Janet Albrechtsen

2013-04-24 04.49.50 am




The Australian May 8, 2013

AT the Art Gallery of NSW this morning former Liberal prime minister John Howard will launch Nick Cater’s book, The Lucky Culture — And the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class. This evening, Labor MPs Chris Bowen and Daryl Melham will do the same at the Revesby Workers Club.

Days earlier and hundreds of kilometres away in a very different cultural milieu, Julia Gillard also promoted Cater’s central thesis when she addressed the so-called progressive think tank Per Capita in Canberra last week.

When the Prime Minister told a story about fictional John, she unwittingly demonstrated the cultural divide that Cater explores in a new book that makes a major contribution to the cultural archeology of this nation.

Gillard’s Monday morning parable, a combination of preachy paternalism and economic cluelessness, explains why plenty of real Johns were probably not listening to Gillard last Monday, are not becoming ALP members and certainly won’t be voting Labor on September 14.

Banks is now one of Labor’s most marginal western Sydney seats. Some will blame a 2009 electoral redistribution, but Labor’s problems in Banks stem from a deeper cultural change within the Labor Party, and indeed across the country.

Cater uncovers this seismic shift vividly in his book. A British migrant to Australia in the late 1980s, he first explores this “exceptional country, populated by exceptional people skilled in making their own luck” where “when fortune smiles, it is not by chance or benevolence; it is the dividend of an investment of human ingenuity, enterprise and energy”.

It is, says Cater, a nation where Australians have been forging their own destiny for more than 200 years, where the migrant imperative has been to succeed and to fit in among a people without pretension, into a society defined by democratic egalitarianism.

Then, over more than 20 years, Cater watched the emergence of a cultural divide that now drives Australians apart. “For the first time there are people who did not simply feel better off but better than their fellow Australians.”

These are the cosmopolitans, the sophisticated, well-educated, politically aware Australians who live overwhelmingly in inner-city suburbs. They are, says Cater, the “plastic bag refuseniks and tickers of carbon offset boxes” who claim not to be interested in material wealth, who eat and drink in moderation, all the while casting a censorious eye over the over-spending, junk-food eating, alcohol drinking, television viewing and radio listening habits of their less educated fellow Australians.

If asked to pick a name for themselves, they might settle on the Superlatives on the basis that no adverb or adjective adequately expresses their higher, nobler rank.

Pre-cable TV, the cultural fault line ran between the taxpayer-funded Channel 2 on one side of the divide and the commercial cluster of Channels 7, 9 and 10 at the other end. Post-cable TV, while millions of Australians are also surfing Sky News and myriad cable-TV channels, Aunty still represents a secure home where the nation’s moral guardians can reliably turn for daily affirmation from a group of like-minded journalists who tend towards the same views on issues such as immigration, global warming, gay marriage and a republic.

While the new moral class crosses Liberal/Labor lines, the cultural divide has cost the ALP most dearly. Cater tells of the transformation of a Labor Party of work and wages under Ben Chifley to one where the word “jobs” was not mentioned in Gough Whitlam’s 1969 election manifesto. Labor became the party for the social and cultural cognoscenti where government undertook social crusades and revolutions rather than concerning itself with quotidian matters fiscal, monetary or budgetary.

Enter the real Julia under whom Labor remains tragically wedded to unfunded crusades and revolutions that warm the hearts of the nation’s self-appointed moral guardians. And then enter the fictional John, who, without being named, features generically in Cater’s book. Who is John?

Clearly, he is not a member of the Superlatives for the clever class never speak of each other in such condescending terms as Julia spoke of John last Monday. One pundit writing on Andrew Bolt’s blog last week suggested that if John agrees with Gillard about spending then he might be a Spaniard or a Greek or maybe a great big Greek bullshit artist.

More likely, John is an Australian bloke who works hard, pulls up a stool at the front bar, prefers a show at the Revesby Workers Club to the Australian Opera and lives on the other side of the cultural divide to Gillard.

He long ago gave up believing that the political apparatchiks in the Labor caucus, cabinet or PM’s office understand him. Where Julia prefers to spend taxpayer dollars before the money is banked, John is more prudent, choosing to wait for his money to arrive before spending. Indeed, John sees through new Labor’s economic recklessness, its social pretensions and cultural paternalism.

Ex-ALP leaders such as Curtin, Chifley, Calwell and Hawke never spoke down to voters in the pious, preachy way Gillard spoke down to John as if he were a child needing adult supervision over how to spend his pocket money.

Whether it’s hiding cigarettes in plain packaging or trying to censor newspapers for fear readers are too dumb to be trusted to discern news for themselves, or trying to regulate opinions expressed by workers in the workplace, the PM’s creepy paternalism symbolises the cultural clash explored by Cater.

This clash was on display this week when, days after her sermon to John, Gillard appeared on both ABC1’s Insiders on Sunday and Q&A on Monday, programs hosted and mostly watched by people in sync with Gillard’s cosmopolitan values. So much so that Barrie Cassidy let slip “we’re headed for a, well, at least the government is headed for a big loss in September”.

Too right. And Cater’s intellectual curiosity has uncovered the fascinating history of how Labor and its small support base among the Superlatives have lost touch with millions of Australian men and women who subscribe to the front bar spirit of Australian egalitarianism where those who earn an honest day’s living earn equal respect and those who tend towards cafe society pretension are first mocked and then duly ignored.