels. In fact, while there continue to be serious problems with alcohol abuse, per capita consumption levels have been falling for some time.

Chemicals in food, etc, etc, etc, etc, are poisoning us and causing cancer. Sure there are some poisonous substances out there, but food and most other things — particularly processed ones — are safer than at any time in human history. The fear of chemicals are in themselves a vivid illustration of national and journalistic scientific illiteracy.

Our diet is killing us. Well some of us are getting fatter, but in the past century there has been a significant increase in life expectancy along with the significant increases in consumption of butter, chocolate, ice-cream and all the other things some of us sadly have to avoid. The relationship is not causal but still interesting nevertheless.

This time it’s different. In the past few hundred years there have been many who have lost a great deal of money believing in that specific conventional wisdom.

Australia shouldn’t go it alone on climate change. In fact Australia, rather than going it alone, is actually lagging behind much of the rest of the developed world and even lagging behind the Chinese.

As a middle-size country Australia has some influence in the world. We might have some influence in the immediate Pacific region but for the rest of the world it is a delusion exemplified by the stupid statements many politicians make about how we might influence China. For instance, writing in the AFR about current events in Korea, the new Liberal MP, Josh Frydenberg, started sentences with the words “China must understand” and “China must seize”. Frydenberg is apparently a confident young man, but seems to be given to as much self-reflection and self-awareness as the apocryphal Australian country newspaper editor who started a leader with the words: “We have warned the Tsar many times …”  Frydenberg’s article may possibly not result in the Chinese Politburo calling an emergency meeting, but it will stand as an exemplar for what is wrong with much Australian foreign policy debate.

Why is all this so? In most cases it is created by endless repetition of a few ideas — some ideological or religious mantras, some inspired by a desire to generate funds or profits, some by self-interest, some by mutual reinforcement among elite groups, and some by sheer intellectual laziness.

This endless repetition strives to frame public debate and shape what should be on or off the political agenda. In most stages of the process PR is at work in campaigns using standard PR strategies and tactics.

Sometimes the idea generators even admit that’s what’s they’re up to.  For instance, at a seminar some time ago a panel of health thought police experts were asked what they actually did about a specific health issue they were talking about. After a slight pause they all agreed that what they did was campaign.

In other words, they use PR to win people and politicians over to their view by shaping the conventional wisdom.

*Ritual declaration of interest: The author has worked for the food, chemicals and alcohol industries as well as the Police Association of Victoria.

Peter Fray

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