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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.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

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.

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54 comments

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

  1. DiddyWrote

    It’s a Gerontocracy.
    Ancient Sparta was ruled by a council of elders called the Gerousia whose membership had to be made up of males over the age of sixty.
    Nice to see Abbott returning to traditional values.

  2. Dogs breakfast

    The baby boomers (and the pre baby boomers) aren’t going to let go of the levers of power without a bunfight.

    Apart from the obvious gender imbalance, there is probably no time in the history of humanity where the levers of power needed to get input from the yoof generation.

    Virtually everything we do today will be done differently in 5, then 10 years time, and it’s a problem that the people who are planning to meet the future are, ahem, unlikely to be familiar with the present.

    Yes, sorry, ageist comment. Inter-generational equity is going to have to be sorted out by those who are senior. Is suspect the younger generation are on a hiding.

    Oh, that’s right, climate change! Hi kids, here are a batch of problems for you to work on, we were too busy maintaining our grip on power to do anything!

  3. Jimmy

    This govt has a vision for the country that only the white over 60’s could really agree with, they want to review everything but only to get the outcome they want so they only people they can trust with the task are old and white males.

  4. klewso

    Maybe one of them is going to have a sex change?

  5. rhwombat

    I do so look forward to the day of PM Plibersek & Deputy PM Wong, if only to witness Rupert’s discomfort.

  6. Jimmy

    rhwombat – Rupert would have to have died and the News Ltd papers bought by someone less right wing for that to happen.

    Over the weekend I read Laurie Oakes, Miranda Devine and one other editorial in the Herald Sun – all of which criticised the ALP, there was no sign of any editorial even remotely approaching analysis of govt policy – and this after a week in which Fiona Nash got her self tangled up at senate estimates, Scott Morrison was trying to say he didn’t make a massive mistake and a poll came out showing the ALP up 54-46.

  7. wayne robinson

    It’s an absolute disgrace that the Abbott inner ministry is so old.

    And it can be mathematically proven that the cabinet is getting progressively older at the rate of 1 day per day, so the problem is getting worse.

    The solution is simple. Each day, sack one minister and replace him (it’s likely to be a male) with a new minister 19 days younger.

    Problem solved…

  8. Alex

    Bernard,

    I am an old (or can I refer to the mid-fifties as older?), white male, in the business world, and I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment. The government does indeed, need far more diversity in its appointments. I wouldn’t even mind if they included a tree-huggin, tote-puffin, non-straight, female hippy! All outlooks that encompass equality for all, are worthy of consideration (although, I’d draw the line at inclusion of Collingwood supporters. Let’s not get too carried away!).

    Cheers, Alex (an embittered and deeply disappointed Demons supporter).

  9. Bill Hilliger

    And for those whom follow American politics, the Republican party is also known as the party of angry old white men …is there a comparison here? Methinks in more ways than the chur nalists MSM could, would or should honestly report in respect to similarities of GOP policies and many of the coalition aspirational policies.

  10. Dez Paul

    I’m 53, white, male, well educated, middle class. This gummint represents nothing about me or what I believe. Guess I must exist in some parallel demographic to the one favoured by Abbott and his cronies.

    @Dogs Breakfast – well said. I have no kids, but what a shi tty legacy to leave the yoof of today.

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