Rebecca Huntley’s Advance Australia

Rebecca Huntley, Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation (Quarterly essay 73)

This Quarterly Essay confirms me in my decision to delay reading each QE until the following issue has appeared. That way I get to read the correspondence while the original essay is fresh in my mind. With this issue, it has an extra advantage. Rebecca wrote Australia Fair in the lead-up to the recent Federal election, challenging Bill Shorten and his team – who she expected to win – to be bold enough to revivify Australian social democracy. The ALP lost, emphatically, and no one expects a Scott Morrison government to be interested in social democracy. So I read the essay shorn of its immediate persuasive goal, and it turns out to be a very interesting argument about where the majority of Australians stand on a number of key issues

Rebecca Huntley is a social and market researcher, involved, as she says, ‘in the “dark arts” of focus groups, polling, surveys, and strangers who ring you in the middle of dinner’. Her husband, when asked what his wife does for a living, replies, ‘She’s an expert in the opinions of people who don’t know what they are talking about.’ She’s been at it for many years, and can speak with some authority about general community attitudes on a number of topics.

She argues in this essay that the mainstream Australian population is much more progressive than our politicians. After some pages discussing the term ‘social democracy’, and research from many sources into community understandings of the role of government in a democracy, she comes to the conclusion that fairness – both for individuals and the collective – matters more to Australians than freedom (the reverse of what we generally believe to be the case in, say, the USA):

The point of democratic government is to do things for people, not to prevent government from doing things to people

(page 17)

She goes onto some detail on housing and homelessness; the environment and climate change (‘the defining issue for voters judging a prime minister’s leadership skills and character’); immigration, refugees and asylum seekers. On each of these subjects she demonstrates – though less clearly on the last mentioned than the others – that the majority of us, as in the case of the postal survey on same-sex marriage, want change for the better in ways that our political leaders simply don’t represent. And politicians are held in very low regard, seen as in thrall to their donors and not committed to the public good.

She pleads with Bill Shorten to step up boldly and restore a robust social democracy, winning back our respect for the parliament in the process. Who knows if he would have done it? On the strength of Anthony Albanese’s recent caving in on the Morrison government’s tax legislation, it seems unlikely. What emerges from the essay, then, is an optimistic view about the Australian population in general, and a deep pessimism about the current state of our democracy.

The correspondence is all dated post election. None of the correspondents takes a pot shot at the pollsters for getting it so wrong, but they all grapple with the paradox of a generally progressive population having voted for a nakedly reactionary government. They are all interesting. I’ll just mention James Walker’s final point. He cites Walter Lippmann (‘one of the pioneers of opinion research’) who warned that we should be wary of ‘the phantom public’. There is no single public out there, but any number of emergent entities, ‘continually evolving in response to political action and representation’. Walker goes on to quote one of Tony Abbott’s most striking pieces of feral poetry:

Thus Tony Abbott, always ready with simplifying binaries, articulates the crucial factor in how belief around climate change was mobilised in the 2019 campaign: ‘Where climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough. But where climate change is an economic issue the Liberals do well.’ The responses Huntley records might well be construed as answers to a normative question: ‘What should we do?’ But the actions of voters on the day can be thought of as an evaluation of economic interests. The Coalition, in successfully mobilising climate action as an economic issue, created a countervailing ‘public’ to that which Huntley and others thought representative of the zeitgeist.

(Page 80)

Rebecca Huntley’s response to corespondents is elegant, a little mea-culpa-ish but unbowed. ‘The conclusion to draw,’ she writes.

is not that Australia is no longer progressive or no longer cares about equality or is becoming like America, or that all social research lacks credibility. The conclusion is that the lack of trust the electorate has in politicians has undermined its belief that structural reform – whether that be economic, social or environmental – is something that can be delivered by the politicians running the show …
The challenge is to take what the majority of Australians want and connect that with a government they feel comfortable electing. The alternative is a race to the bottom.

‘I remain,’ she concludes, ‘a defiant optimist. Just one who now recognises the scale of the challenge ahead.’

Australia Fair is the thirtieth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

10 responses to “Rebecca Huntley’s Advance Australia

  1. I can’t remember what I did with this QE. I know I couldn’t bear to read it.
    I like to think I’m a defiant optimist too, but my faith in my fellow Australians has been shaken by their vote at the last election.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, and how about the current QE, on How Morrison Won and Shorten Lost! Susan Carland’s piece in the correspondence section speaks for a common experience: she says she had an unfamiliar sensation as she read the essay, which she realised was hope, but hope closely joined to frustration


  2. I was outside Australia, as you know, at the time of the election, already by the time my wife and I voted in the Embassy in Zagreb some two months, and had had no chance to read this essay. I feel though, a little as Lisa explains – that had I been here – I may have felt too “fatigued” by the games politicians and pollsters were playing to read the Essay. And like you, Jonathan – I am totally dismayed by Albanese – the first time with his tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum puppet appearance alongside the appalling Dutton. At this point I want to say keep an eye out on the soon-to-be-released movie “Official Secrets” starring Keira Knightley – the true story of Katherine Gun the UK whistleblower who revealed that the US NSA was asking Britain for help in turning the UN ambassadors of half-a-dozen countries (Mexico, Angola, Chile, etc) to “persuade” them to support the US and the UK in having the Security Council vote in favour of their proposed “legal” war against Iraq back in early 2003 – which they illegally went ajead with anyway. I’ve been reading Democracy Now with presenter Amy Goodman if you want to go directly to the source. I am off topic now (sort of) but the trustworthiness or otherwise of politicians is at the heart of this matter – and the untrustworthiness is on an ever-steepening downward curve from my perspective! Thanks for this bit of politics in any event J.


  3. Anne Bell Knight

    Oh,for goodness sake..Concentrate on Ruby and her reading list..much more cheerful and worth while.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ann, you are a rock! I have your ‘Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered’ print just inside my front door to remind me that the wind blowing back a dog’s ears is worth noticing, and that cartwheels, or in my case the idea of them, should happen as often as possible.


  4. Anne Bell Knight

    Of course.How very satisfactory.

    Liked by 1 person

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