Ideology and Self-Interest: A Little Refresher

By Johns, Gary | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Ideology and Self-Interest: A Little Refresher


Johns, Gary, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


Ideology and Self interest: A Little Refresher

Gary Johns reviews

The Great Divide

by Katharine Betts

Labor without Class

by Michael Thompson

This Tired Brown Land

by Mark O'Connor

Here's a curious combination: Katharine Betts' book The Great Divide about the cultural gap on immigration policy between Australia's new elite and the rest of society; Michael Thompson's about the gentrification of the ALP, Labor without Class; and Mark O'Connor's This Tired Brown Land about an alleged suppression of the population debate by the politically correct. These provide fertile ground for a little refresher on two great pillars of politics: ideology and self interest.

Betts suggests that, in the absence of any actual rational argument in favour of high immigration there has to be another explanation for its acceptance among the group she calls the new intellectual elite. The explanation is that the policy became an ideological badge of membership of the elite, a concept she labelled `ideological correctness'. The appeal was not to the rational consequences of the policy but to the cosmopolitan, anti-parochial values much sought by the educated middle class. As sensible as the idea that we should be open to the world is, it does not, on this occasion, excuse the blind allegiance to the policy. The ideological position of the elite when combined with the self-interest of the ethnic lobby-and the latter's apparent ability to corral votes, which made them very attractive to politicians-- was a sure winner. The combination held out against the clear majority of the electorate for quite a while. This is a very good insight into the twin pillars at work. In this case, two clear minorities out-voted the majority and ignored the public inter= est.

Betts also describes the takeover of the ALP by a middle class which eschews an interest in the economic needs of the old working class and pursues a New Left agenda of the new social movements: women, ethnics, blacks, gays and greens. The only trouble is the New Left chose the vehicle of the Old Left, the ALP Essentially, this is Thompson's lament. He wants Labor returned to the blue-collar classes, to the issues of wages and the concerns of women at home. In this case, the one organization is stuck with two very different ideologies, two very different sets of interests.

Thompson's difficulty is that, while the history of the ALP may be all blokes, ballots and booze, there is no reason it should not now be sheilas, consensus and chardonnay. The ALP is what its members (well, the more articulate of them) say it is. It is also a vehicle to attain government; so it needs to deliver to group interests on either real or ideological grounds wide enough to get elected. It also cannot reveal to one constituency the losses implied in the victory for the other. It's all supposed to be win-win politics. It needs to be pointed out, for example, that an attempt to have 52 per cent of Labor seats set aside for women-all of whom will be middle-class workers-will absolutely ensure the further demise of the interests of women at home. Thompson is right in this respect: it is only a certain kind of woman who took over Labor.

The logical conclusion to Thompson's analysis is that Labor should split in two as has occurred in New Zealand, except that here it would be the Democrats and Labor instead of Alliance and Labour. A proportional voting system for the House of Representatives would almost certainly see this come to pass.

As it is, the single-electorate system makes for strange bedfellows: like big ugly, bruising trade unionists, often male, and simpering human rights lawyers of any gender or persuasion, sitting side by side in caucus.

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