July 28th 2001

  Buy Issue 2613

Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: The message from Aston

COVER: Dumped imports threaten Golden Circle

Trade lessons for small countries

Straws in the Wind

Media: New program, same old ABC

ABARE's export figures 'fanciful' (letter)

Issues lost in barley debate (letter)

The good and bad of the US model

Children already have protectors - their parents!

The lessons of T.G.H Strehlow

Rearming school cadets

What Beijing Olympics Supporters Ignored

Adult stem cell research provides ethical genetic therapy

Taiwan wracked by political infighting

Books promotion page

Straws in the Wind

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, July 28, 2001
Ever since Bob Hawke announced that no Australian child would be living in poverty by 1990 ("No", said my young son, "we would have eaten them all") ... since Hawke’s immortal utterance, our politicians have tended to be a little circumspect in prognosticating about the ease or required time span of the removal, or substantial reduction, of unemployment, or poverty. They are, after all, answerable for the accuracy or otherwise of their predictions. Whereas, Opposition politicians, welfare organisations, and some clerics specialising in making gleefully biased public pronunciamentos, are not. Or rather, don’t appear to think they are.

So, Tony Abbott, one of the most effective and articulate members of the Howard Government, found himself the object of a clumsy, instantly hysterical, pre-Aston ambush, when he made some quite commonsensical and carefully-phrased comments about the intractability of some classes of poverty, because "in some circumstances, people through their own behaviour, contribute to their own poverty". Words to remember - some (circumstances); contribute to.

This is so true to our experience, and Mr Abbott has so carefully phrased and qualified his observations, that the pack of usual suspects could only falsify his remarks, before launching on the usual character assassinations. Some, in part, to protect their extensive and liberally-watered turf.

Mr Abbott presents serious problems for under-resourced opponents and careless critics. He has been a very hard-working and effective Minister; he operates well in the House; and he seems to get on with his colleagues. But he also has further qualifications, which drive, in particular, our tragically mediocre journos (that hayseed Illiterati), to acts of great foolishness. He has an Oxford degree, has won a boxing blue at Oxford, and writes very clearly and very well. Just look up some of his pieces in The Adelaide Review. And he has had some years of training for the priesthood. And, I understand, has a law degree.

Given the permanent resentment and well-grounded feelings of inferiority which nowadays abound, he qualifies as a New Class hate-object. Just consider The Herald Sun leading article of July 15 - "Below the belt" [note - underhand boxing reference. Clever stuff?] The beginning: "Tony Abbott was described as a head-kicker when he took over ... Employment and Workplace Relations."

Who described him thus? What were their reasons? Silence - of course. Usual journos’ pub-talk. On a level with "Some senior Liberals are saying ...", "well informed sources believe", etc., etc.. But better to come. "On Four Corners, Mr Abbott stopped kicking and hit below the belt. His target, the poor." Really?

Mr A declared: "We can’t abolish poverty, because poverty, in part, is a function of individual behaviour. [Note - abolish: not reduce, mitigate, master. Note - in part.] We can’t stop people drinking, we can’t stop people gambling. We can’t stop people having substance problems. We can’t stop people from making mistakes that cause them to be less well-off than they otherwise would be. We cannot remove risk from society without also removing freedom - and that’s the last thing that any government should do."

Obviously true, and positing that Man has Free Will. Therefore, is at least partly responsible for his actions. If it turned out that he were not, then not only Christianity, humanism, and democracy would have got it crucially wrong, but also praise, blame, concepts like desert, deterrence, and retribution would be otiose. Education, child-rearing, government would all - as of right - be approached as conditioning processes. Treating people as objects, not subjects. Thing-persons. Would the conditioners have Free Will? The road to manipulation, propaganda, and tyranny.

It is probable that our critics of Abbott’s remarks, especially those with religious backgrounds, didn’t realise where their abuse was taking them; but people in panic mode quite often don’t. So, continues our leader-writer, "Not surprisingly, Mr Abbott’s offensive generalisation is under fire from groups dedicating to helping the growing number of disadvantaged." This is inelegantly expressed, for purists might think that these groups are dedicated to helping the number of disadvantaged to grow; and one knows that many people are saying just that.

But, yes, a number of welfare spokesmen and a number of clerics took offence at Abbott raising the possibility that people "are responsible for their actions, sometimes for their situation."

As to Mr Abbott’s "offensive generalisation", which of Abbott’s four propositions was the offensive generalisation? I suspect the first, for it obviously attributes Free Will to humans. Or it could mean all four propositions rolled into one - who knows?

We are in fact re-treading the muddy path of the arguments over Aboriginal reform, i.e., our attempts to improve their situation. From the time people began expressing alarm at the immobility of Aboriginal health, crime, mortality, education and employment statistics, despite the spending of many billions of dollars - and called for new strategies - cries of "racist", "blaming the Aborigines [for being black?]," "hitting below the belt", etc., filled the air.

The customary strategy appeared, as Noel Pearson says, to be keeping Aborigines in a permanent state of welfare dependence - which, he thought, was destroying their culture and their characters. A lot of this welfare, supplied unconditionally, seemed to be going on alcohol, or worse: but more fundamentally, this condition of permanent, orchestrated infantile dependence was a new variety of colonialism. And suggesting that "they" couldn’t be expected to help themselves, exercise their own wills, to achieve greater freedom, greater independence - that they couldn’t contribute even in part to their future development - seems on the face of it, a racist judgement.

It was regularly used by colonial occupiers who wanted to hang on, because the natives were primitive, would never grow up, never be fit for independence.

Strangely enough, in the same Herald Sun edition as the editorial I’ve cited (July 15), there is an advertisement for a US film, Legacy: "Three generations of African-American women struggle to free themselves from welfare and poverty". So it can happen ... in America. But not here?


Lest anyone think that the Herald Sun, like its competitors, allows only one view - not so. Fortunately, a day or two later, Andrew Bolt turned up, with a quite effective demolition of the disreputable attacks on Abbott’s commonsense, and overall optimism, and the wilful parodies of his assertions. So pluralism still survives in one part of Melbourne.

To finish with the original Herald Sun - the news report headline read "Poverty quip sparks anger". The "quip" is: "We can’t abolish poverty, because poverty, in part, is a function of individual behaviour." A quip: Noun: sarcastic remark, a taunt, a jeer. Verb: to manifest contempt by derision.

At the end of this article by Rick Wallace, you are referred to the editorial (page 18), which I have been dissecting, and where the whole operation falls into place in its last paragraph. "Mr Abbott’s remarks come on the eve of the Aston by-election. They reinforce the view of the Government (in the words of Liberal President Shane Stone) as mean, tricky, and out of touch."

As a contribution to the discussion of the variations and vicissitudes of human will and agency, and the different degrees of responsibility for our actions, depending upon circumstances - where are you likely to find anything as irrelevant, or as idiotic, as this one?

But a friend has just asked me: "Have you tried looking at The Age and The Australian on this business?" I did - quite amazing litanies of abuse, humbug, and misrepresentation. These people have problems - with truth, with logic, and with basic competencies.

What we have been watching is an extremely crude, but carefully orchestrated, hit-job against Mr Abbott, his policies, and his person. It resembles, even copies, the long trade union campaign against Peter Reith, which is still continuing. The first and permanent pogrom was, and is, against John Howard, when he announced the return of freedom of speech, and the right of people to choose. Choose what to believe, choose their own destiny.

This has made him the enemy - not of the people - but of the New Class, whose opposition to others choosing their own thoughts, living by their own values, doing their own thing, is well attested, and deeply felt. Coming from early Maoist and Stalinist mindsets, it is what they believe. Hence their great anger when Howard, Reith and Abbott challenge them. And this explains their natural alliance with the bullies and persecutors now running some key unions, and their forcing Beazley to play Pontius Pilate.

The original sin of Reith and Abbott was to oppose the bullying and corruption of a sub-culture of union leaders, who embody, for their part, a second unity-ticket - between the Old Stalinist Left and Tammany Hall.

Attempts to expose and break such rackets - such systems of oppression - have regularly led, in other more lawless societies, to murder, to literally shooting the messengers.

Here, the destruction of the critic’s career, or reputation, is the reluctant substitute. So perhaps Reith and Abbott should consider themselves as getting off lightly.

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