The Institute of Public Affairs infuriates the Left. The IPA’s success in being the public face of centre-right thinking, even in Left bastions like Fairfax and the ABC, drives them to attack John Roskam’s outfit as a secretive Broederbond, so successfully has it played with their minds. Now, Roskam’s latest protégé Matthew Lesh’s first book, Democracy in a Divided Australia, takes a fresh and insightful look at who has the power in Australia and why.
That great Greek bloke, Aristotle, said that in society some are born to rule and the rest of us to obey, and like old Ari, Lesh writes there are two broad groupings in Australian society.
First the Inners, urban-dwellers who by their upbringing, education, or membership of various social, economic and media elite groups including business and trade unions, determine the national agenda. Inners control the public conversation, and dominate key public institutions including the ABC and the universities and, as universities’ disgraceful treatment of the Ramsay Centre’s proposed Western Civilisation programme highlights, howl down any dissent from their identity politics and ideological frolics.
Then there’s the Outers, ‘instinctively traditionalist’ Australians on lower and middle incomes, mostly with less fancy educations and occupations, and who are more concerned with stability, safety and unity. These are the people who produce the national income that the Inners waste in their own pet causes. Outers are characterised by Lesh as living in the suburbs which means, presumably, that battlers in rural and regional Australia are Far Out. Outers can, through educational and career success, become Inners, and once they are there forget their origins.
It’s easy to dismiss Lesh’s dichotomy as simplistic, just as a similar dissection of the American political establishment, C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite, was dismissed in the 1950s. Beneath his broad categorisations, however, Lesh is thoughtful and subtle. His key insight is that Inners, and their dominance of Australian politics, transcend party lines: Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten share common interests in preserving the system, or rather the political class’s role in it. So, too, do the many patch-protecting mediocrities who become backbenchers, there merely because they are factional hacks, cynical careerists or otherwise tick gender and other quota boxes.
Lesh’s Inner-Outer analysis explains why so much time is devoted by political and media elites to issues marginal to the great majority of Australians’ everyday lives, like gay marriage (and luvvies’ confected outrage over Fairfax’s provocatively publishing selectively leaked excerpts from the Ruddock religious freedom report) and changing the date of Australia Day. It also explains why so many Australians are alienated from the political class, while apathetically letting politicians and nanny staters run rampant over their lives. You can’t beat them, so what’s the point of trying? And it very much explains how both Labor and Coalition governments have hacked away at our privacy and personal liberties for whatever they deem the national interest.
Optimistically, Lesh believes social divisions can be healed by what he calls ‘liberal populism’ based on shared values of egalitarianism, localism, freedom, dignity and unity. But surely his smug Inners never will voluntarily give up their entitled positions to share a common future with the great unwashed. Nevertheless, Lesh suggests that traditional ways of looking at the divisions in Australian society – whether class; progressive or conservative; even Liberal or Labor – are obsolete. The leaders of major political parties and activist organisations have failed to keep up with the evolution of the broader society they claim to reflect and, in their all-knowingness, ride roughshod over their grass-roots supporters. When so many of us feel our aspirations and values don’t matter to the elites, is it any wonder that parties and politicians of protest, like One Nation, Derryn Hinch and the Greens, have corroded the Coalition and Labor vote?
Since its 2013 wipeout by Tony Abbott, Labor has stolen a march on the Coalition by realising Inner elites have to at least appease the Outer electorate, throwing many unfunded billions at what it picks as Outer grievances and hot issues, especially healthcare and schools (even if Labor MPs and luvvies proclaim their love of government schools while refusing to sully their children with a public education). Now that arch-Inner Malcolm Turnbull has gone (though his destructive and narcissistic poltergeist remains), the Coalition under born-Outer Scott Morrison must realise the key to its future is not tickling the tummies of elite Inners, but thanks to its hijacking by ultra-Inner Turnbull, its fate is almost certainly to be doomed to learn these lessons in protracted Opposition.
That’s the thing about Lesh’s book: the intense fight raging for the soul of the Liberal party is a microcosm of the nation. In it, MPs and organisational leaders are Inners and humble grass roots member the Outers. Yet narcissistic Inner Turnbull and his moderate fellow travellers are wantonly destroying the Morrison government because it isn’t in his own Inner image. His long-time obsession about putting Paris, renewables and emissions reduction ahead of securing cheaper power says it all. Throughout the Turnbull years, Abbott and Outers like Craig Kelly and Jim Molan have been fighting desperate rearguard battles to reclaim the soul of the party from Turnbull and his elitist Inner circle. They know Outers are more economically and socially conservative than the Inner power elite, and policies and political leadership must reflect Outer needs and aspirations. They know the financial and social costs of the luvvie agenda are paid by the Outers.
And they know that if the Liberal party is to survive the likely years of electoral desolation to come, it must become the natural party of the Outers. With his bogan roots, Morrison still has some Outer in him: even if next year’s election is already lost, he must do all he can to win this vital battle.
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