Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Club Troppo, Parishioners and High Broderism

When I first started taking interest in Australian poliblogs a few years ago, my first thought was that the Club Troppo web site sounded interesting, based as it was on the self-professed "political centrism" of Ken Parish and Nicholas Gruen. Back then, you had Larvatus Prodeo on the left (now deceased) and Catallaxy Files on the right, and Troppo nominally in the centre as the major group blogs in the Australian political scene. To me, group blogs are the most interesting variation of the form as they encourage dissemination of a range of ideas and viewpoints, producing a variegated editorial line instead of a blaring one-note foghorn. I wish I was part of one of these collectives, and indeed I did contribute a piece on the NBN to Club Troppo in my early time as a poliblog watcher.

As you may glean if you read the comments to that piece, my encounter with the resident Troppodillians was less than successful. Nicholas ended up calling me a mercantilist, which in the modern context is an implacable insult by a liberal Western wonk - never mind that Chinese mercantilism has been kicking the West's butt in the 21st century (that's for another post).

Anyway, one of the Troppo's latest is by Parish, and he engages in some classic "both sides do it" high Broderism to attempt to lay blame for mindless federal obstructionism at the feet of Labor:
... the cycle of retaliatory fiscal mischief goes back decades. I would date the phenomenon back at least to Paul Keating’s cynical and unprincipled demolition of John Hewson’s Fightback policy in the lead-up to the 1993 election, a tactic that Keating pursued relentlessly notwithstanding that he himself had advocated a GST only a few years previously and that John Howard by contrast had had the guts and integrity (not words that most on the Left would associate with him) to support most of the Hawke/Keating government’s necessary deregulatory, market-based reforms over the previous decade.  The gloves were off on fiscal policy from that moment on.
There were many valid and principled reasons for a centre-left leader to oppose Fightback!: slashing of welfare, abandonment of awards, cutting Medicare to ribbons, tax cuts for the rich and widespread privatisations. Yes, the GST was the issue on which the election was won and lost, but it would be disingenuous to concentrate solely on the media frenzy over it and ignore all the other Reaganomics elements which should be anathema to a centrist wonk, as Ken is. Wonks look at the whole policy picture, not just the media sideshow. Fightback! would have kickstarted the pure Reagan/Thatcher model of gutting the social safety net and widening the inequality gap between rich and poor, which Hawke and Keating had implemented while preserving many elements of the Australian social contract that were hardfought over many decades by unions and the rest of the left.

The rest of the article attacks Labor for insufficient adherence to its own ideals, especially around privatisation in the context of Paul Keating's defence of privatisation in the lead up to the NSW election, and then puts the hard word on Labor to establish a Troppodillian idée fixe, the Independent Fiscal Authority. Little to no mention is made of the Liberals in all of this. There is no responsibility for reform laid at the feet of Tony Abbott or any other Coalition leader. The implicit assumption is that the right's position is not even worth discussing.

High Broderism is a term related to Washington Post columnist David Broder, who is the premier exponent of the Beltway village theorem of a controlling group in the centre defining what is and is not acceptable policy according to the conventional wisdom set by an elite of influencers and policy professionals, with anything outside this window labelled as "extremism" and denounced across the press and "respectable" broadcast media. In America, this elite is an unelected and unaccountable set of media commentators and political operatives effectively working as a team, with tenured columnists at the WaPo, NYT and WSJ spruiking for those insiders whose policies they agree with and shunning those with other ideas, with little reference to their popularity with the actual public.

In Australia, we don't really have a "Beltway" as such. Power is more concentrated around Collins St and Sussex St, and Capital Circle just doesn't have a ring to it. Nevertheless, we do have an unelected "controlling group in the centre" in this country which traditionally has sat above political cycles, but it's not made up of pundits and apparatchiks: it's the public service. As befits a country more built along Westminster lines, public servants are the rocks around which the political tides rise and fall, guiding the country with Appleby-esque aplomb past this or that faddish though bubble. As academic advisers to and occasional employees of various governments over the years, Gruen and Parish are part of the wider cadre of public sector policy wonks, which gives their position in the Australian poliblogosphere some quantum of extra weight.

There is a good reason why the likes of Parish address their criticisms solely to Labor: it would be useless to ask the right to pay him any attention, because the local yokels are following the trend in the rest of the West of abandoning all pretence of scientific method in favour of hokum, humbug and junk economic theory. More to the point, Parish and his wonkmates are not only not going to get a gig advising any Coalition mob, the Liberal razor gang has been conducting a quiet pogrom to purge the public service of those not deemed sufficiently discipular to wingnut orthodoxy, from the head of the Treasury on down. His natural role, and that of the reality-based community within the public service - the Parishioners? - is to advise Labor because advising the Liberals on policies backed by traditional Keynesian theory is a fool's errand. This leads to a tendency for he and his posse to lecture Labor and let the Coalition off the hook.

That is not to say Parish et al do not criticise the Liberals. High Broderism denotes opprobrium directed at all sides. The responsibility for fixing the mess thus described, however, is left to the Left to get right to the right-thinking job of giving in to the Right.


  1. I'm rather late with a comment to this post, Paul, but late or not I thought somebody should stand up to support your analysis.

    Keep up the good work.