COVER STORY: The Twilight of the Elites
by Professor David Flint
News Weekly, May 31, 2003
Next month Freedom Publishing is releasing The Twilight of the Elites by Professor David Flint. As the following extract makes clear, the book deals with the 'alternative' agenda for Australia promoted by the so-called elite against the wishes of the electorate. John Howard remains the elite's bête noire, his record support in the polls notwithstanding.
There can be no doubt that the elites suffered a devastating defeat in the Australian Federal election on November 10, 2001. Concentrated mainly in those inner city electorates in the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne triangle, they managed to attract no more than 10% of the national primary vote.
If that is typical of the level of support the elites enjoy, it is remarkable that over the last three decades they have been so successful in having their agenda adopted. And yet, the better part of the year after the election, 2002, was spent in a completely unsuccessful attempt to delegitimise the Howard Government.
This was over one isolated incident during the Government's 2001 campaign to halt the increased border incursions by criminal people-smugglers based in Indonesia.
Then in the following year, 2003, relying on most people's aversion to war, the elites expected a strong and long term reaction against John Howard when he decided to align Australia with the US and UK in the 'coalition of the willing'.
The coalition had decided to intervene in Iraq to enforce Saddam Hussein's 12-year-old promise to account for an destroy weapons of mass destruction. The hopes, both of Australian and the international elites, were to be shattered with the fall of the evil regime of Saddam Hussein, and the evident joy with which the Iraqis greeted their liberators.
If the elites had had their way, entry to Australia would now be substantially under the control of criminal people-smugglers based in Indonesia, the influx of their clients would now be out of control, and East Timor would still be subjugated.
It the elites had controlled the US Administration, as well as the British and Australian governments, Saddam Hussein's reign of terror would not have ended, he would still be hosting and encouraging terrorists, and he would now be developing, with impunity, weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.
Who are the elites? The word 'elite' was much debated after the election, and to a lesser extent in the 1999 republican referendum. It was said that many of those who use the word are themselves elite. This is to misunderstand the use of the word that was made popular by American author Christopher Lasch. To him, elite opinion is opinion typical of the upper-middle-class liberal - that is, liberal in the American sense. This tends to be left-wing on social and cultural issues.
That there is such a school of thought should not surprise anyone. As long ago as Aristotle's critique of Plato's Republic, there have been divergent views on political philosophy. Such a divergence is inevitable in a democracy. Indeed, it is healthy.
Our elites are, in many ways, heirs of Plato's Republic. They are the Antipodean equivalent of Plato's and Socrates' guardians, philosopher kings who, with their self-assumed superior knowledge and virtues, believe themselves most suited to guide the ship of state. And this use of the word 'elite' is in the tradition of the names given to other schools of political thought in Ancient Greece, the birthplace of political philosophy, for example, the sophists, the epicureans, the stoics and the sceptics.
The term 'elite' is thus a useful, although mildly pejorative, reference to a way of thinking now common in the media, in some university faculties and in the arts. It is to be contrasted with traditional thought, whose advocates are clearly in a minority in those circles, but who represent and enunciate the commonsense, pragmatic views of the vast majority of Australians.
Those who have such a traditional view of the world are sometimes described as 'conservatives' while often no description at all is used for the left-wing elite. Thus the handful of mainstream political commentators in the press are often described as 'conservative', or worse, but the great majority of political commentators and journalists, left of centre on most social and cultural issues, are hardly ever referred to as what they are, 'left-wing'. As Michael Warby argues, 'conservative' is now code for 'not mainstream'. The suggestion is that the majority of political journalists think much like most Australians, which is just not true.
But harsher descriptions are quite often used to describe our so-called conservative commentators. While 'elite' is mildly pejorative, the descriptions used for the mainstream commentators will often suggest unworthy motives, and are usually far harsher than 'elite'.
These include 'Tories', on radio, 'shock jocks', for the population at large, 'rednecks' and quite often 'racists'. (You may even hear the word 'fascist' used. I recall a university professor described as a 'fascist' merely because he opposed affirmative action quotas or targets for employment! He was the subject of a disgraceful anonymous campaign to prevent his employment.) This technique of labelling the mainstream commentator is designed to deny him credibility.
During the referendum campaign, in order to demonstrate that the essentially diplomatic term 'Head of State' had no fixed domestic meaning, I observed that, among others, Hitler had been a Head of State but not Stalin. The editor of a country newspaper condemned me in his editorial - for linking an Australian republic to the excesses of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia! I ignored that.
Three years later he repeated it in a letter to a national newspaper, on this occasion in an attack on my views on border protection. So I wrote a letter to the national newspaper. I should have written three years before, and if he had not published it in his own newspaper, I should have sought a Press Council ruling.
A similar phenomenon can be seen in the USA. Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor from The New Republic (The Australian, 14 January 2002, from The Sunday Times) and media critic Bernard Goldberg (2002) confirm that the word 'conservative' is now often used with pejorative overtones there.
The ascendancy of the elites in Australian and American intellectual circles mirrors that in other Western countries, particularly in the English-speaking world. With one difference, which makes their recent defeats all the more surprising. This is that in most other countries there remain significant sectors of mainstream thought in the media, the universities and the arts.
In Australia, public intellectuals who are not on the left constitute a small minority. Not only do they run the risk of being ridiculed or reviled, they are more often than not excluded from the debate.
There was no place for even one at Maxine McKew's celebrated ABC 7.30 Report dinner table, a televised literary event in January 2002, which followed an earlier SBS version made in French. And in 2001, when we celebrated the Centenary of Federation, the elites dominated with the mainly anti-federation views, almost excluding mainstream views.
The result - that phenomenon long ago identified by De Tocqueville, the 'Spiral of Silence' where the majority, feeling isolated, begins to retreat into silence rather than speak out for what it mistakenly thinks is a minority view.
It is important to understand that the elites are strongly influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the new philosophies which, for convenience, we can put under the broad label of being post-modernist, although there are many variations. Post-modernism is not only fashionable in humanities faculties, but now seeps into other disciplines.
It replaces and in many respects derives from the previous fashion, Marxism, which was never so powerful, at least in English-speaking countries. Marxism imploded when even Marxists realised that in practice it was not only a disaster but inherently evil. But the Marxist theory of alienation is still used by the left to demonstrate the inherent corruption of traditional Western society, its beliefs and its institutions. This has led to a denial of the essence of our civilisation, our personal responsibility for our actions.
Marx gave the elites their mission. He had written that philosophers had hitherto only interpreted the world: the point now was to change it. And who better qualified to change it - and change it 'intelligently' - than the elites.
For long, civilised society has been based on a search for the truth, either revealed or to be discovered. But our Judaeo-Christian tradition is not only about revealed truth. It is also about the search for truth in the sciences and the humanities.
Now, as Keith Windschuttle argues, post-modern critics and social theorists are murdering our past. This is because post-modernism - the philosophy which guides the elites - insists that all is relative. Post-modern historians, for example, believe that the past is not something we discover, it is something which each age invents for itself!
Culture, too, they say, is relative. No culture is superior to another in any respect. Even the methodology of Western science is no more superior to that of any other, notwithstanding the West's obvious successes. There are no universal truths. So the mass executions and cannibalisation of say, the Aztecs are not inherently morally abhorrent. The concepts of free speech, democracy and human rights are not inherently superior principles - they are merely the product of specific times and specific places.
Of course most of the elites do not actually really swallow this rubbish - and rubbish it is, as hoaxer Alan Sokal demonstrated. But it allows them to justify a black armband view of the history of Australia.
It allows them to put the Aboriginal people both now and in the past, on an altar, frozen in aspic, in a perfect, happy and idealised tribal world.
It allows them to pursue a campaign against individual responsibility, describing all delinquents and criminals as victims of our corrupt system. So the elites demand that governments perform the functions previously exercised by families, volunteers and charities. This has led of course to a significant transfer of responsibility and functions to government which it just cannot manage, leading to a massive transfer of income from individuals to government. This has led, over three decades, to a more than five-fold increase in government expenditure.
Let us return to November 10, 2001. On that day, Australians had a clear choice. Should they keep the Government of John Winston Howard, a government they had elected by a landslide in 1996 and which they had just returned in 1998?
The very strong advice of the elites was to throw out the Howard Government. Not that Mr Beazley's Labor opposition had much endeared itself to those same elites. But anything would be better than John Howard.
So how should Australians have judged the Government of John Winston Howard on November 10, 2001? One way was to compare the previous government.
His predecessor, Paul Keating, had presided over an extraordinary reversal of fundamental Labor policy, privatising a range of publicly owned assets accumulated by previous Labor administrations and undisturbed by subsequent Coalition governments.
But even with the profits from privatisation, and substantial tax increases, the Keating Government could not live within its budget. This had serious effects on interest rates and employment. Then there were those divisive social and cultural policies. Seizing upon the High Court's extraordinary decision in Mabo to legislate, in effect, on native title in mainland Australia, Keating went beyond practical reconciliation. Through impassioned language, he gave more solace - and comfort - than he probably intended to those indigenous leaders who will only ever be satisfied with a treaty and legal separation from other Australians.
Although success in trade is a matter primarily for business, Keating 'discovered' Asia and thought to substitute that vague geographical concept for those tried and tested links with our oldest and closest friends. While APEC remains useful, it is a long way from even the most primitive form of economic association, a free trade area.
His apparently almost filial devotion to Indonesian dictator General Suharto meant that he continued the policy of ignoring the plight of the East Timorese. That this was endorsed by those same former diplomats, politicians and commentators who, in 2001 and 2002, were to accuse Australians of racism over border protection, in no way made the policy more virtuous. But this led him, as if he were some 18th-century princeling, to negotiate a treaty with Suharto in 1995, a treaty of which even most of his ministers, to say nothing of the Labor Caucus, the Parliament and the people, were completely ignorant.
Determined to sever our old links, and also to divert attention from the government's economic mismanagement, he proposed both a new flag and substantial, unnecessary and divisive constitutional change.
The result was that he lost his own heartland, and John Howard was swept to victory in 1996. Howard's first priority being a sound economy, he set about repaying the mountain of debt he had inherited. It was only in October 2002 that the international ratings agency, Moody's, restored the Federal Government's premium triple-A rating lost in 1986 when Paul Keating was Treasurer, about the time that he had warned Australia was heading towards 'banana republic' status. This credit rating is shared by a small select group of countries, including the US and the UK.
Howard's action ensured that Australia did not fall victim - as most of its neighbours did - to the Asian economic crisis. He took on the thankless task of reforming the tax system. His leadership on East Timor was remarkable. He declined the foolish demands of street demonstrators that Australia invade and thus declare war on Indonesia. (Had he, the left would have been the first to denounce him.)
The speed with which he obtained UN support, and actually had troops on the ground, is a record for such an operation. He thus removed, for once and all, that that awful stain on the nation's honour which the four previous Prime Ministers had tolerated.
Had the MV Tampa, the vessel at the centre of the border control affair in 2001, not been Norwegian-owned, he could well have received the Nobel Prize. But it was in his stopping what would have become a vast and annual armada of people-smugglers that Australians have rallied behind him and given him a third term. Not out of racism, but because they know that those already in the queue, living today under the threat of persecution, have greater rights.
And what of his rival? Unlike Mr Howard, Mr Beazley in opposition more often than not had obstructed the Government's program, which was his right. But thoughtful electors must have wondered whether he would reverse some of the more successful reforms, as well as the reduction of welfare dependency. And while Mr Beazley had renounced the profligacy of the Keating years, his proposal to use public service superannuation provisions for current government spending did not inspire confidence.
Proclaiming his passion in defence matters, he had to live down his role in the choice of the Collins class submarines. Less assertive than Mr Keating on cultural matters, he still proposed to continue the folly of funding that elite passion, a republic. He was determined to say 'sorry' to Australia's indigenous people, while a treaty and a reparations tribunal were still possible. Little more would flow to education in the first term, but universities would lose their private income from Australian students.
While some private schools were targeted, there was no recognition of the fact that on average the private school sector is more cost-efficient than the State sector and that these schools increasingly offer an alternative for many Australian families of even modest means.
It was on border protection that the comparison was most clear. From 1998 a concerned Howard Government began to introduce legislation in an attempt to curb people-smuggling.
But it was only with the Tampa incident in 2001 and the public's reaction to it - especially the reaction of those in the Labor heartland - that the Labor Opposition gave the Government the support it needed in the Senate to pass that legislation.
The MV Tampa was a Norwegian-owned cargo vessel which had left Australia on its way to Indonesia. It stopped to help an Indonesian vessel in difficulties, taking all 433 people on board. The Indonesian vessel was engaged in smuggling clients who had paid to be taken to Australia where they would claim refugee status.
It seems that they would have entered Indonesia by air, perhaps as tourists. Mainly Muslims, they were unlikely to be in fear of persecution there. Following previous practice, they would land in Australia without passports or any identification whatsoever. Presumably these documents were destroyed in Indonesia on advice.
When it became apparent to the smugglers and their clients that the Tampa was heading back to Indonesia, they persuaded, intimidated or threatened the Captain to turn around and head for Australia. The Captain ignored instructions from the Australian authorities not to enter Australian territory. While rescuing the smugglers and their clients was an exercise of his duty, that duty did not require giving in to intimidation and breaking Australian law.
The Australian Government decided that those on board the Tampa should not land, a decision which enjoyed the overwhelming support of the Australian people, and which earned it the strongest denunciation of the elites.
It is important to emphasise the sequence of events. There is a danger either of this sequence being misunderstood, or of a myth developing about the correct sequence of events.
Thus a report in The Sydney Morning Herald on May 14, 2002 about the Captain's last voyage to Sydney before his retirement stated that he, Captain Rinnan, had ordered his crew to rescue 433 mainly Afghan passengers from their sinking hulk near Christmas Island last August after the Federal Government refused to allow them to enter Australian waters.
This is clearly not correct.
The sequence of events actually was:
- On its way to Indonesia the MV Tampa picked up those on a sinking hulk on the open seas.
- Once those saved realised that the Tampa was headed towards Indonesia, they insisted on the captain turning around, which he did.
- The Australian Government refused permission for him to enter Australian waters.
- The MV Tampa entered Australian waters.
After a court challenge, which was finally unsuccessful, the asylum seekers were taken to Nauru and New Zealand. Of the 407 Afghanis on Nauru, 219 claims were rejected by the UNHCR and 32 recognised. At June 13, 2002, 25 were still to be classified (The Australian, June 13, 2002).
The overwhelming view in Australia is that only those who apply properly for refugee status, and are then approved, should be allowed to come to Australia. Obviously refugees fleeing directly from persecution are an exception. This included, for example, those who had come directly from Vietnam as the Communists occupied the whole country.
Otherwise those already in the queue must have priority, and obviously, there has to be a cap on the annual intake of refugees. Among the overwhelming majority of Australians, there might be a debate about the level of the refugee intake, but not about the principle. This is not racism, it is good sense.
Obviously, Australia alone cannot solve the world's refugee problem. Australians also recognised the danger of any demonstration of weakness by the government, something which seems to have escaped the elites. Were the Tampa to have been allowed to discharge its passengers, the most public signal would have gone to all of Indonesia's smugglers and potential smugglers, and to their potential clients, that the dyke had been breached.
Soon an armada would be headed to Australia, far beyond the nation's capacity to receive them. And just as this danger escaped attention of the elites, or they chose to ignore it, so it had for long eluded the Senate majority.
It was said by Lord Morley that the difference between a statesman and a politician is that a politician approaches great questions as though they were not truly great. As commentator Paul Kelly - no friend of the Government on this - wrote, John Howard's opponents not only refused to recognise the imperative of border security. They showed contempt for it! (The Australian, October 31, 2001).
Lord Morley was right. On his assessment, Curtin, Menzies and Chifley, Labor and Liberal, were statesmen. In the view of most Australians John Howard, although not perfect, demonstrated this same quality, and not only in relation to border protection.
While we have many politicians, statesmen are rare. It is good to have a statesman in a government, but it is essential in a crisis.