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.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey