How equality fell off the political agenda in Australia
I was delighted to accept an invitation to join you for this fundraiser for the Evatt Foundation. As a schoolboy, I was inspired by Herbert Vere Evatt when he was Australia’s Minister for External Affairs and Attorney-General, with his emphasis on universal values rather than national, regional or municipal ones. I will never forget an address he gave at the Assembly Hall in Melbourne in February 1948, some days after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. He argued eloquently for creating a universal community of interest in finding non-violent solutions to problems, and that in the face of human tragedy there are no national boundaries: that shared grief is a human bonding factor.
No Australian politician – until Gough Whitlam – has had such a global sweep. However, Evatt’s internationalism was not popular domestically. He was subject to constant abuse in newspapers and on radio and denigrated for his frequent absences. His deep interest in art was derided in a largely philistine Labor Party. This was caught very effectively in Simon Chilvers’ portrayal of Evatt in the ABC television series The True Believers (1988), where his excitement at having bought a painting by Modigliani is dashed when Ben Chifley telephones him to get back to Canberra from Paris to face up to domestic issues.
I was inspired by his successful campaign against Menzies’ 1951 Referendum to change the Constitution so that he could ban the Communist Party. Evatt wound up his campaign at the Bondi Esplanade with an outstanding speech, which was broadcast but not recorded. Typically, the speech was never preserved because he often spoke of the cuff or from rough notes which he then screwed up and threw away, I became hyperactive in the ALP after Evatt precipitated the great split of 1954-55, which led to a great split in Victoria and Labor’s exclusion from office until Gough Whitlam’s victory in 1972. Bert Evatt was a woeful tactician and had very bad relations with his colleagues – a familiar phenomenon in Labor leadership. His exact contemporary and rival Robert Menzies was an outstanding parliamentarian and campaigner. However, Menzies’long career demonstrates the democratic paradox that contemporary judgment is often overturned by historical judgment. In politics, timing is everything. Menzies won seven straight elections, but his political program was anachronistic even in his lifetime, as he came to recognize himself. Evatt lost elections in 1954, 1955 and 1958 and was famously erratic in judgment – but decades after his death his platform retains some contemporary relevance/ resonance.
I was privileged to know Doc Evatt reasonably well. He delivered the first Chifley Memorial Lecture on ‘The Basis of Democracy’, which I organised at the University of Melbourne in June 1954. Again, the speech was not preserved. He campaigned for me twice in 1955 and once in 1958 and I often saw him in Sydney or Melbourne. He had a towering intellect and an extraordinary range of interests, but he could also show astonishing petulance, poor judgment and rudeness. And yet, sometimes he could be thoughtful and considerate. He was devoted to his family. He deserves great credit for bringing a global dimension to Australian politics and enlarging our domestic agenda.
Evatt remained as Leader of the opposition until February 1960, resigning to become Chief Justice of New South Wales. However, his health and memory soon collapsed and he retired to Canberra in 1962, where he died on 2 November 1965. Buried in Canberra, his tombstone records only that he was President of the United Nations – there is no reference to the ALP.
I could devote my whole speech to Evatt stories – but I will refrain and turn to the advertised topic. Turning away from ‘equality’ towards ‘choice’ (if you can pay for it.).
‘Class’: the word that dare not speak its name in Australian politics During the French Revolution the choice of nouns in the famous three word motto ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ were a matter of dispute but it seems that the Cordelier Club first printed ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – ou Mort’ in 1790. (Danton, Marat and Desmoulins were Cordeliers.) Note that in that original formulation ‘equality’ comes second. Other formulations had been suggested which excluded ‘fraternity’ and included ‘justice’, or ‘unity’, or ‘security’, or ‘reason’ or – from the Right – ‘property'. In Robespierre’s draft Declaration of 1793, ‘Egalité’ came first. The slogan was not officially adopted until the 1870s, under the Third Republic.
The early Australia mantra of ‘the fair go’ was based on an egalitarian ethos, as was establishing ‘free, secular and compulsory’ state education in the 1870s. Gough Whitlam, in his famous 1972 ‘It’s time!’ policy speech at Blacktown, set out ‘three great aims: to promote equality, to involve the people of Australia in the decision-making process of our land, and to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people’. He invoked the ‘touchstone of modern democracy – liberty, equality, fraternity’.
In my paper ‘Them and Us/ Us and Them’ (1978), I argued that the Liberals 'could be renamed ‘the self interest party’. The main beneficiaries of Liberal rule are essentially the voter and his/her children. The Liberal Party symbol could well be a mirror (in which the voter can see the expected beneficiary of Liberal voting) or a ladder (which the voter or his/her children can climb).' I argued that Labor, by contrast, 'could be renamed ‘the victims’ party’. The beneficiaries of Labor rule will not necessarily be the voter and his/her children. The Australian Labor Party symbol could well be a pair of field glasses (because the voter may have to look some distance away to see some beneficiaries of Labor voting - non-voters, migrants, Aborigines, the sick, the poor, unemployed and ignorant) or a safety net (to prevent people from hurting themselves when they fall).'
In Great Britain, after Tony Blair became Labor’s leader in 1994, ‘New Labour’ stopped talking about ‘equality’, because it wanted to make a direct appeal to the votes of middle class professionals, now generally called ‘aspirationals’. We seem to have a new Beatitude: ‘Blessed are the aspirationals, for they shall be rewarded, whatever the social cost.’ Aspirationals might be attracted by some appeals to social justice, but looked to opportunities for advancement for themselves and – in the medium term – their children. Minimum standards and equality of opportunity were promoted over equality of outcomes. The Party abandoned the goal of applying taxation and other measures for the redistribution of wealth, or reallocating resources – say from rich schools to poor ones. This had the effect of undercutting the rationale of the Left. Blair, of course, could claim success in winning three consecutive elections, marginalising the Conservatives for a decade and adopting economic policies which could be defined as ‘Thatcherism with a human face.’
Politicians on both sides stopped using the word ‘equality’, which dropped from the political lexicon, and not only in Britain. In the 2004 Federal Election, Mark Latham, once a Whitlam protégé, argued that Labor stood for ‘the ladder of opportunity’, adopting the precise symbol I had applied to the Liberals 26 years earlier. It is self evident that not everybody can get on the ladder – it is, inevitably, an excluding device. The political class adopted, even promoted, the myth that Australia was a classless society and that even drawing attention to significant stratification in income, education, health, was regarded – especially in The Australian and other Murdoch papers – as being inflammatory, inciting ‘class warfare.’ And yet it is depressingly clear that the social and economic gaps in our society are widening: the trend towards convergence has reversed.
The English sociologist Garry Runciman wrote an important essay, ‘What happened to the Labour Party?’ (London Review of Books, 22 June 2006), about the British case, but his argument is applicable to the ALP, and despite its age, still relevant.
He compares British society in 1945, when Clement Attlee defeated Churchill, and Tony Blair’s Britain in 2006. He might just as well have been writing about Ben Chifley in 1945 and Kevin Rudd in 2007. He argues that in 1945 the distribution of population and relative affluence in Britain could be represented by an equilateral triangle/ pyramid, with the great majority of people near the base. The pyramid would also have been appropriate for Australia in 1945. Attlee was campaigning for decent housing, decent health care, decent education, decent pensions, using progressive taxation and other social measures to take people out of destitution, overcoming a pervasive passivity and fatalism about what could be achieved. Sixty years later, Margaret Thatcher notwithstanding, Attlee’s aims (Chifley’s here, too) had largely been achieved.
A diagram to illustrate Blair’s Britain, or Rudd’s Australia, would be a diamond shape – a somewhat elongated diamond, with the largest number of people not at the base but in the middle. Of course, there are billionaires at the top with disproportionate influence, and there is an underclass of unemployed, undereducated, ill-nourished, living on the margins, but the largest number, in the largest number of federal seats in the House of Representatives, are in between.
Politically, elections are now won or lost by appealing to the bourgeoisie, not by marshalling the proletariat. There is more emphasis on higher levels of consumption – and, in education or health care, invoking the mantra of ‘choice’, rather than a bottom up approach. This phenomenon was even more marked in Australia than the UK – and Labor was very uneasy (Gonski notwithstanding) about restricting access to private schools or private health programs, and certainly unwilling to raise income tax levels to, say, Scandinavian levels, or even British. In the United Kingdom, 93.7 per cent of students attend government schools – and yet in Australia the figure is only 66 per cent. Nevertheless, instinctively, many of us probably think of the UK as being more dominated by class divisions than we are. Not so.
The Australian figure is far behind New Zealand, with which we might assume having the closest affinity (94.3 per cent), Canada (92.5 per cent), the United Kingdom (93.7 per cent), the United States (91.2 percent), Germany (94.9 per cent) and Sweden (90.0 per cent). Like Australia, there are anomalies – Chile is on 42.0 per cent, Ireland on 38.5 per cent, and the Netherlands (34.0 per cent) and Belgium (30.5 per cent), are even lower.
In The Doubter’s Companion (1994), the Canadian writer John Ralston Saul defined ‘public education’ as ‘the single most important element in the maintenance of a democratic system’. I kept crusading for public education to be an instrument for personal and societal transformation. With the existing mind-set, education generally entrenches or reinforces existing abilities, or disabilities, advantages or disadvantages. The strength of a large, comprehensive state system is that it permits/encourages diversity inside school and social cohesion outside it, rather than cohesion inside school and diversity (often harsh or fragmented) outside it.
Public education has become a residual category. Middle-class flight means even when parents have attended state schools themselves, and would be well-equipped to fight for public education, once they choose to send their children to private schools they now emphasise ‘choice’ and cross subsidy by taxpayers as their priorities. Social stratification is strongly reinforced by school and the divide between the information rich and the information poor.
Above and below equality A standard measure of equality has been equal treatment under the law, but past decades have been marked by the protection of special interests who are above the law and the harsh treatment of those who are regarded as below the law. Casino owners and big miners are in the first category, asylum seekers and Aborigines in the second. I would like to be able to say that this was an area where Labor has a good record, and only the Coalition has deformed the rule of law – but it wouldn’t be true. Both sides of politics are tainted in this area.
The most recent report on the imprisonment of Aborigines found:
In 20 years incarceration rates have gone from one Indigenous person in seven to one in four.
Indigenous persons make up 26 per cent of the prisoner population yet only constitute 2.5 per cent of the Australian population.
The over-representation of Indigenous persons in Western Australian prisons is the highest of any Indigenous group in the OECD.
Asylum seekers – categorised as ‘illegals’ – are essentially outside the rule of law.
Labor has had a generally good record on issues of gender equity, but the pendulum may well be swinging back to male hegemony in all levels of government and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is the only woman in Tony Abbott’s Cabinet of 19 ministers. Australian universities currently produce more female than male graduates, but representation on boards and in the professions is far from equal, and may be falling. Child care and income support during pregnancy remain highly contentious issues.
People with lower socio-economic status (SES) not only have low incomes, they have sharply reduced employment options, below average life expectancy, less access to education, high levels of functional illiteracy and innumeracy (compounded by regional factors), more social isolation (especially if not fluent in English), are more likely to be subject to violence and to be addicted to smoking, alcohol, gambling, drugs, junk food, to suffer from obesity and to engage in tattooing and body piercing. But this is a subject that we never talk about, especially not during election campaigns.
Ethics and ‘the Other’: the values deficit We tend to define politics as if it was all about economics, immediate self interest, and increasing levels of production and consumption. The environment has dropped off the agenda, and so has ethics. We are preoccupied with the concept of self – including our immediate families. The concept of ‘the Other’ – Aborigines, refugees, the mentally ill – is moving off to vanishing point.
We live in an age of unprecedented prosperity, in which the major influences have been secularism, materialism, utilitarianism, urbanisation, remoteness from nature, institutional failure (especially in churches), emphasis on immediate economic self interest, the rise and rise of managerialism which has displaced community engagement in ideas and values, the impact of mass media, with its emphasis on immediacy, the cult of personality, promoting sensation, entertainment, and an often vicious and destructive political agenda, in which the truth of a proposition (‘Interest rates are always lower under the Coalition.’) is irrelevant. Greed, drugs, problem gambling, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, covert and overt racism, all distort our moral compass. Churches, like political parties, are losing numbers, commitment and moral authority, and have been shaken by the apparent institutionalisation of child abuse, where the reaction has been to protect the institution and disregard the victim.
Some political leaders act as if all values have a dollar equivalent; that forests are essentially woodchips on stumps; and that the value of a tree is as lumber, disregarding aesthetic factors or the contribution to clean air. The current obsession is that if a project will make money for somebody, for example grazing in national parks, or oil drilling near the Great Barrier Reef, or the export of live animals, often under unspeakable conditions, it should go ahead. The appeal of money and growth in the Gross Domestic Product are irresistible, with a refusal to contemplate the downside. In the case of duck shooting, state power is entirely behind the shooters, and against the ducks. Recreational shooters and four wheel drives are now welcome in New South Wales national parks.
Labor’s failure to win debates on major issues: some horror stories The ALP may have lost the capacity to take control of major issues and win debates on them. Its last success was against John Howard over ‘Work Choices’ in 2007. The ALP and the ACTU won the debate on WorkChoices but this did not necessarily reflect support for trade unions per se. WorkChoices generated a well founded fear among voters that Howard had gone too far and that job security and living standards were threatened, not only for trade unionists but for themselves and teir children. Tony Abbott, not exactly an enthusiast for unions, was understood to have strongly opposed Howard’s position in Cabinet. This opposition was also reflected by church leaders, Catholic and non-Catholic and many NGOs. Since then there has been a long series of failures in advocacy, even when the evidence was overwhelmingly on Labor’s side:
Handling the economy
Climate change and carbon pricing
Asylum seekers/ refugees
Legality, human rights and the surveillance state.
The IMF and Nobel Economics Laureate Joseph Stiglitz praised the Rudd government as having handled the Global Financial Crisis better than any other OECD nation. Australia had lower unemployment than most OECD countries, with low interest rates, a AAA credit rating from all three major agencies, enjoyed by very few national economies, a low level of international debt, high levels of foreign investment, a ranking next to Norway on the Human Development Index (HDI). However, Labor proved incapable of explaining its success to the electorate. – partly because of suicide bombing over leadership. The pink batts fiasco, resulting in four deaths, deplorable, and probably preventable, after failure to follow state health and safety regulations, submerged any argument Rudd might have made that the home insulation scheme was a 98 per cent success.
Polling by Newspoll, Neilsen and Morgan indicated that voters thought the Liberal-National Party would be better at managing the economy, and this at a time when Abbott and Hockey were falsely denouncing the Australian economy as a smoking ruin and when the coalition had not yet put forwards its economic policies. The Taxation Review (2009), chaired by Dr Ken Henry, was very badly handled by Labor, which cherry-picked a few big ticket items, such as the Resources Rental Tax, failed to negotiate with the miners, jumped the gun and imposed a tax which generated an astonishing level of community opposition, but raised very little revenue.
Tax rates were never mentioned in the 2013 election campaign. Australia is the fifth lowest taxing nation in the OECD: only Mexico, Chile, the US and South Korea have lower rates. Unfortunately the comparison is virtually meaningless to Australian taxpayers because, other than the assertion, they have no basis of comparison. Ken Henry made a memorable appearance on the ABC’s 7.30 Report on 12 March and argued powerfully about the need to raise taxation levels, even if it is politically unpopular, as the only way to fund Gonski (although the Abbott government is likely to modify it significantly), the NDIS and the increasing costs of dealing with an ageing population. Securing bipartisan agreement should be easy. Interestingly, Henry was been subject to some biffo in the Murdoch papers for raising the bleeding obvious.
Handling of the climate change/ carbon pricing issue by Labor was atrocious. In 2007 Rudd promised to introduce a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) Bill, generally referred to as the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). In 2009 he failed to get support from the Greens, decided not to call a double dissolution after the Senate rejected it and after Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership, and he returned deeply disillusioned from the Copenhagen Climate Conference and virtually dropped the issue.
In the 2010 election, Julia Gillard promised not to introduce carbon pricing, then – after the election – did so. I believe that she could have explained her change in direction convincingly but failed to do so, and after the legislation was carried never argued effectively for its merits or explained its purpose. The ‘c’ word, coal, was barely mentioned. The mining industry and the Murdoch papers attacked climate change measures relentlessly. To call the Rudd-Gillard government’s response feeble would be to over-praise it. The response was less than that. Although states will be the major victims of climate change there was an eerie silence on the issue from both the Liberal-Nationals and Labor at the state level. The scientific case was miserably explained and the problems of risk assessment not advanced at all.
The current opposition is shackled to the term ‘carbon pollution’, a perfect example of spin doctor language, but scientifically meaningless, and quite unrelated to climate change. As I often say to political colleagues, ‘If you can’t define a term, don’t use it.’ Control of the party by factions, which in practice are essentially executive placement agencies, means that the ALP may have lost the capacity to deal with major issues. The five most obvious examples are climate change/ carbon pricing, refugees/ asylum seekers, taxation, the surveillance state and gambling.
Although Labor is courageously opposing repeal of the carbon pricing – at least until 1 July 2014 – it either doesn’t understand what it is doing or it is part of a deep strategy which cannot be easily grasped. Bernie Fraser had it absolutely right when he attacked (11 March) ‘brazen falsehoods’ and ‘misinformation’ about climate change, concluding that the ‘bad guys’ won after the ‘good guys’ lay down. The environment used to be high on the political agenda – but now it is rarely talked about in political circles, and the mantra now is ‘Jobs!, Jobs!, Jobs!’, which often means, in practice , a conviction that work in the future will be essentially what it has been in past generations, an extremely unlikely proposition. Labor was hesitant about forestry but took a strong stand against Japanese whaling in the southern oceans.
The asylum seeker/refugee tragedy continues, and ‘boat people’ are now officially designated as ‘illegals’, even when they have broken no law. We currently have a bi-partisan political approach, but it is a negative one, a political Dutch auction, a race to the bottom with alternative cruelties offered for the support of voters. (Dissenters include the Greens, the DLP and the Palmer United Party.) The period 1947-96 involved political bipartisanship on immigration which was positive. Malcolm Fraser gave permanent residence to more than 50,000 Cambodians and Vietnamese after 1977, and Bob Hawke did the same with 20,000 Chinese students after Tiananmen Square in 1989. In both cases the then opposition went along. But not now.
The Tampa incident in 2001 marked a turn in the tide, with a covert racism in which the then opposition cravenly supported (it being an election year). Now there is negative bipartisanship, based on fear. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison settle the coalition policy – but they shape Labor policy as well. In the 2013 election I thought that Labor’s ‘New Guinea solution’ was diabolically clever – then I realised that it was just diabolical. And the cost is extraordinary, not just in dollars but in the destruction of values.
Between about 1967 and 2001, racism was not an element in the practice of Australian politics: it was avoided, by consensus. Now racism is a powerful element, both explicit and implicit. Having privatised detention centres makes them one degree further removed from direct knowledge by bureaucrats or ministers and/ or moral responsibility. (‘I was not informed...’) In Australia, refugee statistics are rarely if ever examined in a global context. In terms of the numbers of asylum seekers listed by country of destination, even when boats were arriving in the Rudd-Gillard years, Australia ranked well behind Turkey, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, the U K, France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Greece and Belgium.
A constructive bi-partisan approach to asylum seekers would be the moral priority but it won’t happen unless it is politically popular. The highly priced shambles of Manus and Nauru are causes for shame – but Labor has little to congratulate itself on in this area. Its contribution to debate has been pitiful. Scott Morrison, it has been recently disclosed, employs 66 people to work on ‘spin’ on immigration issues and the denial of information, not to mention outright lying, is a major deformation of our democratic system. We failed to address the asylum seeker issue on either a moral or even a statistical basis.
Australians, according to The Economist, rank No. 1 in the world as gamblers. But as the failed attempts to secure federal legislation to curb problem gambling in the 43rd parliament demonstrated, the sheer size and geographic spread of the gambling industry and its powerful influence in politics and the media make it virtually untouchable. In addition, the states and territories are addicted to gambling revenue, and simply can’t break the habit. Labor’s craven failure to tackle problem gambling is a striking illustration of the power of sectional and regional vested interest, in ducking and weaving, to refusing to address one of the great social problems, a major contributor to poverty, marriage breakup and suicide.
The Republic is a highly symbolic issue – not an economic one, but, outwitted and outmanoeuvred by John Howard in the 1999 Referendum, when direct election republicans and die-hard monarchists made common cause, Labor has backed away from the issue which is capable of generating idealism, vision and commitment. Labor adopted the absurd position that the Republic issue would be shelved until the reign of Queen Elizabeth II ended, by abdication (unlikely), incapacity (possibly) or death (and she might well outlive her centenarian mother). That enshrines the proposition that our national priorities should depend on an external factor over which we have no control. It also means that affection/respect for a person outweighs matters of principle. Prince George photographs well: perhaps there could be a further moratorium to include him.
The United States, during the administration of George W. Bush, sanctioned the use of torture, suspension of the rule of law, suppression of information and expansion of the surveillance state. Australia weakly acquiesced. President Obama has wound back on torture, a little, we think, but the surveillance state is still powerful and selective assassinations are increasing sharply. Australia’s weakness in the case of Julian Assange has been a matter for shame.
Where to now? Five things are needed: vision, courage, judgement, capacity to argue a case, leadership In the Whitlam and post-Whitlam era, people were drawn to political activism because of specific policies that they were desperate to change: abolishing the death penalty, getting out of Vietnam, ending conscription, establishing Australia’s national identity (including Constitutional reform and the Republic), ending White Australia, entrenching rights for Aborigines and promoting Affirmative Action, preserving the environment (Great Barrier Reef, Tasmanian wilderness), universal secondary education – and more universities.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Gough Whitlam, Jim Cairns, Lionel Murphy and Don Dunstan were passionate and courageous advocates for policy changes. They were not particularly close, but they agreed on most issues and we all knew what they stood for. The same was true of Hawke and Keating, and we could add names like Uren, Wran and Cain. Where are their equivalents – who are their equivalents – today? In an age of retail politics, leaders no longer ask about an issue ‘is it right?’ but ‘will it sell?’, and political factions are executive placement agencies. The role of organisations such as the Evatt Foundation is of great importance, providing a forum for reasoned analysis and creative thinking.
Postscript In my John Curtin Memorial Lecture in Fremantle in November 1992, I raised the subject of ‘Litmus issues v. Spectrum issues’. I argued that the issues which involve people in politics, deeply and passionately, are generally those that produce an unambiguous answer, as with a litmus test in chemistry, Yes? or No? These were powerful factors in campaigns against the proposed banning of the Communist Party, abolishing capital punishment, rejecting White Australia, getting out of Vietnam, eliminating gender discrimination, becoming a Republic. Climate change had to be handled as a ‘litmus’ issue, but it was not. I am not comfortable about reducing complex issues to a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, but I recognise that it hooks people in to political involvement. The Liberal-Nationals’ ‘Stop the boats!’ and ‘Stop this toxic tax!’ mantras were deplorable examples of complex issues being infantilised – but this was undoubtedly effective. Polling indicates that there is a strong voter support for even tougher (i.e. crueller) policies about asylum seekers.
Spectrum issues are contextual, where parties and governments differ about how far to move along a continuum. ‘Better schools?’ ‘Better health outcomes?’ Of course. Nobody is going to argue a case for ‘Worse schools’ or ‘Worse health outcomes’ The argument is simply about how much money is to be allocated, and if it is to be centrally administered or dispersed giving consumers choice. Health and education are seen as strengths for the ALP, but all the issues are softened to avoid offending significant sectors in the community. When there is bi-partisan support for free-market economics and a managerial approach to running governments, issues are rarely presented in a clear cut fashion which means that parties are increasingly stacked with apparatchiks and careerists.
The Hon. Dr. Barry Jones, AO, FAA, FAHA, FTSE, FASSA, FRSA, DistFrsn, FRSV, FACE, FAIM was a Member of the House of Representatives for the Victorian Electorate of Lalor 1977-98. In the first three Hawke Governments he became Australia’s longest serving Science Minister 1983-90. He was a Victorian State MP 1972-77. He served as National President of the Australian Labor Party 1992-2000 and 2005-06. This is the text of his address to the Evatt Foundation's fundraiser on 15 March 2014.
Jones, Barry, 'Liberty, fraternity and – what was the other word?', Evatt Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, April 2014.<https://evatt.org.au/liberty-fraternity-and-what-was-that-other-word>