Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Folk Song Army

Gerard Henderson in today's SMH has made me think of Tom Lehrer's comic piece The Folk Song Army in which there is a refrain;

Remember the war against Franco?
That's the kind where each of us belongs,
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.

Henderson's thesis is that the outrage over recent ABC Board appointments was misplaced because rather than changing the ABC all it does is has the effect of taking a critic out of the debate.

I happen to agree with him on the outrage being misplaced, but not for the same reasons. More people need to recognise that the Boards or Commissions appointed by Governments first and foremost have to address their establishing legislation, and much of their actions and activity are reflective of it. As a consequence, merely changing the Board doesn't change the "governance" of the ABC.

In addition there is a simple piece of behavioural theory to understand. People repeatedly do things that get "reinforced". An ABC Board member battling the management gets no reinforcement from anyone as it is a private battle, a Board member supporting management gets reinforced and thanked in every contact with the organisation.

However, there is another part of the Henderson thesis, "The fact is that there are few articulate conservatives in Australia and certainly fewer, per capita, than in the United States or Britain. The phenomenon goes back to the Robert Menzies era, when the Coalition won elections while the left dominated the cultural debate."

On this I cannot agree. In fact there seem to be far more printed pages by the "conservatives" - at least the economic "neo-cons" - than by any left/progressive or other like cause. Policy and Quadrant, the column inches devoted to the IPA and CIS staff, the voluminous issues from the BCA and Mr Henderson himself.

More importantly this ongoing perception that "the left" has control of the "cultural institutions" or "the opinionators" or "the elites" is strange - because if these people were as influential as they are claimed to be this should be a country which is a rabid hotbed of collectivism and social experiment. Instead we remain a highly conservative society that has four times elected the most conservative leader in the history of Australia. If that is the consequence of a "left intelligensia" then surely the conservatives want more of it.

What is the benefit to the left if it has the good songs (the articulate left?) if it is losing the battles?

1 comment:

Grahame Lynch said...

If you look at the late 1960s through the 1980s, it is true to say that the "left" did win cultural debates partly because so many in the Liberal Party were quiet or actually supportive. So you had the recognition of Aborigines as citizens, the end of the White Australia Policy, a more "progressivist" agenda in schools, the setting up of bureacracies that promoted minority rights/constitituencies, a more permissive drug/sex culture, the "institutionalisation" of feminism in some spheres of life and so on. Malcolm Fraser set up SBS!

There was no Australian equivalent of an Enoch Powell or a Mary Whitehouse. Remember the demonisation/mystery of the New Right in Australia, especially when the ALP embraced some of their ideas (or more specifically those OS that favoured financial market deregulation)? The figure head for genuinely conservative ideas in Aus was Pauline Hanson.. hardly a Thatcher or a Reagan now. Bjelke was more Huey Long than anything..

Even with your allegedly hard right 4 term government, there is still plenty of left influence in the country and government. The environment minister is hardly Ted Bullpitt. The whole tone of the government is decidedly welfarist/redistributive, albeit in a "conservative" sense. But it's hardly a low tax, low regulation government. The love of overseas military adventure is as much Comintern as anything. And there are still plenty of institutions that are leftist in nature - the ABC, Fairfax, universities, the "social" departments of state governments, unions.

Where I agree with you is that conservative (I hate that term.. I mean is Tim Blair the same as Miranda Devine?) commentators have a higher profile. Wearing a publisher's hat, I put this down to the fact that right-footers tend to be more witty/confrontational/brash than lefties - they get talked about more, and you might not admit this, but they break some intelligenstia taboos about socially-correct attitudes so they get stronger reactions. And what is a conservative anyhow? I don't believe in God, I think religion is as much harmful as positive, I believe in low taxes and low regulation, I'm cynical when government tells me it knows what's right for me or anybody else, I support the war against terrorism, I support gay marriage, think drug use should be decriminalised and have no opinion on monarchy versus republicanism. I feel no natural kinship with a left or right using your definitions, but nevertheless you probably have me put in the right wing death beast basket.

When I read the ponderous writing of the Mike Carltons and the Phillip Adams of the world I just end up reflecting on their smugness. We're rich, powerful and morally correct while other rich and/or powerful people who we write about aren't as clever as us! Give me PJ or Tim Blair any day.

And if lefties ran the show, would we really be a hotbed of social experimentation? Much of the left rhetoric I see is quite the opposite - preserve the award system, don't touch the ABC, don't get involved in Iraq, and so on and so on. I equate so much of what the left stands for with passivity and a form of conservatism in itself.