Bill Bartlett Bracknell Tas
The vaguely Soviet overtones of the reform summit give us a right to be cynical
Calls for a ‘plan’ at Wednesday’s National Reform Summit show us how empty the language around ‘reform’ has become. Let’s stop believing
This week, in a summit convened by two newspapers and a consultancy, a large number of people came together in Sydney to discuss productivity, fiscal sustainability, tax reform and other weighty topics. The summit delivered a statement-manifesto in which they openly declared their ends and aims:
All major political parties need to take action, and reach a bipartisan view on the major challenges we face as a nation. There needs to be a clear, long-term plan, implemented with purpose over the next decade to meet these challenges to help guide the community through the necessary adjustment.
You can’t deny the vaguely Soviet overtones of such a convocation and demands for a “plan”. Looked at from outside, it was a room full of appointees and invitees, all mouthing platitudes about “reforms” many of them they barely understand, and can have a barely credible claim to believe.
The leaders of eastern bloc countries used to convene similar conferences of the intelligentsia and apparat, to try to work out where on the line towards Communism they were (“nearly there, comrades, trust us!”). They used to grapple with the ills of the broken, brutal, corrupt old system they couldn’t fix, with very similar appeals to unity of effort and rejection of vested interests.
Even the bodies sound familiar. Let’s do a roll call. Representatives from trade union peaks like the ACTU: tick. Speakers from welfare associations and other quasi-NGOs completely dependent on state funding: tick. Professional ideologists like Nick Cater, Henry Ergas, and Adam Creighton: tick. Representatives from the think tanks who exist to study doctrine and develop the “line”, like the Centre for Independent Studies: tick. Add a few red flags and some bouquets and you’ve got something very familiar.
The one thing I would not have expected out of our democratic, parliamentary, capitalist system in 2015 is how much a lot of its managerial politics would resemble 1970s Soviet “actually existing” socialism.
Francis Spufford’s remarkable Red Plenty described the beige cynicism of the later intellectual stages of the Russian experiment, once the butchers, and crazy-eyed thinkers who genuinely believed in revolution, had given way to engineer-managers and bureaucrats, who believed in very little. They inherited the dead words and shaky language of a glorious future, and then sat on them, unsure of what they meant, secretly a little bit afraid that they didn’t mean anything at all.
When the whole sordid shambles fell apart in 1989 one of the most liberating things for ordinary people was a freedom from lies; from having to pretend to believe in things that everyone knew were stupid and meaningless.
A number of writers in the Australian, and other serious newspapers, place the golden age of Australian “reform” in the 1980s. Eminent figures like Paul Kelly, George Megalogenis, Greg Sheridan, and Troy Bramston, venerate – North Korean-style – their Juche heroes Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, as if by force of will the two of them brought Australia out of a dark age into a reformed enlightenment.
In fact if reform has a genuine golden age it’s much earlier, in the weird and violent Victorian era, before modern bipartisanship and before disciplined parties, when what was meant by “reform” was concessions from parliament gained by threats of violence. Working people, Chartists, radicals, suffragists and suffragettes, won their reforms of politics in the UK and Australia not in the spirit of national unity, but with a completely explicit bargain: if you don’t let us into the system, we’ll destroy the whole thing.
Reform isn’t just about how the system runs, it’s about who runs it. The state of the republic debate is illustrative here: as Chris O’Regan has written, the current republican argument is conservative, complacent, and all about the defence of constitutional structures and cultural narratives. The Australian Republic, like the Soviets’ imagined future of achieving full communism, is both inevitable and forever just around the corner (“nearly there, comrades!”), and looks a lot like what we’ve got now – but with a resident as president.
In fact, Australians have every right to be bleakly cynical about our own apparat’s language of reform. We’ve experienced the reforms of the post-accord era largely as a surrendering of security and power, in our lives and work, to our bosses.
We’re a managerial society and our framework for thinking about society is that of a workplace, a machine for extracting profit. Our rulers use economic language without any of the critical approach of academic economics. “Productivity” is the kind of buzzword a manager throws about when she or he merely wants employees to work a little bit harder, “vision” a familiar joke involving butchers’ paper and whiteboard markers, “flexibility” the curse that has people rushing to check their timesheets and casual contracts, “enhancing efficiency” a phrase that looks forward to nothing but more tedious micro-management.
“Reform” is the ancestor slogan, an encompassing archetype of 21st century thoughtlessness, a banner-phrase of nothing that has earned itself a place in the tyrannous history of garbage language. To be free, let’s stop believing in things we all know can’t be believed.