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Where is Australia’s balanced political commentary?

By Chris Lewis - posted Monday, 1 September 2008


As Paul Kelly suggested in The Australian (October 3, 2007), “the role of intellectuals and media is to expose lies and promote truth”.

Really? Then Kelly and others representing the economic Right - those consistently advocating freer trade and smaller government - need to lift their game.

Yes, as Kelly argued last October, Australia’s political leaders since the early 1980s have made many policy decisions which have helped ensure that Australia remains one of the most prosperous nations in the world.

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And Kelly’s attack on the simplistic Left last October, although unfairly directed at Julian Burnside, Raymond Gaita and David Marr, is probably justified as few of the Left recognise the immense difficulties that all Western governments now face when balancing national and international economic considerations.

One has only to read the articles consistently put forward by professors Manne and Brett in The Monthly about the meanspiritedness and lack of vision by the Howard government, and the immense potential of the Rudd Labor Government to fulfill Australia’s various needs. It did not matter that the Howard government had outperformed many Western nations on a number of economic and non-economic measures, including lower unemployment levels and a greater proportion of GDP being spent on helping Australia’s most vulnerable workers and families.

More recently Manne has downplayed his admiration for Rudd to declare that the success of the current Labor Government has been complicated by offering policy change “in a conservative-populist era like our own” and in such “testing economic times” (The Monthly, February, 2008).

But if one looks to Australia’s economic Right for the truth, one should also be dissapointed.

Scholarly truth - which highlights both policy possibilities and limitations in our struggle to find better policy solutions - can only come about through extensive study of the facts and arguments from a variety of perspectives, an approach that appears to be lacking among the simplistic Left and Right.

While I too have sought (in four separate Quadrant articles) to demonstrate the extremely difficult task now faced by all Western governments in such a competitive world, in terms of both defending the Howard government’s efforts and downplaying the rhetoric of Labor before the 2007 federal election, it is misleading for the economic Right to make out that all is well.

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An astute political commentator should be able to anticipate the strengths and weaknesses of any policy trends. While I am a passionate supporter of liberalism and believe that a world of effective liberal democracies is more likely to lead to greater co-operation, judgments have to be made about whether policy trends are better for the majority of people or for just a select few.

After all, 16 years of higher economic growth has not hidden the harsh reality for Australia that domestic consumption has been aided by much higher levels of private debt.

The truth is that politics remains a dirty game even in a rich nation such as Australia. In an era where both Labor and Coalition governments have committed Australia to maintaining similar levels of government outlays as a proportion of GDP, this has meant a much tougher battle between interest groups regarding a variety of old and new economic, social and environmental policy needs.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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