Transcript

Australian election 2010 special

second-manne-thumbRobert Manne
Email: r.manne@latrobe.edu.au

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Transcript

Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast. I would be your host, Matt Smith. And with me today is Robert Manne, Professor of Politics in the School of Social Sciences and convener of the Ideas & Society Program. Thank you for joining me Professor Manne.

Robert Manne:

My pleasure.

Matt Smith:

We're about a month away from an Australian election and I'd like to get your thoughts on a few issues. Boat people seem to be one of the most critical issues in the upcoming election and the election could very well be won or lost based on it. What are your thoughts on this and is the issue being addressed appropriately?

Robert Manne:

The main thing to be said—the most important thing—is that from an outsider's point of view, of someone who doesn't live in Australia, it is really extraordinary that this is a major issue in the election. Essentially maybe five or 6,000 people will arrive by boat this year, which is not a large number. None of the boats are difficult to locate. There's no border security problem because every boat that arrives is well known to the Australian authorities.

The majority now are probably not going to be found to be refugees. There might be an extra two or 3,000 people at most that will be accepted as refugees and therefore become Australian residents and citizens and yet the thing that has to be explained is why such a small issue has become almost the dominant issue, or at least the issue with which the coalition is most wishing to shame and to make trouble for the government.

The deepest explanation is that Australia has a problem with uncontrolled migration. I suspect it is deep in the DNA of its history, the White Australia Policy. The feeling that we are about to be overrun by the populations of the Asia Pacific goes right back to the middle of the 19th century. At a certain moment in Australian history, and the moment was 2001--just before September 11 not after--the Howard Government decided to take a tough stand against the arrival of boats. Until that time it hadn't been much of a political issue in Australia.

And I don't think [since that time] Australia has been able to flush the issue out of its system. What really are a small number of people arriving on boats; most of whom become good citizens and most of whom are fleeing from regimes that we know to be dreadful, in particular either fleeing from Iraq in the past or Afghanistan now or from the Sri Lankan civil war; most of whom become good citizens—becomes an issue that dominates our politics. I think that's because of the way in which it was manipulated as a populist issue very successfully by the Howard Government.

The third thing to be said is that Labor didn't know what it was doing when it made the policy less harsh. It thought that it could get rid of the offshore processing without new boats beginning to arrive and I think it was a sort of political mistake. It was a naivety because the reason that boats stopped coming, in my view, was the decision taken by the Howard Government. Offshore processing was so unattractive an option that people bringing the boats to Australia didn't have a product to sell.

But it is a very sad thing in my view that this minor, minor issue of the arrival of a few people seeking asylum should be turned into one of the great issues of the 2010 election.

Matt Smith:

If the issue was illegal immigrants, wouldn't the obvious answer if you're going by numbers be to crack down on people who are overstaying their visas?

Robert Manne:

Yeah, the fear is not of people overstaying their visas. People who come here as tourists or students who overstay their visas have never worried the Australian population. I mean, why should it? The U.S. has millions of Mexicans who are genuinely illegal immigrants. We have people who arrived here on valid visas who overstayed their visas. Big deal. I mean, no one is really concerned with that.

You have to think that something deeper is going on with the arrival of boats causing such panic and concern. I think there is a genuine kind of concern about the rise of diversity in Australia. Not everyone likes it. The arrival of asylum seeker boats becomes a kind of surrogate issue for the feelings of hostility towards diversity of population and ethnicity.

To some extent, there is also a genuine worry about population levels. In the public mind, utterly irrationally, the arrival of boats is linked to the fact that you think your area is choked with traffic or has deficient facilities or that public transport doesn't work for you. So when you're caught in a traffic jam you somehow think that your problem is linked to the arrival of boats, which is completely insane. This leads to the really weird spectacle of Julia Gillard taking one of the local members from Western Sydney to Darwin to show that she was on the job. Now, Western Sydney is utterly unaffected by the arrival of boats and yet in the public mind stopping boats is a key to solving problems of parts of the capital cities. It's sort of mad but like a lot of politics it's interestingly mad.

Matt Smith:

Julia Gillard said that she is going to assemble a panel of 150 normal Australians to address the climate change situation and she's calling it a citizen's assembly. What do you think of this approach?

Robert Manne:

It probably comes in some indirect way from a movement which is quite interesting called deliberative democracy. That’s the idea that somehow if you get together ordinary citizens and provide them with a lot of information and capacity for discussion rational decisions will emerge. So it's quite an interesting theory and, in a way, a theory of democracy. It's a little bit like the idea of a jury. We still believe you'll get good legal decisions from ordinary citizens listening intently [to the evidence] and to the direction of the judge. So that's what its provenance is, and that's not being pointed out.

I think it's quite an interesting idea. However that it is meant to deliver a consensus for the nation seems to me extraordinarily naive. I mean, I suspect a good decision will come from the 150 citizens. They listen and discuss for a year. But why that decision should have any impact at all on public opinion or on party politics I do not understand. Because no one is going to grant authority to the thinking of those 150 people.

So it was I think not as foolish as some people believe in that it does come from a movement-- the deliberative democracy idea--but hasn't gone to the next stage of wondering why a deliberative decision should have any authority at all in the broader political sphere.

Matt Smith:

Is it in some way is a bit of a stalling tactic?

Robert Manne:

Look, stalling is the name of the game, and the decision [on climate change action] has been stalled since we began considering it. First, Howard stalled because he was following the Bush foreign policy which was essentially to do nothing in the area of climate change; to not sign Kyoto. Then under pressure from Turnbull, Howard, at the 11th hour, agreed to an ETS after the election. Rudd stalled by saying that we wouldn't make any announcements as the leader of the opposition until Ross Garnaut had delivered a report. So he stalled it. Ross Garnaut delivered a report, Rudd said that was only one of many offerings. So then he thought he might be able to get an agreement with the opposition. He found an opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, who agreed with him, roughly speaking, on a very, very moderate ETS. When that fell in, Rudd decided to stall by putting it off for a whole term of parliament. Julia Gillard inherited that stall and added a little bit of icing on the cake by creating a deliberative democracy assembly. Australian politicians cannot come to an agreement to do anything [on climate change]. And that's been going on really for a decade. Its a big problem and a continuing problem.

Matt Smith:

Well, if it's a pattern of stalling on this problem you released a collection of political essays in a book titled ‘Left, Right, Left’ which amongst other things drew attention to the fact that your political allegiance can change. Why did this happen and are you a follower of policies and not parties?

Robert Manne:

Not exactly policies, I'm a follower, I supposed, of –

Matt Smith:

Ideals?

Robert Manne:

Ideals, trends of thought. In one way I've been consistent while the political debate has shifted a lot. I've always been a social democrat, someone who believes in the role of the state (to some extent) in the economy and thinks that weight should be placed on the value of equality as well as on the idea of liberty, and that in politics there has to be a balance between those two ideas. For liberals the emphasis is more on liberty than it is on equality. I’m a social democrat not an economic liberal.

But the reason I was not on the left for a very long time was because the left had a fantasy about communism, as if communism embodied the ideals of equality or social democracy. And I always knew that it didn't. I already knew enough to know that communism was both an immoral and horrendously tyrannical form of government but also an enormously inefficient one which didn't even deliver the goods.

So for that reason I was really more on the right than on the left until the communist issue ceased to matter in Australian politics. It mattered a lot during the Cold War but it gradually ceased to matter during the '80s. That released me from an argument with the left that I'd been involved with for 20 years or so.

Matt Smith:

What would it take for you to change your allegiance again given the kind of interesting climate change and environmental issues that you have? Have you become more of a supporter of the Greens?

Robert Manne:

Yes, I have.

I'm naturally a moderate. I did like the policy positions of Kevin Rudd and was dismayed when his political weaknesses became apparent. So I was a very strong supporter of Rudd. I believed he was right about the global financial crisis. I thought he was right about nation-building policies. Everyone thinks, and I think, that he did well over the Stolen Generations issue. He tried, I think rather naively, to do well on the asylum-seeker issue. Butt it’s as if he gave up the game on climate change which was probably the most important issue to his prime ministership. And then he made the fatal mistake with the mining tax. He made a complete political hash in trying to sell it.

At that point my hopes for Labor diminished very greatly. I have, like many people, been moving towards the Greens. On many, many issues I think they're right and mainstream politics is not.

Matt Smith:

What do you think of the matter in which Rudd was deposed and what does it mean for Labor's long term stability and do you think there'll be long term repercussions over that?

Robert Manne:

I don't myself think there will be long term implications. He came to lead the party through a factional deal, through having the support of major factions of the party including New South Wales right, and he left in a similar manner having lost the [support of] the factions that once had supported him.

To be perfectly honest, even though [the removal] was slightly unseemly, I think he had so lost judgment as prime minister that I think he would have lost the election had he been the leader with Abbott fighting against the mining tax, because it looked as if he become quite locked into that. He would have had a massive advertising campaign from the most powerful lobby in the country against him.

And he'd lost his moral credibility when he gave up on climate change. He also lost support throughout the party. It seems that the entire Labor Party and machinery no longer liked him or trusted him and he had no capacity to cultivate loyalty or friends within the party machine. So I think it was probably the right decision even it looked a bit ruthless.

It's impossible, I think, to say whether it's cast a shadow across the Labor Party for the future. I think if Julia Gillard is re-elected, in particular if she does reasonably well, then I think it will just be another incident in the life of politics. I think he was a very odd person. It will take years to get to the bottom of why he failed in the end. And I don't think [his sacking] will leave a great problem for the Labor Party. It seems to me slightly insane for a party to stay with a leader that they know has lost his way. And I think that they all knew it, so it wasn't even divisive. Virtually no one supported him in the end. So I think it was probably the right decision. And my gut instinct is that it won't have much long term effect.

Matt Smith:

If you had to call it do you think that Labor will win?

Robert Manne:

I'm inclined to think that--and I would not have said so about a week ago--that the drift is towards the Coalition. I rather nervously watch what happens in Queensland and Western Sydney. As everyone does. A lot of seats are at stake in Queensland in Western Sydney. I think it will be very, very close, and because I'm naturally pessimistic, I actually think there's a very good chance that Abbott will win.

Matt Smith:

What do you think the implications would be if he won?

Robert Manne:

Abbott is an interesting figure. He's very dynamic and active politician. So he certainly would not be a do-nothing prime minister. He comes from two traditions. One is the tradition of the Santamaria movement: the anti-communist Catholics that he was really educated by when he went to Sydney University in the '70s and beyond. He's still influenced by let's say a certain kind of right-wing Catholicism. He has never lost that influence which makes him somewhat ill at ease with modernity—with feminism, with gay liberation. So I think there's that. The other tradition he's a part of is the right wing New South Wales Liberal Party. He says jokingly that he's the love child of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop, two of the most conservative Liberals in the history of our country.

He's playing the game of being a do-nothing opposition leader. He's being incredibly cautious and careful not to frighten people. But I think as soon as he gets into power big things will begin to happen. It's impossible to say what they'll be but I think in the area of let's say the moral sphere, his ultra conservatism will shine out and I also think he'll try and have a more libertarian economic policy.

But also that he will do quite unexpected and unanticipated things. He won’t want to be just a do-nothing prime minister. He’ll want the country to change as a result of his period in office. So I suspect he'll be very quiet until the election but the action will begin once he gets installed as prime minister, and it will then be what the Chinese call “interesting times”.

Matt Smith:

Have you met him personally?

Robert Manne:

Yes. I know him reasonably well.

Matt Smith:

What's your impression of him as a person?

Robert Manne:

My impression of him as a person is he's actually very pleasant. I'm sure he'll develop loyalty amongst his followers and I suspect he's a good family man. He’s also a bit driven. No one cycles in the way he does when they have a job as demanding as his unless they have a slightly driven character. What I think about him actually, and I felt this very strongly when I had a debate with him at Sydney Writers' Festival a couple of years ago, is that he is a very intelligent person but also intellectually lazy.

And I think he's willing to take positions in areas of politics which are disreputable, and he sort of doesn't care. I think he only becomes truly serious and concentrated when he's thinking about issues to do with morality and then he thinks like a George Pell Catholic—a very conservative Catholic. I was once on Q&A when he was also on the panel. And I gave a rather conservative answer when thinking about euthanasia and his body suddenly became alert. He was really interested. His intellect engages with those conservative Catholic positions, but in other areas I think he's rather intellectually lazy. I don't think anyone of his intelligence could think that climate change was “absolute crap” unless they really didn’t care what the truth is.

I'm worried about him because I think he wastes his intelligence in a mixture of opportunism and laziness. Except in the ethical sphere where I think he's, for some reason, genuinely serious. That's my impression of him.

Matt Smith:

And how about Gillard, do you have a personal impression of her?

Robert Manne:

No, I never met her as far as I can remember. I know her history as much as anyone does. She was once really very left wing and in fact when the Communist Party was going into liquidation she was a member of the Socialist Forum which was the remnants of the Australian Communist Party. So she belongs strongly to the left and she's still factionally within the left. But it seems to me that she's been emptied out of any ideological beliefs at all. During the election campaign she seems extraordinarily controlled and extraordinarily clichéd, saying what she thinks people want to hear. And maybe she believes in these Pollyanna statements about what a good country we live in and that she wants all the best for everyone and so on.

I think she's remarkably clichéd and empty in her public persona now. I don't know whether there's anything beneath [this façade] or whether she actually genuinely has turned herself into this kind of political spin machine.

Matt Smith:

Why did you call that a Pollyanna game? Is that playing the 'glad' game is it?

Robert Manne:

Well Pollyanna is continually smiling and saying things are good.

Matt Smith:

I like that term.

Robert Manne:

And that things will turn out well.

Matt Smith:

What do you see your role as a public intellectual being in the upcoming election?

Robert Manne:

Oh, nothing really, maybe to write one or two newspaper articles. I'm pleased that we're going to have Bob Brown on campus because the great hope for the election is that the Greens will do very well and have an effect on Labor, forcing Labor to think there's a larger electorate on the left than at the moment they seem to think there is. But my role is nothing beyond comment.

Matt Smith:

You have Greens' Senator Bob Brown coming to La Trobe University as part of the Ideas and Society Program and that's on August the 11th. What sort of questions will you be asking him and will you ask him about the Greens killing the ETS?

Robert Manne:

No, I haven't even thought about the questions I'll be asking. I really am interested in trying to elicit from him some frank remarks about Australian democracy, about what the two parties are like, and how difficult it has been to inject a different dimension into our thinking.

You know, I'm not going to try and be like Kerry O' Brian and trip him up in some way. I hope we can have a relaxed conversation in which he speaks of his experience of trying to create a left-wing third force in the country, and where he reflects upon that a bit, and the difficulties of getting through to the mainstream. You know, I’d like to draw him out a bit and see a bit more of him than you see when he's under the pump and being pushed by a political journalist. With questions about why he didn't pass the ETS, he'll have the answer ready. I know what he'll say in advance, and there's not much point in doing what he's done 100 times on television.

But I suspect he's actually a very thoughtful person and also has had a really interesting experience of trying to shift what is an increasingly conservative country in a non-conservative direction.

Matt Smith:

Can you tell me a bit about the Ideas and Society Program and what you hope to achieve with it?

Robert Manne:

I grew up in a university--during the 1960s at Melbourne University, which because of the Vietnam War but also because of the time and the culture, was extremely lively and where students and staff often met and went to meetings at lunch time and where there was quite an active life which was not connected to the formal paths of teaching. So that's what I'm trying to do essentially. The Vice-Chancellor Paul Johnson suggested to me that maybe I try and run something like this. I don't know what exactly he had in mind but what I have in mind is to find topics of general cultural and political interest and significance, with prominent speakers, so that you can draw an audience which is not all that easy.

And so to have a place where students and staff get together to hear and hopefully to discuss some of the issues of the day. La Trobe has a strong tradition of public intellectual life and the Ideas and Society Program is a way of bringing that to public attention a bit more than it has in the past, I think.

Matt Smith:

Professor Robert Manne, thanks for your time today.

Robert Manne:

A pleasure.