UNDERSTANDING THE SHIFT IN OUR CULTURE AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR OUR FUTURE

Editors comments:  This article, covering political issues, is usually outside the gammet of the Prayer Network but as it seeks to help us understand the enormous shift that is taking place in our culture, and therefore the implications for our future, we decided it was worth putting out to our readers for prayer as we move towards one of the most crucial Federal Elections in our history.  Any political comments or inferences the writer makes are his and not necessarily those of the Prayer Network.  We are more focused on assisting our readers to understand the why and how of the cultural changes we are experiencing as a Nation and how they could shape the way people vote in the upcoming Federal Election.  Could it be that this election, more than any other in recent memory, will be fought in the spiritual realm (a battle for the hearts and minds of the Australian people and the soul of our Nation) rather than over political policies.  If it is to be that way, this is where the Prayer Network comes in, and underlies the reason for our re-producing this article. 

Australia is about to chart a new direction but the intriguing question is whether the public is making this choice by default or conviction.  Scott Morrison seems unable to cut through with a message that registers while Bill Shorten seems able to say anything and get away with it.  These are flip sides of the same story, an electorate that has clocked off politics yet is angry about its plight.  It is tempting to say the Coalition government has lost the battle of ideas.  But this misleads since beyond a minority of “insiders” there is no engagement with ideas anymore.  There is, however, the zeitgeist, the German view that each historical era is defined by its own spirit and values.

It is the zeitgeist that is bringing down the Morrison government and propelling the nation towards a Shorten government.  The zeitgeist, of course, is not separate from events.  Indeed, it is partly formed by events such as the chronic disunity of the Coalition, its lack of cultural power, its inability to sustain a message that resonates with the public and its failure to offer a persuasive explanation for the times.  The zeitgeist, however, is conceived in culture.  Its meaning transcends and can defy mere rationality, it is about the spirit, the mood of the times.  It can refer to an invisible force, part in the world, part defying the world because of its cultural power.

In Australia today the zeitgeist is tied to the age of disruption and confusion.  In particular, received wisdoms that have offered stability and predictability are in demise, some because they have failed, others because they are ideologically unfashionable.  Labor has far exceeded the Coalition in capturing the zeitgeist.  Its unifying theme is the turn of Australia towards a progressive mindset in economic, social and cultural terms.  This was not predicted six years ago.  Time will tell whether it is enduring or deceiving.

But the norms the Abbott government subscribed to after it won in 2013 are in eclipse.  These were rejection of radical action on climate change in order to safeguard the economy, using constraints on education and health funding to recover the budget surplus, new laws to curb trade union power, implicit faith in financial system integrity, free speech before an individual’s capacity to be offended, traditional marriage, honouring Western civilisation, American alliance fidelity in what became the Trumpian age and putting shared national values before the quest for race, gender or sexual identity.  Only border protection has survived and it is now under fierce assault.

As the ideas championed by the Coalition government came under assault, so did the government’s authority.  The country shifted while the Coalition held power.  Yet the Coalition missed the trend, its cultural antenna in dysfunction and its ability to persuade badly lacking.

Having a House of Representatives majority did not guarantee control of the nation’s mood.  When old ideas no longer work or are no longer tolerated, it is time for new ideas.  Established understandings have now broken down in a range of areas, consider wages, living standards, climate change, finance, industrial relations and education among others.

As economists, including our Reserve Bank governor, admit the past connection between unemployment levels and wage levels has shifted, much to the consternation of workers and unions.  As the past decade shows the record low interest rates have failed to reboot many Western economies, with monetary policy unable to restore previous levels of economic growth.  The local energy story is diabolical when Australia, a so-called energy superpower, relied on coal as its source of competitiveness only to find that coal was cast as a climate change demon to be put on the exit escalator.

The finance sector, the life blood of household prosperity, was exposed by the royal commission as an agent of greed treating customers as objects of exploitation in pursuit of self-interested financial rewards.  Having spent a generation achieving a more flexible labour market that worked brilliantly in the globalised age contributing to low unemployment, the nation is now lurching into reverse to embrace re-regulation and intervention in the cause of equity.  And in education, having proven that more school funding without a classroom revolution is tied to falling relative standards the political system seems ready to repeat the blunder on a truly massive scale with astonishing proposed increases in school funding devoid of core classroom reforms.

The breakdown of established norms has three consequences, new opportunities (think renewables), new challenges (how on earth to rekindle productivity to salvage living standards) and the revival of truly bad ideas (think the living wage, something we tried more than 110 years ago).  Perhaps there is no failure that does not deserve another try.  Anyone for socialism?  The political impact of the zeitgeist cannot be missed.  There is nothing as vulnerable as an idea targeted by the progressive forces; witness traditional marriage, coal and tax cuts for corporates.  And there is nothing so resilient as a failed idea to which the progressive class is attached; witness open borders, wage rises divorced from productivity and government intervention as a superior allocation mechanism to markets.

Shorten’s skill has been conspicuous.  Acting with audacity, he has picked much of the spirit of the times.  His populist slogans cut through from the “left behind society” to declaring the election to be a referendum on wages and embracing the notion of the “living wage”.  Who could disagree with such an attractive idea?  Shorten has endlessly stirred hostility towards banks and big business, mined the cult of grievance, backed a major redistribution of income through tax, mined community anxiety at inequality and injustice, given identity politics plenty of currency, ditched border protection in the cause of humanitarian rescue of people on Manus and Nauru, helped to demonise coal, worked to sink Adani and cast renewables as the universal saviours.

The zeitgeist is Shorten’s friend and Morrison’s enemy.  The evidence has turned into an avalanche since the August 2018 Liberal leadership crisis.  The latest norm to be violated occurs within the Liberal heartland, the middle-class revolt and disloyalty in the once blue-ribbon seats of its leaders, former leaders and future hopes.  Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth has been lost to progressive independent Kerryn Phelps, with no guarantee it can be regained at the election.  Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah is under serious threat from progressive independent Zali Steggall.  Greg Hunt’s seat of Flinders is under assault from progressive independent Julia Banks and Josh Frydenberg’s seat of Kooyong is threatened by Julian Burnside, a well-known progressive, now running as a Green.

Each of these seats is vulnerable to progressive attack.  This is an unprecedented situation in the history of the Liberal Party.  The loss of support, however, seems to transcend the actual policy story.  It is not as though the Liberals under Malcolm Turnbull ignored climate change.  Turnbull’s removal, rather, has become the symbolic trigger for the release of progressive hostility towards the party.  The mood and the message is that the Liberals are violating the spirit of the age and need to pay the price.  Once this brand is applied it is extremely difficult to purge, a classic example being the Liberal Party’s women problem.

This, however, is not exactly what it seems.  In Julie Bishop’s safe seat of Curtin the Liberals have preselected an impressive woman, the former vice-chancellor of Notre Dame, Celia Hammond, who won convincingly.  Yet Hammond is now under challenge from a progressive independent, a lifelong Liberal voter, wealthy businesswoman Louise Stewart. Stewart says Hammond cannot represent the views of the Curtin electorate and her selection shows the party is “stuck in the past”.  It seems a conservative woman is no better than a man!  The point is that the real priority is progressivism.  A woman will be opposed unless she is progressive, displaying the “correct” stance on climate, feminism and asylum-seekers.

The government still has its April 2 tax-cut budget to rekindle its prospects but cynicism and indifference lie in its path.  The Coalition parties will seek to unite around the budget and take a strong economic message to the election.  But what should be the pivotal election issue is largely overlooked, the productivity and participation agenda to drive living standards.  On wages, Shorten continues with his quasi reckless “dual identity” tactics, prompted no doubt by the fact that emotion and populism largely run these debates.  On the one hand Shorten feeds the public truckloads of populism that “supply and demand” in the labour market no longer functions, that “everything is going up except people’s wages” (a falsehood), that the minimum wage should be a living wage and that the “fat cat” bosses who claim a connection between wages and jobs are wrong because “I don’t accept that a living wage causes unemployment”.

There is no reason to think Shorten, given the zeitgeist, will suffer any penalty from his pitch.  Meanwhile the ACTU, the chief advocate of the “living wage”, proposes an increase in the minimum wage of 11.5 per cent over the next two years or more than $70 a week at a time when the economy is weakening.  The idea this would not hurt jobs is absurd.  “I won’t turn my back on the workers of Australia,” Shorten declared as he asserted the government would fix the wages problem, a throwback to several decades ago.

On the other hand Shorten said he would rely on the Fair Work Commission to adjust the minimum wage (sticking by the orthodoxy), declared the Fair Work Commission (FWC) had a “great track record” (if so, then what’s the problem?), refused to nominate any percentage increase (being sensible and not backing the ACTU numbers), raised the prospect Labor would change the legislation governing the FWC minimum wage deliberations (but wouldn’t give details) and made clear the guidelines would be altered.

In summary, Shorten raises expectations sky high with his rhetoric but then brings them back to earth because he doesn’t want to wreck the joint.  This is his standard tactic.  He plays to the zeitgeist and then plays to reality.  He feeds the union and Labor interest groups loads of red meat but then stops short of table commitments that would ruin his government in office.

It is a risky contradiction that runs across almost everything Shorten touches.  If he wins, how Shorten will pacify the progressive interest groups, wind down their expectations yet implement the litany of specific tax, spending, regulatory, climate change and constitutional reforms he pledges, is anybody’s guess.

This week the Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott played the reality card on Labor’s 45-50% targets for emissions and renewables: “We don’t have a plan to do this.  How are we going to do this?  If it’s economy wide, what is the mechanism by which we are going to do it?  Is it a cap and trade system?  Is it the national energy guarantee?  Is it a base-loading credit system?  Are we going to exempt the trade-exposed sector?  Are we going to allow the ‘carry over’ for Kyoto?  I think the Australian people are entitled to understand how these things will be achieved.

This is the history of this problem, people say stuff, then they try to implement it and everyone goes ‘oh, hang on, we didn’t actually mean for those jobs to be gone’,  now we’ll have to have a compensation scheme.  Then we stop and then we go backwards and then we make no progress.  This is the history. ” Yet nothing Westacott said, policy realities that must be faced by any Shorten government, impinge on the current climate change mantras that dominate our public debate.  Just listen to the independent progressives crusading on climate change in leafy Liberal seats to grasp how much this debate has regressed over the past 15 years.

They talk endlessly about saving the planet and the urgency for Australia to do more, as though the policy and political obstacles of the past 15 years never happened.  Such climate change invocations are firmly within the zeitgeist but there comes a time when the spirit of the age and the reality of the age come to their inevitable day of reckoning.  This raises the question: is the country choosing its change of direction or merely getting ready to vote out a government that misread the culture?

Source:  Paul Kelly, Editor at large for the Australian Newspaper

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