Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

In defence of clear language

Michael Costa in The Australian

The elevation of Chris Bowen and Mark Arbib has little to do with the power and influence of the NSW Right. It is more a reflection of their personal relationships with the Prime Minister than a consolidation of Rudd’s political base in NSW. After all, Rudd pointedly congratulated Arbib on election night for his support in the election and Arbib was critical in helping Rudd obtain the leadership of the federal Labor Party.

Bowen, in his regular newspaper column, has preached in support of Rudd’s critique of neo-liberalism. It appears Bowen silently held these views even while Rudd claimed to be a fiscal conservative. Fortunately for Bowen his leader is now in alignment with his ideology.

Imagine you don’t know anything about politics except that there are two sides. The Liberals and the Conservatives. Now try and understand that sentence. Apparently it was wrong for this Bowen character to support criticisms of the liberal side, whilst his boss claimed to be on the conservative side. But everythings ok now, because they’ve switched sides. Or something…

This cluttered language of economics is the bane of every first year politics tutor. Again and again you have to explain to students that the Conservatives currently embrace liberal economics, which is now called conservative economics. (All of which is made even more confusing in Australia where the Conservative Party is called the Liberal Party).

All this is the result of a curious twist of fate that in the USA the Liberal Party, the Democrats were captured by a southern rump in the 1960’s & 1970’s, whilst in the UK the Labour Party was captured by its union base. Therefore when the new ressurgence of liberal economics occured through the work of Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and others, the only parties who were willing to even listen to them, were the Conservatives. The Republicans in the USA, and the Tories in the UK. This despite the fact that both Hayek and Friedman rejected the label Conservative for themselves.

Whilst the Conservatives since the 1800’s have generally in favor of more open markets, since they traditionally benefited their wealthy elite constituency, those actually in favor of free markets that encouraged competition and decried unearned wealth (inheritance/Leasers/high interest rate charging lenders etc) have found voices and support on both sides of the aisle in two-party anglo countries. But come the late 1970’s when this new liberal economics was being pushed, and nobody on the left was prepared to listen (it wasn’t an easy sell on the right either, and depended on great individuals like Reagan and Thatcher to convert their party. In Australia where the much less inspiring John Howard lead the fight in the 1970’s & 80’s, it was a long and vicious battle for the economic soul of the Conservative Party – On the other side of the isle, in Government Treasurer Paul Keating (with the general support of the PM Bob Hawke) embraced the new economics, however had to do so in a careful, step by step fashion given their union base. And when these two figures left the stage, the party immediately reverted back to it’s opposition to the new economics (which had become rather synonymous with Conservative politics by then).

Long story short, the convoluted language with which we describe ideology and economic position today really needs to change. It is a hang over from 40 years of economic debate and a quirk of history. It is utterly confusing to most of the public, a barrier to understanding for the interested, and a failed effort at communication by our politicians (some of whom play on it deliberately, such as John Howard’s claim to be conservative whilst undertaking radical steps, or Kevin Rudd’s election claim to be a “fiscal conservative” by which he meant a supporter of liberal economics.

To me it seems the main divide should be the issue of favor for a Open vs a Closed economy. Issues such as welfare states or economic response to a recession are side concerns, and often driven by the tradition of the country (ie Conservatives in the UK & Australia support public healthcare. In the US they dont) than ideological differences. So Rudd at the election pledged to be a strong supporter of a Open economy. Largely he has kept that promise and even been willing (with his deputy Gillard) to march into the Union base of the ALP and uphold that commitment. The Liberal Party has also kept its support for an Open Economy, however it too has been willing to maintain Closed economy support for the monoploy run Australian Wheat Board and all manner of agricultural welfare that supports their coalition partners votes.

These are critical issues that we need to include all the public in as they are discussed. Making the language as clear and accessible as possible is the first start towards making sure we make the right decisions.

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