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National Observer Home > No. 52 - Autumn 2002 >Editorial Comments

Cultural and Social Decline within Australia

Is Australian cultural and intellectual life comparable in quality to that in other Western countries? Unfortunately it is difficult to avoid a negative answer to this question. In cultural terms, it seems if anything that there has been a steady decline in Australia over the past forty years.

Australians of the 1960s generally comported themselves better, were more self-disciplined and were more inclined to respect traditional values than is the case today. A key element of change was the Vietnam War. Opposition to that War, originally from the far left only, was steadily spread more generally amongst the community. It provided a catalyst and rallying-point for a progressively culturally dissociated class, and old blue jeans and personal untidiness became its visual norm. An accompanying factor has been the mass-culture represented by television, in which attempts to entertain have been at the expense of basic values. Sexuality and violence (from the grossest forms of abuse down to a significant rejection of civility) have eroded notions of right and wrong.

The newspapers of a country reflect its values more clearly than perhaps any other single indicium, and the Australian newspapers – particularly the broadsheet papers purporting to represent a quality press – show clearly the drop in standards that has occurred. It is a matter of wonder that Mr. Rupert Murdoch is the son of a person with the traditional values of his mother, Dame Elizabeth. But at all events Murdoch appears to have done more to debase the standards of Australian newspapers than any other person. 1  It may be estimated that over ninety per cent of The Australian’s journalists are pro-Labor, and generally unintelligently and immoderately so. They follow Murdoch’s apparent vendetta against the constitutional monarchy, and do not hesitate to attempt to undermine the reputations and positions of people of good character when this is judged expedient. 2 The Australian is regarded, properly, by many as little more than a pretentious, pro-Labor organ of propaganda. Nor are The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald more encouraging. Their pretentiousness exceeds even that of The Australian, but again in excess of ninety per cent of their journalists adopt pro-Labor positions and bear the intellectual scars of the Vietnam War years and their cultural aftermath.

Significantly, these newspapers have profound animus against Mr. John Howard and attempt to destabilise him in order to advance Mr. Peter Costello, whom they correctly regard as having the instincts of the left. An example of this has been seen in reference to so-called “refugees”. Mr. Howard, acting on official information provided to him, in late 2001 stated that illegal immigrants on a boat had cast children into the sea, so as to increase probabilities of rescue by an Australian vessel. Subsequently it appeared that he had been misinformed, and attacks by the broadsheet journalists became shrill and beyond any pretence of reasonable behaviour. In particular these journalists suppressed the report that the reason why the boat was sinking was that it had been deliberately scuttled, again with the purpose of causing the Australian vessel to rescue the children and others on board.

The parlous cultural and social position in Australia is demonstrated, not only by the complete absence here of quality newspapers, but also by the inadequate range of books that are published. National Observer publishes book reviews, but it has become increasingly difficult to find Australian books of sufficient quality for this purpose. A number of Australian biographies have been reviewed (not by reason of any quality in their writing but rather in view of the local significance of those being written about), and occasional and rare works by quality writers such as Professor Geoffrey Blainey emerge. But in general ostensibly serious Australian publications are little better than those of Donald Horne or Robert Manne, which resemble caricatures of learning or instruction.

Accordingly the book reviews published by National Observer deal increasingly with foreign publications, from which examples are readily found that demonstrate greater maturity, accuracy and balance than Australian works. This fact is not stated with pleasure. It is indeed a grave adverse reflection on Australia.

Some time in the 1960’s Australia changed direction. Before, a generation that had undergone the disciplines of a depression and of a world war had maintained a set of cultural values which, if continued, would have sustained a reasonable and indeed admirable nation. With the 1960s the changes discussed here were introduced which led the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew, to describe Australians as “the poor white trash of Asia”. Where now are the signs of any rehabilitation?

One of the chief problems for observers of the political position in Australia is a scarcity of reliable political leaders. Mr. John Howard is generally regarded as the best who is available, but within the Liberal Party his rival, Mr. Peter Costello, continues to give much cause for concern. 1

A difficulty for the Coalition government is that although Mr. Howard is the Prime Minister, Mr. Costello is the Treasurer. Consequently many economic matters have been left to Mr. Costello, and Mr. Howard may be criticised for not supervising more what his Treasurer has done. In 2001, for example, after Mr. Costello had (at the instance of left-of-centre Australian Taxation Office bureaucrats with whom he has much in common 2) introduced very extreme and penal draft legislation in regard to trusts, Mr. Howard was forced to intervene, and the draft legislation was dropped.

However it appears that generally Mr. Howard has permitted Mr. Costello too much leeway, perhaps because Mr. Costello is a rival who is seen by many observers as intent upon supplanting him. In consequence a number of unfortunate policies have emerged that would not have been expected from a Coalition government.

Particularly worrying are the large increases in taxation and in public expenditure that Mr. Costello has overseen. For example, government revenue as a percentage of G.D.P. was 27.5 per cent in 1969-70, 31.3 per cent in 1979-80, 36.3 per cent in 1989-90 and had increased to as high as 43.9 per cent in 1999-2000.

Mr. Jim Hoggett, a former senior officer in the Treasury and now Director of Economic Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs, has drawn attention to even more worrying increases in expenditure during the 2000-01 year: 3

“Consider Federal budget policy last year. This is not easy to track, because of the dishonest treatment of the G.S.T. in the Federal budget. [Mr. Costello has improperly treated the G.S.T. as a State tax, although it is clearly a Commonwealth tax, levied under the Commonwealth taxing powers]. In 1999-2000, the Federal Government received $4.4 billion revenue more than it had budgeted. By mid-year of 2000-01, revenue had blown out again by $4 billion. The Government reacted promptly. New spending programmes, that will grow to $4.6 billion, were announced.

It is highly improbable that the Government would have introduced $4.6 billion of new taxes to finance such programmes.”

As Mr. Hoggett points out, increased spending drives revenue and revenue windfalls drive spending – the “proverbial double-whammy”. So if there is money in the till, “government will find ways to spend it rather than giving it back”.

This pessimistic analysis is fully borne out by the facts. Few politicians are interested in restricting government spending: they will spend what they can get away with. Because the public takes little intelligent interest in these matters, they can get away with much.

Mr. Hoggett concludes – and any other conclusion is prevented by expenditure statistics — “This is not the age of small government. It is the age of the biggest government in our history.”

In regard to taxation also Mr. Hoggett is justifiably pessimistic. He comments on the large recent increases in taxation and expenditure under Mr. Costello:

“Finally, this also illustrates the futility of the present debate on tax cuts. There is now little room to cut taxes unless spending is cut. Who can believe that this will happen when the Democrats, who hold the balance of power in the Senate, always want to spend lots more and nobody else wants to spend less?”

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Costello understands these processes perfectly – indeed, how could he not? He has attempted to conceal them by, for example, treating the G.S.T. as a State tax rather than a Commonwealth tax, as it in fact is. He has also indulged systematically in propaganda whereby on the one hand he speaks of his “tax cuts” (which in fact merely negate several years of bracket-creep) and on the other hand he increases government expenditure by amounts never seen before in Australian fiscal history.

Again the question is raised, who looks after the interests of taxpayers? With public servants and special interest groups constantly seeking enlargements of public expenditure, and opportunistic politicians like Mr. Costello seeking increased amounts in order to buy votes, where can a restraining influence be found? The answer is, apparently, no-where. This lack indicates a basic defect in Western democracies; for sooner or later people will vote with their feet and their factories; manufacturing industry and well-informed taxpayers depart to other more economically moderate countries.

The absence of an effective mechanism (or even of informed opinion) preventing undue increases in government expenditure such as are taking place under Mr. Costello is a matter for grave concern.

National Observer No. 52 - Autumn 2002