Upmarket Agitprop: Clive James on John Howard on Bob Menzies

An essay prompted by a friend recommending James’ essay I think largely for its defence of Menzies as worthy of more respect he’s been given by the left – which is a fair point. Cross posted from The Mandarin, which, to my surprise was interested in picking it up.

In my view … the intellectual life of Australia since the Whitlam years has been increasingly weakened by the reluctance of almost the entire educated population to deal with past events whose implications might undermine their heartfelt views.

Clive James

[O]ne does not go about identifying the weaknesses of what another person says in order to prove that one is always right, but one seeks instead as far as possible to strengthen the other’s viewpoint so that what the other person has to say becomes illuminating. Such an attitude seems essential to me for any understanding at all to come about. This is nothing more than an observation. It has nothing to do with an ‘appeal’ and nothing at all to do with ethics. Even immoral beings try to understand one another.

Hans Georg Gadamer


One of my earliest posts on this august blog was a description of my political credo as a conservative liberal social democrat. In any event, when I wrote those words, I was thinking of a political position as a combination of asserted propositions. But I’ve increasingly come to understand the power of the negative. The way I see the world, the three fine political traditions I outlined also exist in crude, dumbed down forms in which left-wing thinking is driven by moralistic sentimentalism and right-wing thinking represents nothing more than the indifference of the privileged against the disadvantaged. Now in principle, you might have a highly sophisticated appreciation of your own position as embodying the finer points of life, but when you’re doing battle with those of different sympathies, it’s always tempting to take the short-cut and do battle with them by just quoting their shadow dumbed-down selves. These are the weapons of choice where ignorant armies clash by night.


If that is a central problem of our time – and I think it is – then political debate needs to pay heed to it in some way. If it doesn’t you’re not really turning up. Of course, if you’re a political operative you can just dip into your side’s demonisation of your opponents and go for your life. After all, university tests have proved these techniques to work, and politics is, in any event, an endless negotiation between ends and means. More pressingly your opponents are going after you using the same methods, so it’s fair enough. This turns me off almost all party political discussion because it’s so drenched in inauthenticity. If I know each contributor to the debate would reverse their position if circumstances were a little different (if they were in Government rather than Opposition for instance or vice versa), I could program a robot or a journalist on auto-pilot to generate the debate.

What we have is a ritual of sense-making without any sense actually being made or even intended to be made. Here we have a simulacrum of an argument in which the disputants disagree but they don’t disagree about anything other than the spin they will arbitrarily impose on the facts – according to the side of the debate their side is committed to at the time. However much respect I have for the individuals involved in party political combat, and without any disapproval towards them for playing by what has become the rules, it’s simply a waste of time. I try to apply what I call my ‘Mandy Rice Davies veto’ to choosing how to direct my attention and I long for the day that newsrooms applied it: If your reaction is “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” it’s clearly not news so why waste your time reading or reporting it. Pope decides not to become a Protestant. Dog eats dogfood – SHOCK.

But imagine if you fancy yourself as some cultural, or intellectual exemplar. Shouldn’t one’s performance intimate some appreciation of these issues? Yet it’s surprisingly rare. I was a defender of Bill Leak’s cartoons about aborigines because it seemed to me they were making a legitimate and very important point. Of course, they did so in a way that could be highly offensive – but offence cuts through. In any event, I can’t really see how he could have made his points in a cartoon without offence. But I only had to see the complacency of the crowd that gathered to celebrate them to disabuse myself of my solicitude. Here’s Sir Les’s Speech interrupting Leak’s speech to welcome his collection of cartoons for a bit of the flavour. If I were to take Bill Leak’s defence seriously I’d want to see him a little more serious about his jokes, a little less encouraging of the insiders’ winks and nods to each other. Leunig, for instance, hasn’t escaped the occasional wrath of the political correctness brigade, but at least in my memory never descended into the groupish tittering about his opponents. Still I can’t really take exception to Bill Leak’s sharing his complacency with all his fellow footsoldiers in the culture war against political correctness. It’s a free country. It just affects my own impression of his bona fides.


However I do take exception to Clive James’ sloppy and tendentious review of John Howard’s biography of Robert Menzies. First, a preliminary personal aside. I think it’s great that John Howard wrote the book. Other than his achievements on gun control and fiscal discipline early in his first term, I didn’t like his Prime Ministership.1 But an interesting feature of Australian life is that not only is it almost impossible to predict someone’s quality as PM before they take office, it’s at least as hard to predict their performance as ex-PM. Whitlam was a momentous, and a deeply flawed PM, and not much of an ex-PM – at one stage advertising photocopiers or some such. Fraser was a pretty lousy PM – though I was biased at the time – but as ex-PM he was a fine leader prepared to be spurned by his own tribe for his principles. Keating so-so on both though I expect almost no-one will agree with me on that. Hawke was easily the best PM of my life, but on shedding the self-denial of his premiership descended into a greedy and fairly lacklustre ex-premiership. For what it’s worth, I think Howard’s a good ex-PM. Seems to be fairly honest and reasonable in his views – given where he’s coming from – and he beavers away on books. What’s there not to like?

Anyway, I celebrate Clive James as a very intelligent fellow, frighteningly well-read in literature and much else besides. I also celebrate his conservatism, not because I particularly agree with it – or disagree with it for that matter (I have a strong affection fo Edmund Burke’s thinking and temperament) – but rather because our cultural landscape is so biased towards the moralistic sentimentalism and identity politics of the soft-left. I’m always on the lookout for those on the right who might be able to provide some balance. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter whether you’ve swallowed a dictionary (as Paul Keating once said of ‘Diamond’ Jim McClelland), the remedy for the agitprop of the left is not agitprop from the right, however large the vocab, particularly coming from someone of James’ cultural and intellectual pretensions. Mandy Rice-Davies’ strictures come to mind.

It’s ignorant to suggest that the ALP is somehow naturally more spendthrift than the LCP. That was the case with Whitlam at least until the Haden Budget of 1975. It wasn’t true of Hawke and Keating. The Rudd Government faced the GFC by following the macroeconomic advice of the Federal Treasury pretty much to the letter organising a very rapid and forceful stimulus – I think the largest in the developed world – and then wound it down just as quickly all as it had been advised. Revenue then fell away leaving a budget hole. It’s true the ALP Government failed to discipline small programs, but that’s not a big story and, at least in my judgement, pales against the Howard Government’s laxity in tipping into the budget almost so much of the torrents of revenue that came its way after the first few years of its term as a result of the reform dividend and the mining boom that followed.


Here’s Clive again:

As in Lazarus Rising, Howard seems wedded … to the proposition that it has taken both of the two main parties, each holding power for a fair share of time, to create the modern Australia. This is a position that few publicists for the current Labor Party wish to hold, but it can be argued that unless they can regain the concept they are doomed to infantilism, if not to oblivion.

Possibly a fair call. Mightn’t it also be worth pointing out when this review was written – a few months before Tony Abbott departed disgraced – that this partiality doesn’t seem to be unique to the left? Later he refers to “Rudd’s [election] policies, most of which were straight out of a draft script for Duck Soup“. It’s a good movie. I recommend it. But I have no idea what James is talking about. The only things I can imagine him meaning are the NBN and the fiscal stimulus both of which became policies after Rudd’s election.

There is one other policy that he could mean. It too wasn’t an election policy – election policies tend to be pretty bland so as not to scare the horses. That’s the resource rent tax which James refers to as “RGR’s kamikaze move to cripple [mining] with putatively anti-capitalist taxes”. This was a tax recommend by a review of five people chaired by the Secretary to the Treasury, Ken Henry with membership from one other departmental secretary (both were appointed secretaries of their respective departments by the Howard Government), Greg Smith an old Treasury hand of innumerable tax reviews, a centrist – for all I know somewhat left of centre – academic John Piggott, and Heather Ridout CEO of the Australian Industry Group. Indeed the tax was so ‘pure’ that it was poorly explained as a super-profits tax rather than a Brown tax the beauty of which is that, in principle, it has no impact on the incentive to invest.2

One thing that was in Rudd’s election policy for 2007 was doing something to limit carbon emissions – something that Howard had been successfully browbeaten into making it a bi-partisan policy. James presumably refers to this policy when he describes it as “controlling the climate by dismantling industry.”


James also offers us some gratuitous observations on the involvement of the CIA in the dismissal:

The believers would rather blame [Whitlam’s] fall on a conspiracy, perhaps instigated by the CIA. (Even a man as smart as Peter Carey can still be heard endorsing this theory to clueless American cultural reporters who wouldn’t know Gough Whitlam from Walt Whitman.) Whitlam himself, to do him credit – he was a dreamer, but not a fool – was always careful, in subsequent years, to say that the CIA had nothing to do with it. But he was up against his own admirers, who did not want to be confused with facts.

Were the CIA involved? I don’t know. I’ve not read up on it much on account of the difficulty of coming to one’s own view in an area dense with facts, counter-facts and theories which I’m happy to leave to those with the time to distill the arguments and come to a reasonable conclusion. As a believer in the cognitive division of labour, I’ll pick up any general consensus that emerges and failing that, I’ll find some people I respect – hopefully of diverse ideological persuasions – and see if their conclusions and speculations can enlighten me. Of course, I’d like to think that the swinging self-assurance with which Clive assures us that only fools think they were involved (and “even a man as smart as Peter Carey”), means that Clive’s done the work for me and I can include him amongst those I trust. You’d think he might be punctilious enough to refer to some source that clears it all up, or at least delivers telling blows against those claiming that the CIA were involved. After all I think it’s the case that they were involved in the removal of Chile’s Allende Government so it’s surely a question worthy of being asked. But that’s to miss the point of what Clive’s up to which is to get the work done with a bit of sneering – the very thing he objects most strongly to in his opponents. Clive’s stature and his self-confidence do all the work a Burkean conservative might have hoped might be done by careful, respectful investigation and debate.

One further point. James could respond that I’m being unfair, that the full quote above isn’t really centred on whether or not the CIA was involved but rather on “the believers” blaming a conspiracy rather than the Government’s poor performance for its woes. But anyone who believes that is a troll and they would say that wouldn’t they? Most of us learned not to dignify them with our time. Who, amongst those worth engaging really believes or even says that the Whitlam Government wasn’t partly responsible for its own downfall. So not only is James taking issue with the weakest views of his opponents, they’re pretty much the fringe. And what political party doesn’t have fringe dwellers who snigger, like all those at the launch of Bill Leak’s cartoons, at their tribe’s enemies.

Meanwhile, excuse me for observing that it remains the fact – as Jenny Hocking’s and Paul Kelly’s continuing investigations continue to reveal – that the Whitlam Government was hemmed in by all manner of constraints from the establishment – political, legal, financial, constitutional (yes, the Queen and her unhappy, plant-whispering son and heir). And mentioning that, wondering about it, arguing about it (while the Australian archives continue to observe the Palace requested embargo on the correspondence between the Palace and Government House), or wondering what if any CIA involvement there was has James trashing you as a naive conspiracy theorist with an IQ lower than skin temperature.


It’s surely a cautionary tale when James ‘lets himself go’ ideologically, as it were, or, to put it another way, engages in debate as culture war. As a result he assumes that arguments he disagrees with arise from his opponents’ foolishness and prejudice when they can be better put to use as a prompt for him to purge his own worldview of those same qualities and work towards something more worthy of his immense talents and achievements.

The general case James makes for Menzies seems reasonable enough, though it’s surely not that contentious in this day and age to observe that, whatever one’s taste, Menzies was a successful Prime Minster with considerable achievements to his name, not least a commitment to broadly egalitarian social and political norms now somehow in eclipse. In that sense, for me anyway, James comes over as the ex-pat in a time warp. (I recall one of Bob Hughes’ TV programs about Australia made in the 1990s or naughties telling us all about ‘larrikinism’. This was the larrikinism fast disappearing over the horizon when I was in short pants).

As might be expected, Clive’s review manages to land some enjoyable jokes.

  1. I’m among a small minority of economists who thought the GST reform wasn’t necessarily beneficial but I salute his political courage in championing it (while regretting it wasn’t spent on economic reform I value more) but I mainly dislike his successful prosecution of the culture wars against brown people. (James chides Noel Pearson for saying that Whitlam was the only politician entirely without race prejudice. He argues that this is “cruelly rude” to Howard. Does he really think that if white Zimbabwean farmers were washing up on our shores they’d end up on Nauru?) I say this even given my strong sympathy with Howard’s side of the culture war’s loathing of left sentimentalism and identity politics.
  2. I’m abstracting from the fact that having been drawn by the mesmeric cleverness of the Brown tax, Treasury was then too clever by half and introduced it in a bastardised form. A proper Brown tax uses the tax system to simulate a joint venture between the private sector and government. Thus with the rate of the tax at 40%, the tax system replicates the financial outcomes of an investment as if it were a 40/60 joint venture between the taxpayer and the government. Accordingly, during the investment phase, the company and the government go 40/60 on their costs with the company getting back via the tax system 40 cents for each dollar it invests. And if profits are made, 40% of them are taxed away to the 40% JV partner – the government. (This is in addition to any other taxes owed.) It’s a beautiful bit of economic engineering because it’s usually impossible to design taxes that don’t distort behaviour. But here, the return on capital remains the same (the upside and downside are just diluted by the government’s participation) so the incentive to invest remains the same at least in principle. In any event, Treasury proposed instead, and the Government bought the idea of leaving companies bearing 100% of their upfront costs with the government’s upfront contribution being deferred and then treated as a loan from the government. And because the contribution was of right and from the government Treasury proposed that it would deem the capital cost of companies financing this part of their venture to be the bond rate – a fanciful thought from an Economics 101 model. Industry would have hated giving up any amount of money, but the way Treasury proposed to introduce it was sufficiently naïve about the way finance works that it made the policy a serious turkey. So in a technical sense, James is right: Labor’s original proposal would have curbed mining investment, but ironically that was the product of Treasury’s missteps, not crude anti-capitalism from Labor. But I digress.
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30 Responses to Upmarket Agitprop: Clive James on John Howard on Bob Menzies

  1. Nicholas
    You nailed your first letter to the imaginary Troppo door in 2005 , at that time Facebook was barely a year old….

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      That’s a little over my head John.

      • Nicholas

        You made your first posts on this august blog in 2005, at that time most of the human race had not heard of Facebook, let alone come to regard Facebook as the source of all news and wisdom.

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          Still over my head I’m afraid. What’s the connection between the post and Facebook – or when Troppo started? (It had an antecedent by the way – Troppo Armadillo.

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          Still over my head I’m afraid. What’s the connection between the post and Facebook – or when Troppo started? (It had an antecedent by the way – Troppo Armadillo.)

        • John Walker says:

          Facebook has supercharged agitprop and tribalism ,so much so that it has created a qualatative change not just a quantitative change.
          For example conspiracy theories are in general intrinsically more believable in a world where we know that the algorithums controlling what’s fed to you can ,and have been , manipulated to effect your mood etc.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Yes, but my piece isn’t about that, and I actually think it’s a big mistake to be blaming social media for our problems here. Social media has definitely exacerbated them, but they had their own strong drivers in our culture and we should be addressing them rather than imagining that they were much less of a problem before social media – or rather that many of the trends that have been accelerated by social media weren’t well underway long before.

    I feel the same about the depredations of vox pop democracy.

    • John Walker says:

      Sorry if it’s too off topic

      I clicked on the link and read that 2005 piece , for the first time.
      Was struck by how much harder it is these days to get people to even briefly consider other views.
      I then realised that 2005 very few got most or virtualy all of their information news etc from ‘friends’ on FaceBook , and very few people spent hours each day tending their facebook page ( they look like digital bower birds endlessly fine-tuning their displays).

      Think Social Media has done a bit more than enhance, there is a’ emergent’ feel about the changes since 2005.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Ah – at last I understand. Sorry to be so obtuse, you were referring to the first link.

        But even so, I’m all for keeping social media out of this – a talking point which is a distraction to the main issues which are far deeper and longer standing.

  3. suburbanite says:

    An interesting piece if not a little old skool.

    I think you are stuck in the past with your focus on the two main parties as part of the old “right/left” dichotomy. There isn’t much in the way of substance to these old categories in terms of action – or even coherent or consistent attempts at ideology. How much of the public belongs to either party or even strongly identifies with them rather grudgingly supporting a lesser of two evils. Have you looked at the voting trends across the anglosphere? Perhaps you might ponder why the mainstream politics is in this place – paralysed in the face of intractable problems and mounting dissatisfaction and disengagement.

    The “right” in your “right/left” dichotomy is now just as effective at using outrage, moralism and identity politics as the “left”.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Sounds obviously wrong to me suburbanite. It’s certainly true that things are very different now, and as I said in the piece, the talking points move around as people seek to manipulate the argument to their advantage. But the ALP and Greens use left of centre concepts, rhetoric and the Libs and NCP use right of centre concepts and rhetoric.

      I’d also argue that, until they’re replaced, and I can’t imagine what they’d be replaced by, there’s a psychological truth to them. The right’s perspective is from a position of power and privilege however much it is, or isn’t, infected with noblesse oblige, while the left strives for some liberation from those structures with varying success.

      Most people buy into that dichotomy in one way or another, acknowledged or not.

  4. suburbanite says:

    I’m not disputing any of that – except its usefulness in understanding the current or near future. The major parties are doing what you say, but I don’t think the public is on board except at a very superficial level. The game of politics is still going on even if the media and the major parties are essentially hollow shells waiting to be colonised or crumble. Just look at how easily Trump took over the Republican party on a fanciful and incoherent platform which can’t be enacted. Turnbull is wedged in by a small and unpopular bunch of hardliners who can veto him and he is reduced to annoucing fluff. I guess this is business as usual?

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Well I’m not disputing any of that either. You called my piece “old skool” – which is fine – I’m not offended – but clearly in your opinion “new skool” would have been more apposite. So could you enlighten me as to what that might have looked like?

  6. suburbanite says:

    Good question and because it was focussed on Clive James and John Howard it was inevitably going to be about the past. Perhaps it would have included the world outside the narrow concerns of The Australian and the Baby Boomer culture wars. Howard was and is a traditionalist and the two forces that ultimately overtook him were demographic change and climate change and both of these are still playing out, but mostly outside of mainstream politics and the commentariat that still stuck in the 80’s.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      But I wasn’t focusing on any of those things (ie the issues about the ALP Government that preoccupied James in his critique of the left). They were illustrations in a critique of the slipshod way James was conducting himself.

      The only way I can see that your points might be relevant to the issues discussed in the piece would have been if it was a piece of political punditry about Howard’s eventual loss of office.

      • Suburbanite says:

        That’s a fair point, and I concede that my comment was off topic. I guess what I was attempting to take issue with is your choice of casting everyone to one side or the other of this “left/right” divide which I think is a peculiar obsession in the west – and one that is losing currency. When you start with this dichotomy everything else follows and anything that doesn’t fit the caricatures of those positions is ignored. But since you are writing about an old culture warrior from the 80’s then perhaps it’s wholly appropriate.

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          I’ve got no problems with being off topic. Just interested in discussion that goes somewhere interesting.

          On your topic and the substance of your apparent disagreement with me, here’s a challenge. Can you link me to some material which you think exemplifies “new skool”, particularly written for general readers, in which you think it would be pretty difficult to identify from the piece whether it was coming from the ‘left’ or the ‘right’.

          I’m sincerely hoping you can as we never get far if we don’t have our priors successfully challenged.

          BTW, if you do submit some links, your comment may get caught up in Akismet, our anti-spam app. Don’t worry, I’ll rescue it when I see it in moderation :)

        • Suburbanite says:

          I have run out of reply buttons. I don’t have a handy link that illustrates it neatly, but I know it when I read it and I find it mostly outside of Australia where there seems to be less of a preoccupation with left/right sides.
          You seem to be taking this to heart – I wrote “An interesting piece if not a little old skool.” I’m not sure I even meant it entirely pejoratively – some of the things that constitute “new skool” are thoroughly unhinged.

          Anyway, since you are asking for sources – I find the writings of the finance economist John Kay interesting. I don’t see him engaging in the culture wars (maybe he does and I haven’t read it). I don’t know where you would locate him on your spectrum. Locally, Peter Martin and Ross Gittins are pretty interesting also.

          Rudd and Turnbull although both largely unsuccessful as leaders seemed to both want to step outside the constraints of their own parties old allegiances at times and I think both did attract tacit support from voters nominally attached to the opposing parties when they did.

  7. Keryn says:

    The Gadamer quote is very appealing – I’d like to live in a society where that was the basis for dialogue. Gadamer’s hermeneutics assumes goodwill on the part of both the the speaker and the listener, an orientation toward meaningful communication.
    ClubTroppo seems to operate with an ethic of goodwill in dialogue, which is nice to see.

    Goodwill seems absent in most public discussion of politics. But I guess a hermeneutic of goodwill first requires respect for difference.

    If most public political ‘debate’ shows little respect for difference, or respect for the listener, is there any place for goodwill? Do we as a society gradually lose our ability to listen and speak with goodwill?

  8. rog says:

    nicholas, can I *like*, this i Like, in all its persuasions of Capitals.

    A good comprehensive intelligent macro post, probably way over my head but I’ll work on it. :-)

    But this thing with Facebook, the comments as such, are people secretly really that crudely hateful and violent or is it just those on Facebook?

    As Keryn asks, where is the goodwill?

  9. Nicholas Gruen says:

    As I indicated in an early response to you Suburbanite, I’m not “taking it to heart”, though I do think that comment is an unfortunate move in the discussion. I think it’s best if we hold off on speculating on each other’s motives and try to let the discussion speak for itself.

    To repeat, I’m not arguing in defence of my piece. I’m trying to figure out what interest there is in this “new skool” genre you identified – at least by implication.

    I like the three economic journalists you identify – and would characterise them as centrists – which is to say I agree with you that they don’t write – with a self-identified ideological leaning to the left or right.

    But there’s a problem – at least for me. I’d have called them ‘old skool’.

    And they’re all baby boomers. Like me :)

  10. Sancho says:

    Enjoyable piece, Nicholas.

    I’ll join Suburbanite in noting, though, that identity politics is hardly a left-wing proclivity.

    Almost all politics is identity politics now – the right just evades the label by couching it in economic terms. E.g., demands from the left for equal legal rights for gays is identity politics, but defunding education, climate research, or welfare from the right is portrayed as simple resource allocation, despite being directly in maintenance of conservative tribal beliefs about social class and economic power.

  11. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Sancho

    Suburbanite’s first comment concludes thus.

    The “right” in your “right/left” dichotomy is now just as effective at using outrage, moralism and identity politics as the “left”.

    When I said I thought what she said was ‘obviously wrong’, my comment related to S’s assertion of the more or less complete obsolescence of the ‘left right’ dichotomy, not to the concluding sentence with which I agree. Which means I broadly agree with your point.

    I’d go further and say that the right have mobilised – and indeed ‘industrialised’ – outrage to their own ends more effectively than the left. They’ve also mobilised identity politics – largely by egging on the working class’s disaffection with the bloodless, globalised, privileged middle class liberalism and speech-policing. It’s not surprising they’ve managed this given they are the preponderant owners of the industrial commanding heights of culture.

  12. derrida derider says:

    On the Gadamer quote, JS Mill said it even better in his “Essay on Coleridge”:

    “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies, sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers: we are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.”

  13. derrida derider says:

    Oh yes, long ago Clive James used to be an interesting – even insightful – read, littered with beautiful one liners. I read a lot of him.

    But prolonged, if socially rewarding, hobnobbing with the pommy “in” crowd has turned his cultural cringe (he’s always been desperate to prove he is not just a colonial bogan) into a tribal Conservatism (note the big “C”). He is now an unimaginative and reactionary angry old man – he hasn’t said anything interesting for many years. Not even any funny one liners.

    • John Quiggin says:

      I never saw the interesting Clive James, but obviously he must have existed once.

    • rog says:

      Clive has had a book of prose, dealing with his imminent and undetermined demise, published and it makes for a gritty read. So I put it back on the shelf, not worth buying at any price.

  14. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Note to self: Jay Rosen’s theory of savviness illustrates the vortex into which we’re all being sucked, and into which Clive beckons.

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