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How power elites work in Australia

By John Quiggin - posted Friday, 22 November 2002

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 'troglodytes'.

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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About the Author

Professor John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow based at the University of Queensland and the Australian National University.

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