The cyberbullying moral panic

With Simon Breheny

Bullying among children is a serious problem. At its tragic worst it can lead to suicide. But it is a serious social problem, not a technological one.

Earlier this year, the Coalition government released a discussion paper ‘Enhancing Online Safety for Children.’ The proposals contained within the discussion paper have been drafted with the intention of tackling cyberbullying — that is, bullying using digital technology. Unfortunately they will do nothing to solve the bullying problem. And, by establishing a ‘Children’s e-Safety Commissioner’ with powers to take down material from social media websites, it will increase government control over the internet and clearly threaten free speech.

The discussion paper outlines three key measures the government aims to implement to address cyberbullying: the establishment of the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner; developing an effective complaints system, backed by legislation, to get harmful material down fast from large social media sites; and examining existing Commonwealth legislation to determine whether to create a new, simplified cyberbullying offence.

The key plank in this policy is the creation of a new power to ‘get harmful material down fast.’ This is an explicit censorship power. Pure and simple. And it’s a particularly disappointing development coming from this government. In a speech to the Samuel Griffith Society in 2012 entitled ‘In Defence of Freedom of Speech’, then Opposition legal affairs spokesman Senator George Brandis said:

The measure of a society’s commitment to political freedom is the extent of its willingness to respect the right of every one of its citizens to express their views, no matter how offensive, unattractive or eccentric they may seem to others.

The proposed establishment of an e-Safety Commissioner is not a policy that lives up to Brandis’ high-minded rhetoric. Indeed the proposal moves Australia in precisely the opposite direction. If the Coalition’s e-safety policy is implemented, this government will be doing more to restrict free speech than it is to defend it.

Several concepts used in the discussion paper are ambiguous. The term ‘harm’ is itself a term that describes a broad range of conduct, from the very serious to the trivial. Whenever the basis of a bureaucratic power is vague it gives discretion to public servants. In the case of the e-safety commissioner, it means that none of us can be sure whether we’ll be censored for something we say online.

The proposed regime carries some very serious risks. The commissioner will not be infallible. There will be mistakes, and content that should never have been taken down will be removed by the government.

We’ve seen this before. In June last year, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission admitted that it had accidentally blocked 250,000 websites in an attempt to tackle online scams.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The risk of inadvertent removal of material is serious. But perhaps even more concerning is the idea that the government should grant itself this kind of power at all. It’s not the role of government to judge what is and is not acceptable social discourse. Those important decisions must be reserved for rational, free individuals.

And like any government initiative there is the risk of scope creep. What starts as a small censorship regime grows into a large censorship regime. In a liberal democracy there is only one acceptable level of censorship: none.

On the flip side, it will be impossible for the e-Safety Commissioner to protect children from all cyberbullying. Lines have to be drawn somewhere. And wherever the government creates that threshold there are going to be children who will be the subject of bullying that is not caught by the government’s cyberbullying regime. Additionally, no matter how carefully this policy is implemented there will be cases where the commissioner will fail to remove legitimately harmful material.

Of course, that won’t stop parents from trusting that the government is putting an end to cyberbullying. Governments love to pretend they have everything under control. And many parents will trust that the commissioner has covered the field. But the risk is that the existence of this program provides a false sense of security. Parents will rely on the government to protect their children. This attitude is instinctive — the government is taking more responsibility so I don’t need to take as much.

This attitude has a dramatic impact on consumer behaviour. Parents who rely on the e-safety commissioner no longer direct capital towards free market answers to cyberbullying. This outcome is a direct result of the government intervening in an area where government action is unnecessary. Implementing a government-run online safety program creates perverse incentives that lead to fewer privately developed solutions.

There are a very broad range of tools available to parents, teachers and schools which can assist in effectively targeting cyberbullying.

The most important mechanism that exists to deal with cyberbullying is direct reporting to the social media networks themselves. It’s in the interest of social media sites to have highly developed reporting mechanisms in place. Facebook allows users to report violations of its statement of rights and responsibilities. The statement contains an explicit reference to bullying: ‘You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.’ The outline of Community Standards expands on its uncompromising stance: ‘Facebook does not tolerate bullying or harassment. We allow users to speak freely on matters and people of public interest, but take action on all reports of abusive behaviour directed at private individuals. Repeatedly targeting other users with unwanted friend requests or messages is a form of harassment.’

Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+, and other social media sites likely to come under the purview of the government’s commissioner have all developed similar policies.

Distinct from internal reporting tools, there is also a growing range of anti-cyberbullying software available to parents. The number of programs available is impressive. They range in scope, complexity, format and price, and can provide a remarkable amount of parental control.‘CyberSynchs’ is an application that identifies bullying and other inappropriate behaviour, and then sends a report to parents. Trend Micro’s ‘Online Guardian’ allows parents to monitor their children’s social media traffic for pre-programmed key words and phrases.

There are hundreds of these products currently available. And more are being developed all the time. Primary and secondary schools also install filters at the network level. These are the solutions that are available to parents seeking to protect their children from cyberbullying.

There are also a number of existing legal remedies that cover the same or similar conduct as that targeted by the government under the e-safety policy. Violent threats; menacing, harassing or offensive conduct online; stalking; and unauthorised access to accounts are all criminal offences.

The truth is that cyberbullying is bullying. It’s awful. It’s damaging.But cyberbullying is no more or less a problem than run-of-the-mill playground bullying. The same approach should be used for both. Parents are more in tune with the emotional disposition of their own children. They know better than any government-appointed commissioner how their child will react to incidents of bullying, and they know best how to deal with it. Parents are the best anti-bullying advocates their children will ever have.

The proposed Children’s e-Safety Commissioner is a policy born of lliberalism. It patronises parents, and it infringes freedom of speech. The government should not proceed with its e-censorship proposal.

Tony Abbott’s culture challenge

Tim Wilson, formerly of the Institute of Public Affairs, will make an excellent human rights commissioner on the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Let’s hope he is the last human rights commissioner.

As the Attorney General George Brandis pointed out when he announced Tim Wilson’s appointment in December 2013, the commission has ‘become increasingly narrow and selective in its view of human rights.’

This is quite an understatement. As the Institute of Public Affairs has documented over many years, the commission isn’t just narrowly left-focused on human rights. It is actively hostile to basic liberties like freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of association.

So Wilson’s appointment is excellent. But the government is kidding itself if it thinks it has fixed the commission by doing so. Under John Howard the Coalition appointed conservative and liberal supporters to significant government roles — like, for instance, the board of the ABC. Despite this, you’d be hard pressed to identify any long term institutional change these appointments brought about.

The new Abbott government has been characterised by two things. First is its surprising and extremely welcome antipathy to corporate welfare. It refused to bail out SPC Ardmona. It refused demands from the car industry for further subsidies. And it refused to guarantee Qantas’ debt. But second and much more significant is its enthusiasm to hop unashamedly into the culture wars.

It began early. The target was the ABC and its reporting of the Edward Snowden leaks and claims of asylum seeker mistreatment. More important was the particular way in which the argument was framed. Abbott told 2GB’s Ray Hadley that ‘A lot of people feel at the moment that the ABC instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s.’

Wilson was appointed to the AHRC in December, with predictable outrage.

In January, the education minister Christopher Pyne announced a review into the National Curriculum because ‘the benefits of Western Civilisation should be taught in our curriculum.’ Predictable outrage again.

But Wilson is just one commissioner among seven — hardly a fatal blow to this $30 million organisation. And the idea that Pyne’s suggestion could be at all controversial — that it would be controversial to squeeze Western Civilisation into a curriculum whose themes already include sustainability, Asia, and indigenous cultures — just shows how deeply the left have captured not just the National Curriculum, but the broader public debate over our history as well.

It certainly wasn’t the ‘right’ that started the culture wars. If Tony Abbott wants to effect the long term cultural change in Australia — as all the evidence suggests he does — then he needs to come to terms with how the left harnessed the power of the state to push its cultural vision.

A word of caution. Few terms more are frivolously used in Australian politics than ‘culture war’. Literally one week after the Coalition won government in September 2013, the academic Conversation was heralding the start of ‘Culture Wars II’ because it dared to criticise the content of the previous government’s national curriculum.

An article published in the left-wing online publication New Matilda claimed, a fortnight later, that Tony Abbott had ‘reignited the culture wars’ by abolishing the Climate Commission — a body which was specifically formed by Julia Gillard in order to sell her government’s climate change policy.

In November, Renew Economy, a specialist climate change website, claimed Tony Abbott saw climate change policy as a ‘culture war’. Never-mind that the Coalition had committed itself to the same emissions reduction targets as Labor, and its own elaborate, expensive mechanism to suit.

Describing an opponent’s policy preference as a ‘culture war’ is to give it an air of unreality — as if their policy preferences are motivated solely by partisanship and fantasy. Only ideologues fight culture wars. Everybody else just tries to ‘do what works’.

The term ‘culture war’ originated with Otto von Bismark. His kulturkampf (‘cultural struggle’) pitted German Protestants against the Roman Catholic church in Prussia. It took the form of aggressive state controls on Catholic institutions: state inspection of religious schools, a ban on political commentary at the pulpit, and a wide range of heavy regulation on Catholic participation. Thousands of the clergy were fined or jailed for resisting the kulturkampf dictates.

The Protestant majority believed the Catholic Church was a force holding back Bismark’s modernising force, and, with the Church’s relationship to the Papacy, a threat to German unity.

That drive for national unification is the key to understanding what a culture war is about. The left has long seen the state as a vehicle through which society can express itself. In this idea, institutions such as the law and bureaucratic organisations are not solely mechanistic tools to achieve public policy goals but are also demonstrate the values held by the social collective. Take, for instance, the emphasis on what a repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act would ‘symbolise’, or the proposal to recognise indigenous Australians in the preamble of the Constitution.

The culture wars describe not just an ideological back and forth — politics is, as it should be, a battle of ideas — but a contest for control of state institutions. So the culture wars aren’t about culture per se. They’re about the way the state seeks to control the culture.Its tools are the network of grants, subsidies, programs and initiatives doled out almost exclusively to one side of politics to promote their vision of what Australia ought to be.

The complaints that the Abbott government wants to restart the culture wars are rather complaints that the left’s privileged position in the institutions of state are being challenged.

But the Abbott government must not imagine that a victory in the culture war will be found by placing conservatives and liberals in government roles custom-built for their ideological opponents.

Neither will institutions be repaired by reorientating them towards conservative ends. As the IPA’s James Paterson argued in Quadrant in 2011:

the Right should be highly wary of using the power of the state to advance their side of the cultural wars. Often, it was unsuccessful. Worse, it sometimes backfired and made the job of their ideological opponents much easier.

It may be possible to repair the National Curriculum’s hostility towards Western Civilisation. The cross-curriculum priorities — Indigenous and Asian perspectives and sustainability — could be replaced to reflect our heritage: the legacy of British institutions, the Western tradition, and economic development.

But doing so would be no guarantee a future government would not reverse those changes, subjecting the education system to a constant political and ideological back and forth.

The National Curriculum is explicitly a culture war high ground. It is a project to impose some degree of cultural unity on the Australian nation. It is, in the words of one analyst, a ‘major means by which the citizenry, collectively and individually, can develop the capabilities to play a part in the democratic project of nation (re)-building.’

It is obviously tempting for the Abbott government to reclaim the ground; to take the institutions created by the left and use them for conservative ends. But why should we have a national curriculum at all? A liberal, pluralistic society that offers the maximum space for individuals to pursue their own goals and live the lives they choice would reject these grand schemes for national cultural unity.

This is why the IPA has called for the Abbott government to abolish the National Curriculum, rather than tinker with it. Only by devolving the curriculum down to the school level and granting parents choice about what their children are taught can we stop the curriculum being a political plaything.

The Australian Human Rights Commission should be abolished, rather than reformed.

Governments come and go. The Abbott government should not try to win the culture war. It should try to end it.

The Case for No

With Mikayla Novak

Make that three times. One of the happy casualties of Kevin Rudd’s decision to go to an election one week before Julia Gillard’s preferred date of September 14 is the referendum to recognise local government in the Australian Constitution. Local government recognition was defeated at a referendum in 1974. It was defeated again in 1988. Now it has been abandoned in 2013.

Let’s hope this is the last time this terrible idea gets up.

Anthony Albanese, the Commonwealth Minister for Local Government, was eager to point out that the change to the constitution proposed was only 17 words. The referendum to recognise local government would have amended Section 96 to read:

96 Financial assistance to States and local government bodies.

During a period of ten years after the establishment of the Commonwealth and thereafter until the Parliament otherwise provides, the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State, or to any local government body formed by a law of a State, on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit.

Local governments and their peak lobbies said this was a minor, technical change. Albanese has described it as ‘modest’ and ‘sensible’. Julia Gillard said it simply ‘reflect[ed] modern reality’. The Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore said it ought to be ‘non-contentious’.

It was anything but. The change to Section 96 was one of the most significant, dangerous, and consequential constitutional amendments ever proposed. It would have completely unbalanced Australia’s system of government. It would have freed the Commonwealth from any spending constraint. It would have unleashed local government fiscal recklessness. And it would have eliminated the checks and balances embedded in a federal constitution.

The referendum may not be going ahead — thank goodness — but it was a brief window into one of the most deep-seated problems of Australia’s constitution, and a reminder of how the biggest power grabs are dressed up as minor housekeeping.

The uncertain place of local government

There is one small way the advocates of a local government referendum are right: councils are strange beasts: they’re half state government departments, half autonomous democratic governments in their own right.

The development of Australian local government by colonial governments was among the many institutional innovations enacted during the nineteenth century.

Town trusts were established throughout Western Australia in 1838 primarily for the management and funding of roads. This was followed shortly thereafter by the first elected municipal council in Australia, established in Adelaide in 1840, and similar bodies in Sydney and Melbourne two years later.

By the late nineteenth century local government bodies were widespread and, notwithstanding interstate variations, they were generally responsible for a myriad of functions and activities, such as roads, tramways and other public transport, water supply and sanitation, gas facilities and other local infrastructures.

In some jurisdictions, local governments during the colonial era were responsible for the provision of local schooling, care for orphans and the sick, cultural and recreation services including libraries and public gardens, and even the control of prostitution. Some of these functions have been maintained to this day, whilst others such as direct provision of infrastructure services have been allocated to the states or devolved to the private sector.

While the division of powers in a federated Australia were central to the discussions at the Constitutional Conventions of the 1890s, local governments were largely overlooked due to the understanding that local governments were, and remain to this day, the legal and administrative responsibility of individual states. There was little by way of direct financial relationships between the commonwealth and the states for most of the twentieth century, although tied roads grant funding to the states had an indirect effect on local road works, and councils had some involvement in the growing post war preoccupation with regional planning by commonwealth and state governments.

The size and scope of local government services significantly expanded during the 1970s, as the Whitlam government initiated a direct commonwealth local funding relationship which provided grants funding, bypassing the states, for programs including senior citizens’ centres, leisure facilities, urban transport and tourism.

The ratcheted federal funding to councils reflected Gough Whitlam’s own perception that ‘there are few aspects of our environment or our development, our culture or our welfare which can be adequately tackled without involving local government.’

And, he ought to have added, ‘without sidelining state governments’. Whitlam’s agenda was highly political: local government financial recognition was a vehicle for the traditional Labor Party hostility to the states. Canberra felt that the federal structure of government was a roadblock to its grand plans for bigger government and social reform.

Voters felt otherwise. When Whitlam put the question of local government recognition to a referendum in May 1974, the No case won. While the Fraser government abstained from some of the more interventionist aspects of Whitlam’s intrusion into local affairs, the general architecture of Whitlam era commonwealth funding arrangements to councils and shires remains to this day.

The constitution allows the Commonwealth to fund local government two separate ways. Section 51 gives the federal government power to make policy and spend money in thirty-two separate areas — such as the administration of the postal and telecommunications networks, immigration, banking, weights and measures. Section 51 was designed to neatly divide up the roles and responsibilities of government between the Commonwealth and the states. The Commonwealth can give whatever money it wants to whoever it likes if it is acting in one of the areas allocated to it by Section 51.

The other way is through Section 96, which allows the Commonwealth to pass money to local governments through state governments. Section 96 was added to the constitution at the last minute. It has no international precedent in other constitutions. And it has completely undermined the clean divisions of Section 51. Section 96 currently allows the federal government to pay state governments to do whatever the Commonwealth cannot, and allows them to impose tight terms and conditions on that funding.

This broad section is how the Commonwealth is now involved in education, health and housing. It is Section 96 that is to blame for the ‘blame game’ — the confusion of roles and responsibilities in Australian public policy.

In other words, Section 96 should be scrapped, not expanded. Adding local government to the mix would supercharge this terrible constitutional provision. The Commonwealth would be able to completely bypass the states. Unlike state governments, local governments have no stake in the division of roles in the constitution. They have no powers to protect. They’re also easier to bully: it would be much simpler for Canberra to manipulate and control 565 small councils than six well-funded states jealously protecting their sovereignty.

Local governments fantasise that Commonwealth money would be liberating. This is only half-true. Local governments would be financially empowered, but they would also be tools of Commonwealth policy.

There is a desperate hunger in Canberra for more control over every area of public policy. During his first term as prime minister, Kevin Rudd even said the Commonwealth should assume responsibility for urban planning — the quintessential local and state government role. Given the steady centralisation of power over the last hundred years, aided in no small part by Section 96, it is virtually a certainty that every local government policy will be eventually decided in Canberra, far from the local communities they effect. But the last thing we want is Commonwealth bureaucrats deciding local rubbish and recycling policies.

Unleashing local government recklessness

The current system has one distinct benefit: state supervision of local government has kept councils from soaking ratepayers.

Since the late 1970s the New South Wales state government has maintained a ‘rate pegging’ system, which sets the maximum percentage increase to general revenue, including municipal rates and some user charges, for councils.

Other states have also employed rate pegging in the past, such as Victoria and South Australia during the 1990s.

Several interrelated reasons have been put forward in support of pegging the growth rate in rates. These include the desire to constrain cost of living increases faced by rate paying households, and the prevention of fiscal
exploitation by local governments in setting rates which finance monopoly goods and services.

Efficiency arguments in favour of rate pegging could also be posed, in the sense that constraints on municipal rate increases may encourage councils to finance goods and services through user charges, ensuring that the costs of council outputs are more closely aligned with their underlying demands.

While NSW councils are permitted under rate pegging to formally seek rate increases above the statutory limit, the system has succeeded in constraining the growth in municipal rates revenue compared with most other states.

Since the introduction of the GST, municipal rates revenue in NSW have grown in nominal terms by an average of 4.3 per cent per annum, the lowest growth of all states and the NT and below the national average growth for rate revenue of 6.8 per cent per annum.

The NSW municipal rates regime also generally fares well against other states with regard to other indicators of tax burden. In 2011-12 councils and shires in NSW collected $473 in rates per head of population, the lowest of all jurisdictions except the Northern Territory. NSW rate collections, as a share of gross domestic product, stood at 0.8 per cent in the same year, which was higher than only Western Australia and the NT.

Local governments have long resented constraints imposed upon their abilities to raise additional revenue from municipal rates, with some councils arguing that it prevents them from meeting infrastructure requirements, and other additional service demands placed upon them, resulting from population growth.

Approval of the referendum proposal for financial recognition of local governments in the Australian Constitution would formally provide councils and shires with access to revenues forcibly acquired from federal taxpayers. Unprecedented access to the federal funding tap would diminish the effectiveness of state rate pegging initiatives, as the relative share of commonwealth grants in the total local government revenue mix inevitably increases over time.

Unleashing the Commonwealth

The local government referendum is one part of a much broader attempt by the Commonwealth government to free itself from constitutional checks and balances.

One obscure piece of legislation passed by the parliament last year was the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment (No.3) Bill. This bland sounding law was in fact a complete abrogation of the parliament’s duties to scrutinise government spending.

The bill purports to gives the Commonwealth power to spend on more than four hundred separate areas — everything from United Nations contributions to subsidising political party apparatus — without having to ask the parliament for permission ever again.

It’s no exaggeration to say that revolutions have been fought over the question of whether parliament can scrutinise the executive’s spending. But this Australian parliament — with complete, bipartisan support, mind you — has willingly and happily tossed away that responsibility.

The Australian Constitution serves as the enduring ‘rule book’ framing the nature and scope of collective action to be undertaken by the federal government. In doing this it aspires to provide people with a sufficient degree of certainty to go about their daily lives, without undue fear of arbitrary fiscal and regulatory exploitation by politicians and bureaucrats based in Canberra.

The Commonwealth government is also more distant from the locus of political decision making in local and regional areas, and is thus more prone to significant errors as demonstrated by numerous policy failures over the past few years.

It is for these reasons that proposals to shift the constitutional goalposts in favour of greater control and political prestige for Canberra have rightly been resisted in the past. But the Financial Framework Bill has already allowed the executive to bypass parliamentary scrutiny on its spending.

Local government recognition is no small matter. It would have completely, irreversibly, and destructively rewritten Australia’s constitutional settlement. Will we be asked to revisit it a fourth time? Unless the federal government stops wanting to accumulate power and unbalance the federation, almost definitely.

War on Democracy

In 1953 a bitter Bertolt Brecht wrote, ‘Would it not be easier / In that case for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?’

With these lines, Brecht brilliantly captured the dripping contempt that some purportedly ‘democratic’ leaders have for those below them.

This contempt has only become more acute in recent decades. Brecht’s words were rich in irony. He was a citizen of the German Democratic Republic — a state democratic in name only — and wrote his poem in the aftermath of the Uprising of 1953, which was crushed by Soviet forces stationed in Germany.

By contrast, in 21st century Australia we enjoy all the trappings of a mature, well-functioning democracy. But our liberty makes the persistence of such contempt starker.

That contempt is a thread joining a huge number of recent debates. It ties the Gillard government’s proposed anti-discrimination changes with the brief furore over compulsory voting and paternalistic controls over what we eat and drink. The belief — widespread but never stated boldly — is that it is the job of democratic politicians to change the character of the people they govern.

In the 21st century, with all the cutting edge findings of behavioural economics, public health and organisational psychology, politicians no longer dream of electing a new people. They can just change them. With the judicious application of legislation and rule-making, Australians can be made better.

It’s hard to think of anything more undemocratic than that.

Changing the way we are

On 20 March 2013, the government finally admitted that its draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill was bunk. The new Commonwealth Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, announced that he had sent the bill back to his department for a rethink — effectively shelving it until after the next election, which, given the dire state of Labor’s prospects in March, is pretty much abandoning the entire project. The bill was toxic. Labor would not spend any more political capital on it.

But this was all the end of a long story. For the two months after the draft Bill was released in November 2012, the then Attorney General Nicola Roxon, other government ministers, and the taxpayer-funded human rights lobby were staunchly supportive of the bill as it stood. They wanted it to pass. They wanted its restrictions on our personal interactions and relationships to be given the force of Commonwealth law. The bill might be dead. But its profound consequences remain important: this is what the government, and its supporters in obscure lobby groups, actually wanted to do to the Australian public.

The draft anti-discrimination bill was truly radical. At its worst it would have made it unlawful to offend somebody because of their political opinions in any work-related area. It does other things (for instance, it reverses the burden of proof onto the defendant) but this is the most significant. The consequences would have been devastating for our interpersonal relations. It would have opened almost unlimited opportunities for lawsuits based on an individual’s opinions.

The legislation was so broadly, absurdly drafted that somebody could claim they were offended by anything as long as it was hypothetically possible that they could, in the future, be associated with somebody who had a ‘protected attribute’ — like a political opinion. This sounds ridiculous but that’s what the draft legislation said.

Most people do not expect to be sued by their colleagues. And the human rights lobby claimed that absurdities would be stopped by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which ‘conciliates’ each anti-discrimination claim before it goes off to court.

But risk management doesn’twork like that. We can only obey the law as it is written, not the arbitrary judgments of bureaucrats and courts. Had the legislation been introduced in its original form, every prudent human resources team would shut down controversial — that is, potentially offensive and unlawful — speech in the workplace. They just couldn’t risk it.

This, it seems, was the point. It was clear before the furious public reaction that this was intended to be a substantial and new era of litigation in the name of anti-discrimination; that the government and its supporters hoped to massively increase the number of anti-discrimination claims. In other words, they believed Australians should have more ways to take each other to court, more grounds on which to do so, and more chances at being successful.

The bill would have made litigation a central element in our interpersonal relationships. The constant threat of court action would hang over every Australian workplace — or anywhere that could conceivably be ‘work-related’. This would be a particularly insidious way to corrupt a society.

The bill, as written, presented to the public, and defended by Nicola Roxon for two months, was not a bill about protecting vulnerable people from discrimination. Anti-discrimination is a settled area of law. No, the draft bill created a new body of law. By fudging a crucial distinction between discrimination and harassment it created an entirely original offence: being disagreeable.

The terms offend and insult come from section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the section which the Federal Court decided that Andrew Bolt breached in November 2011. This has the advantage of interpretative convenience (courts have already considered in detail what ‘offend’ means) but it also suggests a larger strategy.

When section 18C was added to the Racial Discrimination Act in 1995 the purpose was not merely to punish hate speech but to change attitudes. As an approving Senate Committee report argued, the section would ‘set a social standard for the community’. So section 18C is significant for more reasons than simply that it restricts freedom of expression.

In my book In Defence of Freedom of Speech: From Ancient Greece to Andrew Bolt, I argued that freedom of speech is merely the outward function of a deeper freedom: freedom of thought. Our ancestors described this liberty as freedom of conscience. The goal of legislation like the Racial Discrimination Act or the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill isn’t to restrict speech per se, it is to alter thoughts.

Indeed, these pieces of legislation are not aimed at simply changing the way we relate to each other, but changing the way we are.

John Stuart Mill made the point that to censor something wasn’t merely to infringe the liberty of a speaker, but the liberty of those who would like to listen. That is, those who might be convinced.

No one disagrees that racism is despicable. Discrimination on the basis of prejudice is despicable. But, in the words of Australia’s diplomats who opposed some of the international law that requires elaborate anti-speech laws, ‘people [cannot] be legislated into morality’. Law must reflect moral truths, certainly — it must protect life, liberty, and property — but if the law tries to impose its vision of an ideal virtuous citizen, it will inevitably overreach. Indeed, deliberately trying to manipulate the behaviour or beliefs or attitudes of a citizenry is outside the legitimate realm of action of a democratic government.

To see why, we need to look at another illustration of the contempt democratic politicians have for those who put them into power: compulsory voting.

Government as educator

When the Newman government in Queensland floated the idea of Queensland ending the compulsory voting system that was introduced there for the first time in Australia in 1915, the reactions were predictable. Labor luminaries from Prime Minister Gillard on down condemned it. In their view, to make the act of voting a matter of personal choice would be an assault on democracy.

This is obviously absurd. We are one of the very few countries in the world that have compulsory voting. Would Gillard describe the United Kingdom, or France, or Germany as undemocratic?

Support for compulsory voting is deeply felt: in the rare times that it is debated it quickly becomes emotive. We have always been forced to vote in Australia — at least for most in living memory — so it feels somehow intrinsic to democracy. To abandon it would be to move towards a non-democracy. Debates over voting tend to feature words like ‘tyranny’ and ‘dictatorship’.

But more than this, almost all debates about compulsory voting in Australia quickly move to the merits of democracy in the United States. America is seen as a society where a) extremists are in control, and b) the majority of the citizens are completely disengaged. In this view, compulsory voting is a legal mechanism to force people to be interested — a life-long version of compulsory education.

In this way, compulsory voting is seen as a form of mandatory engagement. If we weren’t forced to vote, so the argument goes, we wouldn’t care. We wouldn’t pay attention to politics, we wouldn’t inform ourselves of the best candidate, and many of us wouldn’t vote at all. As the Australian Electoral Commission puts it, by forcing us to vote we are taught the ‘benefits of political participation’.

This is a somewhat circular piece of logic. All compulsory voting does is paper over political disengagement; it merely obscures the phenomenon rather than eliminates it. (Political disengagement is typically measured by voter turnout, but if you make turnout compulsory then it is no longer a measure of disengagement.)

People have fought and died for universal suffrage over centuries. There was much blood split to win the right to vote. Australia took that right and turned it into a requirement. This was a very Australian thing to do. Our government has given us the right to vote but doesn’t trust us to use it.

In other words, we have failed the government, rather than the government has failed us.


Compulsory voting upends the most basic principle of democratic government. All governments need legitimacy. In the case of modern totalitarianism, that legitimacy is brute force. Theocracies claim to take their legitimacy from God or Allah. Democracies, by contrast, draw their legitimacy from the consent of the governed.

Democratic governments are subordinate to the choices of those they rule — indeed, ‘rule’ is a somewhat archaic concept in democratic theory, considering that the wishes of the people are seen as superior to that of the executive government.

So, given that democratic legitimacy is founded on the consent of the governed, what right does a democratic government have to change the behaviour, or seek to control the speech, or thoughts of those that put it in power?

Brecht’s great irony — that governments wish the people could be dissolved like a parliament and replaced — is that it reverses the conceit of democracy. The East German democracy he lived under was a sham. Ours is real. But our political authorities nonetheless seem to believe that the people who elect them are incompetent and incapable.

Nanny State policies — those regulations which control what we eat or drink or whether we have food handling certificates at school fetes — epitomise this reversal of authority. There are many obnoxious Nanny State measures in modern Australia but think briefly about the inherent logic of the most recent and high profile one: are Australians so easily manipulated, so lacking in autonomy, that they are unable to handle the way a cigarette packet is coloured or decorated? The Federal government spent a great deal of time choosing the right shade of greenish brown to maximise the ugliness of its new plain packaging for tobacco products.

The assumption that a corporation could convince somebody to take up an unhealthy habit simply because of a shiny packet speaks poorly for the beliefs of our politicians about the Australian citizenry. If they can’t be trusted with colour, then how can they be trusted with the vote? How can a government, elected by these easily manipulated dimwits, ever consider itself to be a fully legitimate one?

There’s a basic philosophy at the heart of a democratic system. It’s a sort of political egalitarianism. All citizens, no matter what their opinions, what their intelligence or knowledge, have a right to contribute to the decision about who governs them. All citizens may not be equal in ability but they are equal morally and politically. The ignorant have as many rights as the informed. The intelligent have as many rights as the foolish. The modern contempt of the average citizen — the average voter — attacks the very heart of this philosophy.

Right of centre thinkers have conceived many critiques of modern democracy. Classical thinkers like the American founders worried that the majority can impose their preferences on the minority. Modern liberals worry that an increasing proportion of the population are dependent on state welfare benefits, and will unsustainably vote to increase their share.

But if we see democracy as a manifestation of the principle of political equality — that the ruled are superior to the rulers — then the problem with modern governments isn’t that they’re too democratic. It’s that they’re not democratic enough.

Why Capitalism is Awesome

Each year the glossy business magazine FastCompany releases a list of what it considers to be the ‘World’s 50 most innovative companies’. This list is populated much as you would expect.

In 2012, the leader is Apple, followed by Facebook, Google, and Spot a theme? In the top ten, there are only two companies that are not primarily digital companies. One, Life Technologies, works in genetic engineering. The other (try not to laugh) is the Occupy Movement. FastCompany describes them as ‘Transparent. Tech savvy. Design savvy. Local and global. Nimble.’ One might add: pointless.

Put fashionable Occupy aside. Not only are most of the others digital firms, but they’re all flashy, unique, and they’re almost all household names.

Everybody from BRW to BusinessWeek hands out most innovative company awards. They’re all pretty similar and predictable.

But these lists have a perverse effect. They suggest that the great success of capitalism and the market economy is inventing cutting edge technology, and that if we want to observe capitalist progress, we should be looking for sleek design and popular fashion. Innovation, the media tells us, is inventing cures for cancer, solar panels, and social networking.

This widely held belief couldn’t be more wrong. The true genius of the market economy isn’t that it produces prominent, highly publicised goods to inspire retail queues, or the medical breakthroughs which are duly packaged up for a 7pm news bulletin.

No, the genius of capitalism is found in the tiny things — the things that nobody notices.

A market economy is characterised by an infinite succession of imperceptible, iterative changes and adjustments. Free market economists have long talked about the unplanned and uncoordinated nature of capitalist innovation. They’ve neglected to emphasise just how invisible it is.

One exception is the great Adam Smith. In his Wealth of Nations, the example he used to illustrate the division of labour was a pin factory. He described carefully the complex process by which a pin is made. Producing the head of the pin ‘requires two to three distinct operations’. To place the head on the wire is a ‘peculiar business’. Then the pins have to be whitened. The production of a pin, Smith concluded, is an eighteen step task.

Smith was making an argument about specialisation but his choice of example was important. It would be hard to think of something less impressive, less consequential than a pin. Smith wanted his contemporaries to think about the economy not by observing it from the lofty heights of Windsor or the lecture theatre, but by seeing it from the bottom up — to recognise how a market economy is the aggregate of millions of little tasks.

It’s a lesson many have not yet learned. We should try to recognise the subtleties of the apparently mundane.

Capitalism means efficiency

Ikea’s Billy bookshelf is a common, almost disposable, piece of household furniture that has been produced continuously since 1979. It looks exactly the same as it did more than three decades ago. But it’s much cheaper. The standard model — two metres high and 80cm wide — costs $79. And from an engineering perspective the Billy bookshelf is hugely different from its ancestors.

In those 30 years the Billy has changed minutely but importantly. The structure of the back wall has changed over and over, as the company has tried to reduce the weight of the back (weight costs money) but increase its strength. Even the studs that hold up the removable book shelves have undergone dramatic changes. The studs were until recently simple metal cylinders. Now they are sophisticated shapes, tapering into a cup at one end, on which the shelf rests.The brackets that hold the frame together are also complex pieces of engineering.

Ikea is a massive company. Tiny changes — even to metal studs — are magnified when those products are produced in bulk. There is no doubt somebody, somewhere in the Ikea product design hierarchy whose singular focus has been reducing the weight and increasing the strength of those studs. They went to sleep thinking about studs and metals and the trade-offs between strength and weight. Their seemingly inconsequential work helps keep Ikea’s prices down and its profits high. With each minute change to the shape of the Billy’s metal studs they earn their salary many times over.

Being massive, however, Ikea has an advantage: it is able to hire specialists whose job is solely to obsess about simple things like studs. Ikea is well-known for its more prominent innovations — for instance, flat-packing, which can reduce to one-sixth the cost of shipping, or the extremely low staffing of its retail stores.

Big-box stores have revolutionised retail in the last decade. In the United States, Wal-Mart’s extremely well-managed logistics have ground down the price of consumer goods across the American economy. Costco has done the same, eliminating the barrier between consumers and wholesalers. Even, usually thought of as an internet firm, could be easily seen as a big-box retailer. Amazon’s network of warehouses across the US are not so different to Wal-Mart’s.

The success of these firms rests entirely on the management of their supply-line. For big-box retailers, innovation is about efficiency, not invention. Famously, Wal-Mart’s logistics capability proved greater than the American Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Wal-Mart brought supplies to stricken New Orleans suburbs well before FEMA managed. As one New Orleans sheriff told the press: ‘if [the] American government would have responded like Wal-Mart has responded, we wouldn’t be in this crisis’. Another suburban mayor said that Wal-Mart was his town’s ‘only lifeline’.

Extremely resilient supply chains may not win glossy innovation awards but they are the source of much of our modern prosperity.

But Ikea and Wal-Mart are big and famous companies. So let me suggest another icon of capitalist innovation and dynamism: pizza.

Capitalism tastes better, cheaper

Pizza is one of our most mundane and simple foods. It would be the last place most people would look for innovation and engineering. It is, at its most basic, a thin bread topped by tomatoes and cheese — a food of the poor of Naples, exported, and endlessly interpreted by the rest of the world. The most expensive pizza in the world is $450, topped with lobster, Russian caviar, Alaskan cod, and has to be ordered a day in advance. Yet it does not deviate from the basic model: pizza is, and will always be, just flatbread with toppings.

Forty one per cent of Americans eat pizza at least once a week, whether purchased frozen and reheated in home ovens, delivered or taken away, or cooked from scratch at home. All of these choices are more complicated than they seem. Keeping a pizza crisp long out of the oven so it can be delivered, or making sure it will crisp up in a variable home oven after having been frozen for weeks is anything but simple.

Moisture is the enemy. For frozen pizzas, this means that toppings have to be pre-cooked precisely to avoid some ingredients being burned while others are still heating through. Frozen pizza takes a lot of abuse — it is partially thawed each time it is transferred from manufacturer to supermarket to home freezer. So the dough has to be precisely regulated to manage its water content. Cheese freezes poorly, and consumers expect it to melt evenly across the base, so manufacturers obsess about cheese’s pH range, water and salt content.

And of course all these decisions are made with an eye on the customer’s budget and the manufacturer’s profitability. The consumers of family-sized frozen pizzas tend to be extremely price sensitive. The opportunities for innovation in processes, equipment, automation, and chemistry are virtually endless.

It gets even more complicated when we factor in changing consumer tastes. The modern pizza customer doesn’t just want cheese, tomato and pepperoni. As food tastes grow more sophisticated they look for more sophisticated flavours even in frozen pizza. It’s one thing to master how cheddar or mozzarella melts. Dealing with more flavoursome brie or smoked Gouda is another thing entirely.

Like Ikea’s stud specialist, there are hundreds of people across the world obsessed with how frozen cheese melts in a home oven. These sorts of complications are replicated across every ingredient in this simple product. (How does one adapt an automated pepperoni dispenser to dispense fetta instead?)

Customers demand aesthetic qualities too — as they say, we eat with our eyes as much as our tastebuds. Processed food can’t look like processed food. Frozen products have to look authentic. Customers like their pizza crusts to have slight burn marks, even if home ovens won’t naturally produce them. So manufacturers experiment with all sorts of heating techniques to replicate the visual result of a wood-fired oven.

Takeaway pizza seems easier but has almost as many complexities. Some large pizza chains are slowly integrating the sort of sauce and topping applicators used by frozen goods manufacturers. Cheese is costly and hard to distribute on a budget. Dominos use a proprietary ‘auto-cheese’ which takes standardised blocks of cheese and, with a push of a button, shreds them evenly across a base.

For takeaway pizza, moisture problems are even more pervasive: the cooked pizza has to survive, hot and crispy and undamaged for some time before it is consumed. If the box is closed, the steam from the hot pizza seeps through the bread, making it soft and unappealing. But an open box will lose heat too quickly. Engineers have struck a balance. Vents in the box and plastic tripods in the centre of the pizza encourage airflow. Deliverers carry the pizzas in large insulated sleeves to keep the heat in and reduce the damage from the steam.

We could easily replicate this analysis for almost every processed or manufactured food in the typical supermarket. Then we could reflect on the complexity of serving food, not in a home kitchen, but on an airplane flying nearly 1000 kilometres an hour, 36,000 feet in the air, cooked in a tiny galley, for hundreds of people at a time. Some of the most extraordinary logistical accomplishments of the modern world are entirely unnoticed.

Some—like airline food—we actively disparage, without recognising the true effort behind them.

Why capitalism means innovation

One of the great essays in the free market tradition is Leonard Read’s ‘I, Pencil’. Read was the founder of the influential American think tank the Foundation for Economic Education. In his essay, he adopts the perspective of an ‘ordinary wooden’ lead pencil and purports to write his genealogy. He began as a cedar tree from North California or Oregon, was chopped down and harvested and shipped on a train to a mill in an Leandro, California, and there cut down into ‘small, pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an inch in thickness’. Read goes into detail about the lead—not really lead, but a complex graphite and clay mixture whose components are sourced from Ceylon and Massachusetts—the lacquer, the labelling, the eraser and the metal that holds it in place.

Read’s point: ‘not a single person on the face of this earth’ knows how to make a pencil on their own. There is nobody in the world that can harvest, construct and bring together all those components. The construction of a pencil is entirely dispersed among ‘millions of human beings’, from the Italians who mine pumice for the eraser to the coffee manufacturers who supply the cedar loggers in Oregon.

Read was vividly illustrating a famous point of Friedrich Hayek’s — these separate people manage, through nothing but the price system, to make something extraordinarily complex. None of the pumice miners intend to make a pencil — they simply want to trade their labour for wages. Adam Smith’s invisible hand does the rest.

Read published his essay in 1958. The chemical formula for the eraser — known as the ‘plug’ — has changed repeatedly over the interim half century. The production is highly automated, and the supply-lines are tighter. Chemicals are added to keep the eraser from splitting. Synthetic rubber production in 2012 is much different than it was in 1958. These tiny plugs look pretty much the same but have evolved in a dozen different ways.

‘I, Pencil’ magnificently captures the complexity of markets, but it doesn’t quite capture their dynamism. The millions of people involved in pencil production aren’t merely performing their market-allocated tasks, but trying to find new ways to make their tiny segment easier, cheaper, and more profitable. The pencil market — as far from a cutting edge firm like Facebook as you could imagine — is still full of entrepreneurs trying to break apart established business models, to shave costs and rationalise supply chains.

In 1991, a gross of 144 simple, Chinese-made wood pencils sold on the wholesale market for US$6.91. In 2004 that price had declined to $4.48. And this is before we consider the variety of pencils available to consumers — not just wooden ones of different shapes, sizes, and different colours and densities, but mechanical pencils, jumbo sized childrens’ pencils, rectangular carpenters’ pencils, and on, and on, and on.

Why government doesn’t understand innovation

Even the most iconic devices of the modern age have behind them this quiet iterative change.

Apple launched its iPod in 2001. In retrospect it seems like the device exploded on the scene and created an entirely new market overnight. But it took years, and many iterations of the iPod for it to become iconic — the first model’s price was far higher than any of its competitors (the iPod was not the only MP3 player on the market) and its user navigation was clunky.

There have been nearly two dozen versions of the iPod. Some features and designs have been tried and dropped. The software has been revamped over and over. It wasn’t until 2003 that Apple even launched the iTunes store, which is tied so closely to the iPod (and iPhone) consumer experience today. Each new feature added to a device like the iPod creates its own problems, and they take time to sort out. Steve Jobs did not manage a team of inventors. He managed a team of refiners.

If FastCompany has a warped view about the nature of innovation in a market economy, they are not alone. Governments do too.

The Australian federal government has its very own Minister for Innovation (currently Greg Combet) and his Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education doles out grants for inventions and start-ups. The Commercialisation Australia program sponsors inventors who ‘have transformed an innovative idea into reality’. Innovation Australia funds grant-seekers to turn their ‘ground-breaking ideas into commercial products’.

But ideas are the easy part. Getting things done is hard. Setting up a business, paring down costs, acquiring and retaining market share: those are the fields in a market economy where firms win or lose. Apple’s iPod wasn’t a success because of the brilliance of its idea, the elegance of its prototype, or the financial backing of its parent firm. It was a success because it was continuously refined and changed and the prices of its components were kept as low as profitability would allow.

The brilliance of the market economy is in that — the small innovations made to polish and enhance existing products and services. Invention is a wonderful thing. But we should not pretend that it is invention that has made us rich. We have higher living standards than our ancestors because of the little things. We ought to be more aware of the continuous creative destruction of the market economy, the refiners who are always imperceptibly bettering our frozen pizzas, our bookshelves, our pencils, and yes, even our smartphones.

Be like Gough: 75 Radical Ideas To Transform Australia

With James Paterson and John Roskam

If Tony Abbott wants to leave a lasting impact – and secure his place in history – he needs to take his inspiration from Australia’s most left-wing prime minister.

No prime minister changed Australia more than Gough Whitlam. The key is that he did it in less than three years. In a flurry of frantic activity, Whitlam established universal healthcare, effectively nationalised higher education with free tuition, and massively increased public sector salaries. He more than doubled the size of cabinet from 12 ministers to 27.

He enacted an ambitious cultural agenda that continues to shape Australia to this day. In just three years, Australia was given a new national anthem, ditched the British honours system, and abolished the death penalty and national service. He was the first Australian prime minister to visit communist China and he granted independence to Papua New Guinea. Whitlam also passed the Racial Discrimination Act. He introduced no-fault divorce.

Perhaps his most lasting legacy has been the increase in the size of government he bequeathed to Australia. When Whitlam took office in 1972, government spending as a percentage of GDP was just 19 per cent. When he left office it had soared to almost 24 per cent.

Virtually none of Whitlam’s signature reforms were repealed by the Fraser government. The size of the federal government never fell back to what it was before Whitlam. Medicare remains. TheRacial Discrimination Act – rightly described by the Liberal Senator Ivor Greenwood in 1975 as ‘repugnant to the rule of law and to freedom of speech’ – remains.

It wasn’t as if this was because they were uncontroversial. The Liberal opposition bitterly fought many of Whitlam’s proposals. And it wasn’t as if the Fraser government lacked a mandate or a majority to repeal them. After the 1975 election, in which he earned a 7.4 per cent two-party preferred swing, Fraser held 91 seats out of 127 in the House of Representatives and a Senate majority.

When Mark Steyn visited Australia recently he described political culture as a pendulum. Left-wing governments swing the pendulum to the left. Right of centre governments swing the pendulum to the right. But left-wing governments do so with greater force. The pendulum always pushes further left.

And the public’s bias towards the status quo has a habit of making even the most radical policy (like Medicare, or restrictions on freedom of speech) seem normal over time. Despite the many obvious problems of socialised health care, no government now would challenge the foundations of Medicare as the Coalition did before it was implemented.

Every single opinion poll says that Tony Abbott will be Australia’s next prime minister. He might not even have to wait until the current term of parliament expires in late 2013. The Gillard government threatens to collapse at any moment. Abbott could well be in the Lodge before Christmas this year.

Abbott could also have a Fraser-esque majority after the next election. Even if he doesn’t control the Senate, the new prime minister is likely to have an intimidating mandate from the Australian people. The conditions will suit a reformer: although Australia’s economy has proven remarkably resilient, global events demonstrate how fragile it is. The global financial crisis, far from proving to be a crisis of capitalism, has instead demonstrated the limits of the state. Europe’s bloated and debt-ridden governments provide ample evidence of the dangers of big government.

Australia’s ageing population means the generous welfare safety net provided to current generations will be simply unsustainable in the future. As the Intergenerational Report produced by the federal Treasury shows, there were 7.5 workers in the economy for every non-worker aged over 65 in 1970. In 2010 that figure was 5. In 2050 it will be 2.7. Government spending that might have made sense in 1970 would cripple the economy in 2050. Change is inevitable.

But if Abbott is going to lead that change he only has a tiny window of opportunity to do so. If he hasn’t changed Australia in his first year as prime minister, he probably never will.

Why just one year? Whitlam’s vigour in government came as a shock to Australian politics. The Coalition was adjusting to the opposition benches. Outside of parliament, the potential opponents of Whitlam reforms had yet to get organised. The general goodwill voters offer new governments gives more than enough cover for radical action. But that cover is only temporary. The support of voters drains. Oppositions organise. Scandals accumulate. The clear air for major reform becomes smoggy.

Worse, governments acclimatise to being in government. A government is full of energy in its first year. By the second year, even very promising ministers can get lazy. The business of government overtakes. MPs start thinking of the next election. But for the Coalition, the purpose of winning office cannot be merely to attain the status of being ‘in government’. It must be to make Australians freer and more prosperous. From his social democratic perspective, Whitlam understood this point well. Labor in the 1970s knew that it wanted to reshape the country and it began doing so immediately.

The time pressure on a new government – if it is to successfully implant its vision – is immense. The vast Commonwealth bureaucracies and the polished and politically-savvy senior public servants have their own agendas, their own list of priorities, and the skill to ensure those priorities become their ministers’ priorities. The recent experience of the state Coalition governments is instructive. Fresh-faced ministers who do not have a fixed idea of what they want to do with their new power are invariably captured by their departments.

Take, for instance, the Gillard government’s National Curriculum. Opposing this policy ought to be a matter of faith for state Liberals. The National Curriculum centralises education power in Canberra, and will push a distinctly left-wing view of the world onto all Australian students. But it has been met with acceptance – even support – by the Coalition’s state education ministers. This is because a single National Curriculum has been an article of faith within the education bureaucracy for decades; an obsession of education unions and academics, who want education to ‘shape’ Australia’s future. (No prize for guessing what that shape might look like.) A small-target election strategy has the unfortunate side-effect of allowing ministerial aspirants to avoid thinking too deeply about major areas in their portfolio. So when, in the first week as minister, they are presented with a list of policy priorities by their department, it is easier to accept what the bureaucracy considers important, rather than what is right. The only way to avoid such departmental capture is to have a clear idea of what to do with government once you have it.

Only radical change that shifts the entire political spectrum, like Gough Whitlam did, has any chance of effecting lasting change. Of course, you don’t have to be from the left of politics to leave lasting change on the political spectrum.

Both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan proved conservatives can leave a paradigm-shifting legacy. Though Thatcher’s own party strayed from her strongly free-market philosophy, one of the major reasons the British Labour Party finally removed socialism from their party platform under Tony Blair was because of Margaret Thatcher.

Ronald Reagan not only presided over pro-market deregulation and tax cuts during eight years in the White House, but also provided the ideological fuel for the 1994 Republican revolution in the House of Representatives, led by Newt Gingrich, which enacted far-reaching welfare reform.

Here we provide a list of 75 policies that would make Australia richer and more free. It’s a deliberately radical list. There’s no way Tony Abbott could implement all of them, or even a majority. But he doesn’t have to implement them all to dramatically change Australia. If he was able to implement just a handful of these recommendations, Abbott would be a transformative figure in Australian political history. He would do more to shift the political spectrum than any prime minister since Whitlam.

We do not mean for this list to be exhaustive, and in many ways no list could do justice to the challenges the Abbott government would face. Whitlam changed the political culture. We are still feeling the consequences of that change today. So the policies we suggest adopting, the bureaucracies we suggest abolishing, the laws we suggest revoking should be seen as symptoms, rather than the source, of the problem.

Conservative governments have a very narrow idea of what the ‘culture wars’ consists of. The culture of government that threatens our liberty is not just ensconced in the ABC studios, or among a group of well-connected and publicly funded academics. ABC bias is not the only problem. It is the spiralling expansion of bureaucracies and regulators that is the real problem.

We should be more concerned about the Australian National Preventive Health Agency – a new Commonwealth bureaucracy dedicated to lobbying other arms of government to introduce Nanny State measures – than about bias at the ABC. We should be more concerned about the cottage industry of consultancies and grants handed out by the public service to environmental groups. We should be more concerned that senior public servants shape policy more than elected politicians do. And conservative governments should be more concerned than they are at the growth of the state’s interest in every aspect of society.

If he wins government, Abbott faces a clear choice. He could simply overturn one or two symbolic Gillard-era policies like the carbon tax, and govern moderately. He would not offend any interest groups. In doing so, he’d probably secure a couple of terms in office for himself and the Liberal Party. But would this be a successful government? We don’t believe so. The remorseless drift to bigger government and less freedom would not halt, and it would resume with vigour when the Coalition eventually loses office. We hope he grasps the opportunity to fundamentally reshape the political culture and stem the assault on individual liberty.

  1. Repeal the carbon tax, and don’t replace it. It will be one thing to remove the burden of the carbon tax from the Australian economy. But if it is just replaced by another costly scheme, most of the benefits will be undone.
  2. Abolish the Department of Climate Change
  3. Abolish the Clean Energy Fund
  4. Repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act
  5. Abandon Australia’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council
  6. Repeal the renewable energy target
  7. Return income taxing powers to the states
  8. Abolish the Commonwealth Grants Commission
  9. Abolish the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
  10. Withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol
  11. Introduce fee competition to Australian universities
  12. Repeal the National Curriculum
  13. Introduce competing private secondary school curriculums
  14. Abolish the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)
  15. Eliminate laws that require radio and television broadcasters to be ‘balanced’
  16. Abolish television spectrum licensing and devolve spectrum management to the common law
  17. End local content requirements for Australian television stations
  18. Eliminate family tax benefits
  19. Abandon the paid parental leave scheme
  20. Means-test Medicare
  21. End all corporate welfare and subsidies by closing the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education
  22. Introduce voluntary voting
  23. End mandatory disclosures on political donations
  24. End media blackout in final days of election campaigns
  25. End public funding to political parties
  26. Remove anti-dumping laws
  27. Eliminate media ownership restrictions
  28. Abolish the Foreign Investment Review Board
  29. Eliminate the National Preventative Health Agency
  30. Cease subsidising the car industry
  31. Formalise a one-in, one-out approach to regulatory reduction
  32. Rule out federal funding for 2018 Commonwealth Games
  33. Deregulate the parallel importation of books
  34. End preferences for Industry Super Funds in workplace relations laws
  35. Legislate a cap on government spending and tax as a percentage of GDP
  36. Legislate a balanced budget amendment which strictly limits the size of budget deficits and the period the federal government can be in deficit
  37. Force government agencies to put all of their spending online in a searchable database
  38. Repeal plain packaging for cigarettes and rule it out for all other products, including alcohol and fast food
  39. Reintroduce voluntary student unionism at universities
  40. Introduce a voucher scheme for secondary schools
  41. Repeal the alcopops tax
  42. Introduce a special economic zone in the north of Australia including:
    a) Lower personal income tax for residents
    b) Significantly expanded 457 Visa programs for workers
    c) Encourage the construction of dams
  43. Repeal the mining tax
  44. Devolve environmental approvals for major projects to the states
  45. Introduce a single rate of income tax with a generous tax-free threshold
  46. Cut company tax to an internationally competitive rate of 25 per cent
  47. Cease funding the Australia Network
  48. Privatise Australia Post
  49. Privatise Medibank
  50. Break up the ABC and put out to tender each individual function
  51. Privatise SBS
  52. Reduce the size of the public service from current levels of more than 260,000 to at least the 2001 low of 212,784
  53. Repeal the Fair Work Act
  54. Allow individuals and employers to negotiate directly terms of employment that suit them
  55. Encourage independent contracting by overturning new regulations designed to punish contractors
  56. Abolish the Baby Bonus
  57. Abolish the First Home Owners’ Grant
  58. Allow the Northern Territory to become a state
  59. Halve the size of the Coalition front bench from 32 to 16
  60. Remove all remaining tariff and non-tariff barriers to international trade
  61. Slash top public servant salaries to much lower international standards, like in the United States
  62. End all public subsidies to sport and the arts
  63. Privatise the Australian Institute of Sport
  64. End all hidden protectionist measures, such as preferences for local manufacturers in government tendering
  65. Abolish the Office for Film and Literature Classification
  66. Rule out any government-supported or mandated internet censorship
  67. Means test tertiary student loans
  68. Allow people to opt out of superannuation in exchange for promising to forgo any government income support in retirement
  69. Immediately halt construction of the National Broadband Network and privatise any sections that have already been built
  70. End all government funded Nanny State advertising
  71. Reject proposals for compulsory food and alcohol labelling
  72. Privatise the CSIRO
  73. Defund Harmony Day
  74. Close the Office for Youth
  75. Privatise the Snowy-Hydro Scheme

The assault on freedom of speech

In the first editorial of the earliest independent newspaper The Australian (no relation to the current iteration), barrister turned media proprietor Robert Wardell wrote that:

A free press is the most legitimate, and, at the same time, the most powerful weapon that can be employed to annihilate such [individual] influence, frustrate the designs of tyranny, and restrain the arm of oppression.

Contrast this with what Justice Mordecai Bromberg wrote in his September decision in the case of Pat Eatock v Andrew Bolt and the Herald and Weekly Times: ‘the public deserve to be protected against irresponsible journalism’.

Protected by whom? And who decides what constitutes ‘irresponsible’? The decision in the Bolt case, both the way it was made and the way it was received by those hostile to freedom of expression, is deeply concerning.

The case is doubly concerning because it is just one of many new challenges to freedom of speech. The last six months of Australian politics have underlined that freedom of speech is under threat. Greens Leader Bob Brown has called for licensing of newspapers, or, failing that, for journalists to be licensed individually. Following the Greens’ lead, the Gillard government has initiated a media inquiry with specific remit to increase regulatory oversight over newspaper ‘ethics’ – and largely because it is annoyed by the coverage it receives in News Limited papers. Various commentators now openly talk about the government forcing ‘balance’ on controversial political views like climate change.

For many on the left, it seems finding exceptions to freedom of speech is more important than defending the principle.

Freedom of speech is one of our great bulwarks against excessive state power. It is one of the basic individual liberties. Free expression is an essential human right. Considering how close to the heart freedom of speech is to liberty and liberalism, it is absolutely vital that threats against it are countered.

In September, Justice Mordecai Bromberg found that the columnist Andrew Bolt (who was profiled in the January edition of the IPA Review) had violated Section 18C of the Federal Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to, ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ on the basis of race, skin colour, or national or ethnic origin. The offending columns in question were published in 2009, and discussed the light-skinned individuals with part Aboriginal backgrounds who, Bolt claimed, had chosen to identify as indigenous out of a range of possible racial identities.

Justice Bromberg recognized that Aboriginality, and race more generally, is a social construct. Australian universities offer entire subjects in Aboriginal identity. Nevertheless, Bromberg found that it was, ‘reasonably likely that the ordinary person within this group would have been offended and insulted by her perception that [Bolt’s columns] were challenging the legitimacy of her identity and that of others like her.’

Certainly, Bolt made some errors, inaccurately tracing the lineage of some of the individuals in question. But they did not sue Bolt for defamation – an ancient common law right and limit to freedom of speech intended to redress reputation damage. They sued under an Act that both had different standards by which to judge the harm and, which uniquely related to offences held by a group.

Justice Bromberg used the existence of Bolt’s errors and a (necessarily subjective) assessment of the ‘inflammatory language’ in some of those columns to bypass Section 18D of the Act – which offers some limited exceptions to 18C, including whether the comment is made in the public interest and in good faith. That legal judgment was his to make. But the Bromberg decision goes much further, explicitly endorsing not only the language and shape of the Act, but its intent:

In seeking to promote tolerance and protect against intolerance in a multicultural society, the [Racial Discrimination Act] must be taken to include in its objective tolerance for and acceptance of racial and ethnic diversity. At the core of multiculturalism is the idea that people may identify with and express their racial or ethnic heritage free of pressure not to do so.

And a few dozen paragraphs later, he argued that, ‘In my view, even outside of political discourse, freedom of expression is not merely a freedom to speak inoffensively … But there are areas of discourse where incivility is less acceptable, including because it is more damaging to social harmony.’

The problems with the Racial Discrimination Act have been known for a long time. As far back as 1992, the IPA Review published Terry Lane’s critique of the racial discrimination restraints on speech, arguing that ‘It is impossible to see how racial harmony would be encouraged, improved or guaranteed by the imposition of penalties on those who express outrageous views.’ But Justice Bromberg’s decision makes it clear that the Act is explicitly designed to restrain specific viewpoints from being expressed, in pursuit of a specific – and, it might as well be said, controversial – goal. There is nothing legally new in the Bolt case. While Justice Bromberg was happy to endorse the social purposes of the Act, he seems to have kept within it. But it is a stark illustration of the still yet unbounded scope of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The Bolt case would be less concerning for freedom of expression if it wasn’t concurrent with an escalating political battle against press freedom. The relationship between News Limited papers (in particular The Australian) and the federal government has been openly hostile since the global financial crisis broke in 2009. The government’s Keynesian stimulus package has been dogged by waste and policy failure – facts which the press has been more than willing to focus on.

In response, the government and its supporters have, over the last two years, spent an increasing amount of time complaining about an overly-critical media and perceived flaws in political and policy coverage.

Politicians complaining about press coverage is one thing. Quite another if they do something about it. The British News of the World phone hacking scandal provided a pretext. When the scandal was reignited in July this year after it emerged that News of the World – owned by Rupert Murdoch – had hacked the phone of a murdered schoolgirl, the resulting media and political frenzy was global.

Despite no suggestion and no evidence to support the claim that such phone hacking had gone on in Australia, Julia Gillard nonetheless claimed that News Limited, the Australian arm, had ‘hard questions to answer’. Exactly what those hard questions were is not clear. The most obvious explanation is likely the real one: there were no hard questions. Instead, the Prime Minister saw the British hacking scandal as an opportunity to sully her critics in the media.

Gillard was, at least initially, circumspect about the policy consequences of her hostility to the press.

But if the relationship between News Limited and the government is fraught, it is nothing compared to the relationship between News Limited and the Greens. Bob Brown has described his press opposition as the ‘hate media’ because he believes they are unfair to his party. Since the News of the World scandal he has first hypothesized about imposing a government license for newspapers – a policy which has been absent in the Anglosphere since it was found to be tyrannical four centuries ago – and then having the government license individual journalists – presumably to weed out ‘irresponsible’ ones.

Wielding their power over Julia Gillard’s office, the Greens pressured the government to instigate a media inquiry. The purpose of the independent media inquiry, which was announced in September, is clear: to impose more government oversight of the press. Lobbying for the inquiry on the ABC’s Q&A, Greens Senator Christine Milne said that, ‘it’s time we had a good inquiry and certainly bias is going to be one of the things that certainly will be looked at.’ The independent Rob Oakeshott supported the push for the inquiry because of the ‘absolute rubbish’ that was being written about him.

There is already a series of serious policy reviews being conducted about media reform. No one denies that the challenge of the internet necessitates a rethink of the regulatory settings governing media and telecommunications. The Institute of Public Affairs has long argued that regulations like sport anti-siphoning (which give free to air television first broadcast rights to ‘premium’ sporting events), local content requirements (which impose mandatory minimums on Australian television and broadcast content), ownership restrictions, and much telecommunication regulation make little sense in a digital age where the boundaries between broadcast and media services are being blurred. Nevertheless, the government is already looking into that with a largely unheralded but hugely important Convergence Review, conducted by the Commonwealth Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.

But it is clear that the purpose of the independent media inquiry is to regulate the content of newspapers, not conduct a needed policy reform inquiry. The terms of reference for the inquiry appear benign, but they are not. The inquiry was instructed to facilitate two distinct investigations. First, it was to look at the sustainability of media business models in the digital age. Considering the growing calls from many on the left for direct subsidies of ‘serious’ journalism, this is worrying in and of itself. But the second investigation was much more disturbing. The inquiry was tasked to study the ‘effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia’ and ‘ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council’.

The implication is obvious – the inquiry will look at ways to make the voluntary codes which govern media ethics into mandatory regulations.

It is good that media organisations develop their own ethical codes of practice. But it is very bad that the government believes it should do that for them. Governments are necessarily antagonistic to the press; our current federal government, perhaps more so than usual, but not more than, say, the Whitlam government. We should be very uncomfortable with the prospect of government regulators – perhaps a newly enlarged and empowered Press Council-monitoring, scrutinising, and legally punishing journalists and newspapers for perceived ethical breaches.

In a functioning democracy, the media is one of the primary ways by which governments are scrutinised. So governments should not be putting themselves in the position of defining what constitutes approved and disapproved commentary or journalism. This is a breach of freedom of the press. And it is fundamentally hostile to liberal democracy.

We can see how serious these proposals are by the way interest groups have reacted to the news of the independent inquiry. The chair of the Australian Press Council, Professor Julian Disney – which is, currently, paid for by voluntary contributions from the newspapers, and has no coercive power-welcomed both government financial support and the prospect of regulatory ‘teeth’. He told the marketing website Mumbrella that he wanted the Council to regulate website comments and ‘serious’ bloggers.

Disney told the inquiry itself he was concerned about the ‘cacophony’ of voices on internet comment threads: ‘You can’t have free speech if you can’t hear what’s being said.’ This appears to be more a complaint about vibrant democracy than unethical journalism. Groping around for a purpose that wasn’t simply an attack on the government’s critics, it heard some extraordinarily illiberal and anti-democratic views, by apparently mainstream people.

These are not the only threats to freedom of speech in Australia today. In the June edition of the IPA Review, I outlined the extraordinary call by the host of the ABC’s Media Watch, Jonathan Holmes, to have the government’s regulator enforce ‘balance’ on a number of climate sceptic radio hosts. In a Media Watch segment in March titled ‘Balancing a hot debate’, Holmes pointed out that hosts like 2GB’s Alan Jones, 4BC’s Gary Hardgrave and MTR’s Chris Smith tended to interview climate scientists they agreed with.

Fair enough – but you’d think, in a society which values freedom of expression, that was their prerogative. Nevertheless, Holmes suggested that this contravened the Commercial Radio Australia Code of Practice which insists that broadcasters must ‘present significant viewpoints when dealing with controversial issues of public importance.’ This regulation may be on the books, yet it is practically defunct. The left-wing activists GetUp filed a complaint-necessary for the Australian Communications and Media Authority to act-the next day.

It seems amazing to have to do so, but in 2011 we need to remind ourselves why freedom of speech matters.

The first issues paper of the media inquiry even asks what the purpose of a free press actually is – as if its existence is up for debate. The paper first asked whether the ‘marketplace of ideas’ theory assumes that the market is open and readily accessible?

The marketplace of ideas theory suggests that freedom of speech is desirable because the only way to come to the truth about a topic is to freely debate it – the ‘market’ for speech will ensure that the best and most true ideas float to the top, and wrong ideas fade and die. Then: ‘Are there alternative or preferable justifications for freedom of the media?’ There certainly are. Freedom of speech is a subset of a larger right – that of liberty of conscience. People should be at liberty to express what they privately believe (subject to small limits on defamatory speech and overt threats).

The ‘marketplace of ideas’ theory is high-minded and idealistic – imagining a world where the only public debate is academic, rational, and focused on coming to the ‘truth’ of any given proposition. And it implicitly limits freedom of speech. If speech is necessary to the functioning of a democracy or to truth-seeking, the marketplace of ideas theory provides a defence. If the speech is not necessary, then the theory offers no support. It provides absolutely no guidance about what to do with, for example, the anonymous blog comments which the Press Council and government would like to regulate.

It provides no guide to how policy makers should treat wrong ideas, orideas on which a consensus (dubious or otherwise) has formed. It gives an opening – which Media Watch and GetUp have taken advantage of – to restrain public debate by insisting on ‘balanced’ presentation of political issues. And it provides an opportunity for governments to restrain debate on issues when they feel they have more pressing social goals – as Justice Bromberg suggested in the Bolt decision.

The marketplace of ideas justification for freedom of speech is woefully inadequate. That the media inquiry can think of this as its only justification is deeply concerning. And it emphasises the challenge – not merely to resist illiberal violations of freedom of speech, but to demonstrate that freedom of speech is a value worth defending at all. While the threats may seem disparate – the media inquiry and the Racial Discrimination Act have their own origins and their own political supporters – the reaction to the threats in the last few months has revealed that freedom of speech is not at all safe in Australia in 2011.

Free speech in the climate debate

You’d think that climate sceptics deserve free speech as much as everybody else.

That, however, isn’t the view of the ABC’s media criticism program, Media Watch. In an episode this March, Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes called for the government to use a practically defunct regulation to restrict the free speech of climate sceptics because he disagreed with the content of that speech.

Two days later, GetUp! — the ‘progressive’ membership based lobby group — responded to this call to action, launching proceedings with the government regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

GetUp! are being predictably self-aggrandising. What’s much more concerning is that Media Watch called for this attack on free speech in the first place. Broadcast weekly for just fifteen minutes at a time, Media Watch is one of the ABC’s flagship programs — a self-appointed press watchdog, dedicated to exposing media perfidy, ethics breaches and bias.

To do so, it is handsomely supported. According to a report, this quarter of an hour show received $1.4 million in funding to broadcast in 2003. Media Watch may be a short program, but (squeezed in between the national broadcaster’s other mass-market political fare of Australian Story, Four Corners, and Q&A on Monday nights) it is at the heart of the ABC’s self-identity as a countervailing force against the commercial media. In short: Media Watch is the ABC’s official arbiter of press ethics.

So it was quite a big deal when Media Watch conclusively demonstrated that, on the right to free speech, it’s one of the bad guys — asking for the legal system to step in and manage the vigorous public debate about climate change.

The program opened with an extended discussion about the number of climate change sceptics hosting AM radio shows, their take on climate science, and the fact that they interview more sceptical scientists than non-sceptical ones.

Of course, it’s hardly news some radio commentators prefer to interview certain guests more than others. ‘Opinion maker has strong opinion’ would not stop even the smallest press. And this is not the first time Holmes has been concerned about sceptic success. On The Drum in February 2010, he bemoaned that climate sceptics are winning because they’re the ones with ‘the passion, and the commitment.’ It’s an old tune, and clearly one which he is personally passionate about. That’s fine.

Yet on this particular Media Watch episode, Holmes went one step further. He argued the radio hosts are in breach of the Code of Practice governing commercial broadcasters which mandates ‘reasonable efforts are made … to present significant viewpoints when dealing with controversial issues of public importance’.

And the reason the regulator hasn’t enforced the code against Alan Jones and his fellow sceptics? ACMA ‘won’t or can’t enforce the Code unless someone complains it’s being flouted.’ Nudge nudge, wink wink.

When I raised Media Watch’s seeming hostility to freedom of speech on The Drum , Holmes was indignant, writing:

So Media Watch suggested they should do what the Code requires, and ensure that ‘reasonable efforts are made … to present significant viewpoints when dealing with controversial issues of public importance’. Such as, just occasionally, interviewing scientists who maintain that the evidence points to dangerous, man-made global warming — scientists who represent by far the majority scientific view — as well as (not instead of) scientists who disagree. And I said that it shouldn’t need complaints to the ACMA to make that happen. How ‘chilling’! How restrictive! What an enemy of free speech I must be!

Well, yes.Genuine supporters of free speech reject the idea that speech which is in any way objectionable — as climate scepticism clearly is for Holmes — has a regulatory solution.Someone who combs regulations (and the Codes of Practice are regulations, even if they are developed in consultation with the broadcasters) looking for ways to alter another’s speech cannot ever be described as a friend of freedom of expression.

On Twitter a week later, he dug himself deeper, arguing that ‘Chris Berg reckons requiring tv radio to be fair = assault on freedom’. In his eagerness to have the government’s regulator step in to manage the speech of climate sceptics, Holmes has completely failed to think deeply about the free speech implications of what he suggests.

The right to freedom of speech is meaningless without the right to choose that speech. No-one should be forced to say something they do not believe as a condition of saying something they do.

In the United States between 1949 and 1987, the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ obliged broadcasters to do exactly that. The regulation compelled contrasting views to be presented whenever an issue was raised on the air.

And certainly, the doctrine resulted in balanced and civil broadcasting environment. But it did so by exclusion. It was easier to avoid controversial topics than risk a regulatory penalty for being perceived unfair.

Testifying in 1984, the broadcaster Dan Rather argued that ‘Once a newsperson has to stop and consider what a Government agency will think of something he or she wants to put on the air, an invaluable element of freedom has been lost.’

The Fairness Doctrine quickly became a political weapon. During the Kennedy Administration, the Democratic National Committee produced activist kits teaching party members ‘how to demand time under the Fairness Doctrine’.

The Nixon administration also used the Fairness Doctrine to threaten the licenses of hostile broadcasters. Angered by The Washington Post’s Watergate coverage, Richard Nixon is on record saying that ‘the Post is going to have damnable, damnable problems … They have a television station … and they’re going to have to get it renewed.’ The Fairness Doctrine is now widely recognised as having had a ‘chilling effect’ on speech.

Compared to the Fairness Doctrine, the Commercial Broadcasters’ Code of Practice is a model of restraint. But, as Media Watch helpfully demonstrated, that is because it is largely defunct — it has been interpreted benignly, and wielded rarely. Media Watch advocated that this free speech status quo be overturned, and the Code of Practice be used as a political weapon. After all, I doubt Media Watch would argue that gay broadcasters should be compelled to air the views of homophobes, or Christian broadcasters to air the view of anti-theists. Instead he called for the Code to be used solely against those discussing Australia’s biggest, most controversial, political issue — the carbon price.

Some claim a Code of Practice is the price broadcasters pay for using public spectrum; that the rest of the media is free to do what it likes but there must be special rules for those using the airwaves. The history of the Fairness Doctrine, and the egregious actions of GetUp and Media Watch, show just how slippery a slope that view is. ‘Public interest’ rationales easily become political interest rationales.

Considering how central the climate change debate is to contemporary Australia politics, it is striking how fast and loose Holmes is willing to play with the principles of free speech.

In column after column, speech after speech, proponents of climate change action argue that science has a communications problem. The government has now hired a climate communicator, Tim Flannery, who is profiled elsewhere in this issue of the IPA Review. As Media Watch demonstrates, that ‘communications problem’ is starting to become a cause for regulatory action itself.

Holmes’s regret in February 2010 that sceptics are winning the debate has become Holmes’ declaration in March 2011 that the government should step in to forcibly ‘balance’ it.

Referring to George Bush’s 2003 declaration to the Australian parliament that he loved free speech, Holmes’ predecessor David Marr lamented to the Media Watch audience ‘If only more Australian commentators shared his view.’ Indeed. And if only Media Watch did as well.

The ‘divine violence’ of Slavoj Zizek

Nearly half a century after 1968, Europe is again seized by sporadic outbursts of anarchic, seemingly-purposeless violence.

The extraordinary violence in Greece brought about by that country’s sovereign debt crisis is both unfocused and unjustifiable. In May, three people died, trapped in a bank that had been firebombed by rioters.

It’s been less than two years since the December 2008 Greek riots over the police shooting of a teenager, which also involved firebombs, the overturning of cars, the burning of hotels, shops and banks, and violent clashes with the police. Across the continent in France, torching cars has almost become a tradition in the Parisian banlieues. The strikes and protests over the French economic situation in January 2009 turned quickly violent. In Bulgaria, Latvia and Lithuania, there were 10,000 person strong mass protests over the economic climate-before the global financial crisis, mind you-and all have been characterised by violence.

According to Slavoj Zizek, the radical academy’s new superstar philosopher and cultural critic, that’s good violence. Or, more specifically, it’s ‘divine’.

Zizek is the next Noam Chomsky. He’s been a visiting professor at seemingly every top-tier university: Columbia, Princeton, Chicago, and New York. He’s the author of nearly 60 books, and the star of half a dozen fawning documentaries.

He is studied in symposiums at Melbourne University, in cultural studies and social theory subjects at Monash University, in film screenings at Sydney University, and in cinema studies at the University of Queensland. Zizek’s name pops up in The Canberra Times, The Sun Herald, and The Australian. He even made The Age’s ‘Green Guide’ TV supplement. He appeared last year at a Melbourne architecture conference, and has philosophy symposiums dedicated to his writing. Clive Hamilton, the former Greens celebrity candidate for Peter Costello’s former seat of Higgins, quoted him approvingly in a column earlier this year.

The Times Literary Supplement calls him ‘one of the most innovative and exciting contemporary thinkers of the left’. The Chronicle of Higher Education describes him as ‘The Elvis of Cultural Theory’, but his stage presence-with academic superstars it is fair to describe their performances-is more like Robin Williams with a thick Eastern European drawl.

Indeed, Zizek has a taste for the theatrical. His 2006 documentary where he applies psychoanalytic philosophy to popular movies titled A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema: ‘Cinema’, Zizek claims, ‘is the ultimate pervert art’. He has written introductions to collections of writings by Trotsky and Robespierre, including in both cases partial apologies for both the men and their methods. And the cover of a recent book, In Defence of Lost Causes, is illustrated with a picture of a guillotine.

Such publicity-consciousness has its rewards. The Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher is as close to a cult figure as the academy’s post-modernist community can produce.

Zizek has a habit of throwing broad and shocking statements that slam down on the table, then quietly adding caveats, before finally and confidently arguing the opposite.

Good showmanship, sure, but it has a theoretical basis. Zizek is a follower of the French psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan, who was himself a follower of Freud. Zizek uses Lacan’s concepts of the Symbolic, the Real, and the Imaginary – they all require capitalisation – to describe, not things which are real, symbolic, or imaginary, but things which are true to themselves, or symbolic in the realm of pure language.

That’s only the half of it.

Lacanian psychoanalytic philosophy is infamously impenetrable. Alan Sheridan, who first translated Lacan into English described this lack of clarity as wilful. ‘Lacan,’ Sheridan argued, ‘doesn’t intend to be understood … He designs his seminars so that you can’t, in fact, grasp them.’

For all the complexity of postmodernism, when you read such post-modern luminaries such as Lacan, you can’t help but get a nagging feeling that it is an elaborate prank.

Zizek wears the clothes of postmodernism, and that parodic sensation is more overt. There is the same wordplay with jarringly capitalised adjectives, and reference to the ‘master-signifier’ pattern that controls history, but it feels like criticising Zziek does nothing more than broadcast that you have missed his joke. One could not describe the Disney movie Kung-Fu Panda as the best description of contemporary political ideology without some degree of ironic detachment.

Nevertheless, for all of Zizek’s movie analogies, his blurry theory and his post-modern theatricality, they have a largely simple message.

More openly than his academic rockstar predecessors Chomsky, Foucault and Sartre, Zizek is an unashamed and unremitting revolutionary Marxist. As Johann Hari wrote in the New Statesman in 2007, ‘When you peel back the patina of postmodernism, there is old-fashioned philo-tyrannical nonsense here.’

According to Zizek, capitalism is violence: ‘the self-propelling metaphysical dance of capital runs the show’, providing the ‘fundamental systemic violence of capitalism … this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their “evil” intentions, but is purely “objective”, systemic, and anonymous’.

The market economy may seem like a web of peaceful interactions for mutual benefit, but really it is supported by aggression and oppression. When the government of a nominally capitalist country goes to war, the marketplace is to blame.

The awful events that occurred in Abu Ghraib were not crimes, but manifestations of the American economic system: ‘Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture’.

So, for Zizek, the clash between Islamist terrorism and the Western world is not a clash between barbarism and civilisation, but between two types of barbarism, ‘a clash between anonymous brutal torture and torture as a media spectacle’. Zizek’s 2009 book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, expands on this theme. The two big events of the first decade of the twenty-first century – the destruction of the Twin Towers, and the Global Financial Crisis – spell the end of the liberal order, destroyed once by the violence of radical Islam, and then again by the violence of the collapsing share market.

What is striking about Zizek’s argument so far is how common this view is.

Zizek is clearer than most, but the moral equivalence of capitalism and barbarism has been one of the radical left’s primary themes since well before September 2001. Michael Leunig wrote in The Age in March this year that ‘Our culture has thrived on the stabbing impulse … If schoolboys stopped being violent, the empire and the free market would surely crumble … Our unique brand of civilisation depends as much upon conflict and annihilation as it does upon co-operation.’

When we read that the ever-repeated claim that the Iraq War was a war for oil we are being told that maintaining the ‘system’ of trade and globalisation, by definition, requires the occasional violent invasion of other countries.

Never mind that a much cheaper way to acquire Iraqi oil would have been to do the capitalist thing and just buy it. The cost of the Iraq war is now well over one trillion dollars.

Still: in the minds of many in the radical left, warfare is not only a necessary condition for the existence of capitalism, but its most pertinent feature. Zizek and his co-ideologists use the literal violence of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to damn what they imagine is the more perverse violence of the competitive marketplace.

These beliefs allow writers like John Pilger to claim, as he did in New Statesman in May, that the International Monetary Fund and ‘neoliberalism’ is an ‘occupying force’, writing that the Greek protestors ‘are clear who the enemy is and regard themselves as once again under foreign occupation. And once again, they are rising up, with courage.’

It is in those protests that Zizek detects ‘divine violence’. Divine violence is an act of violence not for revenge, or to achieve a political goal, but an act of violence so extreme that it upsets the fabric of the social order; terror deployed for political purpose, but with no political goals, outside the disestablishment of the status quo. The Terror of the French Revolution was divine violence-a radical break with the past-as the revolutionaries who rejected the social norms and habits of society.

It is only through extreme violence-which is gasping out in contemporary Europe-that the world can earn its redemption, and the break from capitalism can finally be made.

This distinction between violent acts and divinely violent acts is Zizek’s key to history, allowing him to dismiss the monsters he dislikes, and defend those whose aims he supports.

Adolf Hitler may have been a brute, but he was a brute in Zizek’s eyes, because his Holocaust was fundamentally conservative – it sought to defend a status quo rather than traumatise the world into a higher level. In Violence, Zizek writes:

If one means by violence of the basic social relations, then as crazy or tasteless as it may sound, the problem with historical monsters who slaughtered millions was that they were not violent enough.

In In Defence of Lost Causes, he writes:

… crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not ‘essential’ enough. Nazism was not radical enough, it did not dare to disturb the basic structure of the modern capitalist social space (which is why it had to focus on destroying an invented external enemy, Jews).

… Hitler did not ‘have the courage’ to really change things; he did not really act, all his actions were fundamentally reactions, that is, he acted so that nothing would really change, he staged a great spectre of Revolution so that the capitalist order could survive.

This is, incidentally, a charge he apparently also lays at the feet of Pol Pot in his upcoming book, Living in the End Times – that Pot did not go ‘far enough’. (The moral contrast with John Pilger, who played the major role in exposing the murderous Pol Pot regime to the West, could not be stronger.)

To those who might object, Zizek quotes Robespierre’s denunciation of critics of divine violence who focus on the victims of terror: ‘A sensibility that wails almost exclusively over the enemies of liberty seems suspect to me. Stop shaking the tyrant’s bloody robe in my face, or I will believe that you wish to put Rome in chains.’

That, certainly, is the message sent by the anarchist faction of the Greek rioters, whose response to their government’s austerity measures was to murder three bank workers. Writing of the mob violence of Haiti under Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Zizek says:

Although we are dealing with what can only appear as ‘immoral’ acts of killing, one has no political right to condemn them, because they are a response to years, centuries even, of systematic state and economic violence and exploitation.

For those Greek rioters, this makes sense.

If James Bond is granted a licence to kill by the state, the mob is granted a licence to indiscriminate terror by Slavoj Zizek.

From the Rum Corps to the alcopop

A review of Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia by Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor L. Jordan

In the special episode of ABC TV’s Q&A in February this year, Kevin Rudd was asked whether he would like to raise the drinking age to 21: ‘of course’. Rudd quickly backed away from that definitive statement when the audience responded negatively. (The Q&A audience was limited to those between the ages of 16 to 25. Raising the drinking age would no doubt have been a more tangible disenfranchisement than if he had taken away their right to vote.)

In Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia, Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor L. Jordan explore Australia’s long and stormy relationship with our drinks. Australian culture reserves a prominent place for alcohol and where alcohol is consumed. And Australian history has no lack of social reformers who opposed alcohol’s cultural prominence.

Fitzgerald and Jordan nominate three moments where alcohol has played a part in three critical episodes in Australian history: the Rum Rebellion (the attempt to shut down the spirits trade being the immediate cause of the revolt against Governor Bligh), the Eureka Stockade (where a fair number of the rebels were drunk on the last night of the stockade and probably underperformed in the battle at dawn the next day), and the Dismissal (John Kerr enjoyed his drinks, and Gough Whitlam claimed in 2002 that he never would have appointed him Governor General if he’d know just how much he enjoyed them).

But Fitzgerald and Jordan back away from saying alcohol was anything but proximate to these events. They conclude that the Rum Rebellion wasn’t really about rum at all, but more about the governing style of Bligh. And if some miners were drunk at the Eureka Stockade, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. Gerard Henderson has argued that the claim Kerr was a drunk is contradicted by no less an authority than his own physician, and to claim, as Whitlam has, that the Dismissal wouldn’t have happened without Kerr’s drinking is to ignore the rather significant political events that led it.

Nevertheless, if alcohol has had little direct impact on the big historical events, it has been a major part of Australian culture. Fitzgerald and Jordan describe the economic and cultural development of domestic wine and beer industries. They detail how what we drink has always been a marker of social status and cultural position, and the regional variations across the country. The regulatory framework that governs alcohol has also governed its cultural place-from the nineteenth century victories of the temperance movement, to the mid-twentieth century closing limits and gender discrimination laws in bars, to today’s Nanny State campaigns.

Fitzgerald and Jordan describe an eighteenth century attitude towards alcohol that was similar to today’s. The twin characteristic virtues in this period were ‘usefulness and amiability’. Usefulness was, in the early industrial revolution, of obviously value. But that usefulness had to be tempered by amiability. This amiability was more than just the agreeableness of good manners it was, in the words of one historian quoted by Fitzgerald and Jordan, ‘a genuine loving regard for other people’.

The authors argue that without understanding those twin virtues, we might mistake the eighteenth century attitude to alcohol as hypocrisy-the men who, for instance, damned John Macarthur’s role in the spirit trade, also enjoyed their fair share of alcohol. Fitzgerald and Jordan point out that there is a substantial difference between drinking to be amiable and drunkenness, and this difference was well-recognised at the time.

But that distinction has never been without its own hypocrisies. We see it today clearly-what constitutes good drinking and bad drinking is often just as much about the class of the drinker than the volume they drink. The alcopops furore of 2008 increased the tax on canned rum-and-cokes, which are consumed more in Frankston than Carlton North, where wine is drunk. Wine remains a protected and coddled industry, part of an idea of what Australians ought to drink.

By providing a sociological history of alcohol consumption in Australia, Fitzgerald and Jordan allow us to unpack the origin of the Nanny State, and the ideology that supports it.