Upmarket agitprop: Clive James on John Howard on Bob Menzies

Nicholas Gruen reviews a book review by Clive James and ponders the decline of serious debate. He says James joined the culture wars and attacked weaker, dumbed-down versions of opposing views, as expressed by ideological fringe-dwellers.

“In my view … the intellectual life of Australia since the Whitlam years has been increasingly weakened by the reluctance of almost the entire educated population to deal with past events whose implications might undermine their heartfelt views.” — Clive James

“[O]ne does not go about identifying the weaknesses of what another person says in order to prove that one is always right, but one seeks instead as far as possible to strengthen the other’s viewpoint so that what the other person has to say becomes illuminating. Such an attitude seems essential to me for any understanding at all to come about. This is nothing more than an observation. It has nothing to do with an ‘appeal’ and nothing at all to do with ethics. Even immoral beings try to understand one another.” — Hans Georg Gadamer

The power of the negative

One of my earliest posts on Club Troppo was a description of my political credo as a conservative liberal social democrat. In any event, when I wrote those words, I was thinking of a political position as a combination of asserted propositions. But I’ve increasingly come to understand the power of the negative.

The way I see the world, the three fine political traditions I outlined also exist in crude, dumbed-down forms in which left-wing thinking is driven by moralistic sentimentalism and right-wing thinking represents nothing more than the indifference of the privileged against the disadvantaged.

Now in principle, you might have a highly sophisticated appreciation of your own position as embodying the finer points of life, but when you’re doing battle with those of different sympathies, it’s always tempting to take the shortcut and do battle with them by just quoting their shadow, dumbed-down selves. These are the weapons of choice where ignorant armies clash by night.

A simulacrum of an argument

If that is a central problem of our time – and I think it is – then political debate needs to pay heed to it in some way. If it doesn’t, you’re not really turning up. Of course, if you’re a political operative you can just dip into your side’s demonisation of your opponents and go for your life. After all, university tests have proven these techniques to work, and politics is, in any event, an endless negotiation between ends and means.

More pressingly, your opponents are going after you using the same methods, so it’s fair enough. This turns me off almost all party-political discussion because it’s so drenched in inauthenticity. If I knew each contributor to the debate would reverse their position were circumstances a little different (if they were in government rather than opposition for instance or vice versa), I could program a robot or a journalist on auto-pilot to generate the debate.

What we have is a ritual of sense-making without any sense actually being made or even intended to be made. Here we have a simulacrum of an argument in which the disputants disagree, but they don’t disagree about anything other than the spin they will arbitrarily impose on the facts – according to the side of the debate their side is committed to at the time.

However much respect I have for the individuals involved in party-political combat, and without any disapproval towards them for playing by what have become the rules, it’s simply a waste of time. I try to apply what I call my ‘Mandy Rice-Davies veto’ to choosing how to direct my attention and I long for the day that newsrooms applied it: If your reaction is “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” it’s clearly not news so why waste your time reading or reporting it. Pope decides not to become a Protestant. Dog eats dog food – SHOCK!

But imagine if you fancy yourself as some cultural or intellectual exemplar. Shouldn’t one’s performance intimate some appreciation of these issues? Yet it’s surprisingly rare. I was a defender of Bill Leak’s cartoons about Aborigines because it seemed to me they were making a legitimate and very important point. Of course, they did so in a way that could be highly offensive – but offence cuts through. In any event, I can’t really see how he could have made his points in a cartoon without offence. But I only had to see the complacency of the crowd that gathered to celebrate them to disabuse myself of my solicitude.

Here’s Sir Les Patterson’s speech interrupting Leak’s speech to welcome his collection of cartoons for a bit of the flavour. If I were to take Bill Leak’s defence seriously, I’d want to see him a little more serious about his jokes, a little less encouraging of the insiders’ winks and nods to each other. Leunig, for instance, hasn’t escaped the occasional wrath of the political correctness brigade, but at least, in my memory, never descended into the groupish tittering about his opponents. Still I can’t really take exception to Bill Leak’s sharing his complacency with all his fellow foot-soldiers in the culture war against political correctness. It’s a free country. It just affects my own impression of his bona fides.

On PMs and ex-PMs

However, I do take exception to Clive James’ sloppy and tendentious review of John Howard’s biography of Robert Menzies. First, a preliminary personal aside. I think it’s great that John Howard wrote the book. Other than his achievements on gun control and fiscal discipline early in his first term, I didn’t like his prime ministership.1 But an interesting feature of Australian life is that not only is it almost impossible to predict someone’s quality as PM before they take office, it’s at least as hard to predict their performance as an ex-PM.

Whitlam was a momentous and deeply flawed PM, and not much of an ex-PM – at one stage advertising photocopiers or some such. Fraser was a pretty lousy PM – though I was biased at the time – but as ex-PM he was a fine leader prepared to be spurned by his own tribe for his principles. Keating was so-so on both, though I expect almost no-one will agree with me on that.

Hawke was easily the best PM of my life, but on shedding the self-denial of his premiership, descended into a greedy and fairly lacklustre ex-premiership. For what it’s worth, I think Howard’s a good ex-PM. He seems to be fairly honest and reasonable in his views – given where he’s coming from – and he beavers away on books. What’s not to like?

Anyway, I celebrate Clive James as a very intelligent fellow, frighteningly well-read in literature and much else besides. I also celebrate his conservatism, not because I particularly agree with it (or disagree with it for that matter; I have a strong affection for Edmund Burke’s thinking and temperament), but rather because our cultural landscape is so biased towards the moralistic sentimentalism and identity politics of the soft left.

I’m always on the lookout for those on the right who might be able to provide some balance. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter whether you’ve swallowed a dictionary (as Paul Keating once said of ‘Diamond’ Jim McClelland), the remedy for the agitprop of the left is not agitprop from the right, however large the vocab, particularly coming from someone of James’ cultural and intellectual pretensions. Mandy Rice-Davies’ strictures come to mind.

It’s ignorant to suggest that the ALP is somehow naturally more spendthrift than the LNP. That was the case with Whitlam, at least until the Hayden budget of 1975. It wasn’t true of Hawke and Keating.

The Rudd government faced the GFC by following the macroeconomic advice of the federal Treasury pretty much to the letter, organising a very rapid and forceful stimulus – I think the largest in the developed world – and then wound it down just as quickly, all as it had been advised. Revenue then fell away leaving a budget hole. It’s true the ALP government failed to discipline small programs, but that’s not a big story and, at least in my judgement, pales against the Howard government’s laxity in tipping into the budget so much of the torrents of revenue that came its way after the first few years of its term, as a result of the reform dividend and the mining boom that followed.

Carefully developed policy recast as leftist ‘kamikaze move’

Here’s Clive again:

“As in Lazarus Rising, Howard seems wedded … to the proposition that it has taken both of the two main parties, each holding power for a fair share of time, to create the modern Australia. This is a position that few publicists for the current Labor Party wish to hold, but it can be argued that unless they can regain the concept they are doomed to infantilism, if not to oblivion.”

Possibly a fair call. Mightn’t it also be worth pointing out when this review was written – a few months before Tony Abbott departed disgraced – that this partiality doesn’t seem to be unique to the left? Later he refers to “Rudd’s [election] policies, most of which were straight out of a draft script for Duck Soup”. It’s a good movie. I recommend it. But I have no idea what James is talking about. The only things I can imagine him meaning are the NBN and the fiscal stimulus, both of which became policies after Rudd’s election.

There is one other policy that he could mean. It wasn’t an election policy either – election policies tend to be pretty bland so as not to scare the horses. That’s the resource rent tax, which James refers to as the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd “kamikaze move to cripple [mining] with putatively anti-capitalist taxes”.

This was a tax recommended by a review of five people chaired by the Treasury secretary Ken Henry, who was joined by another departmental secretary (Jeff Harmer, who was also appointed by the Howard government) as well as Greg Smith, an old Treasury hand of innumerable tax reviews, a centrist academic – for all I know, somewhat left of centre – in John Piggott, and Heather Ridout, CEO of the Australian Industry Group. Indeed the tax was so ‘pure’ that it was poorly explained as a super-profits tax rather than a Brown tax, the beauty of which is that, in principle, it has no impact on the incentive to invest.2

One thing that was in Rudd’s election policy for 2007 was doing something to limit carbon emissions – something that Howard had been successfully browbeaten into making a bipartisan policy. James presumably refers to this policy when he describes it as “controlling the climate by dismantling industry”.

Attacking the fringe-dwellers

James also offers us some gratuitous observations on the involvement of the CIA in the dismissal:

“The believers would rather blame [Whitlam’s] fall on a conspiracy, perhaps instigated by the CIA. (Even a man as smart as Peter Carey can still be heard endorsing this theory to clueless American cultural reporters who wouldn’t know Gough Whitlam from Walt Whitman.) Whitlam himself, to do him credit – he was a dreamer, but not a fool – was always careful, in subsequent years, to say that the CIA had nothing to do with it. But he was up against his own admirers, who did not want to be confused with facts.”

Were the CIA involved? I don’t know. I’ve not read up on it much on account of the difficulty of coming to one’s own view in an area dense with facts, counter-facts and theories which I’m happy to leave to those with the time to distill the arguments and come to a reasonable conclusion.

As a believer in the cognitive division of labour, I’ll pick up any general consensus that emerges and failing that, I’ll find some people I respect – hopefully of diverse ideological persuasions – and see if their conclusions and speculations can enlighten me. Of course, I’d like to think that the swinging self-assurance with which Clive assures us that only fools think they were involved (and “even a man as smart as Peter Carey”), means that Clive’s done the work for me and I can include him amongst those I trust. You’d think he might be punctilious enough to refer to some source that clears it all up, or at least delivers telling blows against those claiming that the CIA were involved.

After all, I think it’s the case that they were involved in the removal of Chile’s Allende government so it’s surely a question worthy of being asked. But that’s to miss the point of what Clive’s up to, which is to get the work done with a bit of sneering – the very thing he objects most strongly to in his opponents. Clive’s stature and his self-confidence do all the work a Burkean conservative might have hoped would be done by careful, respectful investigation and debate.

One further point. James could respond that I’m being unfair, that the full quote above isn’t really centred on whether or not the CIA was involved, but rather on “the believers” blaming a conspiracy instead of the government’s poor performance for its woes. But anyone who believes that is a troll and they would say that, wouldn’t they? Most of us learned not to dignify them with our time. Who, amongst those worth engaging, really believes or even says that the Whitlam government wasn’t partly responsible for its own downfall?

So not only is James taking issue with the weakest views of his opponents, they’re pretty much the fringe. And what political party doesn’t have fringe dwellers who snigger, like all those at the launch of Bill Leak’s cartoons, at their tribe’s enemies.

Meanwhile, excuse me for observing that it remains the fact – as Jenny Hocking’s and Paul Kelly’s investigations continue to reveal – that the Whitlam government was hemmed in by all manner of obstructions from the establishment – political, legal, financial, constitutional (yes, the Queen and her unhappy, plant-whispering heir). And mentioning that, wondering about it, arguing about it (while the National Archives continues to observe the Palace-requested embargo on the correspondence between the Palace and Government House), has James trashing you as a naive conspiracy theorist with an IQ lower than skin temperature.

A cautionary tale of culture war

It’s surely a cautionary tale when James ‘lets himself go’ ideologically, as it were, or, to put it another way, engages in debate as culture war. As a result he assumes that arguments he disagrees with arise from his opponents’ foolishness and prejudice when they can be better put to use as a prompt for him to purge his own worldview of those same qualities and work towards something more worthy of his immense talents and achievements.

The general case James makes for Menzies seems reasonable enough, though it’s surely not that contentious in this day and age to observe that, whatever one’s taste, Menzies was a successful prime minster with considerable achievements to his name, not least a commitment to broadly egalitarian social and political norms now somehow in eclipse. In that sense, for me anyway, James comes over as the ex-pat in a time warp. (I recall one of Bob Hughes’ TV programs about Australia, made in the 1990s or noughties, telling us all about ‘larrikinism’. This was the larrikinism fast disappearing over the horizon when I was in short pants).

As might be expected, Clive’s review manages to land some enjoyable jokes.

1. I’m among a small minority of economists who thought the GST reform wasn’t necessarily beneficial but I salute his political courage in championing it (while regretting it wasn’t spent on economic reform I value more) but I mainly dislike his successful prosecution of the culture wars against brown people. (James chides Noel Pearson for saying that Whitlam was the only politician entirely without race prejudice. He argues that this is “cruelly rude” to Howard. Does he really think that if white Zimbabwean farmers were washing up on our shores they’d end up on Nauru?) I say this even given my strong sympathy with Howard’s side of the culture war’s loathing of left sentimentalism and identity politics.

2. I’m abstracting from the fact that having been drawn by the mesmeric cleverness of the Brown tax, Treasury was then too clever by half and introduced it in a bastardised form. A proper Brown tax uses the tax system to simulate a joint venture between the private sector and government. Thus with the rate of the tax at 40%, the tax system replicates the financial outcomes of an investment as if it were a 40/60 joint venture between the taxpayer and the government. Accordingly, during the investment phase, the company and the government go 40/60 on their costs with the company getting back via the tax system 40 cents for each dollar it invests. And if profits are made, 40% of them are taxed away to the 40% JV partner – the government. (This is in addition to any other taxes owed.) It’s a beautiful bit of economic engineering because it’s usually impossible to design taxes that don’t distort behaviour. But here, the return on capital remains the same (the upside and downside are just diluted by the government’s participation) so the incentive to invest remains the same at least in principle. In any event, Treasury proposed instead, and the Government bought the idea of leaving companies bearing 100% of their upfront costs with the government’s upfront contribution being deferred and then treated as a loan from the government. And because the contribution was of right and from the government Treasury proposed that it would deem the capital cost of companies financing this part of their venture to be the bond rate – a fanciful thought from an Economics 101 model. Industry would have hated giving up any amount of money, but the way Treasury proposed to introduce it was sufficiently naïve about the way finance works that it made the policy a serious turkey. So in a technical sense, James is right: Labor’s original proposal would have curbed mining investment, but ironically that was the product of Treasury’s missteps, not crude anti-capitalism from Labor.

  • Scott Bourke

    Nicholas – interesting, entertaining and quite relevant general perspective on the central dialogue we should be having on our national progress, or lack thereof, and the current path we’re on viewed through the prism of the James book review. Although I’m very interested in the shallow political debates (rather than dialogues) on the central policy issues of national significance – particularly in the area of innovation – it really is a sad state of affairs. Sadder still that few people, regardless of their political persuasion, seem to realise it’s a sad state. Most people are, to put it non-perjoratively, unconsciously incompetent. Perhaps worse still, the few people who recognise or become wise to this sad state and are in a position of some power/influence to agitate/contribute to changing it, are so self-interestedly invested in it continuing, they acquiesce. To quote Trump (ionically) “Sad”.

    • Nicholas Gruen

      Thanks Scott

      I don’t admire the new President for much, but he does have a way with words towards the end of his short declamations