An open letter to our pollies, and a few others

Dear elected representatives

The time has come to restore sanity and functionality to our political system. Rather than largely futile attempts to accommodate all the self-proclaimed special interest groups in our society, we must instead concentrate on the core needs, values and aspirations that bind us together: our “common humanity”. The emergence and current dominance of identity politics is the barrier that prevents us from adopting this sensible and vital approach.

Consider what is dominating Australian politics right now.

·         Lobbying for gay “marriage” (interest group: the LGBT community and their supporters)

·         Denial of union thuggery (interest group: militant union officials, not necessarily including members)

·         Unchecked corporate immorality (interest group: large construction companies ripping off taxpayers on government projects)

·         Climate change scaremongers (interest group: scientists relying on research funding, alternative energy proponents)

·         Open border proponents (interest group: illegal boat people, people smugglers, libertarians)

·         Opposition to offshore detention (interest group: civil rights lawyers, bleeding hearts)

·         Decriminalisation of drugs (interest group: greens, dealers, druggies)

·         Retention of Racial Discrimination Act, Section 18C (interest group: the inner city liberal “elite”, minority groups)

·         Bank misconduct (interest group: the Big Four, financial planners)

·         Wind power (interest group: union superannuation funds benefitting from big government subsidies)

In the great scheme of things, these are mainly fringe issues that are unworthy of consuming our entire political energy and resources. The mainstream is generally not clamouring for them to be dealt with, and in fact sees the political obsession with them as a major disconnect between governments and communities. What is really important for us in our daily lives hardly gets a look-in: we are not happy. We want politicians to put the noisy, self-serving, often hysterical clamour of special interest groups in perspective and turn their attention to the real world. The main game is encapsulated by the following needs and wishes.

·         Being and feeling safe and secure: law enforcement, social cohesion

·         Shelter, comfort: housing, clothing, built environment, public open spaces

·         Clean water and air: treatment, pollution control, environmental works and measures

·         Sufficient safe, nourishing food: agricultural production, processing, standards, education about nutrition

·         Good health and wellbeing: health services, hospitals, community services, education about healthy lifestyles

·         Mobility, being able to get around efficiently: uncongested roads, transport services, bikeways, pathways

·         Sense of belonging: national culture, community-building, education about our history, society and culture

·         Civility, respect, consideration: culture, legislation, enforcement, education about behavioural standards

·         Financial security, material security, quality, value: employment, investment, standards

·         Reasons to live: satisfying work, interests, activities, hobbies, family, friends

·         Mental stimulation, self-worth, self-satisfaction, optimism, enthusiasm: liberal education, information, self-improvement programs

·         Cultural enrichment: entertainment, art, music, literature, theatre etc

There isn’t too much overlap between these two lists, is there? The first one is narrow, single issue oriented and pessimistic, while the second is broad, enlightened and optimistic. It is reasonable to conclude that too many politicians, in pandering to the former and taking the latter for granted, have lost the plot. Of course, the media, both mainstream and social, have a lot to answer for in terms of trivialising, sensationalising, dumbing down, misrepresenting, distorting and cynically manipulating the full range of issues. The overall outcome is that we are tinkering around the edges of a host of marginal, parochial issues while those of real significance to us are ignored or put in the “too hard” basket. Identity politics has taken over.

Not scared to discuss the big issues, Bruce McCollum.

Not scared to discuss the big issues, Bruce McCollum.

Of course, the media, both mainstream and social, have a lot to answer for in terms of trivialising, sensationalising, dumbing down, misrepresenting, distorting and cynically manipulating the full range of issues

Bruce McCollum

America’s founders saw the role of government as limited to national defence, police and administration, the latter including the legal framework that enshrines property rights, enforces contracts, penalises corruption etc. The IMF, which is not known as a free market institution, states that “as the international economy becomes more competitive, and capital and labour become more mobile, countries with big and especially inefficient governments risk falling behind in terms of growth and welfare. When voters and industries recognise the long term benefits of reform in such an environment, they and their representatives (may) push their governments towards reform. In these circumstances, policy-makers find it easier to overcome the resistance of special interest groups.” In all probability this is what we are seeing now in America, spreading to other parts of the world including Australia.

Identity politics is the actions and beliefs of members of special interest groups based on perceived injustice and intolerance towards them. Examples are feminists, Aboriginals, gay and lesbian people, regional separatists and migrants. They typically want the political freedom that they believe has marginalised them within the larger social context. They seek to reclaim their distinctiveness by agitating for the elimination of stereotyping, violence, exploitation, marginalisation and powerlessness. They reject the negative “inferior” image of them held by the dominant culture, and seek to legitimise their own sense of self and community. Their identity politics demands respect for members of their group as “different” rather than inclusion with everyone else or respect “in spite of” differences.

The notion of identity has become entrenched in today’s politics. In the past the general community tolerated minority groups as long as they didn’t become too noisy, demanding and disruptive. This they have now done, accompanied by strident accusations of racism, xenophobia, sexism etc whenever their particular views are questioned or challenged. The free speech that lies at the heart of civilised community discourse has been put under immense pressure. People are scared to say what they really think because they are fearful that the “thought police” are waiting to pounce on them, aided and abetted by a complicit, self-serving media. The hatred and vitriol of social media adds a toxic new dimension, where even the mildest expression of disquiet or dissent about urban elitist minority positions on contemporary issues can lead to an outpouring of condemnation that is hurtful in the extreme to its target and generally reduces our social discourse to a savage, soul-destroying barrage of anger, deceit, lies, deliberate distortion, personal vilification and abuse. Our quiet enjoyment of life is the victim of this crude, ignorant, disrespectful, intolerant and undisciplined behaviour. Discontent is endemic, happiness is elusive. We live in troubled times.

A key question is whether identity politics is a legitimate way of participating in a democracy.  Its critics claim that it is prone to two main generalisations. Members of groups are pressured into identifying their single defining feature rather than understanding themselves as integrated selves who cannot be represented so selectively or simply. For example, a Muslim-Australian can also be a woman but is strongly influenced to identify as one or the other. Secondly, generalisations made about a particular social group may have a disciplinary function within the group, not just describing but also dictating what self-understanding its members must have. Dominant subgroups may, in theory and practice, impose their particular vision of the group’s identity on all its members. An example could be the marginalisation or exclusion of Aboriginal women and gay Aboriginal men by a dominant Aboriginal heterosexual male sub-group. As with all groups, an opinionated minority faction can take control. This is very evident for some of the interest groups in the first list above. Even though they are demonstrably undemocratic they still have the ear of government, aided and abetted by the aforementioned media. They are subject to the same internal power plays that bedevil groups in general.

After a surprisingly long period of acquiescence by the masses, government is finally getting a wake-up call. Brexit, Trump and far-right factions in Europe have come along to shake up the cosy liberal elites whose contempt for the “silent majority”, Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”, has been dramatically exposed. We are now hearing about late stage democracy, a situation where individual freedom, unfettered choice and the glorification of “difference” has totally replaced collective responsibility and the common good. See where identity politics fits in? A very large group of white middle class and blue collar workers with conservative beliefs and values, mainly situated in outer urban, regional and rural areas, has discovered its identity and become vocal through the ballot box. The key messages are coming through loud and clear. Regardless of my personal positions and beliefs (I don’t necessarily hold with all that follows), here is my take on the perceptions of the no-longer-silent majority. Their fundamental underpinning is that values are more important than economics. Their significance is that, in a post-truth world, perceptions rather than rational arguments guide the way most people vote.

Perceptions about globalisation

Globalisation has made it easy for huge multi-national corporations to exploit cheap labour in under-developed countries to make obscene profits and avoid tax, with huge and permanent job losses in their countries of origin. The rich have accumulated massive wealth while the middle and working classes have stagnated or gone backwards. We want our jobs back. We want wealth to be equitably distributed.

Perceptions about trickle-down economics

Benefits for the wealthy such as tax cuts on businesses, high income earners, capital gains and dividends are supposed to trickle down to everyone else. They don’t. President Reagan’s tax cuts actually worsened income inequality. Between 1979 and 2005 after-tax income rose only 6% for the bottom fifth while the top fifth had an 80% increase in income. The top 1% had a 300% increase in income. Instead of trickling down, prosperity actually trickled up. We want the rich to pay a greater share of taxes, or a revenue system based on consumption rather than income.

Perceptions about free trade

When import tariffs were reduced or removed and export subsidies were withdrawn, lots of our manufacturing and agriculture jobs went with them. If the things we no longer make and grow suddenly become unavailable through war or natural disaster or new trade barriers, we are in a big mess of our own making. We want to get back into production again for both the employment and our own national self-sufficiency.

Perceptions about border protection

Illegal migrants take our jobs and make the rich even richer because they pay them less. We want rock solid border protection and deportation of all aliens. We want our jobs back with proper pay rates.

Perceptions about immigration

It’s pretty much the same story with legal migrants. They get massive taxpayer assistance while we are on welfare if we don’t have a job. Instead of spending money on migrants and foreign aid, we want at least some of it spent at home, or better still, used to pay down our crippling national debt.

Perceptions about climate change

If global warming is a reality, will the impacts be what the alarmists claim? We live in a world where scientists seem to put the worst possible spin on things, and we can’t help thinking that there may be quite a bit of funding self-interest involved. Politicians are also suspect: there is nothing like a good scare campaign (think Cold War, peak oil, Y2K, terrorism, global warming) to keep the population docile through fear. We want governments to be factual and objective in assessing climate change risks, and upfront and honest about the options for dealing with them.

Perceptions about defence

The security of our country is of the utmost importance: it is a primary responsibility of government to get it right. This includes international alliances and treaties. We want our armed forces and their equipment to be of the highest order, given the respect and gratitude they deserve, with the pacifists put firmly back in their cowardly box.

Perceptions about drugs and crime

Drugs are the scourge of modern society. A significant proportion of the population has a death wish, because drug taking is a slow form of suicide (and sometimes a quick one). We have the ludicrous situation where the greens (think identity politics) want to decriminalise drugs, while having the bare-faced hide to claim to be a rational, responsible political party. Governments generally tie the hands of law enforcers to come down hard and fast on drugs. The judiciary are incredibly lenient, not just with drugs and drug-related crime, but with crime in general. Our safety and security means a lot to us. Wishy-washy governments are letting us down. We want those who do the crime to do the time, no ifs or buts.

Perceptions about small government

There is compelling evidence that government spending in advanced economies is too high, and that Australia’s economy could grow much faster if the burden of government was reduced. Otherwise, our fate is to become an uncompetitive welfare state like France or Germany. Most new government spending is on non-core payments and transfers prompted by identity politics – the politics of difference. The government is taking money from the private sector and spending it in ways that are often counter-productive, undoubtedly motivated by the “buy votes” syndrome. Taxes and deficits are both harmful, but neither of them is the critical variable. Research shows very clearly that the key is the size of government, not how it is financed. Programs that yield the lowest benefits and/or impose the highest costs should be the first to go. We want government to reduce the level of spending: an essential first step is to downsize the bureaucracy.

Controlling spending is particularly important because of globalisation. It is becoming increasingly easy for jobs and capital to migrate from one nation to another. This means that the rewards for good policy and the penalties for bad policy are greater than ever before. To boost prosperity and make Australia more competitive, we want government to reduce spending to 10% of GDP.

None of this is rocket science. When the dissatisfaction of great swathes of people reaches a tipping point, and politicians are too slow in response, the potential for major disruption is created. What form this might take no-one really knows. Some will say that those malcontents, the silent majority, don’t understand how society works, what the facts really are, and what can happen because of a protest vote. This elitist arrogance, condescension and contempt is beside the point. Once the groundswell has built up a head of steam, nothing can stop it until the pressure is released.

A comprehensive reshaping of government policy is a good starting point in this regard. Consciousness of class is essential: excessive pandering to noisy minority groups anxious to have their “difference” legitimised has to go. The majority of the people deserve their fair share of attention, even if their issues are mainstream and non-controversial. Let us have jobs instead of exotic economic theory, law and order instead of decriminalisation of drugs, family values instead of deviance, more even distribution of wealth in line with personal effort, individual responsibility and accountability rather than unearned and undisciplined freedom. The message is loud and clear: we fail to act at our peril! Or, as Lord Kitchener said, “your country needs you.”

Yours sincerely

Bruce McCollum