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Book Review: 'Twilight of the Elites' is as disturbing as it is important

By Tristan Ewins - posted Thursday, 2 October 2003

Twilight of the Elites: an important new offering by Professor David Flint, chair of the Australian Broadcasting Authority and Convener of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM), is sure to be one of the more influential texts of 2003. What the book lacks in terms of the breadth of its readership base, it makes up for in that base's strategic value: the conservative intellectual elite which has captured the Liberal Party, and now determines the nation's policy agenda. Twilight of the Elites is worth reading if only to gain a glimpse of the kind of thinking that is going on in government circles today.

The canvass employed by Flint is wide-ranging. From Indigenous affairs to foreign policy, from education to health and welfare, from republicanism to judicial activism: Flint's prognoses cut against the grain of what he identifies as "elite" opinion. This "elite", comprised of the "socially liberal left", we are told, count for only 10 per cent of the Australian population, as evidenced by the 2001 election showing of the progressive minor parties. (ie: Democrats/Greens) This being the case, the inclusion of that stalwart socialist, Paul Keating, within the ranks of this group, seems to defy belief.

According to Flint, this socially liberal "elite", entrenched within the media and within academia, has commanded power well beyond its numbers. Alleging that the "opinion-makers" of this "elite layer" have fostered a culture of intolerance and "political correctness", Flint draws upon the writings of 19th century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, to suggest a veritable spiral of silence: "[The] majority, feeling isolated, begin to retreat into silence rather than speak out for what it mistakenly thinks is a minority view."


Unfortunately, Flint fails to recognise that the "spiral of silence" induced by "political correctness" is mirrored, in turn, by the populist opportunism of the major parties in regard to concerns such as refugee policy. While praising the United States for its tradition of "self-criticism", and alleging no link between media proprietorship and editorial policy, the author also ignores the tide of fear, aggressive nationalism and media conformity that overcame that nation in the period leading up to and including the recent Gulf War.

Having abandoned past claims to universalism, much of today's "liberal left" has substituted traditional socialist aims for an arbitrary hierarchy of identity - based movements and struggles. The new "postmodern intellectual hegemony" is commonly characterised as much by its abandonment of universalism as it is by its cultural relativism and its rejection of Reason.

In regard to this, Flint makes some telling points. Rejecting relativism, Flint asserts the primacy of Western traditions, including the foundational role of "Judaeo-Christian ethics". In doing so, Flint only recognises what the Left itself ought have recognised long ago: belief systems, and systems of government, are not only "different" but they adhere to certain social and ethical objectives that, ultimately, we must judge as either right or wrong. Those liberal political traditions inherited from Britain (Flint would probably contest this description), by this reckoning, have played no small role in preventing such extremes of violence as have been known elsewhere in the world.

Flint does appear to forget, however, that the legacy of the Enlightenment is also part of Australia's inheritance from the storehouse of Western tradition. And as Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, would have reminded us: secularism and Reason need not be perceived as being in opposition to faith.

Flint's defence of the "Judaeo-Christian tradition" also raises disturbing questions regarding the double standards exhibited by some proponents of cultural relativism. For Flint, it is astonishing to find that Christianity is "fair game" for an often degrading ridicule and caricature, while other religions and cultures are considered "above criticism" in the name of pluralism and relativism.

Determined to break decisively with that "black armband" view of history identified by conservatives with the "left-liberal elite", Flint unsparingly celebrates Australia's traditions and legacy. While his identification of the brutally Imperialist First World War as a "struggle for freedom and democracy" (!) is astonishing, his solemn recognition of Australia's role in defeating fascism in World War Two is cause for praise. (and also for reflection for those who see "nothing to be proud of" in Australia's past) For Flint, "practical reconciliation" between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, via the provision of education, health care and housing, is the alternative to a Treaty or an apology. But as survivors of Japanese atrocities during World War II could well testify, the recognition and dignity afforded by an apology is infinitely more valuable than material compensation.


Many of Flint's remaining prescriptions will be sure to raise concern. Despite the inequity and inefficiency of America's overwhelmingly private health care system (by Flint's figures, 12.9 per cent of US GDP compared of 8.6 per cent for Australia), the author makes plain his preference for this model as opposed to Medicare's universalism. While showing no concern for the impact of rising university fees on access and equity, Flint does flag his concern with the expense of welfare, singling out single parents for special attention. Determined to slash levels of progressive taxation and social expenditure (already well below the OECD average), Flint seems oblivious to the impact of "welfare reform" and spending cuts upon a layer of Australians who already barely subsist - often below the poverty line. Slashing government expenditure is thus raised abstractly to the status of "an end in itself", divorced from any social consequences.

Flint's avowed philosophical universalism is undermined by his stated belief that United Nations treaties (eg: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), were only meant to apply to "less democratic regimes". Meanwhile his emphasis upon Australia's interests with regard carbon emissions negotiations shows little concern for Australia's responsibilities. Finally, Flint's insistence upon personal responsibility is incongruous in light of the apologies he makes for a Prime Minister who seems to know only what he wants to know (whether we refer here to "children overboard", or overblown assessments regarding the "threat" posed by Iraq).

Twilight of the Elites is nothing if not controversial. Its condemnation of figures for whom a shallow republicanism had become a surrogate for traditional social democratic values is stinging. Furthermore, its appraisal of media ethics raises serious questions about the blurring of the lines between report and commentary. While Flint's uncompromising conservatism will disturb many, there is no doubting that this volume is an important contribution to public debate in this country, comprising an open statement of much that government figures dare not argue publicly.

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This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 28 September, 2003.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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