Spectator Australia, May 11, 2013
These days, book launches, like election campaign launches, come well after a new book is actually released to the public. So it is with Nick Cater’s The Lucky Country, launched by John Howard at the Art Gallery of NSW and later the same day by this columnist in the rather different surroundings of the Revesby Workers’ Club.
Why would I agree to launch a book which is not (ahem) entirely complimentary to my political party? Because debate is important. Because politics must be about more than ten-second grabs. There are some things in Cater’s book I agree with. There is also much to respectfully quarrel with. But The Lucky Culture is an important contribution to the national debate and the discussion it has generated can only be good for our politics.
Cater has two essential propositions: that there is a growing well-educated and higher-income cohort in Australia which has fundamentally different views to most non-tertiary educated working Australians on political, economic and cultural issues. His second core argument is that the ALP has been taken over by this cultural elite and that its policies have favoured them at the expense of the traditional ALP support base.
I think Cater is mainly right on his first proposition. I think he is mainly wrong on his second. Cater sees the election of Gough Whitlam as Labor leader as marking the beginning of the transition of the ALP from a mass working-class party to an elitist cadre which prioritised social reform and the environment over economic growth. But this sells Whitlam short. Yes, Whitlam progressed social reforms and proposed symbolic changes important to the progressive and impatient Left. Almost all of these were justified and in hindsight look incremental.
But his program very much had ordinary working families in mind. Almost 40 years after he left office, Whitlam is still much beloved on the streets of Western Sydney, not because he introduced social reforms but because he brought sewers to the West. It wasn’t elitist university-inspired theorising that drove him to fund the extension of the sewerage system, but because his time living in Western Sydney had given him an innate understanding of the unfairness of having millions of hard-working families living without connected sewerage as late as the 1970s. It was this same understanding that drove him to fund the construction of Western Sydney’s first major teaching hospital at Westmead and to set up a Schools Commission for fairer funding of disadvantaged schools.
Cater doesn’t attempt to paint Bob Hawke as an out-of-touch intellectual (who could?) and he acknowledges that ‘Hawke, like Hayden would tie his future to the economy.’ And the self-educated boy from Bankstown who took on the mammoth task of modernising the Australian economy to drive the economic growth which has lasted 21 years so far warrants just four passing mentions in the book, which is unfortunate.
There is one important name that doesn’t appear in the index of Cater’s book at all: Wran, Neville. I know this is a book about Australia and not about any one state, but a book about the culture of modern politics should include an analysis of the man who did so much to rebuild Labor after the Dismissal and who provided a template for modern Labor leaders. Wran’s importance extends beyond his ten years as Premier of our largest state. Wran, of course, was tertiary educated. Indeed, he was an eminent Queen’s Counsel. But he was always a Balmain boy before Balmain was trendy. Wran campaigned for and delivered better basic services for working people. He rejuvenated and cemented the McKell legacy of Labor governing for the suburbs, the regions and the bush. He identified his government’s top three priorities as ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.’ Like Whitlam, he introduced important social reforms like the decriminalisation of homosexuality and abolition of the Summary Offences Act. But it was because he never lost sight of the fundamental role of Labor governments that he governed with huge majorities and with an extraordinarily high level of popular approval for so much of his premiership.
Cater’s identification of the bifurcation of Australian society’s views based on level of education and income is an important contribution. He is right to identify the battleground of economic growth. People from lower socio-economic backgrounds understand that economic growth is important, not only because it keeps them in a job but because it allows them to turn their aspirations for their families into a reality. If you have a good education and a comfortable income to fall back on, you may not think of economic growth as important. This makes you more likely to be a Greens voter. But Labor hasn’t lost sight of the importance of growth. If you look at the top ten major economic reforms that contributed to Australia’s economic growth over the past 40 years (as identified by the Grattan Institute), six of them can be claimed by Labor (the floating of the dollar, Medicare, tariff reductions, superannuation, the broadening of the tax base and improvements to tertiary education funding). Three have shared parentage (national competition policy, privatisation and the independent setting of interest rates) and only one can be claimed exclusively as the child of the conservatives, and that is the GST.
Many will take up the open invitation Cater issues early in the book to disagree with his conclusions. Clearly it is an invitation I have taken up. But I am also glad I took up his invitation to read and launch The Lucky Culture.