Former Prime Minister John Howard was the guest speaker at a dinner held a couple of months ago to celebrate the 500th issue of the magazine Quadrant. In his speech, which you can read in the current issue of the magazine, he said this: In the end, politics is not a public relations contest, it is a contest of ideas. I think he is right, and I wondered, as I read, what he thought the contested ideas were.
Some examples came later. There were people of unsound thought [who] have preoccupied themselves with other causes [than communism]: the causes of radical environmentalism, the radicalisation of gender politics, the radicalisation of all forms of politically correct thought. (I should make clear that the order in which I have set these sections out is the reverse of their appearance in his speech.)
In opposition to those of unsound thought, Mr Howard spoke of those fundamental values and beliefs — the importance of the individual, the paramount place of the family as the most cohering social unit on our community, the belief in the importance of small business in our society, and a fundamental commitment to the preservation of Australia’s national security, and above all an immense pride in what out nation has achieved.
With great respect to Mr Howard, they’re not the ideas that I think are being contested out there — at least, not in the way he presented them. You won’t get root-and-branch arguments among Australians today about the importance of the individual and the importance of the family, while I can’t summon up anyone who rejects national security and its preservation. The last one is getting warm, however — ‘immense pride in what our nation has achieved’.
I myself think that Australia has done very well in its last century, and especially the last half-century or so. As I wrote in What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia, virtually any comparison between the Australia of 1950 and that of 2013 must be very much in the favour of 2013. Nonetheless, there are many Australians, at least in letters to the editor and on websites, who think somehow we are a disgrace — that greed is rampant, that no one cares about the poor or disadvantaged, that we are an embarrassment on the world stage, and so on.
As I have said in an earlier post, all judgments are either implicit or explicit comparisons, and it is helpful, if you are delivering a judgement, to make clear what you are comparing X with. If greed is rampant, for example, then it must be rampant compared either with Australia at some other time, or in comparison with other countries P, Q and R, or in comparison with an ideal state. If it is none of those, then you are just sounding off.
And while I think that Australia has done very well in comparison to the state of things in 1950, there is still a lot that could be done to improve it as a society. And it is here, I think, that the contest of ideas can be seen most plainly. I offer the following contests.
1. Between those who are optimistic about Australia’s future and those who are pessimistic. Mr Howard sees the glass half-full, and so do I. But many on the other side are full of woe and despond. I don”t know why, and they’re hard to reach. I think most of them are comparing our present reality to an ideal, and wonder why we haven’t reached it.
2. Between those whose focus is on Australia and its problems, and those who see Australia as unimportant, and that global solutions must come first. This divide is relatively new; I can’t think of anyone in the 1950s and 1960s taking the line that Australian needs must wait on global solutions.
3. Between those who think that markets work best if they are relatively free from interference, and those who think that ‘market failure’ is pretty well universal, so that wise governments are needed to plan for everyone’s future happiness. This one is as old as the hills, but Mr Howard didn’t quite mention it.
4. Between those who take pride in the achievements of our country, and those who see its history as little more than the history of violence, expropriation and the suppression of the vulnerable. This is the one that Mr Howard alluded to.
There are others that could be added. But if you look at them you can see that a reasonable person can support either side at different times and for different reasons. I think that markets do work best when they are free from interference (not just government interference), but I do also think that governments do have a duty to plan, from time to time, for collective goods (like defence, energy production, even higher education).
It is all a question of balance. We the electors move from one side to another at different moments, because we see needs that are not being addressed by those in power. The move doesn’t have to be a large one to be politically decisive. Then, later, we move back, for other reasons.