Laura Tingle’s Great Expectations

Laura Tingle, Great expectations: Government, entitlement and an angry nation (Quarterly Essay Issue 46, 2112)

In 1965, my classmates and I helped to fight the terrible Chatsbury/Bungonia bushfire in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. I vividly remember a woman whose house had been burned down crying out in rage and distress, ‘I’ll never vote Labor again!’

It’s easy to mock such blame-the-guvmint mentality, and we did. We weren’t without compassion, but we were 18 years old and not very forgiving.

But these days – I grow old, I grow old – the misogyny, anti-science and book-burning that characterise our blame-the-guvmint discourse feel too serious for mockery. In this riveting Quarterly Essay, not a cheap shot in sight, Laura Tingle brings decades of experience as a political journalist to bear and argues that they are the symptoms of a deep, longstanding and unfaced confusion over what we can expect from the government, a confusion that has been pushed to something like crisis point by the economic rationalist reforms introduced by Hawke and Keating, extended and exploited by Howard, and maintained, with some ineffectual backtracking, by Rudd and now Gillard.

To diagnose the confusion, she goes back to the autocratic/paternalistic beginnings of the colony of New South Wales and the development of its democratic institutions, drawing on historian John Hirst – Convict Society and its Enemies and The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy. The glimpses she gives of his books make them seem like ideal contrapuntal readings for the late Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore: the vicious brutality Hughes describes was far from being the whole story – for many if not most convicts the colony provided much greater opportunity than they would have if they had not been transported. For example, the children of convicts had access to public education well before children of similar class background in Britain.

The history is interesting. The essay’s thesis is lucidly argued. As we come closer to the present time, the narrative takes on an authoritative feel – Tingle never says it in so many words, but there’s an ‘I know this, I was there’ edge, especially to her account of Howard’s and Rudd’s prime ministerships. Her conclusion:

Australians will be forced in the next decade to consider what level of government intervention we really want and what form it should take. That will require us to forge a much more explicit new settlement, a much clearer social contract than the one we have had to date. We must assess what level of government intervention works in an open economy and how best to deliver it. We will have to go back to the idea that government assistance is on a needs – not an entitlements basis [a change brought about largely by Howard’s strategy of bribing the electorate] and work out which needs we are prepared to support. Our politicians will have to face up to the question of what governments can realistically promise – and what they can no longer pledge to provide – and change their messages accordingly.

I’m looking forward, as always to the correspondence about this essay. It would be good to see a Marxist response, though on past showings there’s unlikely to be one. My own grasp of Marxism is pretty crude and old fashioned, but it seemed to me that what Laura Tingle calls variously ‘the world’ or ‘an open economy’ or ‘market forces’ is actually international capitalism – driven by profit to the exclusion of other considerations. What she calls government paternalism is the role of government in restraining capitalism, protecting people from its ruthlessness. She traces the process by which we have been misinformed and bribed into accepting the dismantling of structures that served the common interest and replacing them with for-profit structures. People’s anger, then, comes not so much from an unreasonable sense of entitlement, as from an intuition that behind the confusing smokescreen of economic techno-talk, and in spite of the many handouts of the Howard era, something valuable has been lost.

6 responses to “Laura Tingle’s Great Expectations

  1. I find Tingle’s historical theorising naive and her documentation one-sided. Someone else called her history theory the school of ‘one damned thing after another’, but she creates a good jumping off board for future discusion by writing a simple narrative of Australia’s political history, with plenty of big targets. I am also afraid that, instead of simply launching discussion, it will be taken as a prescription pad and used as pre-emptive medication by government and the media. The Financial Review, of course, has quoted it uncritically and I listened to some (not all, I admit) of a Philip Adams interview with Laura on the subject and Adams seemed to swallow it whole, like a delicious pill. Furthermore, the comments on his site were all similarly approving and uncomprehending. I wrote an article in response to Tingle’s Quarterly Essay here, “Tingle shoots blanks despite great expectations,” at which isn’t marxist and isn’t capitalist either. (I was there too.)


    • Thanks for commenting, Sheila. Your review does the kind of heavy hitting that I was hoping for. Thank you. I think you may have distorted what Laura Tingle ascribed to Hirst’s books, but I am very grateful for your distinctions between rights and entitlements, and paternalism and authoritarianism, and your pointing to actual material things such as population growth, water shortage, housing problems etc. I don’t suppose you approached Chris Feik of Black Inc to propose yourself as one of the correspondents in the next issue?


  2. Hi Jonathan,
    Thanks for reading my article and commenting on it!
    I found your blog whilst searching for other punchy critiques of Tingle’s article, somewhat mystified to find so few.

    Maybe you should tell me in more detail how you think I distorted Tingle’s use of Hirst. I am open to criticism. Perhaps you feel that more evidence than Watkin Tench was necessary? Here are some more of my reasons for not undertanding how one can objectively endorse an argument, re Australian convicts, that many might have ‘been better off’ than in Britain.

    It seems so flawed by its point of departure – literally. Britain was a terrible land of dispossession that created an endless supply of land-less labour and made laws to force those people to work for anyone with land. But, even if you could find work, the cost of food and rent made survival without crime impossible for many workers.

    Many crimes in Britain were committed out of dire poverty, to get food, clothing or fuel. There were 160 crimes punishable by hanging and many others punishable by transportation to penal colonies overseas. Due to technological change large cohorts had lost their way of earning a living and the enclosure of farmland prevented them from running animals on the commons. Rural drift to the cities compounded the overcrowding and desperation there. The jails were overflowing in 18th century England and after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, America rejected prison ships. Malthus later described the Irish population as outstripping both agricultural production and capital and by 1801, the Irish formed one third of the convict population in Australia. Ireland itself had been repeatedly raped for land and resource by Britain from the time of Elizabeth 1 and even more famously, by Cromwell.

    Australia was so far away from Britain that transportation for poor and convicted convicts was surely the equivalent of being sent to the moon or Mars for all the chance they would have had of returning home or surviving. How can the total loss of freedom, family and familiar surroundings, home – such as it was, under duress, be viewed as some kind of benefit for the weak?

    Add to this the Martian nature of Australia where, as I mentioned, getting a living is unbelievably harsh without mechanised agriculture. Hunter gathering only provides for sparse populations; it cannot stretch to suddenly provide for a few shiploads of disoriented northerners dropped onto the Australian coast. Even after the exporting of convicts was ceased, settlers still required quasi slave labour in the form of indentured servants. Even then, they often let them go because they could not feed them. And, of course, the squatters and officers who would become influential in society, used both political (convict – or convicted by poverty attached to social class) labour and slave labour (Aborigines and Kanaks) to achieve their dominance. Not a pretty history of our elite classes and not a soft one for those they administered according to my standards, with or without the lash. Laura Tingle also mentioned abolitionism in passing, but only re- Hirst and the lash.

    Far more could be said, and needs to be said, about the role of abolitionism in preventing the expansion of non-convict slavery in Australia as well as its role in protecting waged labour.

    Hope this response doesn’t sound caustic. It isn’t meant to be. I am interested in details to contrary.

    (I did just now let Black Books know of my article but I could not find Chris Feik’s contact details, so just sent an inquiry to Black Inc’s contact email address.)



  3. Sheila: Wow! Feel free to be as caustic as you want. That’s a wonderful account of the early settlement conditions. My quibble is very small: your review described John Hirst as saying that ‘convicts during the first settlement were content to use up rations as food was running out and showed no interest in producing food for themselves’. That’s fair enough paraphrase of the passage quoted y Laura Tingle, except for the word ‘content’: I for one read the convicts’ irresponsible (Hirst’s word) behaviour as a symptom of being demoralised rather than content. The paragraph ends, ‘Not if they could help it would the convicts be the settlers of Australia.’ Correctly or not, I thought, he was describing the convicts as engaged in a kind of passive resistance – even a modified hunger strike.

    I’ve just seen the cover of the next issue – at . It will have correspondence from Mark McKenna, Greg Jericho and John Burnheim among others, so it looks as if your concern that the essay will be taken as a prescription pad rather than a launching pad may be addressed – by historian, a political analyst and a political philosopher! They have been known to have further correspondence two issues after the original essay, so it might be worth persisting.


  4. Pingback: Laura Tingle’s Follow the Leader | Me fail? I fly!

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