Election 2004: House to house fighting through the institutions

David Burchell, University of Western Sydney

If the Coalition should perchance lose office on October 9, most people on the Left will be breaking out the champers and bar nuts to celebrate the fall of what they’ll probably describe as the most ideologically driven of Australian conservative governments. Particularly bitter words will be uttered over the Tampa episode, the asylum-seekers crisis, and the war in Iraq. And there will be heady talk about an end to union-busting, scapegoating, wedge politics and the ‘politics of fear’.

In this I think the Left will be pretty much on the wrong track—as indeed, in my view, it has often been on the wrong track over the last two or three years. Despite the received view to the contrary, the hard-line conservative ideological credentials of the most recent Howard government are fairly muted. Indeed, the prevailing political wind savours less of the antiseptic odour of ideological purity than of the visceral scent of the political fox hunt. With the benefit of hindsight, the really striking feature of the later Howard years may seem to be the government’s—or perhaps actually the PM’s—willingness to trade anything, more or less, for short-term tactical political gain. In many respects, this has been not the most ideological but the most ruthlessly pragmatic government in living memory. But the Left is right in this much. The government has been ruthlessly pragmatic—but not in a good way.

The government’s failure of ideology is less matter of intention than of execution.

The government’s failure of ideology is less matter of intention than of execution. Just about everyone in the conservative parties these days, from the PM down, seems to share a deeply-rooted instinct that Australia has drifted over time into a kind of gooey progressivist morass from which it needs to be rescued. Indeed, if there’s a single unifying feature of conservative administrations around the globe, it’s this pervasive sense of a need to roll the clock back somehow, to restore eroded social values of patriotism and respect, arrest the decline of the family as an institution, and bring back lost culture of personal initiative and responsibility. It’s a political culture of social restoration.

And yet, twenty years after the ‘New Right’, how to achieve these goals is still a matter for genuine confusion in conservative circles. There are numerous voices booming again from the hard Right of the political landscape for a massive rolling-back of the state, an end to welfare ‘as we know it’, a decisive counter-attack against the supposedly liberal bias of the media and information industries, and so on. And there’s an urgent sense of the need to ‘roll back’ the relativistic, easygoing moral values of the Sixties and Seventies, somehow.

And so the federal government has devoted an inordinate amount of attention to the venial ideological sins of the ABC—almost convincing itself, apparently, that if particular institutional bastions of the liberal intelligentsia could be overcome, somehow the whole social landscape would change. People would start believing again in the God-given sanctity of marriage; patriotism would once again become a unifying force; moral certainty would reign again in the land. The same flailing, inchoate instinct also underlies of the PM’s bizarre personal campaign against the state schooling sector—which he seems to see as staffed by an army of ABC-lookalikes, mischievously dispensing nuggets of postmodern relativism disguised as history lessons. And it presumably has something to do also with the government’s spiteful campaign against the larger half of the university sector.

In practice, however, modern conservatives evidently have few new ideas about how to ‘roll back’ social values or restore personal qualities of responsibility and initiative, other than giving a market-based or faith-directed tincture to programs which are explicitly un-conservative in their basic character. And while no-one on the Left is going to welcome the government’s reforms to unemployment or welfare policies as progressive innovations, in practice these reforms have been less disruptive and less objectionable than just about anybody anticipated. You could almost go so far as to say that in social policy the government—like some Victorian missionary roaming the dark streets of London in search of souls to save—has been mugged by reality.

The three great social policy legacies of the latter Howard years, in retrospect, will be the Work for the Dole scheme, the Job Network and the recent reforms to family law and divorce. There is no indication that Labor, if elected, would abolish or greatly overhaul any of them—nor is it obvious that it would need to.

Modern conservatives have few new ideas about how to ‘roll back’ social values.

John and Anne Nevile (2003) have shown pretty persuasively that whatever its intentions or ideological justifications, Work for the Dole has had broadly positive effects on the employability of many young people, and may well also have had important positive effects on their morale and personal self-esteem. (The persistent refusal of many Left economists to acknowledge that the ‘subjective’ dimension of the unemployment experience matters from the point of view of employment policy—usually purely by reference to theoretical assertions about employment economics—may well be judged poorly by history.)

The Job Network has had deep structural flaws, as well as teething problems. The dismantling of the old public-service-based job placement system has drained a mass of institutional know-how out of the system, the long-term unemployed (being uneconomical customers) are being relatively neglected, and it seems clear that charitable agencies are often ill-equipped to behave as business tendering for competitive contracts. Yet despite these problems, and within the limits of its woefully inadequate funding base the Job Network’s outcomes are not self-evidently worse than the systems that preceded it. It can be made workable.

Finally, despite the vociferous attempts of the PM to present the government as an enemy of the Family Court and a friend to angry non-custodial dads, the recent reforms to family law and divorce are on the whole sensible, unextreme, and timely. Further, it’s worth noting that they were devised by a bi-partisan parliamentary committee that included representatives both from the right-wing of the government’s ranks, and the left-wing of the opposition’s. All of which suggests that the pervasive air of ideological warfare in social policy is a tad overstated.

Social policy innovation is only one part of a much broader story, of course. The early Howard budgets needlessly and maliciously stripped money from many social institutions and community organisations that desperately needed it—and most of that money has never been restored. The overall social policy budget has actually shrunk, for the first time since 1945. The extreme ambitions of the first Howard government in industrial law and workers’ rights were thwarted only by the Senate, rather than any sudden access of reasonableness. The re-casting of employment policy was done on the cheap, and this cheapness has never properly been remedied. The PM’s very own family income policies—now partly reversed—have constituted the single greatest experiment in conservative ‘social engineering’ of the past seven years, to the great detriment of part-time working mums everywhere as Patricia Apps’ contribution to this election symposium shows. And the conditions in our immigration detention centres are still an international scandal.

In hindsight, though, when its time finally closes (this year or in three years’ time) the Howard government will be remembered not for consistent ideological extremism (which has become more muted over time), but rather for its extreme political pragmatism. And, as I said earlier, pragmatism of the cynical rather than the constructive kind. After all, the kind of pragmatism that comes from the urgent need to make some portion of one’s higher ideals real, even at the cost of purity of principle, is often no bad thing, on either side of politics. The type of pragmatism that really deserves the term’s inglorious reputation, however, is the type born of soured hopes and militant defensiveness. It’s not ideology abridged by practice so much as ideology warped by bitter experience. It’s the type the PM has made his very own.

The Prime Minister is no intellectual—
indeed, he prides himself on this fact.

The Prime Minister is no intellectual—indeed, he prides himself on this fact. But he is an astute and observant man. He is well aware of the weaknesses, not just of his parliamentary opponents, but even more so of his social and cultural foes—those garrulous if unworldly tertiary-educated professionals around whose enthusiasms and loathings much of the government’s divide-and-rule political strategy revolves. In particular, he seems to have an uncanny knack for divining the issues which urban professionals employed in the public and community sectors will see as no pasaran ‘litmus-tests’—and which can in consequence can be used as distractions from the ‘main game’, or as tools for dividing patriotic suburbia from the oppositional inner-city. Nobody much in Australia has shown an interest in legislating for gay marriage. (Not least because gay couples in this country already have access to a fair degree of equality of benefit without it). But threaten to ban it anyway, just for show, and watch those banners being unfurled and the barricades thrown up.

And then there’s the PM’s darker side. Just as Steve Waugh spent his illustrious career in cricket captaincy constantly reminding himself of the cricketing humiliations of his youth, the PM today is still the same man who spent the greater part of his political life stewing on the opposition benches, with much of that time spent toiling under the weight of scheming rivals and incompetent superiors. This bitter experience has left him with an ingrained defensiveness and reactiveness that seems all-encompassing, and which apparently drives him to view just about every arena of policy as a progressive attack-zone to be countered, or as an opportunity to divide, deceive, or generally confound his opponents. When his time for the Pearly Gates finally comes, it’s difficult to believe that his life-motto could be anything other than ‘I didn’t let the bastards get me’.

Almost all the political attention of progressives nowadays is occupied with the great moral issues of the moment—the asylum-seekers debate and the war in Iraq. So the story goes, these are the crucial, the Spanish Civil War-like, barricades of the day. (It was no surprise to see a recent volume, 1930s-style, titled Authors Take Sides on Iraq. Or to see the low level of debate it proffered.) Yet a great deal of what the Left likes to think of (rather histrionically) as the government’s non-stop campaign of ‘lies and deceit’ on these issues amounts to little more than the combination of these two simple facts. When he feels under threat the PM will do just about anything to blunt what he sees as the attack, or to distract or divert those whom he believes to be his attackers. And to delay or forestall further assaults, he will always try to set his opponents arguing among themselves—not just by rhetorical campaigns, but by policy too, if necessary.

All of this would be unexceptional enough if it related merely to the cut and thrust of political debate. After all, as a radio commentator recently noted, one person’s wedge is another person’s coalition, and dividing one’s enemies is in principle no more morally reprehensible than uniting one’s friends. And nobody ever invented Queensberry’s rules for electoral combat.

The problem for Australian political culture is that the strategy never really does stop there. And so for the last three years in particular—after the PM’s narrow scrape in 2001, and the lessons in ‘wedging’ he learned from it—a very broad sweep of Australian public policy has become a weapon in a series of short-term political campaigns in pre-emptive striking or division-and-rule.

Previously dusty and inconspicuous public institutions have become public political battlegrounds.

The PM’s parliamentary opponents can’t claim to be complete political virgins in this respect, of course. Long before the present government targeted Mark Latham for a personal mud-slinging campaign of unprecedented savagery, the Labor governments of the 1980s and early 90s employed supposedly impartial public servants to gather together the past misstatements of Labor’s opponents (although not, it should be noted, the details of their extra-marital affairs). And it was after all Labor who first perfected the art of using expert (but in practice partisan) Treasury advice as a means of defending its own rubbery budget costings while attacking those of the bureaucrat-starved opposition.

Yet if Labor dug a dubious track, the Coalition has bitumened it into a super-highway. As study after study by the government’s academic opponents has lovingly detailed, ever since the Tampa fiasco we now have a system of bureaucratic advice in Australia that depends upon the ability of ministers to deny that they were ever advised on anything or everything within their portfolio area, whenever convenient. To all intents and purposes, department bureaucrats required to be in close contact with their ministers have now become publicly-funded party functionaries—whether they like it or not. (Most often, hardly surprisingly, they don’t.)

Not only that: the business cycle itself—once viewed by conservatives as a geometrical mystery akin to the movement of the planets—now requires to be tamed and harnessed to the needs of the political cycle, such that interest rate movements themselves have become political counters, regardless of the wishes of the Reserve Bank. (At least one could never accuse Paul Keating of using interest rate fluctuations for short-term political gain!) The government ritually loads the budget coffers with booty after each election, and then scrapes them bare before the next, distributing the proceeds holus-bolus towards any constituency that looks querulous or troublesome. It’s a strange kind of electoral Keynesianism, a combination of pump-priming and the old-fashioned election-day banquet.

Previously dusty and inconspicuous public institutions have become public political battlegrounds. The ABC board is now a war zone in need of UN intervention; the National Museum directorship is the dictionary-definition ‘poisoned chalice’; even state high school principals now seem to spend as much time defending their school’s ‘core values’ as they do managing their (increasingly) scarce resources. Instead of the ‘long march through the institutions’ the Coalition has pioneered a new tactic: house-to-house fighting through the institutions. At the end of the day, though, the military outcome often seems to be that the institutions are left charred and smouldering.

This intense politicisation of Australian public life will surely come at a heavy cost. The so-called ‘Westminster’ vision of the state apparatus as a neutral and benevolent institution suspended above the arena of political battle looks like a fusty anachronism in an era increasingly dominated by political paranoia and hyperventilation. Yet for social democrats some practical, rough-hewn version of a dispassionate bureaucracy has always been an indispensable companion of good progressive governance. You need to be able to trust your advisers and public officials if you’re going to shape controversial social changes. And you need some broad public reservoir of moderate goodwill beyond the wire-fences of the political polemicists and partisans. It’s dangerous to have to rely on the raw faith of the loyalists alone.

We live in a time of political nostalgia and ostentatious disillusion, Right and Left.

It’s a curious fact of our political life that while most intellectuals nowadays seem incapable of detecting more than a microscopic difference between the political parties, our political debate has rarely been more polarised or strident. There seems, in short, a gulf between our perceptions of the battle-lines and the objectives of battle, on the one hand, and the manner in which the battle is carried out, on the other. In part this may be a result of the ascendancy of moral issues in our political argument, since victories over one’s moral enemies are required to be absolute and Biblical in their scope, and morality demands vengeance and revenge.

In part, too, it may be because the political needs of the moment and what could be called (in inner-city-speak) the political ‘headspace’ of the protagonists have rarely been more out of kilter. We live in a time of political nostalgia and ostentatious disillusion, Right and Left. As I noted earlier, a good part of the Right is still in mourning for social and cultural verities (what George W. Bush would call ‘moral clarity’) that haven’t really been in evidence since the 1960s. By the same token, a fair proportion of leftist intellectuals, in their heads, are still living somewhere back in the 1970s, and their bitterness still smacks of the burnt aftertaste of scorched dreams. At the same time, in progressive circles more broadly there’s an overwhelming weariness of the political imagination—as if all the ‘good’ issues have already been won and lost, and nothing remains except the humdrum administration of an inglorious affluence.

Just about as many Australians as previously are living chaotic, dysfunctional lives on the margins of affluence, or are struggling to ‘get things together’. Meanwhile our social policy ideas remain stubbornly anchored in the ideological certainties of another era. This government has done an excellent job of raising the temperature of political battle, so that just about everyone feels the need to take sides, one way or another, on the great moral issues of the day. Yet when the political fusillades have died down, the distant echo of the ricochets may sound eerily like whistling in the dark.


Nevile, A. & Nevile, J. 2003, Work for the Dole: Obligation or Opportunity?, Centre for Applied Economic Research, UNSW.

David Burchell teaches in Humanities at the University of Western Sydney. He is chair of the editorial board of Australian Universities Review.