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#################### Geoff Seidner
I have spent a good proportion of my professional time in Third World and developing countries, most on the way up, some on the way down, and some bobbling up and down. You get to see a lot of things that distinguish a successful country from an unsuccessful one, and particularly one on the way up from one on the way down.
Australia is a rich and successful society. But we are starting to go wrong. Perhaps nowhere more fully fits Adam Smith’s observation that there is a lot of ruin in a nation. Now, with the latest being the likely defeat of the Turnbull government’s amendments to the truly wicked section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, there are too many signs of things going badly wrong.
Here are telling signs of a country going backwards.
I have had a bit to do with human rights commissions in Southeast Asia. Without exception, a key priority for the genuine ones is freedom of the press and free speech. In our country, the Human Rights Commission is the enemy of free speech and the enemy of a free media.
That’s a bad sign, for it shows a nation that has lost sight of what human rights actually are and has substituted the narrow, toxic aims of ideological conformity instead. It is no small thing that a former prime minister, Tony Abbott, and a former Labor Party leader, Mark Latham, have both called for the Human Rights Commission to be abolished.
The likely preservation by parliament of the worst elements of 18C is similarly a sign of the increasing dominance of identity politics and the always related desire to move the control of political discussion, wherever possible, into the hands of the judiciary or government tribunals that ape the judiciary. The legislation, though always foolishly drafted and bad in principle, did not cause too much damage in the past because most people were unaware of it and identity politics had not become the toxic threat to universal citizenship and a proper understanding of our universal and intractable humanity that it has recently become.
The scandal of the persecution of Bill Leak and of the wholly innocent Queensland students has led to a partial, temporary retreat. These cases were so insanely excessive and managed to achieve such unusual public notice that they became indefensible.
But if this wicked legislation survives intact it will inevitably be used to prosecute the destructive agenda of modern, ideological identity politics.
I have spent a lot of time in nations whose chief civic identity is communal rather than citizenship-based. It’s never very pretty. It is a sign of the derangement of our times that we now push in that direction. In some senses, fighting identity politics is as important, or more important, than the arguments about free speech.
And, of course, identity politics, or communal politics, is always accompanied by a hysterical, populist fear campaign. That’s how you get people to identify primarily on the basis of communal identity rather than common citizenship. The Labor-Greens activist alliance will now presumably run just this kind of dishonest, dangerous fear campaign among ethnic communities.
This is one reason why the Liberals cannot declare their position and then keep quiet.
They must campaign and persuade actively, endlessly and energetically among ethnic communities themselves.
This is not a burden. Their failure to do so generally is one reason they are so far behind.
Beyond these sorts of issues there are numerous other signs of distress among Australia’s national political culture.
The majority of young Australians, according to a Lowy poll, no longer believes democracy is the best form of government. I have seen up close a number of longstanding political systems topple. A loss of belief in your system is a typical precursor.
Similarly, the relentless ideological denigration of Western civilisation in the humanities departments of our universities betrays a loss of self-confidence. Even Australia Day is attacked.
There are more mechanical signs of policy distress.
One of the most common features of a Third World country not making it is an inability to provide reliable electricity supplies. A leader determined to fight that often has to build, hastily and uneconomically, new small power plants to plug the gaps, as Fidel Ramos did in Manila in the early 1990s. Our naval ship builders will need independent back-up generators in South Australia, which Premier Jay Weatherill has reduced almost to Third World status as an investment destination.
Policy analysts often lament the impoverishment of nations that make big foreign investment projects ever more difficult. The grotesque saga of the delays, the veritable crippling by delay, of the Adani investment in Queensland is a textbook case. All levels of government want this project to succeed, the foreign investor has spent an enormous amount of money and wants to spend much more, thousands of Australian jobs would be created, but the ideological power of an essentially nihilist Green activist vision of development manages to make such an investment all but impossible.
This is also a sign of what we might call the “deep state” of bureaucracy and tribunals becoming ever more ideological and impervious to the normal democratic decisions.
Countries going backwards often find their budget out of control. Our Senate has now made it impossible to control government expenditure. Left-wing populism will never countenance any meaningful spending cut, beyond gutting national defence. Right-wing populism typically concedes, slowly, on expenditure and makes its stand instead on identity issues.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous sign of a country that cannot function in a modern, decent way is that certain powerful interests decide that obeying the law is entirely discretionary. I have had former finance ministers in some countries tell me they simply did not have the power to compel certain entities to pay tax.
Sally McManus, the new ACTU secretary, says she and the union movement are entitled to break a law “when it’s unjust”. That means they are only obliged to obey the laws they think are just. There is a lot in common with the historical attitude, if not the methodology, of street-fighting fascists here. They too said they would only break laws that were unjust. And McManus was speaking in relation to what could be described as the militia force of the ACTU, namely the CFMEU.
A nation failing the development test often finds the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force is contested by powerful groups with economic and ideological objections to obeying the law.
This has nothing to do with traditional civil disobedience, or the considered refusal to comply with an instruction that is not merely unjust but wholly unconscionable. The distinction between unjust and unconscionable is an old one in ethics, but ethics don’t matter if your main consideration is power. The union movement has never represented fewer workers but is richer and more powerful than ever before. Sections of it now have the smell of an institution in love with power and increasingly untroubled by the rules of law.
I have seen all this before. Put it all together. Poor fellow my country.