The Herd Mentality and the fall of Rudd

By Legal Eagle

The thing that has been fascinating me about the last week in politics is the evidence of the herd mentality (psychologically speaking). The herd doesn’t move direction until one person breaks ranks, and then suddenly everyone is following the new direction. I’m talking, of course, of the sudden political demise and dethroning of KRudd.

A year ago even, this scenario would be almost unbelievable. KRudd was sailing high in the opinion polls, and could apparently do no wrong. I had actually heard about KRudd’s personal character flaws (swearing, anger, dogmatism) but none of that was being reported widely in the press. The Liberals were regrouping, having experienced their own divisive leadership spill.

Then things started to go wrong with the insulation scheme and with the BER scheme. As I see it, the press became disenchanted with KRudd at this point. They turned.

I’ve been thinking about why I also became disenchanted. I knew about KRudd’s character flaws, and never particularly warmed to him (despite the glowing opinion polls). To be honest, the positive opinion polls poleaxed me somewhat, as I saw KRudd as smarmy, a person who pandered to populism. But I didn’t say anything. Perhaps I wanted to give KRudd the benefit of the doubt. One mistake, well…everyone makes mistakes. Two mistakes, not so good… Plus, I’m not a political commentator, and I only rarely write about domestic politics. I’ve charted my own progress of disenchantment in a previous post. If the government had stopped and fixed the things that went wrong, I think that would have been better, but instead it brushed the wreckage of the old schemes into the corner, and hurriedly started piling new initiative on top of new initiative.

Suddenly the knives were out. It wasn’t just the “right wing” opinion writers who were criticising the guy. Media commentators which had traditionally been regarded as “left wing” started in on the action. The press salivated when KRudd got angry after he was questioned on The 7:30 Report. David Marr opined that KRudd was driven by anger. We heard from Marr that KRudd had publicly described the Chinese as “rat-f**kers” at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. We heard about KRudd’s penchant for using swear words off the record. Humans are social beasts, and we take our cues from the behaviour of other people. It’s like we looked at each other and thought, “Hey, it’s okay to criticise and question this guy, everyone else is doing it.” We also take our cues for what is appropriate behaviour from others. There are sound reasons behind this behaviour, and it has some very positive aspects. To use a crude example, people are unlikely to defaecate in public in Australia because of the herd consensus is that this is utterly inappropriate behaviour.

Now, from what I hear, what I like to call the “Labor machine” had been waiting for this moment. Alexander Downer (former Liberal opposition leader and former Liberal Foreign Minister) said in The Spectator:

It has taken an incredible three years for the Australian public to realise who their national leader really is. I sat with a Labor luminary having a late-night drink in June 2008. He turned to me and said: ‘Mate, one day the Australian public will grow to hate Kevin Rudd as much as I do.’ That day has arrived.

The Labor machine had kept schtum while KRudd was riding high in the polls, but once he’d fallen from grace in the eyes of the media and the public, the cogs whirred and it started into action. There was no way it was going to let a personally unpopular leader lose this election for them. I do wonder when the plan to remove KRudd was initiated. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t an impulsive decision (contrary to the way in which it was portrayed last week). After all, Gillard’s new hair-do and colour was evident a few days before the putsch, and it seems odd to have it done then, rather than in the parliamentary recess…unless she knew what was coming. Of course, she does have a hairdresser as a partner…lucky thing…

An informal poll of my friends after the putsch indicates that many are more satisfied with Gillard as leader than KRudd, and they are disposed to respect her, but they remain uncomfortable with the ruthless way in which it occurred.

Even though I’d lost confidence in KRudd totally by the end, I did find the sight of him crying on national television heart-rending, and I couldn’t watch it. I’d feel the same for any person of any political stripe in his position. (One of my early political memories is of seeing Malcolm Fraser crying after losing to Bob Hawke, and feeling puzzled and very sorry for him, even though I loved Hawkie. I asked Dad why Fraser was crying — I think I had actually thought men were incapable of crying — and Dad said, “It’s understandable that he’s crying; he’s just lost a very big and important contest.”)

Then KRudd was sitting despondently in the backbenches during Question Time with an expression of bewilderment and devastation: you could tell he was thinking, “How did it all go so horribly wrong?” His failure to realise it was going horribly wrong is in part the reason for his downfall. Once the herd turns against you, particularly those who were formerly on your side, you’re on a slippery slope downwards. KRudd’s failure was that he did not realise that the zeitgeist had changed for many (although to be fair, not everyone followed the herd on this — see, for example, LP posts here and here). KRudd did not take his cues from the herd and amend his actions accordingly. In fact, he’s still not taking his cues from the herd. Reportedly, he asked Gillard for a frontbench position twice and was rejected. I wouldn’t have had the cheek to do it once, myself. I would have slunk off to the backbench to hide.

The fascinating thing for me now is watching people who formerly avowed support for KRudd now disavowing him, and claiming that never supported poor old KRudd in the first place. Tim Blair has collected a few. Samuel J at Catallaxy has wondered if the government would indulge in the Roman practice of damnatio memoriae if it were allowed.

Personally, I’m left a little uneasy by the whole thing. To be honest, I’m glad KRudd’s gone. I think Lorenzo’s observation that KRudd was like the Pointy Haired Boss from Dilbert is spot-on. I hope sincerely that Gillard will be a better Prime Minister. But I remain uncomfortable with the ruthless method of dispatch, and I’m a little freaked out by the power of the herd (the media herd in particular). It’s not so much that they turned, it’s the way in which the attitude of the media from the beginning to the end of KRudd was so extreme. The progressive media herd thought KRudd was beyond reproach at the start. I don’t think that’s acceptable. Surely he was the same man from beginning to end, and surely we should have heard critical analysis about any flaws or problems in KRudd’s leadership from the start.


  1. Posted June 29, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I have been calling Kevin Rudd “Brother Number One” since before he won office because I recognized that he had a big touch of the autocrat in his style and personality. I have been amused by the way those who have so vigorously defended Rudd have tried to cope with his demise. One chap who claims to have bet a grand on Rudd winning at the next election has just gone quiet while another who was insisting that Rudd would win at the next election with an increased majority because the economy is travelling well. But at my bus stop straw poll it seems that the change of leader has not given any a firm belief that the government will be returned. Many were just like you rather disgusted at the way that it was done.

    As for Rudd staying in parliament, I personally find it hard to believe that he will even hold his seat because I think that even dyed in the wool Labor voters may well resent that he personally has brought the party fortunes so low even though they are grateful that he ousted Howard.

  2. Posted June 29, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    In mathematical terms this was a “catastrophe“. OK, in political terms too.

    Rudd was able to remain in power while he had public support. As soon as that ended he was in a dynamically unstable position where even the slightest nudge leads to a sharp discontinuity in his ability to remain in power.

    Catastrophic systems often look stable for a long time but have unexpected “jumps” and “gaps” in them.

  3. Peter Patton
    Posted June 29, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink


    It was those opinion polls that constantly had Rudd in the 60s that made me realize that the opinion polls we are subject to daily tells us very little to nothing, and most probably lies.

    Go back to 2006-2007. NOBODY loved Rudd, or saw him as their long dreamt for “progressive” savior.

    He was just the only one who cold slay Howard, and that’s all they cared about. After the fact, they moved into denial, and went out of their way to pump even the most tawdry initiative.

    I thought he was a disgrace to the Labor Party right from the word go.

    What the hell is one of Australia’s richest men taking up oxygen in the LABOR Party for, whose 120 year institutions and traditions, he dismissed like a tedious underling.

    Good riddance to bad rubbish.

  4. Posted June 29, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink


    In early 2008, I told anyone who would listen that Rudd would not last 1 term. They all scoffed, but over the past few days have been saying “how did you know?” Easy. He had not ONE friend in the entire bloody ALP. Hullo!

  5. davidp
    Posted June 29, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    The insulation scheme is strange – fires per newly insulated house were down. Funding was given for people to individually choose their preferred method of insulation from the private provider of their choice. Some people chose badly. Some companies did a bad job. The government got blamed.
    Some companies ripped the scheme off (generally with signatures from the customer). The government got blamed.

    100,000 houses got insulated; the Australian economy got an immediate stimulus; the government got blamed.

    I blame a credulous media, and a weak defence by the government.

    The failure to do various things is strongly affected by Coalition+Steve Fielding control of the senate. Labour could do little that the Coalition did not agree to, and then got criticised for being indecisive and ‘do nothing’. The next election has a good prospect of removing that senate control, although it is likely to be a long time before we see another outright majority like 2004-2007 that let “WorkChoices”, “anti terror” sedition legislation and other abominations through.

    I am also stunned that people seemed to believe BHP & co’s clearly prejudiced claims about hte impact of the tax. I also feel that BHP have yet again used my money (via my superannuation I am a shareholder) to act against my interests. Political activity and donations by companies should be outlawed.

    Otherwise, I agree that
    a) There was a media herd mentality, and suddenly everyone was criticising Rudd.
    b) Jacques Chester is right – it is a mathematically catastrophic system.

  6. Patrick
    Posted June 29, 2010 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Personally, I’m left a little uneasy by how intelligent people like you let themselves be duped by squirmy dishonest pricks like David Marr in the first place.

    You are right, Rudd was always the same person – he had no mates before he was elected just as he didn’t have any after, and for the same reasons.

    But people, including you, were so desperate to get rid of Howard because he refused to pander to your sensibilities and dress the pig up in lipstick.

    Unfortunately the lipstick wore off anyway, quicker than expected. I might have voted for Gillard, despite our profound differences, but I would never vote for a Rudd (ok, I might if the alternative was bad enough, but you get the idea).

  7. Posted June 29, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    LE: thanks for the plug.

    Your point about a herd mentality is a powerful one. Two things: a lot of our information we get from other people. So, there is a compounding effect if a lot of sources we have no particular reason to discount send the same message.

    Secondly, there is a fair bit of using opinions to signal status in the modern world. Modern progressivism is rife with it, but so is, for example, American conservatism. It gives coherence but it is also cognitively destructive. (The Canberra Press Gallery–and the Fairfax/AABC more generally–is rife with it.)

    Supporting Rudd was virtuous because he was the Not Howard. Once that wore off sufficiently, the opportunity arose for other information to break through the filters.

    Meanwhile, the general public judged by too many stuff ups–badly handled insulation stimulus, badly handled education stimulus, ETS backflip, a Mining Tax that seemed to threaten jobs, super and just seemed cavalier and unfair–without a clear “win”.

    Yes, we got through the Great Recession well, but that did not help the Government since the Opposition had economic credibility (i.e. there was no strong inclination to think the other mob would have done worse, given 11 years of economic competence).

    These things converged and a PM without friends found himself really friendless when the polls also deserted him. A catastrophic event indeed, as JC suggests.

  8. Posted June 29, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to go OT, LE, but if I could just defend David Marr here. This is not just because I know him personally, or because he’s said good things about my writing, but because he continued to do say good things about my writing when most of the criticism was coming from the political left/identity politics crowd in this country.

    This came at some personal cost to him (including the Age refusing to run his stuff and copious quantities of personal abuse). People may not like David Marr (I often disagree with him on non-literary matters), but he does have the courage of his convictions.

    As you were.

  9. Posted June 29, 2010 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    In mathematical terms this was a “catastrophe“. OK, in political terms too.
    So far it’s only been catastrophic for two people.

  10. Posted June 29, 2010 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    As one of the lefty-er regulars, and like many of any alignment, finding the knifework involved in Gillard’s promotion distasteful, I nevertheless hope she bloodied her hands a lot, and hope she bloodies them a lot more.

    KRudd, despite the worthy Brutopia essay and “climate change is the great moral challenge of our time”, was recognized before the election by lefties as HowardLite, like so many ALP leaders in recent years apart from Latham. Was it hypocrisy, or as Catullus described words to a lover, fit only to be writ on the winds and rushing water?

    So… an ALP rightie, who had presided over some good (by the likes of Tanner), got knifed. There are many more ALP righties more deserving of dismemberment, with less hope of sympathy, and the more Gillard follows the putsch with a purge of those who helped elevate her, the happier I’ll be.

    Who (apart from deep-pocketed small interest groups) would not applaud if Sussex Street were turned into a charnel house, and some real choice created between the major parties?

    I’m hoping for redder hands and then redder policies from the godless (10/10 for avoiding the bible and hypocrisy at the GG’s) redhead, and maybe soften the more conservative parties back to what Menzies, Gorton, Fraser and Hewson would be happy with.

  11. Patrick
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    Hey, DB, you and me both! I will admit the possibility that we don’t have the same motivation, though, and I strongly doubt that you will get your wish for the simple reason that I too would like that to happen.

    LE, Marr is a cock. I last paid attention to him when he wrote his scurrilous hack-job on Barwick.

    On point, if you have a copy of yesterday’s fin, Rudd’s biographer came out (no link sorry!) to say that Marr was lying on the specific point you quote – he said that the guy has a relaxed and peaceful family life, and that doesn’t happen if you are driven by anger. That kind of crap sounds exactly like the Barwick biography (apparently, the rest of the High Court was utterly intimidated by him…God knows how they managed to dissent so bravely and often then).

  12. Bishop Rick
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Anyone who knew anything at all about the Goss years in Qld would never have ‘loved’ Rudd into the PM spot.

    Rudd was elected largely due to the style of Howard, and the WorkChoices campaign that highlighted the hip-pocket of the Howard voetrs, those dim-witted blue collar voters who vote for their own lashing and handing their vote to the Coalition.

    Of course, the ALP is more-of-the-same, which is why it was so painful to hear Rudd denouncing neo-liberalism, since he and Goss, along with Hawke and Keating, were our earliest adopters of it.

    I have not read Marr’s scribblings on Barwick, but as I understand him he was a hopeless failure as far as advancing the nation went…. a scumbag even.

    I too and very pleased to see the back of Kevin O’Heaven, and am upset that his chums in Cabinet, like Conroy, have not left with him. Let’s hope the election sees Conroy banished, if he is up for election, and take his Opus Dei barbed wire underwear with him into his next job in a St. Vinnies charity shop.

  13. Posted June 30, 2010 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Downer not only disagreed with Marr (the anger take) but also pointed to other, hitherto ignored aspects — like the fact that Rudd was an intellectual and valued himself highly for that reason. This is something far more acceptable in Britain or Europe than in Australia. Indeed, it is one of Australia’s weaknesses and contributes to the creation of closed (and mediocre) cultural milieux. It is one of the reasons why I left Australia. If nothing else it is signal evidence that Rudd did not belong in politics.

  14. Posted June 30, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    K Rudd did himself a lot of good appearing on Sunrise. He seemed like a nice, honest, capable politician and people liked him. Perhaps even felt they knew him. I, certainly, forgot he was a politician and let my expectations get too high, so of course they were dashed.

    The media turned on him because his office refused to speak to them one too many times. I have heard from people in the PS that his office was universally unpopular.

    Julia often had different hairstyles from week to week before she was PM, so I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on the change. Ditto the envy re hairdresser partner though.

  15. Tatyana Larina
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps on directly on topic, but I’d like to respond to the following, by SL:

    ‘Downer not only disagreed with Marr (the anger take) but also pointed to other, hitherto ignored aspects — like the fact that Rudd was an intellectual and valued himself highly for that reason. This is something far more acceptable in Britain or Europe than in Australia. Indeed, it is one of Australia’s weaknesses and contributes to the creation of closed (and mediocre) cultural milieux. It is one of the reasons why I left Australia. If nothing else it is signal evidence that Rudd did not belong in politics.’

    I’m not sure if this is a reference to the article Downer wrote for The Spectator (17/6/2010), but I read this piece quite differently. My impression was that Downer doesn’t propose the idea that Rudd’s intellectualism, which might have been better understood and valued elsewhere (i.e. Britain or Europe), was the key ingredient which kept him out of sync with his colleagues and, presumably, the electorate. It’s interesting how the two pieces, written by two very different men (Marr and Downer) reinforce the image of a politician who is unable to appropriately connect with his surroundings, despite his considerable gifts and abilities. Both acknowledge Rudd’s intellectual capacities but also point to some more complex reasons at the root of this puzzle (and the recent piece by Robert Manne in The Monthly contributes further to this debate).

    Also, in reference to the suggestion that Australia suffers from an innate lack of ability to appreciate ‘intellectualism’, as it is defined and understood in Britain and Europe, which results in a ‘closed (and mediocre) cultural millieux’ is one with which I feel deeply uncomfortable, and believe it to be inaccurate.

    I think the fact that in Australia we would be unlikely to use the word ‘millieux’ when referring to our cultural life illustrates the robustness of our culture to define its activities on its own terms. We are not emulating somebody else’s templates, we are too busy making our own—and there is a healthy level of debate and activity in a multitude of areas, as local discussions on the KRudd phenomenon illustrate at the moment. (As did the discussions surrounding SL’s literary activity here at that time of her departure from Australia and subsequent to it. One could say that those debates contributed to the growth of a critical genre, on literary hoaxes.)

    Being of a ‘European background’, and having personal and professional links with Europe and the UK, I’m occasionally confronted with remarks about Australia’s cultural mediocrity, and tend to think that such assessments are based on ‘Old World’ prejudice (which is essentially grounded in misplaced ideas of intellectual superiority) as well as a lack of understanding about what really happens here, culturally.

    I would further suggest that Europe feels much more comfortable parading its ‘intellectualism’, it rolls off the tongue quite easily in French, for example, but practical Britain, despite its established democratic structures and wonderful sites of learning, doesn’t really use the word ‘intellectual’ as boastfully in the public domain. I would say that Britain and Australia are quite similar in this regard—they carry their brilliance lightly. Understatement seems to be a vital trait here in Australia, and it’s a refreshing attitude.

    As far as the ‘herd mentality’ idea of your post is concerned, LE, I recognise your unease. I felt it too.

  16. Posted June 30, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I’ve already ranted too much on the Labor spill and the Gillard ascendancy – I don’t like it and, as you say, LE, the way in which Rudd was deposed by his own party in an election year makes me very uncomfortable.

    But I’d just be interested to know how Labor thinks they’ll be able to pull it off.

    They’ve handed the Lib/Nats thousands of obvious attacks, demonstrated what a lack of faith in the Australian public’s ability to choose a leader (arguably, anyway), shown lack of confidence in their own ability to govern, and probably recalled in a number of Australians heads the Keating putsch (and it was detestation of Paul Keating that helped to elect the Howard Government.). For starters.

    So how are they going to win the election?

  17. Posted June 30, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Correction. Er, I should have just typed ‘demonstrated a lack of faith in the Australian public’s ability to choose a leader’

  18. Martha Maus
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks very much, Bishop Rick, but no thanks, I don’t want to buy my op shop China treasures from Mr-no-personal-hygiene-Conroy! Oh well as he’s a bloke, I suppose he can carry the cupboards out the back .

  19. Posted June 30, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    K Rudd did himself a lot of good appearing on Sunrise. He seemed like a nice, honest, capable politician and people liked him. Perhaps even felt they knew him. I, certainly, forgot he was a politician and let my expectations get too high, so of course they were dashed.
    Yeah that’s shameful. He was eighing for a chat. Programmes like Sunrise are on when families prepare for school and work. They present as an intimate living-room chat type scenario. By inserting himself in that context outside of the strictures of the ‘political interview’ Kevvie was subliminally associating himself with viewers as some kind of family friend.
    It’s yuck for the exact same reason as bosses who buddy up with you are yuck. Didn’t like Howard much but he’s of the Old School and they wouldn’t do that.

  20. Nick Ferrett
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have any problem with Gillard doing what she did. Indeed, my big problem with Costello is that he lacked the guts to take on Howard. He wouldn’t have won the first time he challenged, but he would have damaged Howard enough to make the takeover inevitable. Keating taught us that. Gillard’s execution was much faster. No doubt it was more immediately traumatic. But I doubt that Hawke felt any better when he was eventually despatched.

    Let’s not forget that Rudd came to the position in similar circumstances.

    I don’t really trust leaders who haven’t had to walk over a few corpses to get the leadership. Contests provide greater confidence that the person is up to the job. The person who gets there is likely to be ambitious and consequently driven to succeed.

    The other thing about the person who has clamoured for the leadership, as opposed to being drafted into it, is that the clamourer will usually have thought about why he/she wants the leadership. There will be a vision. Draftees often have little idea.

    BTW, SL, for all his superciliousness and the trite garbage he often spouts, I love DM. He is the best part of Insiders by a long shot.

  21. Posted June 30, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Nick, I think you are spot on about both Costello and David Marr. If it is any consolation, Marr is supercilious towards everyone. I’ve never been offended by it. Of course I’d already left the country when Rudd was elected in 2007, so I missed much of what friends describe to me as ‘Ruddmania’ and the whole ‘Kevin07’ business. When he was elected, I just thought, ‘oh, Labor’s won, not surprising, we have a new PM’. Rudd then seemed to be very popular for a long time, which is why I was surprised at his sudden fall from grace.

    My point about Downer’s take was not that he said anything about where Rudd’s intellectualism may or not be acceptable. He said nothing about that — that was my point. He did, however, point out the intellectualism, and then made an argument based on Rudd’s desire for celebrity for its own sake.

    I have no idea whether this is true, just as I have no idea whether Marr’s take is accurate, either. As a general rule I disapprove of pop psychoanalysis of public figures, on the grounds that it is likely to be completely specious and (to my mind) represents an unacceptable blurring of the public and the private. It falls into the same category as the confected outrage from some quarters about Julia Gillard’s childlessness. Downer I can credit a little more, for the simple reason that he knew Rudd over time. Allowing for the fact that they are political opponents (so strain out the bile), some of his observations may be worthwhile.

    Also, we’ll just have to agree to disagree about Australian cultural mediocrity, with the possible exception of the country’s stellar achievements when it comes to producing literary hoaxers. If you think I or anyone else had anything useful or interesting to say about literary hoaxing in 1995, may I suggest a quick google of ‘Ern Malley’. The country had been there, done that, got the t-shirt (several times over).

    Australians do not do difference (unless it is the dreadfully dull, groupthink identity politics variety promoted thanks to multiculturalism). The fact that you wish to police my choice of words is indicative that you’ve been sucked in well and truly. Enjoy yourself until you make the mistake of wandering off the reservation.

  22. Posted June 30, 2010 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Gillard’s execution was much faster.
    Was it. Catallaxy carried a prediction months ago. An ALP member I know said the same thing a week afterward. I reckon the execution was swift but I think it was very well planned. It had to be. Bumping the leader in opposition is par for the course.

    But whilst in government, months before an election…

  23. Posted June 30, 2010 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Tatyana – I think the fact that in Australia we would be unlikely to use the word ‘millieux’ when referring to our cultural life illustrates the robustness of our culture
    I remember a man with a cultural position of some import using this very word. He was mediocre, because:
    to define its activities on its own terms.
    He didn’t. He, like many Australian intellectuals, deferred to foreign places primarily in formulating his attitudes. And like many Australian intellectuals he did not fully understand what he followed blindly. An anecdote is not conclusive, yes.
    We are not emulating somebody else’s templates, we are too busy making our own
    Which are? It seems to me that we’ve never done otherwise than follow. As for European prejudices about what excellence entails, many Europeans look down on Americans but appreciate their cultural output.

    Indeed ‘mediocre’ was a word used by Dennis Hopper to describe Australia. When asked if he agreed with Robert Hughes that Jean-Michelle Basquiat was a mediocrity he replied: Maybe Robert Hughes is a mediocrity. He is Australian.

    He’s made two films here. So he has experience. The perception of Oz culture as mediocre I think has veracity.

    (Robert Hughes is not mediocre. Jean-Michel Basquiat is)

  24. Posted June 30, 2010 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    I do think Australians have a particular gift. And it’s one we don’t toot our horn about, either.

    It’s governance. Australia is a very well run country. I noticed this when I started to travel. I really appreciated that Australian government departments actually do their jobs, that our banks are actually efficient, that things (public and private) just work without any fuss at all. American friends have made similar comments, often with an added compliment for our well designed federal parliament (according to one Institute for Humane Studies colleague, the different structures of the House and Senate make it harder to rent-seek).

    I know in Scotland, Jonathan Mills is resented because he has attempted to ‘de-Scottify’ the Edinburgh International Festival (he is director), but even Scots who loathe him acknowledge that he is a very efficient and well organised, that he always has funding in place, that the guest list is finalised well in advance, that his ducks are always lined up in a row. He is a superb administrator.

    That, to me, is very, very Australian. We can run things well. Which meant (coming back to Kevin Rudd), cock-ups like the insulation business and the net filter and the mining tax and so on and so forth just stood out like dog’s balls.

  25. Dave Bath
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] said

    This is something far more acceptable in Britain or Europe than in Australia. Indeed, it is one of Australia’s weaknesses and contributes to the creation of closed (and mediocre) cultural milieux. It is one of the reasons why I left Australia.

    Quite a few intellectuals in the Hawke ministries: Barry Jones most notably. If only all politicians since (and even then) had digested his “Sleepers, Wake”.

    (My mates were stunned by Jones visiting their labs – he didn’t feel like he was gracing them with his presence as Science Minister, but as an opportunity to ask tough and interesting questions that showed he’d read all their papers before the visit.)

    I suspect that while things /do/ seemed to have dumbed down, it’s more that the dumber, more political politicians hate the likes of Jones and “Biggles” Evans because their smarts and learning make them less partisan. One reads about other politicians thinking Jones was a joke, but every non-politician had a soft spot for the guy.

  26. Tatyana
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    LE (@ 24), I agree that the general thrust of Downer’s article is that brilliance doesn’t equate with the ability to get on with people. Downer gives some juicy examples; an interesting contrast with Marr’s piece, I thought.

    SL (@ 26): I don’t think that in my comment regarding Marr’s or Downer’s contributions you could detect any signs of affiliation with any ‘groupthink politics’.

    I’m interested in following this debate from various angles, which is why I found both pieces illuminating in different ways, and I agree that Downer’s is pertinent because it presumably quotes work examples. Whether or not any of this is true, I have no idea either.

    I was prompted to comment for this reason mainly: you made a comment about Rudd’s intellectualism (identified by Downer), saying that this quality is not readily recognised or valued in Australia, and then proposed that this is a widespread malaise, with cultural mediocrity being one manifestation of it (@16). While I agree that some cultural activities suffer from a limited set of names (so I agree with the ‘closed’ bit part of your remark to some extent), I disagree that our cultural life is ‘mediocre’, and you’re correct in saying that we have a difference of opinion on the matter.

    My view of a rigorous intellectual culture could be supported by further examples, in response to Adrien’s comments @ 28, but this thread isn’t a place for that.

    There was no suggestion that I wanted to ‘police’ anyone’s words, although the word ‘millieux’ is not so readily combined with ‘culture’ here, I think, because it suggests a high-brow approach to life, to which Australians are generally allergic. This attitude does not exclude genuine intellectualism of a different kind, one that no longer readily gestures towards established (European or British) examples.

    While I made a reference to literary hoaxes, it was done because you mentioned your own writing and Marr’s support of it (@ 8). I made no other judgment but to suggest that it prompted a critical debate, reinvigorating a body of literature on the subject. And I’m quite aware of the fact that it is a long tradition; Google will also produce numerous academic articles and theses on this broad topic, written by various authors. All of this in support of a healthy local debate. I tend to disagree that literary hoaxing is a singular excellent achievement this country has produced, but I’m guessing this is hyperbole.

    I agree with the things listed at 29. And will add further that we are recognised for our achievements in science, medicine, architecture, among other things. We are generally regarded as a great democracy and a dynamic, thriving society, which is why the ‘oh, but there’s no culture in Australia’ refrain is just simply an inaccurate take on what actually goes on here.

    There is no question that I have been sucked in by anyone or anything. Quite the contrary: I’m enjoying the autonomy of being able to consider various view points on this particular debate, which is why I occasionally read LE’s take on things, and find them refreshing, as they don’t seem to follow any predictable intellectual moulds. Illustrated by this ‘herd mentality’ post, and various responses to it.

  27. Posted June 30, 2010 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    If only all politicians since (and even then) had digested his “Sleepers, Wake”.

    Oh yes, a brilliant text for its time, I’ve often hoped that Jones would do a modern version. The social justice and employment changes brought in under Hawke reflected the ideas Jones was elaborating upon in that 1981 text. I read that Hawke resented Jones’ intellectual calibre and Jones in the end was very much marginalised. That is, the smartest person perhaps ever in parliament was ostracised by his own party.

    My feeling is that the intellectual calibre of Aus politicians has declined but I’m not sure how much of a problem that is. So long as the general trend remains good I’m happy, I think a parliament filled with what we may call “really smart people” would be a frigging disaster. I’m much more concerned by the fact that the base from which our politicians are drawn has become so much narrower. Careerists appear to dominate the Aus Labor Party, and how about a few more tradespeople, engineers, doctors, scientists etc? Choose skilled people not smart people. Being smart aint that hard but being really skilled at something is. But if politicians are only really skilled at being politicians then we have a big problem.

  28. Posted July 1, 2010 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    John H: Nick can no doubt provide more information on the Libs than I have to hand, but it is my very strong impression that there are too many lawyers in federal parliament, on both sides. Yes I know Gillard is another lawyer, and this is not meant to be a criticism of her, but I do think we reached some sort of legal critical mass a long time ago.

    There’s a reason why many businesspeople and entrepreneurs refer to lawyers as ‘roadblocks’.

    I say that as a lawyer.

    (Also, I’ve righted the italics jar, which somehow managed to get tipped over).

  29. Patrick
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    No there aren’t too many lawyers. In Parliament, lawyers are people who can get things done because they have the specific skills required to understand Parliamentary procedure and rules, as well as to understand the Constitutional framework in which they have to do things.

    To paraphrase you, there’s a reason why many politicians are lawyers.

  30. Posted July 1, 2010 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    I was talking about a related issue the other day – the decline in widespread community participation in politics, and what sort of people there were that remained in political parties.

    My tentative conclusion was that the sort of people who are likely to join parties these days, and stick with them, are careerist – intent on carving out a profession for them, ambitious for high places, but not necessarily focused on achieving important and effective changes in legislation/national policy.

    Indeed just about all of my education – with the possible exception of some of my university career – was ‘careerist’ in this sense (though I’ve so far paid little attention). So maybe careerism in politics is a symptom of a wider social malaise.

    I think the Gillard ascendancy also reflects this trend.

  31. Posted July 1, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Thing about politics is that it’s so nasty you wonder why anyone does it. And you wonder about those people who do it.

  32. Posted July 2, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    My view of a rigorous intellectual culture could be supported by further examples, in response to Adrien’s comments @ 28, but this thread isn’t a place for that.

    I don’t mean to suggest that all Australians are mediocre or that we’re incapable of producing excellence but that the mean temperature of the cultural industries here is somewhat lukewarm.
    I think Australian modernist painting is excellent for example. Australian popular music also punches above its weight. But in general there has not and still does not exist the space for mavericks to break free of an orthodoxy dominated by privilege.

    Partly this is the result of cultural elites here deferring to overseas cues, particularly America’s. Thus we lag behind.

    Hey it never did Spain any harm.

  33. Posted July 2, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    But in general there has not and still does not exist the space for mavericks to break free of an orthodoxy dominated by privilege..

    And yet …

    Warren and Marshall, the ulcer chaps.
    Ted Steele and his controversial ideas on immunology and the Weissman Barrier.

    David Stove, Donald Chalmers, John Searle, Peter Singer, all controversial philosophers.

    The novel exploration of savants by Alan Synder has received worldwide attention. See:

    Last year a friend of mine in Canada sent me a fascinating paper by a Melbourne neuroscientist, Greg Willis. A marvellous piece of work arguing that high melatonin levels may be responsible for Parkinsons Disease. Beautiful stuff, goes completely against the grain vis a vis melatonin, and after reading that I wonder about all those people taking melatonin supplements, particularly given the strong suggestion it may increase the risk of skin cancers(but reduce the risk of other cancers, long story, not going there, not in the Willis paper but a result of follow up reading).

    And hey, what about our artist hoaxers: SL, Ern Malley, the white people doing aboriginal painting. Good on ém, when the SL thing broke out I was happy to see the cultural industry go into an uproar because it revealed their soft underbelly and prejudice.

    Just what do we mean by “cultural industries”?

  34. Nick Ferrett
    Posted July 4, 2010 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    SL, my guess is that about a fifth of the coalition ranks have a law degree. Of those probably half have serious time in practice. The others are long time political careerists who happen to have a law degree.

    That latter group is a subset of a much more dangerous class: the apparatchiks. Lawyers, particularly suburban solicitors and those in litigation, actually get to learn a lot about many different walks of life. The real threat to diversity of thought and experience in parliament is the continuing increase in the prevalence of former staffers and union hacks being elected. They are people who, more than most, are acculturated to putting party ahead of everything else.

  35. Nick Ferrett
    Posted July 4, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    LE, most of them aren’t paid all that well so I don’t think it’s that they don’t know what it’s like struggle to pay the bills. Many of em probably do struggle that way. It’s scarier than that. They don’t care. Party loyalty is more import ant than the things that they have in common with their fellow citizens

  36. Posted July 4, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Just what do we mean by “cultural industries”?

    Industries that trade in the market of symbolic goods: entertainment, music, publishing etc.

  37. Posted July 4, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    The structure of the ALP in partiucular has been hard wired into student politics. You join the club, maybe rubn for council, go to NUS, involve yourself with branch politics etc. It’s a harsh competition and those who succeed get a job. But you get disconnected from the rest of the world way too early.

  38. Posted July 4, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    That latter group is a subset of a much more dangerous class: the apparatchiks. Lawyers, particularly suburban solicitors and those in litigation, actually get to learn a lot about many different walks of life. The real threat to diversity of thought and experience in parliament is the continuing increase in the prevalence of former staffers and union hacks being elected. They are people who, more than most, are acculturated to putting party ahead of everything else.

    Yes, this. A stint in criminal law blows pretty much every cosy little certainty one may once have had out of the water. It’s also taught me what just doesn’t work when it comes to the whole messy business of ‘making the laws’. My guess is that the apparatchik types on both sides of politics are the types who think that they can cure all ills or ‘make it right’ by passing laws. Lots of laws.

  39. Nick Ferrett
    Posted July 4, 2010 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    No. Just the types who think they can fool other people to believe that the new laws are a solution.

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