Review of Huntley and Fagan

This review was first published in The Weekend Australian, in April 2019


Rebecca Huntley, Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation (Quarterly Essay)

Black Inc; $22.99; 112pp

David Fagan, Has the Luck Run Out? What Can We Do to Redefine Australia’s Future?

Hachette; $32.99; 312pp

Amanda Dunn and John Watson (eds.), Advancing Australia: Ideas for a Better Country

MUP; $19.99; 106pp

Despite the efforts of pollsters and analysts to tell us how we’re going to vote, our general elections do retain an element of unpredictability, which is just as well, because the manner in which they’re conducted is as predictable as a Happy Meal. The sausage sizzle; the impromptu selfie; the high-vis presser in front of the small factory: these things are now a part of the election ritual – as familiar, and as tedious, as the morning commute. The familiarity is part of the point, of course: a signal to the voter that nothing too radical will emerge in the event that the party gets up. ‘Don’t panic!’ the party leader is saying, as the hardhat slides around on his head: ‘Really I’m just like you: a dag.’  

Hence the framing of the policy platform in a way that suggests that the party putting it forward is on the side of the ‘ordinary voter’. All parties are on the side of the ordinary voter, a sort of Bunyip creature rumoured to inhabit a mythical land called the Political Centre. And so parties present, not just policies, but a ‘message’ – a message about what Australia is and why its values are also their values. It’s a strategy that disguises much messiness and contradiction, not to mention the true character of the major parties themselves, whose loyalties are invariably split between their electors and the special interests who fund them. But self-preservation, or compulsory voting, dictates that they must make the effort.

Though the social researcher Rebecca Huntley does not dispute the need for such framing, the thesis of her essay Australia Fair is that the ‘centre ground’ has moved, and is moving – such that an incoming Labor government could afford to be rather more radical than is often assumed in the mainstream media. Her argument is that stagnating wages, the crisis of affordable housing and the climate change emergency have combined to make the general public hungry for real, material change, and that the failures of neoliberalism have made a revival of social democracy both necessary and palatable. Essentially, her essay is a plea to Labor to take up that challenge should it win the election – to be a genuinely reforming administration and not a merely competent one: an ‘It’s Time’, not an ‘It’s Fine’, government.

She’s right, I think, to characterise housing policy as a necessary focus in any such program. The housing crisis, which stems from the tendency to treat houses as commodities first and places of habitation second, goes to the heart of the neoliberal settlement, and makes a mockery of the claim of conservative politicians to be ‘on the side of families’. As a tonic to such a corrosive approach, Huntley suggests pushing back against landlords and big developers, rethinking stamp duty and negative gearing, and providing pathways to housing security beyond ownership and short-term renting. The Australian dream of home ownership, she notes, evolved under very different conditions than those that obtain in the twenty-first century (high wages, relatively low-cost housing, a lack of interest from foreign investors) and it follows that a ‘renovated’ ideal would need a different impetus. For Huntley, that impetus is an activist state working to mitigate rising homelessness and generational inequality.

Climate change is another issue where Huntley believes the main political parties are out of touch with the general public, with the latter revealed as both more concerned and less partisan than their elected representatives. Indeed, it appears from Huntley’s research, which is largely based on qualitative data – i.e. interviews with (ordinary) voters – that the appetite for action on the environment is common among voters of both left and right, and that the failure of the current government to take such action is a big mark against it. With that in mind, Huntley recommends a suite of policies combining the priorities of workers and the environment – a red-green package reminiscent of the Green New Deal currently being mooted in the US by certain leftwing politicians. That would need massive investment, of course, both materially and politically; but the idea that growth should be tied wherever possible to the principles of sustainability will strike many readers as sane and sound.

While Australia Fair is a targeted intervention, and unashamedly partisan in its desire to see a Labor victory in the upcoming general election, David Fagan’s Has the Luck Run Out? strikes a more laid-back note. It takes its title from Donald Horne’s description of Australia as ‘the lucky country’ (an allusion made, coincidentally, in the title Huntley’s last book, Still Lucky) and is a tour d’horizon of the various challenges, as Fagan sees them, facing Australia. At times it’s a little too laid back. As with the author’s last book, Wake Up, a genial and often insightful survey of matters technological, Has the Luck Run Out? does suffer at times from the lack of a driving argument. While Horne’s thesis was that Australians had failed to make the most of a country with certain physical and historical advantages, one gets no real sense from Fagan of what constitutes Australian ‘luck’ and why it might be running low.

The impetus for the book appears to have been a conversation between the author and his children, with the latter accusing the Baby Boomers of having left the country in worse shape than they found it. This prompted Fagan to make a list of all the major institutions he could think of, and to think as well about the challenges facing them. Each chapter of the book is thus focused on one institution – government, sport, business, professions etc. (surprisingly, there is no chapter on housing) – and ends with a section entitled ‘Making Our Own Luck’ in which Fagan sets out some final thoughts about how that institution might raise its game.

To this end, he draws on the expertise of a number of successful figures, some of whom pop up regularly. But while Fagan’s aim is to harness such experience and knowledge as these figures possess in the cause of institutional betterment, many of their contributions leave a lot to be desired. Woodside CEO Peter Coleman, for example, suggests that corporations could benefit from a directive or motto along the lines of ‘If in doubt, do the right thing’, as if the problems of business and banking malpractice could be solved with a bit of moral bootstrapping. The countless references in Fagan’s book to ‘trust’ and ‘credibility’ are similarly based in the idea that businesses should seek high social returns as well as high private ones, but any notion of how the current economy militates against such outcomes is lacking. Despite the magnanimousness of his approach, Fagan’s is a narrow take, beholden to the assumptions and priorities of a cohort embedded in the system as it is.

A concern with trust is also to be found in Advancing Australia, a collection of pieces from The Conversation website. The assumption is that low levels of political trust act as a brake on political innovation and hamper the implementation of policy; but again, and as with Fagan’s book, there’s a tendency to treat trust as something separable from the social and economic reality of voters’ lives. In an interesting piece, Mark Evans distinguishes between ‘demand-side’ and ‘supply-side’ theories of trust – i.e. theories that stress the levels of trust in the voter population and those that stress the trustworthiness of government. At the risk of sounding unsubtle, I’d say that thirty years of neoliberalism – of governments putting the interests of big business ahead of the interests of Australian voters – have made that distinction largely academic.

The Conversation’s mission is to connect academics to a non-academic readership, and, more broadly, to furnish a public allegedly drowning in ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth politics’ with opinions based in solid evidence. This is hugely welcome, of course; but its political coverage does tend towards the safe, the ‘centrist’ and the technocratic. An example of this is Chris Wallace’s piece on what we might call the ideological tectonics on both the left and right of Australian politics, which sets out the new divisions brilliantly but then characterises the reassertion of liberalism from within the Coalition’s heartland as a simple return to sanity and ‘hope’. My point is not that Wallace is wrong to regard the blue-ribbon insurgency of Kerryn Phelps et al. as a welcome development, but that such commentary should take account of the broader picture in which this process is occurring. What Wallace calls ‘the culture war’ is not, after all, something separable from broader socioeconomic shifts, but a proxy for the now-crucial division between the city-dwelling knowledge class and those outside that influential fold.

Indeed, it may be that both the editors of this volume and Huntley are being a little optimistic in basing their titles on the national anthem, and that all of the writers under review underestimate the deep divisions that now run through Australia. We’ll see. But for now it’s back to the general election, where, at the time of writing, Scott Morrison is loading a bag of mulch onto a truck at Daisy’s Garden Supplies and Bill Shorten is posing for impromptu selfies with workers at the West Gate Tunnel. It’s going to be a long few weeks.