First published in The Age on 25 May 2013.
Review: The Lucky Culture and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class by Nick Cater
It takes considerable chutzpah to write a 300-page book condemning Australia's elitist 'Knowledge Class' and then thank no fewer than 60 journalists, academics, economists, historians, think-tank staff and political insiders for assistance and friendship. But that's Nick Cater of The Australian for you: the anti-intellectual sociology graduate and broadsheet editor, the great admirer of the battlers in the outer suburbs and regions who nevertheless chooses to reside in inner Sydney.
But let's put hypocrisy aside and consider the book The Lucky Culture at face value. Cater's argument - when he finally articulates it four chapters into the book - is that 'the divide between the Knowledge Class and the rest has become the dominant fault line on the cultural, social and political landscape' and that 'a cohort of tertiary-educated professionals with a particular outlook' has a disproportionate influence on public affairs.
My own research into the 1999 republic referendum drew me to similar conclusions about the existence of a cultural divide between the 'mainstream' and the 'elites'. This divide is an issue that needs to be discussed seriously, but too often we're treated to just another partisan shouting match. The left dismisses the divide as a conservative myth; the right uses it as a stick to beat those with which it disagrees. Unfortunately, despite his claims to neutrality, Cater fits cosily into the latter camp.
Far from adopting any traditional notions of noblesse oblige, Cater argues that Australia's progressive insiders look down on their fellow citizens, and in their domination of important political and cultural institutions represent a 'New Ruling Class', ready to reshape the nation against the will of the majority. Similar ideas have been around in the English-speaking world since the 1950s, though Cater's knowledge of this literature seems fairly cursory.
The Lucky Culture is very readable and generally engaging, but its structural flaws sometimes overshadow Cater's writing talents. His selective, potted histories of the environmental movement, the Whitlam revolution, the ABC, universities and human-rights legislation - scattered throughout the book, seemingly at random - are self-serving and inadequate.
When faced with difficult questions requiring deep thinking, Cater resorts to cheap shots and occasionally, strange non-sequiturs. For example, Lindsay Tanner's consideration of voluntary voting is raised, then, apropos of nothing, Cater asserts: 'An intelligence threshold on suffrage is a seductive idea, but it cannot be allowed to go unchallenged, since it goes against the grain of Australian democracy.' Just whom is Cater arguing with here?
Or, in what could have been an interesting discussion of the regrettable reliance on linguistic totems in contemporary debates, Cater suggests: 'To misapply a totem, to describe a plastic object as delightfully unsustainable, a yoghurt as nourishingly rich in fat, or a government policy as a step towards a more exclusive society, is to invite dumbfoundment.'
Well, yes, but mainly because these are self-evidently absurd statements. An opportunity to genuinely confront lazy thinking and everyday cant is missed.
In appealing for respect for outsider voices, Cater reveals his own intolerance for those with progressive views, especially with his odd suggestion that the Labor Party should essentially give up on arguing for what it believes in: 'It prosecutes a progressive agenda in the arrogant expectation that popular ignorance can be banished and that people can be convinced to change their minds.' And here I was thinking that attempting to persuade people with reasoned arguments and evidence was the essence of politics. Silly me.
A recurring theme of The Lucky Culture is Cater's mocking contempt for virtually all forms of environmentalism. The Franklin River campaign? Anti-democratic rabble-rousing. Efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags? A waste of time and money. Climate change? Trust the wisdom of the crowd, not qualified climate scientists.
This last view is encapsulated in the astonishingly glib observation that in Tony Abbott 'the Liberal Party had a new leader who noticed something strange about the climate: the further one stepped beyond Capital Circle, the less the planet appeared to be warming'.
It is a shame that Cater's ideological preoccupations overshadow what might have been a useful contribution to a discussion we need to have. A truly fair-minded and perceptive account of Australia's cultural divide, one that seeks to explain rather than exacerbate divisions, remains to be written.
Dominic Kelly is a PhD candidate and tutor in the School of Social Sciences and Communication.