Monthly Archives: December 2013

A year of contradiction

It has been a good year for modern conservatives. With the Murdoch Press and in particular The Australian completing its slow transformation from a grumpy, cruel but fair conservative masthead to a ruthless ideological manipulator of truth,  it has been easy for neoliberal ideology to seep into daily discourse, and from there into government across the country. But the sheer ubiquity of neoliberalism has brought its internal contradictions into sharp focus: 

This year, conservatives have insisted that free speech is so overarching that it includes a right to racially vilify, yet sought to crucify whistleblowers like Assange and Snowden and academics like Jake Lynch and Larissa Behrendt whose speech offended them, and to neuter what little of the media they cannot control, like the ABC.

This year, conservatives have claimed to despise elites, yet sided with the powerful. They freed global money to circulate, yet fortified borders against human movement. They opposed democratic state action even to soften harsh markets, yet thumped their chests for imperial wars and Orwellian surveillance. They upheld rights to property, but not to drinking water.

This year, conservatives have mouthed Enlightenment values like reason and personal autonomy, yet have rejected science and decried secularism. They have denied equal rights because of religious dogma. Of the three pillars of democracy, they have commandeered liberty for the purpose of commerce and even claim to have invented it, but discarded equality and fraternity.

Modern conservatism is a Frankenstein’s monster: radical-authoritarian, theocrat-capitalist, anarcho-imperialist. Traditional conservatives were consistent at least in holding that things were better in the old days. As far as conservatism goes, I’m inclined to agree.

High Court on marriage equality

Geoffrey Luck (The Australian, “Rush to judgment has hidden agenda”, 27/12) need not fear sinister intent in the High Court’s discussion  of “something they were not asked to consider” in the process of ruling on the ACT’s gay marriage law. Discussion in passing of broader issues surrounding the question at hand is a centuries-old common-law tradition known as “obiter dicta”, intended to illuminate a court’s reasoning and provide guidance for future decisions.

What does smack of disingenuousness is that an experienced journalist like Mr Luck would pretend to be unaware of this. It seems he is laying the groundwork for accusations of “judicial activism” if and when the Court makes a ruling which offends his personal views.

David Flint (The Australian, 28/12) would import into Australia the “originalism” favoured by the US Republican Right, insisting that the Court should interpret our Constitution in terms of the subjective understandings of its “founders” (a US term for framers). His assertion that the people “approved” these understandings is a furphy, as the Constitution was established by an act of British Parliament. But on this basis he objects to the Court’s gender-neutral definition of marriage, and insists a referendum is needed to establish gay marriage.

Professor Flint would be well aware that the historical guesswork of originalism was rejected long ago in this country, in favour of a rigorous focus on the text of the Constitution itself. Its authors wrote in deliberately broad terms to allow not only for the range of views which existed at the time, but also for those they could not foresee; they did not expect the nation to be frozen in time in 1901. If the courts took Flint’s approach, a jury would still consist only of propertied males, and the Constitutional “race power” would still be used to prevent Asian immigration.

The Constitution gives plenary power to the Commonwealth to legislate on marriage, without caveats regarding gender or anything else. Thus, what legal marriage means today is for the Australian people to decide through their elected representatives. Even the Government concedes it has the power to legislate on same-sex marriage, and in fact this is exactly what Howard did in 2004 when he banned it by inserting gender requirements into the Marriage Act. No referendum was needed then, and none is needed to change it back.

What is needed is the political ticker to stare down a noisy, zealous minority who fear the diversity the rest of us celebrate.

A word from one religion to another

As a man of religion, Archbishop Denis Hart is well-placed to understand the thought processes behind the free-market fundamentalism which has dominated economic policy in the Angloshere for decades (The Australian, “By making economy more personal, money will serve us and not rule”, 23/12).

With their mystical belief in the “Invisible Hand” – but not in the quite visible society of humans – neoliberals eschew modern mathematical knowledge which shows, not surprisingly, that just letting economies run on their own may result in academically satisfying equilibria, but is unlikely to produce optimal outcomes for humans.

Rather, these supply-side disciples prefer the folksy wisdom of their 18th century Messiah, Adam Smith – but only selected parts of it, for Smith himself advocated progressive taxation, public education and government infrasructure, all heresy to the modern young radical conservative. It seems that like most religious extremists, neoliberals have little regard for their own holy texts.

Yet Merv Bendle (Letters, 24/12) plays Scrooge to Hart’s Ghost of Christmases Past, giving a “Bah! Humbug!” to the latter’s plea to put people before markets. In the process, Bendle makes some extraordinary claims, denying the existence of any successful managed economies in terms of both production and distribution of wealth (ignoring the many affluent European social democracies), and equating non-market economies with poverty (overlooking the many laissez-faire disaster zones in the developing world).

Research shows that what wealthy nations have in common includes transparent democracy, high education levels, natural resources, and less edifying things like colonial history. Their choice of economic system has little if any relevance.

None the less, Bendle concludes that the Catholic Church should throw its weight behind free-market capitalism. There is a very good reason why this will never happen, and why in the poorest parts of the world the opposite has occurred: the market notoriously fails to justly distribute wealth and in many poor countries is the cause of shocking inequality. Particularly with a Latin American incumbent in Rome, the Church is unlikely to join the neo-liberal cheer squad.

Brandis breathes his own exhaust

Of course both parties make political appointments, but some are more political than others. In terms of extremity, putting a first-order public ideologue like Tim Wilson in charge of the Human Rights Commission is equivalent to, say, handing the reins of the ABC to John Pilger.

Yet George Brandis (The Australian, 23/13) blithely tries to persuade us of Wilson’s independence, citing disagreements they have had over social and law-and-order issues. These are no more than a manifestation of the ongoing schism in the Liberal Party between its libertarian and conservative wings.

If Brandis expects the electorate to swallow this flimsy argument, then either he has been breathing his own exhaust for too long, else he takes us for fools.

Former Human Rights Commissioner Brian Burdekin (The Australian, 21/12) reminds Wilson that human rights are “not a matter of competing philosophies”. Unfortunately, in the neo-conservative world in which Mr Wilson has hitherto made his living, including the oil and tobacco funded IPA, they are just that: rights which bolster that ideology, such as private property or freedom of trade, are given special priority and are accorded a status of “natural” rights which precede social organisation. Others, such as education or health, are seen as social fictions and therefore dispensable.

The neocon aphorism that “rights are not what the government gives but what it cannot take away” has a nice ring to it, but it is mystical nonsense. There are no rights in the jungle. In reality, all rights are social constructions that have social value but come with a social cost of enforcement. We choose them according to our values and they are universal if we say they are. This is validly expressed through international law, however “perverted” Mr Wilson may find it.

I join Mr Burdekin in wishing Mr Wilson well in his new job, but my advice is blunter: when you go to work, leave your talk of “positive rights and negative rights”, and the rest of your ideology, at the door.