Privilege in Australia, Part III

In the first two parts, the readers and I looked at the long list of sectors in Australia where there is a privileged minority who, with the help of the government, is in a position to extract more than their fair share of income out of the economy. Medical specialists, GPs, banana growers, pharmaceuticals, etc., have all managed to get political protection and favouritism to push their cause at the expense of the rest.

The question in this part is the role of the basic design of the political system in all this: how is privilege tackled in different political systems? Independent institutions with the power to oust privileges in their area would seem to me the way to go. Let me explain.

To get a handle on what the politics is, we have to get more precise on what the problem is and hence what is meant by privilege.

I envisage privilege quite similarly to how I would envisage political rent-seeking: a privilege is a preferential economic treatment by the powers-that-be. In the current era this would thus mainly include laws favourable to the economic activities of a particular group or preferential access to government contracts and recurrent favours.

At the lower end of the spectrum the privileged includes groups who manage time and again to convince the government to spend lots on money on things that needs them to produce it (such as unnecessary or overly expensive infrastructure), whilst at the higher end of the spectrum the privileged include groups whose status and income is fully legally protected (such as the medical specialists).

As detailed in part II, privilege that is maintained over time starts to have a face that includes a story of how it is not really a privilege at all, complete with bogus scientific stories on how useful it is for society that the privileged are there. Privilege thus gets entrenched in the story of this country and thus gets tentacles in the population and in science.

Tackling privilege gets harder the more entrenched a group is: when they have managed to secure favourable laws and long-lasting ties with political connections to boot, exposing and ousting them needs a major effort by a concerned group willing to campaign and analyse the situation for years until, eventually, some politician runs with it and gives the privileged group the coup-the-grace via an overturning of legislation. John Howards’ assassination of the gun lobby in this country was a good example of something that had already been simmering for a long time and where dedicated groups were calling for years to have stricter gun controls. The role of those advocates get forgotten in history as we, the lazy onlookers, merely remember the crises at the end of the road of the ousting of an entrenched group, in the case of the gun lobby the shootings in Tasmania and the ensuing actions by John Howard.

Now, thinking of the basic politics of this, there are three key issues. The first is the arrival of new privileges, the second is the ability of civic society to recognise and campaign against privilege, and the third is the ability of the political system to then oust the privilege.

In terms of civic society recognising and campaigning against privilege, the advent of the internet, citizen journalists, and an increase in highly educated and well-paid professionals means that the ability of outsiders to spot and campaign against privilege is unprecedented. Indeed, that ability is now so great that the market is flooded with would-be privilege fighters. Yet, what this essentially means is that all privilege now needs to cloak itself in a ‘face’. What hence matters more is the ability of a political system to prevent or oust privilege.

In the arrival and ousting of privileges, the basic set-up of the political system matters: the more transparent and well debated each item of legislation and public expenditure is, the more difficult it is to slip in some favoured treatment. The more discretion there is on the side of the politicians, the greater their ability to do others favours and to receive payment in one way or another.

What systems are more accountable and open and widely debated? It will be the systems where openness is an entrenched habit and the involvement of large parts of the population in political decision making is routine. The usual poster-boys of this are Switserland and the Scandinavian countries (ably discussed by Alan at Troppo in the comment thread to the second part). Let us discuss their systems and see how they differ from the ones in the US, after which we can see what is relevant for Australia.

The Swiss system of continuous referenda on everything imaginable clearly will do a good job in making it very hard to get privileges on the books or to keep them there once the population gets wind of them. Similarly, the Scandinavian habits of extreme openness in their public administration makes it very hard for a group to gain privilege and means those privileges get taken down very quickly once the population has realised they are there.

Yet, Switserland and the Scandinavian countries have small populations and highly egalitarian cultures in which openness and a natural tendency to want to control and debate what those in power do is entrenched. They are not representative of either proportional representation democracy nor of the vast majority of the representative democratic systems in the world. So it is not realistic to think of them as models Australia can adopt fully.

How are Switserland and the Scandinavians different from, say, the US where states also have lots of referenda and there is more openness than Australia? For one, money matters a lot less in those countries as there would be deep distrust and aversion to anything seen to need a glib media campaign. Politicians simply have little use for massive campaign funds.

The kind of vitriolic negative advertising that money buys in the US would completely backfire in Scandinavia and Switserland precisely because it goes against their egalitarian and communal ethos: it would be seen as deliberately creating divisions for cheap economic gain. So instead, in those countries, advocacy has to work through bogus research reports and slowly convincing the population of a whole story. Similarly, politicians get elected on the basis of reputations for honesty and conviction and open support of big money would count against them.

So if you think about it, the Swiss and Scandinavian examples tell you that openness and involvement means privileges can only be obtained and maintained by convincing a whole population of their use. Getting rid of them is then like getting rid of an entrenched privilege in Australia: a long slog.

By contrast, in the US system privilege can get in via the back-door: via the need of politicians for campaign funds. How do they then get in when there is so much openness and scrutiny? Via compromise laws.

Let me explain: the legislative system in the US makes it so easy to oppose new legislation that only broad coalitions can get mayor new initiatives through. So anything new that comes up and needs new legislation, such as a new healthcare system or legislation on new phenomena like the internet or biological threats, inevitably will get held ransom by the legislative bodies who find they can block anything they want to.

And what do they demand? They demand not just perks for their electorate (which is not necessarily a bad thing) but also, more importantly, perks for those who fund their campaigns. And that is where the privileges can get into the system and where they manage to maintain themselves. One of the few ways to then get rid of existing privileges is to simultaneously create new ones where one can count on the backing of those pushing new privileges to support the ousting of the old ones.

How does the US system cope with this tendency to adopt and then maintain privilege? It basically seems to cope by creating extraordinarily powerful independent institutions specifically charged with ferreting out particular privileges. This includes the anti-trust bodies, the Federal Reserve, the Health and Safety Authorities, etc. Essentially American politics now and then gives rise to a large outcry against a perceived problem with entrenched privilege and this translates into new institutions that then independently fights those privileges.

Now, if we think of this from an Australian perspective, I would say we are in-between the Scandinavians and the US. Whilst we have regional representatives and two legislative chambers that can block legislation, like the US, the party discipline is much stronger as a result of a less diverse electorate and more political competition.

You see, our unique system of full preference voting makes it very simple for opinions, carried by a large part of the population but neglected by the major parties, to become visible in a new party, which in turn means the major parties need to be more flexible in their opinions. Enforcing the party line needs strong discipline. This goes for environmental issues, family issues, agricultural issues, etc. They all become visible and incorporated very quickly in our system.

It is thus easier in our system to get new legislation as well as to legally get rid of bad legislation. The lack of an extremely stipulated constitution furthermore means there are less constraints on what our legislative assemblies can do. In that sense, we are more like Scandinavia.

Yet, on the other hand, the federalist system does mean that there are areas like health and education and water where central legislation is much harder and we are much closer to a US-style system in terms of difficulties.

Where our system has US-like similarities is in the quite strong degree of apathy from the general population, which gives rise to the possibility for well-funded groups to manipulate the population and to defend privilege once obtained.

In turn, this apathy partially derives from the strong culture of secrecy that has taken over the workings of ministers in recent decades: for one reason or another, which historians are best placed to explain, real decision making has become very secretive and politicians have been forced to become two-faced, telling the population whatever story it demands to hear whilst on the other hand also having to make real decisions based on entirely different considerations. This creates apathy.

The apathy also aggravates the pressures to be secretive: in the 24-hour news cycle culture we now have, any real openness is quickly punished by the political opponents and journalists looking for a quick sensation. Anyone who does not tell the population what it wants to hear on any sensitive issue is simply very quickly put to the sword.

Within this bad equilibrium, there is a ‘grand way forward’ and there is a ‘muddling through’ way forward. The grand way forward is to become far more open and self-monitoring in our politics, ie to become more Scandinavian.

The grand way forward includes full openness of all the important meetings, reports, and deliberations going into policy. It includes federal integrity officers who ensure the openness of parliamentarians and, quite possibly, an extended use of referenda to involve the population in the political process. The Gov 2.0 initiative championed by Nicholas Gruen is very much in that mould. The hope is that this will eventually translate into better policies and hence a quicker public discovery and ousting of privilege.

The ‘muddling through’ way forward would be to expect secrecy to win out against the move towards greater openness, and hence Australian politics to remain riddled with discretion and hidden privilege seeking and granting.

Yet, Australian democracy does work in the longer run, so the muddling through option has its own logic as to how privilege gets dealt with, and this is to follow the American mould of increasingly outsourcing the job of tackling privilege to independent institutions. This includes strong budget offices that independently calculate the effects of policy changes and the current costs of privileges, again championed by Nicholas Gruen. It could include independent institutions to deal with medical education and pharmaceuticals (something I am keen on). It could include new budgetary institutions to vet and give initial approval to initiatives like the NBN or defence contracts. There is even talk of independent institutions via which to announce and thus pre-commit on policy evaluation (Deborah Cobb-Clark seems to be calling for this one).

At the moment, there are many initiatives in Australia to tug us into either the openness direction or the ‘trusted independent institutions’ direction. Some people seem to favour both and perhaps we will get a mix of both, but I personally think that secrecy is too strong at the moment in Australia to successfully tackle. Secrecy remains the managerial reflex of those at the top as it protects their interests, including their economic interests for politicians who grant privileges get rewarded by the infamous revolving door (just look at where former prime ministers end up!), but it is also the culture that fits the increasing economic inequality in this country.

So my more realistic hope is in strong independent institutions as the political vehicle for tackling privilege. What further institutions would the readers then advocate we should have?

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47 Responses to Privilege in Australia, Part III

  1. Alex Roberts says:

    Interesting post. On the forces for/against secrecy – as more and more information is readily available in digital and accessible forms (which technology and standards are pushing towards), might we reach a point where organisations, particularly public sector organisations, have to consider a future where secrecy is too costly? Keeping secrets isn’t easy, and it’s not convenient. The ability of any one individual to accidentally or purposefully release vast troves of information to which they have access is steadily increasing. While there are costs to such action, they obviously haven’t been sufficient to stop it from happening (as they keep happening).

    I’m not saying this situation applies yet, rather that as the technology advances and the ease of capturing, recording and distributing information increases, I do wonder if ‘secrecy’ might no longer be a viable strategy.

  2. john r walker says:

    Paul I Haven’t the time to really digest this interesting post… will have to wait till weekend.

    However , because it is so obvious that too much privilege has ‘cost’ so many societies – often to the point of ruin and folly , it begs a question- why has privilege not been more actively selected against?
    Are there benefits to a society in having some degree of privilege ?
    Is there good privilege?…

    Alex Re more “information” there might be a Gödelian limiter .

  3. Alan says:

    I will have something to say on this subject, but this is more a question to Ken. Of the 10 prime ministers since Menzies, 5 have left office in circumstances not of their own choosing apart from an election. What would happen were a different prime minister to give the governor-general different advice about the election date before the dissolution of the house or the issue of writs?

  4. Paul Frijters says:


    as a fan of wikileaks I have been hoping that technology would make it hard to keep secrets, but so far the ability of technology to erode them has been elusive. You see, technology also makes it easier to monitor the social activities of everyone and thus the enforcement of confidentiality and ‘national interest’ techniques. With everyone’s personal life on the web it is harder to hide from government so in a way their ability to enforce secrets has gone up. Sometimes that is a good thing (I do not want nuclear technology on the web!).


    interesting question. One can certainly make the case that special interests groups have been instrumental in major beneficial changes (like the advent of democracy in Europe in the 18th and 19th century wherein a new economic elite gradually replaced the older one). But in the modern era? Plenty of examples of bad effects of privilege, particularly if one reflects on the potentially devastating effect of privileges had by a military class such as the Prussian military establishment. I guess one might make the case that a privilege also makes it possible to control someone since their privilege makes them vulnerable and hence obedient. That might be a good thing in circumstances where you really rely on them though I am struggling to think of realistic examples of this kind of ‘noblesse oblige’.


    I guess you are looking for a discussion on the Gillard announcement. Seemed like a good move to me. The longer the campaign the better for Gillard, particularly since she has given the Liberals enough time to have leadership challenges.

  5. Alan says:

    Really it strikes me as the classic Labor right announceable, sounds good but changes nothing. It seems to me (although I could be wrong) no more than a statement of intent that in no way binds this prime minister, any other prime minister or the governor-general. I doubt it will effect the timing of policy launches, the rhythm of the campaign, or anything else very much. I suspect it has more to do with the Labor leadership and possibly, a certain Victorian police investigation. At least the venue did not allow the Labor right’s fetish for hard hats and fluoro vests.

  6. Alex Roberts says:

    Paul – but perhaps the same will likely apply to future ‘secret keepers’? Government is not amorphous and the individuals within it will have clearer social ties and links that might make them more accountable, if only to their social peers. (An interesting thing to consider is how future spies will manage – there was an article last year about people without Facebook/social media presences being seen as less trustworthy). It might indeed be easier to know who might release the information, but there might also be an increased social cost for those who attempt to keep the secrets. But I take your point, it is certainly not inevitable. (And sorry to take you off topic!)

  7. Julie Thomas says:

    John and Paul, re the adaptiveness of privilege seeking behaviour; this paper seems to me to shed some light on that.

    The authors argue that ” firstly, that a substantial
    amount of intra-cultural moral diversity can be attributed to individual
    differences in the operation of our moral psychology; secondly, that
    these individual differences exist because the very nature of the problems
    of social living meant that evolution was not able to settle upon a
    single psychological type that reliably produces adaptive behaviour in
    every social environment. Instead, a diversity—or ‘polymorphism’—of
    psychological types working together tended to be more evolutionarily
    stable, thus maintaining the polymorphism of psychological types in
    our species over time.”

    They do not specifically mention this and the focus is on moral values, but it is not too out there to suggest that one of the personality types would actively seek to benefit themselves more than others; the individualists. These are the people who drive the society toward progress and growth? And also those who ‘go bad’ and turn out to be psychopaths if their environment is sufficiently dysfunctional.

    At the other end of the distribution of personality types would be those personality types who internalise social values and are more likely to want to ‘help people’ and less likely to aspire to the psychological satisfaction that comes from being privileged.

    You would be surprised, or maybe not, but I was, when I marked nursing assignments amazed by the number of people who do want to help others. Nurses, male and female, say it all the time, even when it is inappropriate to put this in the assignment! And this, despite all the encouragement over the past decades for us to value self interest. Also, the nurses I know, really, really do get value and satisfaction in their lives from helping and giving to others.

    The paper is the first I have seen that explicitly proposes that the different personality types are essential for the way humans have been able to adapt to so many diverse environments and to construct so many different cultures.

    And another speculative suggestion that I don’t have any reference for; do you think that the caste system in India came about from an attempt to assign an appropriate type of work and lifestyle to the different personality types?

    • Paul frijters says:

      As the emergence of the caste system was explained to me, castes started out as mere labels for professions and people changes castes as they changed profession. Then the labels became inheritable when the higher professions started to prevent competitors getting into their gig. Pure economic opportunism, unrelated to personality. Privilege seeking.

      Love and the associated desire to care for others is certainly out there, but I would in general think nearly all of us are partially selfish and partially care for others, depending more on circumstances than personality. It is an intriguing idea that we would have seen genetic selection across cultures in the last few thousand years, but I doubt it would have been on something as derived as personality. Skin colour, disease resistance, perhaps levels of testosterone and restlessness. There is probably some link with the prevalence of personalities but it is early days.

  8. Julie Thomas says:

    Paul, “Pure economic opportunism, unrelated to personality. Privilege seeking.”

    That is way too simple; ‘economic man’ is a failure. People are not all the same and ‘the vibe’ does affect behaviour. Some people are more likely to seek privilege and the dominant values of the society can be manipulated to manage how much privilege seeking is a good thing.

    Personality is a manifestation of the underlying genetic structure. I am not saying that there is any ‘love’ or ‘desire to care for others’. it’s all brain chemistry. These behaviours all arise as a function of our genetic inheritance and how it modified by the environment, physical, emotional and social and also by the fact that we live in a probabilistic universe.

    And just as some of us, because of our genetic structure, are more likely to seek privilege for ourselves, there are others, who have brain chemicals that provide them with good feelings when other people give them positive feedback. It just feels good to some people when they ‘help’. Perhaps they are just seeking the privilege of being ‘better’ in some way but whatever.

    Of course, this type of personality can only be successful if there is no economic scarcity. I do ignore, or minimise the economic imperatives when speculating. Sorry :)

    There are a couple of things on which, not much evidence I admit, I based my idea about the caste system. There was a doco on India some time ago on SBS. One very ancient Indian civilization had survived unchanged for thousands of years. There was an artisan family who could document their descendants, who had all been in the same trade, for some amazing number of generations.

    Also some things I have read about the Sadhus suggested that they were proud of the way they were ‘different’ type of person from the rest of the society. They seemed to be saying that they did not want to be part of society, they were there to look after society. There were other indications, that seemed to me, with my own idiosyncratic way of thinking, that they might be similar to the type of person that we call ‘aspergers’.

    Anyway, it’s all very interesting and I have enjoyed reading your India posts. Thanks.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      Hi Julie,

      as chance would have it, I have a book forthcoming on love, greed, power, and all the other things you mention above so I guess we should reserve a more in-depth chat about those things for when that one comes out (see here) later this year. On such matters, I am more in agreement with you than you might expect from an economist!

      As to the caste system and your anecdote about some documentary claiming a stable Indian culture, I am very skeptical about any agricultural society having existed that remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years. I cant think of any, which reflects the reality that agricultural societies have an inherent surplus up for grabs for invaders and local warlords (kill the competitors, milk the farmers) who will each bring their own bit of culture. So I would dispute the claim that a region of India was the same for thousands of years and basically dont believe for a moment any family can trace its ancestry back a thousand year. Such claims remind me of the hordes of kings and noblemen in the Middle ages who had impressive family trees going back to King Arthur of Camelot. Sounds like pure romanticism to me to think some Indian artesan can possibly truly know what the 1024 ancestors of 10 generations back (merely 250 years) were all doing, let alone a family tree for a thousand years.

      On castes in India there is thus a lot of Western urban romantic storytelling doing the rounds. We would have to ask an expert on Indian caste history to tell us the most likely story, though in India too you get quite a bit of romanticism about the past so we’d need to get a good one. For now, I am sticking to what my informants (hard-nosed Indian academics) are telling me, which is that castes are the Indian equivalent of medical specialists here in Australia: economically motivated groups carving out personal benefits at the expense of others.

      • Alan says:

        I am not an Indian academic, but India has been through as many major changes as any other society.

        Hinduism itself did not really assume its current form until relatively late in Indian history. The Hinduism of the Vedas is very close to the standard Indo-European model with very close match-ups, often even linguistic, between gods like Varuna and Ouranos. The current form of Hinduism only emerged after a long period when India was basically a Buddhist country. In the last thousand years alone you’d have to look at the almost total disappearance of Buddhism, the Muslim conquest, the later Mughal conquest, the cultural and religious expansion into Southeast Asia, the physical expansion on the Bengal frontier, the British conquest. That’s not a bad record for unchanging India.

        Truly, It’s amazing how much the mysterious East gets romanticised into an eternal unchanging source of wisdom and India is probably the worst example of this. It’s as though an Indian tried to base their understanding of Europe entirely on reading about King Arthur.

        • Paul Frijters says:

          :-) yes, I know you have a thing against simplifications of Eastern history. I remember your anger at the current tendency of scholars outside and inside China to invent a myth of a stable and homogenous imperial China!

  9. conrad says:

    ” I am very skeptical about any agricultural society having existed that remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years”

    It would be very surprising if there were not some of these that existed in pre-history given that we know humans were farming stuff as far back as 10,000 BC and there weren’t thrilling population pressures. Given humans didn’t get very far for many thousands of years after that, it’s hard to see how at least some groups of people wouldn’t have been hanging around doing the same sort of things for large tracts of time.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      Let’s think about that one, roughly following the Jared Diamond line on this: yes, agriculture goes back a long way and for the first 5000 years or so has no written history to illuminate us. But this is not to say it was unchanging as agriculture became gradually more sophisticated, involving crop rotation, storage, more domesticated animals, transport, etc.
      Politically there was also a progression in those early years: agriculture went from small villages to clusters of villages to headships to small kingdoms to large kingdoms, all the while witnessing migration streams (if only due to climate changes!), changes in soil and in the landscape, and the advent of diseases. The logic of an available surplus to fight over was present for that whole time and the inherent tendency for an existing elite to lose its edge and thus be vulnerable to takeover by a new one will also have been there.

      Consider next the population pressure issue: even at a relatively low rate of population increase of 1%, you would have a doubling of population every 70 years, meaning that 1 person become 1024 after 700 years. So any superior technology in any remotely connected region that allowed a population increase will eventually have been felt by adjoining regions within a matter of centuries, not millenia.

      Whilst the lack of written history makes it hard to verify any such claims hence, on the face of it there is just too much potential for change to envisage any agricultural society living an unchanged lifestyle for millenia. But I will admit it is not impossible.

  10. Julie Thomas says:

    Paul, I look forward to reading your book.

    The doco seemed to me to be ‘unromantic’, although perhaps overly ‘amazed’ and ‘breathless’ at the vagaries and differences between Indian cultures. Definitely an attempt to sensationalise and shock us with the cultural differences that can be found.

    Talking of cultural differences and SBS and totally off-topic, have you seen the Lady-boy programme? I think it is on SBS. India has them also, I think?

    But the doco was on the casting of bronze and some sort of statue that has been produced for a particular temple, as I remember, so there are records that this job has been passed down in the same generation for a bloody long time. They did mention the actual number of generations – maybe 600? – but being the type of person who prefers not to ‘store’ numbers in my memory, all I can remember is being impressed by the length of time that they claimed this ‘civilization’ had survived virtually unchanged but sceptical about calling it a ‘civilization’.

    But if it wasn’t agricultural society, if it was based around a temple that had never been ‘invaded’ – too unimportant to conquer? – that would make more sense perhaps.

    I am not a romantic about the realities of hunter-gatherer life but I am sure that it was not nasty brutal and short, as many conservatives believe, and I think we can find more efficient ways of managing ourselves by understanding how they did things.

    • Alan says:

      The documentary in question can be found on YouTube. The bronze-casting lineages of Swamimalai in South India claim to be 600 years, not generations old. 600 generations would be 15000 years, which is far below any possible horizon for agriculture, let alone metal-working, Hinduism or temple-building. According to the documentary only 35% of the bronze-workers are members of these lineages. It is really hard to see Swamimalai as an example of the caste system working successfully.

      The city of Swamimalai was part of the Chola empire and subject to invasion in the wars associated with that empire in the usual way. The Chola dynasty itself was destroyed by Hindu rivals in 1279.

  11. john r walker says:

    The boundary between “strong independent institutions” and privileged lawless institutions is fuzzy. The power to refuse ‘MD’ status is both a necessary protection of the public and a privilege, no? “Strong independent institutions” without transparency and accountability to elected parliaments are vunerable to becoming lawless independent institutions( the history of the statutory autonomous government Arts sector since 1975 makes this plain. )

    Drawing on Burke , a degree of privilege and the rule of law are actually two sides of the same coin, no?

    • Paul Frijters says:

      yes, I do think there is something to this. Independent institution, after all, beg the question who watches the watchers. Like privileges themselves though, I would see strong independent institutions as institutions ultimately answerable to parliament such that institutions that become captured or that simply run foul of a whole political movement get axed.

  12. Alan says:

    The arts sector is not organised in ‘strong independent institutions’. Most are under more or less direct ministerial control, and that can clash both with transparency and accountability to parliament.

    A better example of strong independence is the the current ICAC hearings into the Obeid/McDonald scandal in NSW. I am all in favour of transparency and accountability to the parliament, but that is not the same as being under ministerial control. There are area of governance where the interests of ministers, and also of the two big parties, clash directly with transparency and accountability. The classic example, of course, is the courts.

    Over the last 30 years or so, best practice has been to increase the independence of institutions such as ombudsmans, auditors-general, electoral commissions, fiscal councils, and so forth by including them in the constitution. An example would be the Ghai constitution draft just trashed by the military dictatorship in Fiji:

    Section 144 (5) Each Independent Commissions or Office is established to––
    (a) protect the sovereignty of the people and the public interest;
    (b) uphold the rule of law, and promote the observance of democratic principles
    and values by all State organs; and
    (c) maintain constitutionality and integrity by insulating essential democratic
    functions from improper influence, manipulation or interference.

    There is probably a case for an commission that identifies economic rents and advises the parliament (not the executive) whether or not they are in the public interest. The analogy with the Productivity Commission is fairly close.

    • john r walker says:

      Would not disagree if you are talking about pork barrels like ‘regional arts’.

      However , the OZCO has been ‘hands off’ statutory status since 1975. It was one of the last things the Whitlam government did. This granting of autonomy was done in the face of public evidence of unacceptable (and unrepentant) practices/structures within the existing council structure -for example numbers of phantom employes .

  13. Mike Pepperday says:

    Culture is very commonly claimed to explain the good or the bad in a nation or ethnic group. But it is not testable or falsifiable. In specific terms, I could go along with Scandinavia being egalitarian but not Switzerland, the second home of capitalism, winter playground of the hyper-rich, and land of the world’s poshest finishing schools and most expensive medical services.

    Small population, also, is often mentioned. I feel this ought to be true, especially of Norway where I lived for a year, yet how does it explain anything? Is Germany with its big population more corrupt than Norway? Any alleged “entrenched national tendency” is just saying that the Swiss are like this because they are Swiss and the Scandinavians are like that because they are Scandinavians.

    “They are not representative of either proportional representation democracy nor of the vast majority of the representative democratic systems in the world. So it is not realistic to think of them as models Australia can adopt fully.”

    To the first sentence: there are four Scandinavian countries which is about a third of all the PR countries that exist. Thus they have got to be “representative of” PR. The second sentence is a non-sequitor—not that Australia is likely to adopt them fully. Australia has, of course, adopted PR in all but one of its upper houses and since the lower house is the creature of the executive (except where minority govt) it is the upper house which influences legislation.

    Money matters less in Switzerland? I can think of no country where money matters more. It isn’t any “egalitarian and communal ethos” that prevents money buying favour. It is political institutions, for example that every law is subject to disapproval by referendum. There is simply no point in attempting to bribe ministers for (a) they can’t do anything (Imagine the effect if every bill our federal government passed had a referendum hanging over it before it could become law.) and (b) they will not lose their positions at the next election. (The rest of the world labours under the delusion that democracy consists of kicking the rascals out.)

    Politicians wouldn’t support big money? Some Swiss referendums have big money spent on them (there is no legal restriction) and the cantons compete to offer tax breaks to industry. Communal ethos? The sophisticated, industrialised French hate the rustic German farmers’ guts, and the majority Germans roll their eyes with impatience at French pretentions. One of the few things they agree on is that Switzerland is a so-called “nation of the will” ie not a natural entity.

    Vitriolic advertising would backfire? Those election posters showing black sheep and black and brown hands became world famous but the results indicate that they didn’t backfire at home.

    In the end, whether Switzerland is as you describe or as I describe, finding cause in national and ethnic culture is, in effect, to blame or praise the inhabitants themselves, as though they have some character deficiency or quality. Failing any genuine link, attributing causal power to culture, or to a polity’s small size, with a view to ignoring those cases because they are exceptions, is a way to evade inconvenient data.

    It is having good institutions—a good constitution—which makes or breaks and there are valuable lessons to be learnt by examining the institutions of exceptions which are well-run.

    • Paul frijters says:


      Yes, culture is a difficult beast but this does not mean you will get very far in your understanding of politics by pretending it does not exist.
      Yes, Switzerland is egalitarian. Lots of small communities wherein every person is deemed equally important.
      Lots of countries have PR in some part of their democratic institutions. Distinctions between pure PR and the rest are fairly arbitrary. By PR I mainly mean that an important part of the representative elected are voted in by PR. The whole of Scandinavia is only, what. 25 million? Less than some US states and way less than Indian states.
      If you think it is just about constitutions and written laws than I encourage you to look at many African countries that had beautiful constitutions and institutions just before they turned dictatorship. Egypts previous constitution was fin, for instance. I am afraid you thus really do need to take culture seriously if you want to understand things, though of course this does not mean one can just hand wave. One must specify what one thinks the important bit in culture is.

      • Alan says:

        At least the advance of democracy over the last generation has meant that doubters now cite ‘beautiful African constitutions’ rather than ‘beautiful Soviet constitutions’. Neither are particularly relevant to Australia where the rule of law is fairly well-established and we can expect the constitution to be followed.

        Consensus democracy, or PR. is now pretty much standard for democratic countries. The single best predictor for the use of FPTP is not culture, it is whether you are looking at a former British colony or not. If ‘culture’ is important then you have to argue that Tasmania and New Zealand somehow have a common culture that is radically different from the rest of Australia.

        In Arend Lijphart’s set of 36 stable democracies the vast majority are consensus democracies and, as discussed, previously there is solid empirical evidence that consensus democracies out-perform majority democracies economically.

  14. Mike Pepperday says:

    My oversight. When I said a third of PR countries I was thinking of the twelve countries that have PR and a single chamber of parliament—of which the Scandinavian four would be no more nor less representative than the other eight. The other 13 PR countries are bicameral and, of those, eight are federal or semi-federal—so you are right, Paul: the Scandinavian countries are not representative of them. I am looking at my 1999 Lijphart.

    Claiming that African or Soviet constitutions were beautiful is, as Alan implies, a cliché. I suppose “beautiful constitution” refers to noble aims and sentiments written on a scroll. I was anyway referring to the institutions which constitute the political system—not a document ordaining or describing the constitution but the constitution itself. The best known difference for us would be that the constitution of Australia includes a prime minister. This is an absolute requirement but as most know, the written Constitution makes no mention of it. There are many other such constitutional requirements and there are also items in our Constitution which are defunct.

    If a national constitution requires single-member electorates, it is not beautiful. It is poison. If it also stipulates a single house of parliament, it is deadly poison. I think that was the situation in Africa. To claim “they had a beautiful constitution but they messed up” is to blame the victim and it ignores the stupidity and ignorance of the designer of the constitution—the colonial power or whoever. In Africa that incompetence had frightful consequences. I think Africa has now largely gone over to PR.

    Note that that is a falsifiable statement, to be refuted (a) by finding a country with single-member and single chamber that is flourishing or (b) by finding a PR system where millions died.

    Says Alan: “Australia where the rule of law is fairly well-established and we can expect the constitution to be followed.”

    Well-established sounds reasonable and that is enculturation. The sober, insightful political scientist, Dankwart Rustow, agreed, famously reckoning habituation as an essential ingredient of democratisation. Yet some dispute it. I think I join them: if you get the institutions right, the problem is sorted. (If it is not sorted, you didn’t get them right.)

    You say, Paul that one will not get very far in understanding of politics by pretending culture does not exist. It is my observation that there is no understanding to be found there, only distraction. Political scientists largely ignore culture and to the extent they do mention it, it is a mish-mash of prejudices.

    If you can suggest a way to take culture into account, tell us. Otherwise, one might as well pretend it does not exist. Culture is about the vaguest word in the language and I am not the first to note that where it is mentioned, it is marvellously determined by one’s passport.

    In 1965, the Nobel Prize winning economist, Sir Arthur Lewis, wrote “Politics in West Africa” criticising those constitutions. And you say now they were beautiful? You say that sadly the cultures are defective?

    Lewis looked at the culture and predicted tragedy. In 1965, he saw it. And at the time another famous political scientist, Stephen Lukes, agreed with him and also remarked that no one was going to take any notice. They didn’t. And I am having exactly the same problem here and now. Everyone wants to believe that the culture matters. Forget it. Institutions matter. What matters is the electoral system and the legislative structure. Get them right—it is not hard in principle—and the culture will be irrelevant.

    You would think that at least habituation to a new constitution must matter as people abandon the old ways and work out how to live with the new. But does it? It was a trauma for many when the ACT went to PR (1988 I think) and there are still diehards there who would turn the clock back. In New Zealand it is similar with the new (1996) system recently only barely surviving a referendum on it. I suppose if it had gone down we could have said the old culture did them in. But of what use would such a judgement be? It did survive and NZ (and the ACT) has a genuinely beautiful constitution now which will allow it to cope permanently.

    Did Northern Ireland have a different culture from the south or the rest of the UK? Baloney. Was their problem Catholics versus Protestants who have now suddenly become friends? Baloney. Their problem has been fixed with the introduction of PR. End of story. Talk of culture is waffle—as our different views of the Swiss culture amply demonstrate. Is the problem in PNG their “big man” culture? Baloney. Their problem is single-member plus single chamber and it is criminal.

    If culture is decisive, how to account for Botswana? Do they really have a different culture from the rest of Africa? Is Somaliland really a different culture from Somalia? It is not plausible. Pondering culture brings no insight. It just mystifies and generates a supposed intractability.

    Best to pretend culture does not exist.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      “If you can suggest a way to take culture into account, tell us.”

      you are quite right to lay the challenge at the feet of social scientists like myself! I have certainly given it a go (see book flagged before!) even though i have little hope of meeting the standards of proof you want, Mike. :-)

      But I will repeat, good luck doing without a notion like culture in analysing cross-country stuff. For instance, good luck analysing our failure to get a nation state off the ground in Afghanistan without smuggling in things sounding like culture.
      And the word institutions of course is often explicitly understood, both within economics and elsewhere, to include cultural elements, like fairness or group loyalties, not just the letter of the law. But I fully agree that it is a difficult beast and that the resistance to get down and dirty with it is appealing.

    • john r walker says:

      This culture vs institution is sounding like mind /body dualism – useless and misleading. Institutions are culture and culture is institutions , institutions are not some ideal form lurking outside the cave mouth.

      • Julie Thomas says:

        I think so too John. Either/Or is a false dichotomy and an ‘inappropriate’ way of conceptualising the problem. A ‘better’ way – perhaps – is to see the differences through the yin/yang worldview, which conceptualises seemingly irreconcilable differences in a way that neutralises or puts in perspective, the value judgements that we humans are primed to make.

        Culture would be answer for the yin people, and institutions for the yang people?

        There was a discussion on Quiggan a week or so ago, in which the same sort of argument about the primacy of economics or society was the issue. Again, the yin/yang conceptualisation would work to ‘solve’ the problem and provide a way of finding a moderate, pragmatic, and ‘functional’ position somewhere between the two end-points.

        • john r walker says:

          A scientist recently said that the problems understanding the behavior of single electrons (and photons) re multiple gates was not a problem if you understand that electrons are not a wave or a particle, they are electrons.

  15. desipis says:

    by finding a PR system where millions died.

    Like this one?

    • Alan says:

      The problem with the PR=Adolf theory is that it is (1) untrue and (2) incapable of explaining why similar governments emerged in France, where Pétain was made dictator by a majority of deputies and Italy. Both used single-memebr districts. Without drawing too long a bow you’d also have to explain why white supremacist governments emerged in South Africa and the former Confederacy using single member districts. In 1948 the apartheid parties lost the popular vote but won a majority of seats because of gerrymandering.

      I say PR=Adolf is untrue because Hitler did not rely on a parliamentary majority to take power. In the 1932 Reichstag election Hitler secured 196 seats out of 584 on 33.09% of the vote. Under single member districts, and given the divisions within the parties of the left and centre he would almost certainly have won an absolute majority. Even in the 1933 election, after the Reichstag fire, when already Hitler was chancellor, and with massive police and state resources mobilised to in favour of Nazi candidates, the Nazis only achieved 288 seats out of 647 on 43.91% of the popular vote.

      The Weimar constitution allowed the president to impose a chancellor by decree. Hindenburg did this with Hitler’s predecessors and he did it with Hitler. It was only after Hitler became chancellor that he was able to seize control of the Reichstag by a campaign of expulsions, disappearances and assassinations against the parties of the left. Holes in the Weimar constitution that you could drive a truck through then enabled him to have the Reichstag delegate all its powers to him personally and to merge the presidency with the chancellorship.

      In a single member system 43.91 will give you a thumping great landslide in terms of seats won. It’s about what Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair achieved in the UK, although you would never know it from the size of their confected majorities in the House of Commons.

      Perhaps there needs to be a corollary to Godwin’s law that a Godwin’s law allegation must bear some relationship to reality.

      • desipis says:

        I wasn’t making a PR=Adolf argument. I was simply pointing out that PR isn’t some political panacea that will curtail a strong anti-democratic movement.

        • Alan says:

          I’m delighted. I did try to read ‘Like this one’ more generously but there was not a lot to work with.

          I have talked about consensus democracy as against majority democracy. There is a lot more to consensus democracy than just PR, although PR is a crucial element.

  16. Mike Pepperday says:


    I could invoke Godwin but perhaps habituation in indeed required.

  17. desipis says:

    Yeah, sorry about that. As a Queenslander I’m certainly no fan of single-member electorate, unicameral parliaments.

  18. Mike Pepperday says:

    Paul: “i have little hope of meeting the standards of proof you want”. Well, I don’t set standards of proof (actually I set standards of disproof); I only ask for the substance of your repeated general assertion that culture matters. I gave example after example to show it was irrelevant. What evidence have you for insisting on the contrary? I don’t challenge social scientists. You are making a claim. Why?

    You claim that culture must be introduced to build a state of Afghanistan. How do you know this? For example, although there is more to a polity than the electoral system, we probably agree that PR works. Now then, how might Afghan culture affect their version of PR? If you cannot say, then what grounds have you for claiming culture matters? For the life of me I cannot imagine how any culture, anywhere has been introduced into the design of a PR system.

    I bet though, when they (whoever they were) set PNG up, they did take culture into account. “Okay,” said these wise guys, “we will give PNG the usual British single-member electoral system. But it won’t need two legislative chambers. All the British colonies were set up with two chambers but Papua New Guineans are simple people so we’ll keep it simple with one chamber.” And they quietly said to themselves, “Besides, their culture is inferior so it doesn’t matter because if it goes pear-shaped we can blame their backward culture.”

    That would be the sort of result you will get by taking culture into account.

  19. Alan says:

    PNG pretty much wrote their own constitution. The then Department of External Territories did not have any representation or provide an adviser to the Constitutional Planning Committee. The committee did appoint some Australian consultants of its own. Their report is online.

  20. Paul frijters says:

    You are the one making the unusual claim (you don’t need culture), even though virtually everyone else uses the word culture frequently to describe and explain things, for instance when they speak of Australian culture or multiculturalism. You presumably think those phrases have no content?
    As you make the claim, I am afraid you are the one who should then show by example how one can get equally illuminating analyses of complex social situations without it (you know where to find my take on it). If you really want to comment on the ingredients others use, you have to start cooking! Then I can bitch about your ingredients :-)
    And no, you have not given me a good example yet. All you have done so far is convince me you don’t know much about Switzerland. Ever been there?

  21. Mike Pepperday says:

    “You are the one making the unusual claim (you don’t need culture), even though virtually everyone else uses the word culture frequently to describe and explain things, for instance when they speak of Australian culture or multiculturalism. You presumably think those phrases have no content?”

    Yes, I know the claim is unusual; “virtually everyone” is wrong. We are not here to “describe and explain things” but whether to take culture into account in constitutional design.

    You presume wrong about my thinking—another non sequitor and ad hominem at that. You should know I am interested in culture from the email I wrote you shredding your “Theoi” thesis. I have a PhD in political culture. As if this were relevant. What counts are the facts and all the facts indicate that culture is irrelevant to constitutional design.

    Have I been to Switzerland? More ad hominem. Par for the course in academe. If I haven’t been there I am not qualified to speak of it? Badly off beam, in this case. Once, at Konstanz, I even smuggled something across the border into Germany. (It could have been embarrassing, because I got caught, not for the item, which was not discovered, but for crossing without a passport. I produced a driver’s licence and the border officer read the riot act and let me go.)

    Does my personal familiarity qualify me to speak of Swiss culture? Not at all. As I have already pointed out, the anthropologists make a profession out of this and it has brought nothing. Mary Douglas nailed it in 1982: “Culture is a blank space, a highly respected, empty pigeonhole… The intellect­ual gap that yawns is a reproach to anthropology, for ours is the only discipline that has any pretensions to be dealing with culture systematically.”

    I claim culture is not required for constitutional design. As most people know, a negative can’t be proved. I did give examples to show it was superfluous: in Northern Ireland the problem was not religion but the single-member system. It was instantly fixed with PR. If culture is decisive, how to account for Botswana? Do they really have a different culture from the rest of Africa? Is Somaliland really a different culture from Somalia? New Zealand adopted the German PR. Does that mean NZ and Germany have the same culture? I say there is no evidence that culture is of any consequence.

    But you claim culture matters. Well, show it. You said it must inform Afghanistan. So how? What aspect of Afghan culture will inform the design of the Afghan constitution and in what way? You demonstrate nothing by declaring how everyone thinks (Progress would usually fly in the face of accepted wisdom.) and it is not a valid argument to try to cast aspersions on my credentials. Stick to the subject and show how culture affects political design.

    • Paul Frijters says:


      you are right about the ad hominems, but you did bring them on a bit by being belligerent! Still, I should not have indulged.

      To directly answer you: yes, I do think culture matters in general and in each of the cases you mention I would point to aspects of culture that matter. Let us first look at culture and then at constitutions.

      For instance, on Northern Ireland I do think it important that there is such a thing there as a Catholic community and a protestant one, quite apart from whatever constitution and PR system there is there. Can you understand the ‘Troubles’ without referring to the existence of that cultural trait? I cant, but good to luck to you if you can.

      On Somaliland you ask whether its culture is different to that of the rest. Most surely it is. Somalia has pasturalists in one corner of the country and fixed agriculture in other parts (near the capital).

      On Switzerland you did try to poo poo my statement that it was egalitarian and that personal advertising would not help you much as a politician by saying it was rich and money oriented. Seemed like saying one aspect of culture cancels another out, but on the egalitarian part you are plain wrong. Dont forget that ‘one man one vote’ IS an egalitarian ideal!

      Now, as to whether it is handy to know about culture when you design constitutions, let me point out that many constitutions (including the Dutch) say that their government and king rule by divine right, i.e. by the grace of god. That wording is there is there to mollify the religious culture of a country.

      So, in Afghanistan you should not write in your constitution that the government is there by the grace of Buddha. If you do write that in your constitution it will be ridiculed and ignored. In that country you have to write ‘by the grace of Allah’. Why? Because it is a cultural sensitivity to invoke gods they do not believe in.

  22. Mike Pepperday says:

    Thanks for the PNG reference, Alan. The link doesn’t actually work but I found it. I have always assumed that the cock-up was due to Australian bureaucrats but it seems it was PNG politicians, members of the then assembly. I have only glanced at the report and from the committee membership my first thought was that politicians would never introduce a second house. In Australia and NZ they spent a century trying to abolish the upper houses (succeeding in two instances). I suppose that that preliminary single assembly was an Australian invention—and that would be out of sync with all the Australasian colonies. But I must have a closer read of the report.

  23. Alan says:

    I promised myself a brief period of screaming and yelling if anyone posted ‘Quis custodiet custodes…’ in this thread. Sadly its only posted in English so I don’t get the full benefits of a really serious tantrum.

    The correct answer to this purely imaginary conundrum is asking who watches the parliament. Specially in Australia where there is no bill of rights, there are very few strong independent institutional, the media is largely complicit in the neoliberal project and where discussion about institutional design degenerates so quickly into ancient and uninformative cliché?

    Describing independent institutions as if they operated without anyone watching simply does not describe the way these institutions work. If Eddy Obeid and Ian McDonald feel they are hard done by before ICAC they can appeal to the courts. And when the courts consider those cases they will do so within their own set of constraining procedures. When the Commonwealth Ombudsman was shown to have collaborated with the Greens in the Senate he resigned within days.

    So you’re welcome to recite quotes form Juvenal, who may well have been talking about adultery rather than public issues, but please don’t get too convinced that you’ve made a major contribution to the advancement of human understanding unless you can show some concrete examples of out-of-control guardians.

    How can it be the case that guardians need guarding but that parliaments and executives do not?

    • Paul Frijters says:

      My my, you may have promised yourself a rant, Alan, but I dont really ‘get’ what you are trying to say.
      Yes, of course the watching of parliament is an aspect of ‘who watches the watchers’. But parliament is not the single source of power in this country. The same issue turns up inside the police structures, the judicial system, within regulatory institutions, etc.

      The way I see these things is that we have many formal institutions watching each other, as well as a civic society that is also constantly monitoring parts of the official institutions. We have internal affairs departments watching the rest of the police. We have tax inspectors watching the taxed. We have civic rights groups watching the tax inspectors. We have newspapers, foreigners, and bloggers commenting on the civic rights group. Etc. All in all, our society works pretty well. The question is what further improvements we can think of to combat privilege.

      It is not really useful to stare blindly at one institution (parliament) and reduce everything to the question how that one is better monitored. The question is how to organise greater accountability and self-cleansing as an extension to the current structures and how to fold it into those structures such that it too becomes part of the institutions that are watched.

      And to be honest, we have in the above not yet made any major contributions to the fight against privilege at all. I am laying down my general thinking about how to approach this: what the characteristics of successful ways of tackling privilege are and what difficulties there would be for different alternatives. It is the framework I use to guide my further thoughts and actions. I have in no way seriously tackled any privilege in this series. Other blogs have been about those.

  24. Mike Pepperday says:

    “what the characteristics of successful ways of tackling privilege are”

    Pretty straightforward I think.

    The PRINCIPLE is that the people rule. This has curbed privilege since the dawn of civilisation. For our purposes, the main characteristic of popular rule is voting. Freedom of expression is needed otherwise the voting will be a sham and it won’t be the people who are doing the ruling.

    In the so-called “modern democracies” the vote is for representatives. In parliamentary systems the elected reps make laws and nominate an executive to execute them. The executive chafes under this restriction and privilege occurs when the executive circumvents or defies the rules set by the parliament. That’s why we have “independent” agencies like the auditor general, electoral commission, and reserve bank which report direct to parliament. Privilege may turn into outrage where, as in Queensland, the executive entirely dominates the parliament and so sets its own rules.

    In Switzerland they don’t need to mess about with independent agencies. There the people get a vote on the laws their elected reps make. This has made it the world’s most successful country (not to mention extremely egalitarian!).

    The legislature (the talkers) and the executive (the doers) are complemented by the third branch of government, the judges, who become the rulers when the law is contravened.


    Alan, why do you say that quis custodiet… is a “purely imaginary conundrum”? It may be a cliché but the question seems real enough. Surely politics is rife with out-of-control guardians. Weren’t Obeid and the ombudsman out of control? Many pollies have gone to prison and presumably there are many more such privilege takers who we never get to hear of.

    • Paul frijters says:

      I actually agree with much of this. Not easy to see a transition path towards it though and in the meantime you have to build on what you have.
      The Swiss certainly seem to have a system well suited to the current international order.

  25. Mike Pepperday says:

    PR=Adolf has been on my mind. Weimar Germany had a fair PR system and the system broke. We can suggest reasons but the fact is that the PR was not enough to protect the country from dictatorship.

    Is it the sole instance of PR failing? If it is, then we could say that PR is so tough it took the most grotesque regime in all history to knock it out.

    This might be compared with presidential systems which have usually (in all cases except one?) led to dictatorships.

    This makes the reasons why the Weimar constitution failed very worth examining.

  26. Alan says:

    There are lots of examples of PR failures, Spain before the Civil War, the French Fourth Republic, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, etc etc. Regime failure is, however, much, much less common in consensus democracies than in majority democracies.

    There will be rather a long comment on each of the referendum and independent agencies issues some time tomorrow.

  27. Dave P says:

    And what “independent” institutions might these be? Independent of whom? Of the people whose lives they rule.

    If you want to undermine the dead hand of privilege, start with inherited wealth. Get rid of it. The lot, if you’re serious.

    “Enforcing the party line needs strong discipline”, indeed.

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