My main political prejudices– Or, after Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents

[This note, which is far too long, began with conversations with two friends with very different political views at different times.  It says: Australians are different to Europe because they do not like doctrine or intellectuals; they are different to America because they depend on government.  The current parties Liberal and Labor have no identity, and the old labels of left/right or conservative/liberal are useless.  We cannot find criteria to choose who to vote for and we should leave to crooks and idiots the function of putting labels on people showing how we think that they might or should vote.  Standards in politics will continue to slide, and we risk being at the mercy of nuts and populists.  This note can stand as a permanent disclaimer of my political bias on this website.]

Political issues

We are for the most part talking about politics, that is, about how we get on with each other and how we make and implement rules (or laws) for that purpose.  Those issues call for emotional and moral responses as well as what might be called intellectual responses – and in many places or times, a religious response.  Those responses might therefore not just be non-intellectual but plainly irrational.  For example, a lot of people inherit their politics like their faith from their family or school or – God save us – their class.  (Australians do not like admitting this.)

Religion does not have the impact here now that it had in the 50’s and 60’s with the DLP (and that history of ours colours the view of many here to religion), or that religion has presently in, say, the US or Iran.  Morality now has a much shakier basis than before with the decline of God and the fall of the Church.  These changes do not help us in talking about politics because we no longer share the same underlying assumptions in the way that we did before.  That change in my lifetime has been great.

There are obvious differences between the discussion of intellectual issues, and the discussion of those based on morals or faith – before we start to take in more emotional responses.  One question is whether we can discern intellectual or historical trends in the way that people react to these issues in a way that can be expressed meaningfully and safely.  Another question is whether any current political groupings adequately reflect any of those classifications.

Typing, or labelling: putting people in boxes

Perhaps the more serious question is whether it is intellectually safe or morally decent to resort to these classifications – and, as it might be said, put people in boxes.  Or type them.  Or brand them.  (Was the term ‘pink,’ or is the term ‘fascist’, even if it has an identifiable meaning, ever used with respect?)

Before breakfast at Oxford, we get access to all the major papers.  As I was going in one morning, I heard an English lady of my age saying in that soft quizzical way that the English middle class have, ‘I have just been described as a typical Guardian reader, and I am wondering how I should react.’  We discussed it over our English breakfast (with English bacon!).  What did that mean?  Was it true or fair?  How did she feel about it?  I cannot recall the upshot, but I think it may have been that the comment was a bit uppity, if not downright bloody rude.

Typing people demeans them.  It denies people their own self.  I was very taken by two observations made by Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago: ‘In the Kingdom of God, there are no peoples, there are persons….To belong to a type is the end of a man, his condemnation.  If he doesn’t fall into any category, if he’s not represented, half of what is demanded of him is there.  He’s free of himself, he has achieved a grain of immortality.’

Political science, like economics, is in perpetual danger of succumbing to two propositions – that people behave rationally, and that their behaviour can be predicted.  The first is merely wrong; the second is very worrying.  The tragedy of any social science is that of a syllogism broken by a fact.  The curious thing is that often those who succumb to these fallacies are the ones who themselves become the most predictable, and boringly so.  In the words of Jane Austen, they happily submit to another lesson ‘in the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle.’  That was after all a very closed, provincial, bourgeois world, but you can find pockets of it around here now.

Typing and labelling leads easily to branding.  If you have borrowed too much, and find it hard to repay all the debt, you say that the lender is being cruel and unreasonable asking you to repay everything, and that the measures they want you to adopt are branded with the mark of ‘austerity’.  If sending the navy against unarmed refugees does not sound too good, send them against ‘people–smugglers’, and just forget their human contraband.  If you want to delete humanity altogether, just say ‘stop the boats’, and forget about everyone on board.  Some people will swallow anything, and only a pedant would remark that until recently, boats were the only way that people got here.  The First Fleet got here that way; so, apparently, did the ancestors of the blackfellas.

Abstractions and the intellect

Political discussion is also extraordinarily susceptible to the dangers involved of using general or abstract terms.  We do not like ‘–isms’ here.  We are I think different here to Europe.  They tend to put a value on high intellect and academic merit, and intellectual discussion, that we (taking after the English) do not.  (If I had to guess, I would say that the US is in between.)  Europeans like to work down from a grand design.  We tend to build up as we go.  John Stuart Mill may have been guilty of both typing and abstraction when he discerned ‘an infirmity of the French mind’ – ‘that of being led away by phrases, and treating abstractions as if they were realities which have a will and exert active power.’  The best example is the phrase ‘the French Revolution’.  There was no such thing.

But there is danger even in simpler terms.  Is there such a thing as ‘government’, or is that just a label that we apply to those people among us who are entrusted to make and administer our laws?  Do we look on a jury in the same way as we look on a parliament?  Do people like ‘government’ or is it at best an object of grudging suspicion and tolerance during good behaviour?  I do not know for Australia – I suspect a lot have that kind of view (which is about mine) – but you are not likely to see a party of anarchists here.

A while ago, David Cameron said that he would stop calling civil servants ‘bureaucrats’.  The word is pejorative if not insulting, and we have suffered enough damage to the idea of an independent civil service.  The political slide we are watching among politicians and civil servants is snowballing.

I think that our reluctance to get too wound up by intellectual ideas is very healthy.  It comes from England, and the faith that the best system of government in the world was built not out of ideas but from hard experience of a people who think that anyone who claims to have the answer is at best mad.  The German historian von Ranke said: ‘The English intellect is as far removed from the keen dialectic of the French as from the world-embracing ideology of the Germans; it has a narrow horizon; but it knows how to comprehend and to satisfy the requirements of the moment with circumspection and great practical sense.’

The upshot is that we can get into trouble when we try to impose an overarching imperative or prohibition drawn from logic on the matter-of-fact fabric of our legal thought.  The problem of judge-made policy is inherent in any system where a smooth Bill of Rights is imposed on the rough common law.  The worst example, at least in Australian eyes, is the way that the dogma of the right to bear arms has been allowed to destroy sense and life in the U S.

Australian idiosyncrasies

One result is that I think we are naturally conservative, in that we put a high value on what we have inherited and built, by hard experience rather than abstract thought, and that we deeply suspect those who think change can be well brought on by people who are merely clever.  We tend to fancy ‘a pragmatic tendency to focus on avoiding manifest harm rather than aiming for speculative improvement’.  That happens to suit me intellectually, I think, not just because I have spent a life in the law, but because my thinking reflects a heavy bias toward empirical philosophy, and Anglo-Saxon history – and the differences that I see between European history and ideas and ours’.  (In that quote, ‘pragmatic’ is favourable, but ‘pragmatism’ can suggest the surrender of principle of a trimmer; ‘speculative’ is on any view on the nose; both terms are loaded.)

Because of our different backgrounds and prejudices – I am now talking generally – we see the world differently, and we frame our questions about it differently.  And we all know that the answer depends on the form of the question – hilariously shown in Greece recently – and that the art of the advocate is to state the question in a way that makes the desired answer seem inevitable.  A lot of the problems of political discussion come when people ask different questions and then refuse to answer ones that they do not like – that is, questions that invite an answer which is or seems to be contrary to their declared position.  Our politicians now play by their own rules; they are strangers to straight talk about the world in fact.

It follows that Australians either suspect or reject outright political ideas that seem doctrinaire – as in the platform views of anything like a think tank – on either side.  The word ‘think’ is, frankly, a worry in this country’s politics.

We also follow England in distrusting those who go to the edge for doctrinal reasons – we seriously distrust ideologues.  The IPA might just replace the Socialist Left as the Australian bogeyman of extremism.  It prefers theory to evidence and ideas to people, and it is full of bush lawyers who play clever games with words and kick goals for the other team at will.  It is capable of election-losing purity.  It may be the secret weapon of the Labor Party.  Typically, only the Labor Party sees that; they have form – some time ago, I agree – on election-losing purity.

But if we are different to Europe because of our adherence to the British empirical view of the law and government, we have a very different view to those of the Americans on the role of government and the extent to which people can or should rely on government.  These differences do not derive from our British heritage, which is only partly shared because of time differences, but from the very different ways that Australia and the US grew up, starting with the Mayflower and our first fleet.

I have written about this elsewhere, but Geoffrey Blainey saw the main differences in the way that migrants arrived – theirs free except from a covenant with God, ours always with government assistance.  The frontier mentality also is much stronger in the U S, together with a Puritan tradition that is absent here.  The Puritans abhorred equity because it relieved fools of their covenants.

The result is that Australians look to government for support in ways that Americans think odd or bad, and that the Americans have a doctrinaire opposition to anything like our position.  We in turn think that their stance is at best odd, and at worst uncivilised.  The leading instance is health care.  The two nations are Venus and Mars.  We are unapologetically ‘socialist’ by many U S standards.  Many Australians regard the Americans as more than a little mad – as do many Americans.

It follows that if an Australian politician threatened to reduce government benefits in a radical way because some ideologue said that such a step was doctrinally sound, they would be kicking into two very strong historical headwinds – a historical reliance on government, and a historical distrust of doctrine.  That is why it was so silly for the Treasurer to announce the end of entitlements, and it helps to explain the public reaction to his first budget.

The party system

We inherited parliamentary democracy, the Westminster system, and the role of political parties, including the two party system, from the English.  There is no point in looking back now at the origins of ‘Tory’ and ‘Whig’ in the 17th century.  They evolved when the main issue was between the crown and parliament, when people had a logical difficulty with the idea of a ‘loyal opposition’, and during the 18th century when the English political machine was run on what they called patronage and what we call corruption.  The English constitution was in substance settled in 1689.  When the U S broke away in 1776 – before the white people settled here – they chose a very different model – one reason was that they had to find a replacement for the crown.  (Some think that they still looking for it.)  The revolution that started in France a year after the first fleet had very little effect here.

When our Commonwealth started, the English parties were mainly the conservative and liberal parties in the traditional sense of those terms.  Their labour party emerged later, as did ours, and after a bedding-down phase of a generation or so, our parties were the Liberal and Labor Parties.  The latter, both here and in England, were formed to represent the interests of organised labour – the trade unions.  That is a fundamental difference in the two party system in the U S and here and in the U K.  There is no party for labour as such in the U S.

I find it hard to say how we have benefited from either.  The Labor Party has always stood for sectional interests, been prone to blow its own brains out at least once in every generation, and been subject to doctrinal schism that might fairly be said to be that noxious thing unAustralian.  The result was the appalling national tragedy of Bert Evatt and the Split, and the disenfranchisement of a generation.  When they finally got back in under an egomaniac of great intellect and charm, they were bitter and twisted and clueless, and provoked the other side to throw the rule book out the window.

It was always hard to tell what the Liberal Party stood for, except the flag, the queen, the Women’s Weekly, the Sunday roast with World of Sport, and anything else that would anaesthetise us – together with an unremitting hostility to the unions and that Satanic force called Socialism.  They said this with a straight face although they were in bed with the Country Party, which is the Godfather of sectional interest politics and the champion of agrarian socialism – and Menzies had done more to regulate the banks than the others had dared to do.  The Liberal Party was just there to oppose the Labor Party, and after the Split they had God in the Vatican on their side.  What we now call their default position is that they may not be too flash, but the alternative is unthinkable.  Australians who find comfort there do not do themselves or their country any favours.  The suggestion that the Liberal Party is better at managing the economy is life threatening if it is true.

It is hard to see what either party stands for now, or how you could apply their history or stated principles to define the differences between them on major issues.  Both are now led by ghastly unprincipled mediocrities who stalk around the Members’ enclosure with a Form Guide in their back pocket called opinion polls.

The unions now are at best an embarrassment for Labor in this country.  When we are told that peripheral countries in Europe need structural reform, we hear of what some would say of at least some unions here.  A friend in the Labor Party said that some unions run very backward looking closed shops – some would say protection rackets – and it is not easy to see many that are well run.  If you go to the unions that are described as ‘militant’, you will not find many women, blackfellas, Asians, queers, or refugees.  Their only achievement in three generations has been to sink the split between Micks and Prots – because so few of their members could give a bugger about either.

But, although the present is not attractive to anyone who is not a bigot, there are states of mind that are deeply entrenched.  It is very hard to get back powers you have surrendered to a government, and for a democratic government to reduce the benefits that it has extended to those on whom it must rely for its support.  The present federal government has been amazingly naïve about both these forces, and has reduced itself to cowering inaction – waiting on enlightenment from the Form Guide.

But a tribal attachment to one party, or rather a tribal aversion to the opposite party, still prevails in many places.  Many people are simply unable to vote for one party.  That means that for them that the two-party system offers no choice.  It may as well not exist.  That is one reason why it is collapsing.

I have laboured these historical differences for at least two reasons.  First, we are obviously the product of our history – mistakes, accidents, tragedies, and the lot.  We have nothing like the maturity of the U S as a nation because we never had a revolution or civil war.  We still have to have a communicant member of the Church of England chosen by birth as our head of state.  Secondly, we need to recall the big difference between things as they are, and things as they might be if different views on life prevail – or things we might wish them to be, or things as they ought to be.

About ten years ago, I did a course on the philosophy of religion at Oxford.  There was audible discontent when we seemed to be spending so much time looking at what the main religions meant by the word ‘God’.  We thought that we were doing philosophy not anthropology.  The argument seemed to be: the three major religions in the west believe in one God that has certain qualities; independently of those beliefs, a God may be logically shown to exist; the God in the second proposition therefore must have the qualities of the God in the first.  The conclusion just does not follow.  Looking at how things are is different looking at how we might wish them to be if we could effect change.  But if you forget the first while looking the second, you will hit the fence very hard.

Very few people are happy with the way that our party system is now working.  It is the same in England.  As a result we have minority parties and coalition government and consequent concerns about whether elected governments will have the capacity or will to effect necessary change.  It is very rich for any member of one of the two major parties to complain that people are getting into parliament who behave like mad dogs.  People are voting these people into parliament precisely because the old guard behave like mad dogs.

The result is that we get more independent MP’s and cranks – who happen to have more appeal to many than the pros.  A more worrying trend in Europe, and some would say the U S, is a growth in parties that are unashamedly populist, and in the old language, Right wing.  The quite shameless populism of Donald Trump is a very bad swallow indeed.  The Right, like the Mafia, thrives on a failure of government and standards.

Palmer and Trump also signify the lack of faith in politics – their trump is that they are new to it and not yet corrupted.  They say that they have succeeded elsewhere, and that if they have been unlovely in doing so, that may not be such a bad thing.  They have the prerogative of the minority throughout the ages – all power and no responsibility.  They are happy to go direct to the gutter.  They are brazenly inept.  People smile or giggle nervously – as they did to some other brazenly ambitious people for far too long.  Is this prospect not alarming?

Even the most die-hard conservative does not want inaction by default.  When I told a new Liberal MP that I could see no difference between the parties, she said that she had joined the Liberal Party because they were better for small business.  I wondered about that.  Would that logically entail that in her party capital would prevail over labour?  At the crunch, would the interests of small business, the great sacred cow of Australian politics, prevail over the interests of the wage-earners?  Her party would never assert that as a platform – neither would the Labor Party ever assert the contrary.  Is there any issue now on which the platforms of the two major parties dictate policy differences between them?  If the present parties are not offering criteria to distinguish policies, where else can we go?

Left Right, Liberal Conservative

The old distinction between left and right is not helpful.  I have tried to describe it elsewhere.

The ‘left’ tend to stand for the poor and the oppressed against the interests of power and property and established institutions.  The ‘right’ stand for the freedom of the individual in economic issues, and seek to preserve the current mode of distribution.  The left is hopeful of government intervention and change; the right suspects government intervention and is against change.  The left hankers after redistribution of wealth, but is not at its best creating it.  The right stoutly opposes any redistribution of wealth, and is not at its best in celebrating it.  The left is at home with tax; the right loathes it.  These are matters of degree that make either term dangerous.  Either can be authoritarian.  On the left, that may lead to communism.  On the right, you may get fascism.

You might add that the left always claims the moral high ground and the right claims the exclusive ownership of management.

Those differences, which are very much matters of degree, hardly throw light on whatever differences there are between the Liberal and Labor parties.  They do however provide terms of abuse.  And have you noticed how many people are happy enough to brand others as Left or Right, but not all that happy to accept the invited correlative that they are then Right or Left?

About the only the only identifier left for the Left and Right in Australia is the Middle East.  Israel has the Right and the Arabs have the Left.  Why that should be so, and what good it does for anyone, is beyond me.

To go back to the beginning, we ‘are for the most part talking about politics, that is, how we get on with each other and how we make and implement rules (laws) for that purpose.’  The ultimate issue is how much we want to allow those in government to interfere with each of us by making and implementing the rules or laws for that purpose.  People who want to live with others necessarily agree to give up some of their freedom in order to do so.  It does not add that much to say that we would prefer to give up as little as possible or to keep government as small as possible.  No sane Australian wants to give powers to government that the Germans gave to Hitler or that Stalin wrought from the Russians, but very few Australians would want to have a government so small that it did not provide the level of health care that ours does.

The old distinction between the conservatives and liberals tended simply to be that the first were slower out of the blocks.  It is hard to see the intellectual justification for that view now.  It will among other things depend on how people classify the kind of change being sought.  For example, is it a change in our attitude to the rule of law, or is it a change of direction in policy to give effect to a change in community attitudes?  ‘Reform’ here is a very slippery term that might beg its own question.

If we are talking of a change of policy, should government lead?  The answer depends on what people think of the policy – and, after the event, how history has judged the change.  I can well understand people saying that unelected judges should not be involved in changing policy – but that seems to me to be the inevitable result of the U S Constitution and legal system.  And as it happens, history has vindicated the radical lead given by the Supreme Court on desegregation, and Harvard tells its students that most of the advances in civil rights of the last generation had come from class actions.  (I accept that ‘advances’ here carries a similar loading to ‘reforms.’)

Political labels again

I want to go back to my misgivings about putting labels on people for the sake of it.  It is one thing to ask someone standing for election to be candid about what they stand for across various policy issues; it is another thing to put a label on a person because the views that they express in one field suggest that they might have certain views of say a similar ‘radical’ or ‘reactionary’ nature on other issues.  The result is likely to be an insult if not a fight.

And the exercise involves arrogance at one end, and a kind of denigration of the judgment of the person branded.  It is called taking people for granted, and it is a besetting sin.  Many people are not happy unless they are put in a box – but they do not see why others are more unhappy to go the same way, or on the same tramlines.  They speak in streams – coded slogans, which are usually useless, or language charged with resentment and fear.  They hardly appear to be up for a sensible chat.  It is like talking to a brick wall, except that in their unwillingness to concede any point at all, they too often try to crash through with a fallacy.  The ad hominem is a house speciality – it suits their narky side, half way between a cat and a mouse.  They live in that world that has that ghastly label – binary.

There is little point in reading most political commentators in this country – you know what they are going to say.  They are like Collingwood supporters – it is all a game but it is a game that should only end one way; if it does not end that way, the system has failed, and the result should be neglected.

Let me say why typing irritates me personally so much.  I have set out some of the reasons why the Labor Party makes me very nervous.  The Liberal Party has the same or worse effect on me for the following reasons.  They have never been a real conservative party with a coherent conservative platform or policy.  I have not forgiven them for Vietnam, 1975, or Iraq.  I regard Little Johnny as a dreadful little vote-counter and trimmer who personally denied me the Republic that I will not live to see.  And, worst of all, the bastards forever behave like Tories born to rule.  They actually believe that they are better!  For good measure, the present crop is as brainless and gutless as ever.

I have a specific gripe against the Liberal Party at the moment.  This P M is an idiot who is not up to the job.  He is a pushy, punchy simpleton, a vapid, grinning hand-me-down from the DLP.  You do not change at his age.  He pacified people for a while, but now he is back in form.  At a supermarket the other day, he was asked how the Greek and Chinese crises might affect us.  ‘Look, the important thing is to do whatever we can to build a strong and prosperous economy locally.  And again I get back to the Grocery Code of Conduct.  We have a great supermarket system.’

Coles and Woolies will save us from China and Greece.  This is shirt-fronting, duke-knighting country.  The Liberal Party has a real P M standing there, who is preferred by most in the electorate, one who does not fawn on Bolt and Jones, but they have to wait for another call from New York before they can move.  Why are they worried?  They might look as bad as Labor looked when they ejected a loser.  And people can see how bad that was on T V.  It is pitiful, is it not?

And yet, whenever I give vent to those views, I am generally taken as indicating that I favour the other side.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  That will I think be obvious from what I have said.  How is it then that people get it so wrong?  Because for most of them, their political views are the product of as much rational thought as was involved in selecting what God they follow or what footy team they support, or whether they prefer mixed clubs or gentlemen’s or ladies’ clubs, or co-ed or single-sex schools.

The upside, I am told, is that we are not likely to wake up to Hitler or Bonaparte at Yarralumla; the downside is that civilised political discourse hardly takes place in this duckpond.  How long do we have to wait for the next long weekend footy blockbuster so that we can line up for our dispensation of bread and circuses?


Let me take another example of the impact of history on politics and the way we that we live and think.  Apart from self-government, or independence, and not getting into bad wars – and there are no good wars – my big concern is education.  I think that what we have is a shambles that is a disgrace for a country as young and rich as ours.  We have two kinds of schools and those at the bottom of the pile or at the edge of town are very lucky indeed if the school that their kids go to is as good as that private school that the better off get their kids to.

If you discuss this in Paris, Berlin, or Vienna and say that part of the problem comes from our adopting the English public schools, and until recently allowing them to entrench the class system and single sex clubs, the person you are speaking to will shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes, give the rationalist version of crossing themselves, and set about a stiff drink.  (You get a similar response at Cambridge and Oxford because they are very sensitive there to allegations of elitism.)

But if there is one cow holier than small business out here, it is private schools.  That is an issue that cuts clean across all class, ethnic, religious, and financial barriers.  Any Australian politician even looking at that lions’ den is asking to be eaten alive.  If you want to blow up any barbecue or dinner party, just suggest that the parents are sending their kids to the wrong kind of school – but this is another area where any differences between the main parties are accidental.

Our wars

Before I get back to the issue of how to distinguish policies, let me just say something about our wars.  It is as if we have become addicted to failure.  When the Japs overran Singapore, we turned from the England to the U S for security.  We have since gone to war at their request.  We do so as payment on the policy of the security that they offer us.  But we never come clean about that.  It so happens that with Vietnam and Iraq there were other and worse lies too.  There is no worse a crime that a government may commit than to send its young men off to die for a lie, but we will never get an apology.

We are far too obedient with the U S – and Labor leaders always get duchessed as quickly in Washington as at Westminster.  All these problems come from our national immaturity and our refusal to cut the apron strings.  (I was interested to hear Malcom Fraser say that his disenchantment with the U S went back to the acquisition of the F111.)  On our most recent failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, public opinion was split.  But not for our politicians.  They marched on grimly in lock-step to salute the flag.  That is not even our own.

Other criteria?

Well, let us get off typing people for the sake of it, and look again at criteria for differing between policies and platforms.  Liberal and Labor are useless.  Left and right and are not much good and prone to abuse.  The question is how much power and responsibility we give to government and for that purpose the old labels ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ do not take us far.  One dill of a sorry bent who appeals to one senior politician fancied egoessential against egoregressive.  Well, that has the advantage of candour.

If you wanted to talk about people being ‘libertarian’ or ‘progressive’, are you doing so to classify them from above, or testing them to see whether you would vote for them?  I am not interested in the first, and I doubt whether you would find any appetite for the second.  Policy criteria must, as it seems to me, either derive from accepted custom, or provide workable tests.  The terms ‘libertarian’ and ‘progressive’ look to me to be too abstract and to look like an attempt to frame the question to attract the desired answer.

The short answer is that I cannot see what kinds of criteria might be adopted by major parties to distinguish themselves on a consistent basis across the issues of the day.  That is one reason why I think the two-party system is falling apart.

Let me look at three contemporary issues that are discussed now – the environment (climate change), immigration (refugees), and gay marriage.  I can understand some tenderness between, say, conservatives and liberals on the last, but I really have no idea why there should be said to be a similar division on the environment or immigration.  (For that matter, I do not know why the Right is always so keen to pick a fight about racism in this country, or why they want to pretend that it is not happening – when the rest of the country knows that it is.)

Current issues – the environment

I have deliberately stayed right out of the climate change argument.  I know nothing about it because my instincts told me it would be a field day for conspiracy theorists and fanatics or fundamentalists – like, say, those who get exercised over animal rights.  Why do you not just consider the evidence and make policy accordingly?  That is all that lawyers are trained to do.  Why should it be a matter for party politics?  I have no idea at all why some people on the conservative side – in the extreme case, The Australian – get so wound up this issue.  It has not been a problem for English Tories.  I have no idea why it has become so politically contentious here for those on the Right.  That is why I am so glad to be out of it.

I offer only three remarks.  I suspect that the problem is that too many people are not happy to be dispassionate, but have to take sides and team up on any issue; they have to fight because they thrive on conflict; their ultimate fear is to be left alone in a quiet room to think.  Next, I must confess to my own personal bias or prejudice on this point.  Sometimes I incline to a position for no other reason than that I distrust those opposing it.  I freely concede that this is irrational, but this is still a free country, and if people like Tony Abbott and his best mates Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones want to agree that a cat is white, I will be happy to proceed on the footing that that cat is black.  Finally, I do not know why a political party wants to adopt a position that might be shown to be empirically false – like the Vatican on astronomy.  I thought that was the kind of thing that politicians devoted their lives to avoiding.


Nor do I have any idea why our response to the immense problem of refugees should have become a party political issue along the old conservative/liberal divide.

This is by far the biggest issue of the three.  It will still be with us when the rest has been forgotten – which will not be far away.  We have not even started to come to grips with it.  According to the U N, during 2014, more than 55 million people were driven from their homes by force.  For 2013, the U N estimated that 232 million migrated for economic and other reasons.  We just cannot get our heads around these figures.  Since 2000, Germany and Russia have taken 10 million, and the UK and France eight million.  (These figures come from a piece by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian Weekly.)  Our position is that we will take as few as humanly possible, and that we will deploy our armed forces to secure that result.

I have no idea what the answer is – that is, what is a position that the people of this country might reasonably be persuaded to adopt – but I have even less of an idea of why this issue should be split along the lines of the old conservative/liberal divide.  I would have thought that the question comes down to compassion and how a government sensibly seeks to persuade its people to adopt a course that they can live with.  As far as I can see, our government does not to think along those lines, but that still does not help me see why people should split on theoretical fault lines.

I will say that I do not know many people here who are proud of the way that our government is going about the military operations.  Nor do the Europeans seem anxious to follow our model.  It was soul destroying to see Morrison turn up with Darth Vader before crossed flags and refuse to talk about operational matters in Operation Sovereign Borders.  This government runs gunboat diplomacy like the Keystone Cops.

We now have the Australian Border Force headed by an ex-rozzer named Roman Quaedvlieg.  The website has bullshit that is astounding even by our own impressive standards.

We consider the border not to be a purely physical barrier separating nation states, but a complex continuum stretching offshore and onshore, including the overseas, maritime, physical border and domestic dimensions of the border. 

Treating the border as a continuum allows an integrated, layered approach to provide border management in depth— working ahead of and behind the border, as well as at the border, to manage threats and take advantage of opportunities.
By applying an intelligence-led model and working with our partner agencies across the border continuum, we deliver effective border control over who and what has the right to enter or exit, and under what conditions.  

Officers in the Australian Border Force are operationally focused, uniformed and part of a disciplined enforcement body undertaking functions across our operating environment – patrolling our air and seaports, remote locations, mail and cargo centres and Australia’s extended maritime jurisdiction.

There is not a word about refugees from a government that claims to follow the teachings of the Jewish man who preached about the good Samaritan taking time to help a stranger who had been robbed.  But our Prime Minister was prepared to invoke the God he believes to be the Father of that preacher in launching the Force and its Commander-in-Chief in his suit of French blue with silver leaf on the lapels: ‘May God bless you, may God bless your work, may God bless the country you are helping to protect and prosper.’

Not in my bloody name, Sport – who would want to have anything to do with a God who would respond to that sort of bullshit?  It defies belief.  This prime minister is a very stupid man, but even he might see the unlovely comparisons with a leader of a nation standing before a bundle of its flags and calling down the blessings of Almighty God on the Supremo of a quasi-military force set up deal with people less fortunate than him.

We can deploy as many in uniform as we like to stop refugees, but at some time and in some place we are going to have to face the moral question of how many we should take.  We have a land of plenty with hardly anyone on it while tens of millions are oppressed and displaced.  Years after I visited Rio, it faced a huge problem with urchins and orphans oozing out of the sewers to occupy Copacabana.  We see the same now at the channel tunnel.  Somewhere and at some time, the problem will have to be faced.  In times to come, will we resemble the young boy using his finger to plug a hole in the dyke to stop his nation being flooded?

The fixation on the sovereignty of our borders and the deployment of military force to secure them may derive from a fear of being overrun by strangers.  Then we would end up with no title to our own land.  That leads us to the question of Lenin: who are we?  Who are the true owners of ‘our’ land?  The people who currently show the most agitation on this point are commonly those who show the least agitation about the dispossession of the original owners.  Those who are most bitter about refugees are those who are least sorry for the aboriginals.  Their nightmare is becoming refugees in their ‘own’ land.  Compassion can be very self-centred.

Gay marriage

That leaves gay marriage.  Here, I can understand a debate along the old lines, between those who fear that the change may do too much damage to existing social insitutions and those who think that the change is the least that is required to bring equal rights to different forms of enduring union – and I accept that both sides would quarrel with that description.

I personally have no issue with equal rights.  I would prefer not to use the word ‘marriage’, because I don’t like being told by politicians how to use the English language, and I resent people who want to tear down rubrics to satisfy a transient urge, but I am not going to go into the trenches about one word.  If a bloke wants to leave the pub saying that he is off to sleep with his husband, he could expect a variant on the Lewis Carrol response, and not expect a standing ovation for his contribution to inter-sexual peace and enlightenment in a country boozer, but I suppose that eventually things will settle down.  (Adoption, of course, involves other considerations.)

I can understand people resisting the notion that if it looks like the numbers are there, they should bury their conscience, and lie down and enjoy it.  I can also understand people being upset if such a step is seen to be imposed by judges rather than being settled on by elected members of the legislature.

As to the latter, that risk seems to me to be inherent in the American legal system where sadly the highest court tends to divide on party lines especially when performing a de facto legislative function.  The usual complaints have been uttered in The Australian.  They have excoriated the majority and celebrated the minority – which did of course include Scalia, who is not only predictable, but predictably rude in the unshakeable conviction of his own rectitude.  Unfortunately, but typically, the commentators have not told us what the legal issue was, or what were the reasons why the majority decided that issue as it did.  It is hard to say that it is bad, when you are not told what it is.

Nor have I understood how the proposed law will adversely affect the conscience of people who are religious.  Yet Paul Kelly in The Australian says that the central issue in same sex marriage is whether the new definition of marriage ‘will authorise an assault on churches, institutions and individuals who retain their belief in the traditional view of marriage’ and ‘whether same-sex marriage will deny conscience rights to much of the population.’  I am not sure what this means, but I am entirely ignorant of any ground for suspecting that the proposed law will adversely affect the religious conscience of anyone.  Is there any basis for fearing that the proposed law may have the effect of causing people to act against their conscience?  If there were some attempt to legislate a compulsive utopia which entailed that ministers of religion were legally obliged to act against their faith, I would oppose it.

Still, I know that the people at The Australian are going through a hard time now, because in addition to their demons at the ABC and Fairfax, they now have to put up with the demons in the Supreme Court of the U S and the Holy Father, each of whom has real clout, but I do not presently understand this point at all.  Since Mr Tim Wilson is said to be involved, this may not be surprising.


Those three contemporary issues suggest to me how hard it is to fix on criteria for sorting views or voting for candidates across the range of issues that might arise here and now.

I wish to say something about one factor that has intruded in two of them – religion.  It is a fact that religion and churches are on the nose here now, and elsewhere, even more than politics, but those discontents are now merging, and it is hard to see our being better off as a result.

Our Prime Minister is keen on invoking God, or at least his God, and not just in the gay marriage debate (in which he is behaving very much as his mentor Howard did on the republic).  We might have known that the former seminarian had it in for us from the moment that he assured the nation that he would not allow his faith to affect the way that he performed his office as Prime Minister.  The other day, he told the Interfaith Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast: ‘Faith does not make us good, but by God, it makes us better.’  (Really – I have heard a recording of this; and just spare a thought for the poor bastards who have not been made better – and think of what our PM may have been like without God.)

Fairly or otherwise, the Church has been seen to be on the side of reaction, and authority, and the established order.  It is seen as the soul of conservatism.  This government is intent on preserving that record and it will not do it, the Church, or the nation any good.  If you had to nominate who had done the most damage to religion – to God and his Church – in this country, Tony Abbott or his mate George Pell, it would be a very close run thing.


Some say that we are obsessed with inequality.  I have not seen that, but I do fear that after the problem of persons displaced by violence, most of which comes from religion, the next biggest potential cause of disorder is inequality of income and wealth.

I do not have the faintest idea about what to do about this either, but if two people report to work at a bank for a day, and one emerges with a wage one thousand times higher than the other, we have a problem.  Our whole communal life is founded on assumptions which in turn are based on notions of reasonableness, proportion, and fairness.  These notions I accept are large and unquantifiable, but, rightly or otherwise, most people have an idea of what is going when those basic assumptions are not met.  You get words like ‘outrageous’, ‘obscene’, and ‘mad’.  If some arrangement is not made, you might get something more than words.

People who either do not think that there is a problem or that if there is, it will go away if we ignore it, remind me of Louis XVI, who said in his diary for 14 July 1789, ‘rien.’  The French crown and nobility paid heavily for their failure to see and deal with the cause of the discontents within their people; so did the Russians.  As I say, I have not the faintest idea what to do, for the explosion that might come from the growing crisis of displaced persons, or inequality, but I would not be like to be around for the next version of Citizen Robespierre, or Comrade Lenin; or boats backed by warships.  I do however have the strong suspicion that our politicians have no idea of what might be in the wind.

More worrying than inequality of reward is inequality of punishment.  People down the bottom get jail terms while people at the top pull off fantastic frauds that endanger the economies of nations and the world, for which they should get about twenty years in the slammer on the tariffs set for those beneath them – instead, teams of well-heeled lawyers, financiers, and PR people meet teams of government lawyers, officials, and spin doctors, and the government agrees in a deal made in private to trouser a huge fine as a bribe, that is paid by innocent shareholders, and instead of going to jail, the guilty money men trouser another few billion in bonuses.  There will have to be a reckoning for this kind of madness.

When talking of inequality of wealth, we might remember that the wealth of nations consists largely of promises, or of the expectation that those promises will be met.  In assessing that wealth, the moral value underlying those promises may or may not matter so much, but if the underlying moral fabric is pulled too hard, the whole structure may collapse.  To adopt another metaphor, if you want to live in a castle in the air, and not just dream of it, you must ultimately come down to earth.

Trends in time

This observation is even more general and unverifiable than anything before, but I do have the impression that whereas is the 60’s and 70’s, the great conspirators and conspiracy theorists, the Looney Tunes and the bad clowns, were mostly on the left, they are now mostly on the right.  The right – they like to say the centre-right – is now more cloistered, vengeful, and paranoid than the left ever was – it is now the repository of bitterness.  It is certainly easier to discern what might be called the public enemies in that direction.  And whatever else it stands for, it is not compassion.

Similarly, what used to be called the chattering classes now seem to me to be on the side of reaction rather than change.  The new right seems to be more uptight and vengeful than the old left.  They are capable of hot and extreme language.  Some are driven to express physical revulsion and that is a sure symptom of intolerance.  They have little judgment and they are not able to make concessions.  In the result, they often find themselves defending the indefensible, and they have not learned the first precept of advocacy – if you have a good point, make it, and don’t spoil it with a dud; if you don’t have a good point, shut up.  What goes for advocacy goes for politics – or it should.  The regimes that fall over are those who do not see the imperative need to negotiate to stay in touch.

I suspect that the problem with ideologues is the same as the problem with our politicians and judges – they spend too much time in their own company.  They go to functions where you check your brains, or at least your critical functions, in at the door.  They should spend more time with people outside their own bubble.  The internet is only encouraging this Masonic clubbism.  And that is before you get to the circumambient paranoia about the ABC and Fairfax for people who gallop around in small circles like the black hats and white hats in the matinee western serial at the Ashburton Civic in 1952.

Well, all that is the kind of typing I have been complaining about.  Does any of it matter?  After all, most people in Australia hardly give a bugger about politics, and very few want to talk about it at any length.  They are dispirited by the whole bloody mess, and they think that it is the ideologues, academics, and journalists who are very much to blame for our present condition.

How to vote

Voting along party lines as a rational choice, as opposed to a caste or tribal diktat, presupposes two things – the party has a coherent platform or policy, and it can be trusted to adhere to it.  You can then see clearly why that system is over here.

I tend to look for the leader who most appeals.  Mr Baird and Mr Wetherill appear to be doing good jobs.  If I had to nominate two Australian politicians I admired, I might mention Lindsay Thompson and John Cain, two Victorian premiers.  They were completely honest.  (We take that for granted in Victoria, but we are the only ones who can.)  They were dedicated party people who saw themselves as servants of the public.  They knew and respected the system and their ambition was neither unmanageable nor indecent.

If I had to nominate two shockers I could start with Campbell Newman and Tony Abbott.  Their ambition is or was indecent.  Both thrive on conflict of the pettiest party order.  They look to be without principle and to be responding to polls rather than leading opinion, and in a very sad reliquary way.  They do not appear to respect the system, and each is guilty of inflicting a major wound on our body politic by trashing the judiciary – Newman by appointing Carmody to Chief Justice and Abbott by appointing a former High Court judge to lead his war on the unions.  Carmody and Heydon established their ineptness by accepting a position knowing it would bring the courts into political controversy.  It is impossible to assess the damage to the High Court from the appointment of one of its former members to lead the class war in an inquisition into unions.  It is sadly typical of this Prime Minister that he has no idea of the trouble he has caused.  Newman and Carmody at least had the wit and decency to quit.


It is hard to see any upshot, let alone upside.  I might best therefore leave it all to those with more brains.

In his Treatise, David Hume said ‘reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’.  The mind spells out what comes from the heart.  He concluded his Enquiries with the famous proclamation of the empirical position.  He said we could pick up any book in our libraries, and ask: ‘Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?  No.  Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?  No.  Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’

In the preceding paragraph, we get a remark that brings those two together and applies to politics.  ‘Morals and criticism are not so properly objects of the understanding as of taste and sentiment.’  There are no demonstrable answers there.

That is the intellectual tradition that I grew up in, and as it happens, I subscribe to it.  Does that mean that we cannot talk rationally about politics?  Of course not – but there will be no hard or fast answer.  Yes, but surely sensible adults should be able to map out common ground and at least agree on what the question is and the criteria by which the question should be resolved?  Sadly, no; emphatically, no.

The reason was given by Hume a few pages before in language that is timeless.

The greater part of mankind are naturally apt to be affirmative and dogmatical in their opinions; and while they see objects only on one side, and have no idea of any counterpoising argument, they throw themselves precipitately into the principles, to which they are inclined; nor have they any indulgence for those who entertain opposite sentiments.  To hesitate or balance perplexes their understanding, checks their passions, and suspends their action.  They are, therefore, impatient to escape from a state, which to them is so uneasy: and they think that they would never remove themselves far enough from it, by the violence of their affirmations and obstinacy of their belief.

I will refer to just a few others.  Keats referred to the capacity of Shakespeare he called ‘Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’  F. Scott Fitzgerald expressed a similar idea when he said that ‘the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function’.

Negative capability is not the prerogative of genius, but we all know the irritation of being kept in doubt, as in a close call on election night, or a close call on a video replay for the third umpire.  When confronted with something new we behave like small children reaching for their comfy rug.  Our whole life is a quest for bedrock, and under stress we are inclined to lapse back into slogans, formulas, or dogmatism.

Kant said that: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.  Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.  This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another … Dogmas and formulas, though as mechanical instruments for rational use (or rather misuse) of his natural endowments, are the ball and chain of his permanent immaturity.’

Edward Gibbon referred to our discomfort when a crutch is knocked away: ‘The decline of ancient prejudice exposed a very numerous portion of humankind to the danger of a painful and comfortless situation.  The state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds.  But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude that, if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision’.

That is enough.  We know what the problem is, but we have never been able to fix it, and we never will be.  It would be going too far to abolish think tanks, but we could at least scrap the study of political science, a contradiction in terms, and suggest that people read Jane Austen and Flaubert instead and get a real education.  That way we would have the satisfaction of knowing that we have sent at least one think tank clean out of its tidy mind.

The most that we can ask for is not to be put in pens or boxes, or despatched to a bad end, but to do the best we can with the ball and chain of our own permanent immaturity.