Tea Break or Mad Hatter's Tea Party?

Article excerpt

IT is not entirely clear whether anti-globalization protestors are bent on building the backlash against economic reform, convincing the legislators that it is bigger than it really is, or having fun. Nevertheless, since their apparent success by any of the three measures in Seattle in 1999 and certainly since the 1980s:

* fewer people are defending economic reform with consistent arguments;

* the determination of Australian governments to reform their respective economies has abated;

* the big-spending and big-taxing Howard Government has become prone to appeasing vested interests; and

* the ALP and the minor parties in the Senate are blocking reforms that the Hawke Government would once have championed.

Again persuaded more by noisy minorities and less by economic principle, our politicians have, as New Zealand's David Lange once put it, taken a `tea break' from reform. Australian economic reform has, to date, been overwhelmingly successful, more is needed, and they justify their break about as convincingly as the Mad Hatter justified his tea party to Alice.

The Liberals and Labor have clearly been scared by the minor parties, but their response does not seem to address the principal grievance of the voters who deserted them. When, following the 1983 election Labor (then in Government) and the Coalition (then in Opposition) began taking advice from conventional sources more seriously than before, One Nation, the Democrats and the Greens continued to offer the policies which economic theory and budgetary arithmetic disallow. A 1998 IPA Backgrounder showed that the minor parties were, for practical purposes, as one on foreign ownership, trade protection, re-regulating the financial sector, opposition to privatization, labour market regulation and reduced immigration-all areas where Labor or the Liberals were closer to each other than to the minors. The minors played 'catch' with the populist and protest vote, adding it to their core of genuine ideological support which, in the case of One Nation, was temporarily so considerable that something visceral was needed to account for it.

A little of the something was no doubt race, but if other upper bluecollar and rural electorates are like the one that I represented, only very little. Epithets such as `red neck' and 'racist' hurt these electors, and both Labor and the Coalition fostered the attitudes that caused them to be so abused. But there was, I believe, something even more fundamental than that. I am reasonably confident that a feeling that their opinions did not count with officials who insisted on 'do's' and 'don'ts' that trivialized their values and disdained their protests explains more-good old Marxian alienation! It was evident in the rural parts of my electorate even before I lost it in 1983. Many of these disenchanted people would have tolerated, some even welcomed, disagreement, but not the politically correct injunctions that denied their opinions a hearing.

My unstructured observations are borne out by a survey conducted by Katherine Betts. She identified resentment at the `cosmopolitan agenda' with a tendency to vote against the proposed Republic. If the antipathy was strong enough to cause people to vote against a proposal that was but a small part of that 'agenda', it was surely sufficient to cause them to register a protest against the perceived perpetrators of it. A Parliamentary Library Research Paper quoting a study showing that the Hanson constituency was `disenchanted and feels disenfranchised' also supported my opinion. If feeling alienated were not enough, when Hanson's meetings were broken up by violent protests (some of which were televised), tens of thousands of voters must have turned to her in sympathy, protested against such behaviour or both. …