Of course there is an Australian elite. In fact, there is more than
one. Business wealth commands one sort of power, central position in
political machines commands another, and senior office in the public
service yet another.
The recent discussion of elites in Australia has focused on the
'opinion elite'. Many of the assertions that have been made about the
opinion elite in recent months, particularly by supporters of the Howard
government, have been self-serving nonsense. Nevertheless, there is no
denying the fact that some Australians have more influence than others in
determining the ideas that are taken seriously in formulating public
policy, and that, on many occasions the views of this influential group
are not representative of the population as a whole.
There was a time, between ten and 15 years ago, when elite opinion
could be characterized in terms of a broadly shared consensus in favour of
market-oriented economic reform and moderate social liberalism, including
some version of multiculturalism. This consensus was exemplified and
articulated by then-Treasurer Paul Keating. It was shared by all the major
figures in the Hawke government, and by opposition leaders Hewson, Peacock
and (at least in terms of public statements) John Howard.
The elite consensus of the day was reflected and amplified by
journalists, think tanks and other opinion-makers. The few public figures
who remained loyal either to traditional conservative views or to the
Labor traditions of socialism and social democracy were dismissed as
The elite consensus began to fracture with the onset of 'the recession
we had to have' in 1989. Social liberals who had accepted market-oriented
policies on the basis that 'there is no alternative' began to have doubts,
while the small group who had always dissented from the reform agenda
became increasingly vociferous as the recession wore on. The term
'economic rationalists' came into use to describe the elite groups who had
pushed for free-market reform.
An even more important step was Paul Keating's succession to the Prime
Ministership in 1992, and his successful re-election campaign in 1993.
Having repudiated a core article of elite faith, the GST, Keating, who had
previously displayed only modest interest in social issues, reinvented
himself as a social radical. The vague social liberalism of the Hawke era
was replaced by an aggressive campaign for the republic, multiculturalism
and Aboriginal land rights.
Keating's new agenda attracted strong support from some members of the
elite - these are the people that John Howard talks about when he uses the
term 'elite'. But the economic rationalists were either indifferent or
actively hostile, particularly when proposals for Aboriginal land rights
clashed with the interests of the mining industry, the chief financier of
Australia's free-market think tanks.
With the election of John Howard, and his advocacy (punctuated by
occasional backflips) of the social agenda represented by Pauline Hanson,
positions hardened. Today, the Australian elite is divided in much the
same way as the population as a whole, between a right-wing group which
favours both free markets and a conservative or reactionary social agenda,
and a left-wing group which supports republicanism and reconciliation, and
opposes free-market reform.
The main difference between the elite and the population as a whole is
the absence of any group corresponding to the One Nation support base,
opposing both free-market policies and social liberalism. Because of this
absence, the Australian elite is both more 'economically rationalist' and
more 'socially progressive' than the population as a whole. However, it is
increasingly uncommon to find both traits in the same person.
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