Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

Explaining Trump: It’s the culture, stupid!

Jeremy Sammut

13 January 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

JS TrumpDonald J. Trump’s January 20 inauguration as President of the United States will spark another round of punditry discussing the so-called ‘populist’ turn in Western democracies.

Many commentators rightly attribute Trump’s election victory and similar political shocks in other countries (Brexit in the UK and the re-birth of One Nation locally) to economic factors. Globalisation has certainly created some disaffected ‘losers’ prone to support insurgent political movements that support economic nationalism.

However, the crisis in Establishment politics — the apparent divide between political elites and electorally significant swathes of ordinary voters — is also due to deeper cultural divisions that have undermined the principles of representative democracy in recent decades.

In general, ‘mainstream’ political parties have lost popular legitimacy because they refuse to discuss, let alone represent, ideas and values that political elites (across the left/right spectrum) deem to be politically incorrect and unfit for public debate.

For example, most of the elected representatives of the natural governing parties hesitate to entertain legitimate voter concerns about contentious issues such as border control and migrant integration because the default assumption among the political class is that ‘racism should not be pandered to’. (The opprobrium heaped on former Australian Prime Ministers Howard and Abbott for their government’s strong border protection policies mean the exception proves the rule.)

The problem is that ordinary voters still think they live in a democracy, and believe that the people have the right to discuss subjects that are integral to the future of the nation without being branded as bigots or ‘deplorables’.

The other problem is that politics abhors a vacuum. If the Establishment opts to dismiss and condemn by neglect the un-PC opinions of marginalised voters, new political players will fill the void and harvest the ballots of those who feel strongly about being silenced and unrepresented.

The real political lesson of the events of 2016 is that the elite’s politically correct agenda is counter-productive; it has simply served to establish the cultural pre-conditions for the populist push-backs in America, Britain and Australia.

Good news seen as sign of problem

Michael Potter

13 January 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

MP beach picnicFormer Labor Treasurer Wayne Swan found the publication of the 2016 OECD Better Life Index late last year to be a great disappointment, saying that it ‘shows why we must fight harder to defeat Liberal/One Nation trickle-down agenda‘ and to focus more on ‘#inclusivegrowth’. The focus of his ire? Australia placed second — a rise of two places over last year, but a fall from first in 2013.

I think I might be missing something here. If Australia had rated poorly, or fallen significantly from last year, you may be able to argue that our approach is wrong and fundamental change is needed. However typically when we compare well to other countries it means our policy settings are right!

This is just one example of a troubling trend in politics and public debate — confirmation bias. All facts are filtered through an ideological lens until they provide evidence for your preferred position, no matter what those facts are.

Australia has plenty of policy problems, but to say the evidence for these problems is our high rating on a quality of living index seems a perverse argument.

I guess this shouldn’t surprise. Last year, we were told that the extraordinary growth in Ireland’s GDP is an argument against their low corporate tax rate.

The common factor here is that you can’t win. Good news is bad news, and bad news is bad news. All evidence, whether good, bad or mediocre is an argument against a disliked policy.

Maybe we would be better off with an index of politicians’ consistency, where we pay more attention to coherent and consistent pronouncements. One index where an improvement truly would be an improvement.

Fat cats even better fed

Rebecca Weisser

13 January 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

RW fat cat

While most of us were tucking into leftover Christmas pudding, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was tucking into taxpayers’ pockets.

With evident thoughtfulness about the timing, it slipped out a staff circular to quietly confess that it was using the departure of one deputy secretary to promote four.  A DFAT deputy secretary gets around $310,000 in salary but naturally that paltry sum isn’t enough.  They need a little extra in allowances.  How much? Together with generous superannuation, the average SES Band 3 in the Australian Public Service gets the use of a luxury motor vehicle or cash in lieu, parking, personal benefits, other supplementary payments, performance bonus, retention bonus, productivity bonus, sign on bonus, group or whole of agency performance bonus and allowances, additional duties/responsibilities allowances, qualifications and/or skills based allowances, expense allowances, geographic allowances and disability allowances, making the average total remuneration and allowances for SES Band 3 $414,295 and the maximum $1,235,783.

DFAT needs highly competent senior staff who should be appropriately remunerated but does it need so many?  When former Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck joined the then department of External Affairs in 1941, it occupied only 10 rooms on one floor of the old Admin building.  Now there are over 2,600 officers in Canberra, 3,300 overseas and over 6,200 in total.

The DFAT circular, which concludes that if more positions become available more people will be promoted, seems testimony to an uncharacteristic lack of ambition.   If four people can replace one, why not five or fifty?  In the spirit of the age, shouldn’t all become dep secs?  Robert Menzies once warned that the day could come when “we shall all be civil servants, all presumably, since we are equal, heads of department.”  Perhaps not.  But we seem to be paying for ever more people to fulfil that ambition.