This week

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You see it quoted more often these days, the dictum Paul Keating tossed to voters before they removed him in 1996: when you change the government you change the country. He meant, don’t do it lightly; don’t imagine you can use your vote just to teach the government a lesson, or because you think it’s the other outfit’s turn. Evidence of how right he was came in a long time ago, but only now is the conservative revolution reaching its high tide.

As one among many examples, you can take the new radical right wing face of Brendan Nelson. This is no doubt in part a tactic to outflank the more natural reactionaries in the way of his ambition. But only in part: just as likely he is saying these things because all of a sudden the political climate allows it – more than that, it is the new ground in which the ideas form and grow, even among more moderate souls. That’s why we keep hearing Keating quoted as if his real name was Nostradamus and he had predicted this cosmic upheaval.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson from the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson from the Australian

But of course it’s not just changing the government. Changing the economy has had a few consequences for the country as well. Particularly if, for all the right reasons, you set up the economy on competitive and sustainable lines, and then lose to a crowd who never had the bottle to set it up themselves but simply thrive in the conditions it creates. Left with just a labour market to deregulate, they can heroically beat the unions to pulp, while talking about mateship and the fair go as if these were values forged in the experience of private school regattas and Young Liberals weekend bush retreats.

But seizing and re-moulding these ‘values’ is mere decoration. For all the sanctimony about to come our way this weekend, so is Anzac just the cream in the conservative sponge. Even the new evangelism and the Treasurer’s announcement last year that Judeo-Christian values are the backbone of free market economies (and by implication those who run them) is at base just convenient ideological dressing. They are all necessary, for the same reason as fighting and winning the culture wars was necessary. But they are nothing compared to the transforming force of an economy run on the present lines, without a substantial public realm to moderate it.

So, in the same week we have the government talking about teaching ‘financial literacy’ to all Australian schoolchildren (remember, before the country changed, when we were more likely to hear about teaching them all another language “ or just making them literate in English?); and the Sydney Morning Herald’s standout economics editor, Ross Gittins, reporting that, to his considerable satisfaction, the discipline of economics is at last being forced to concede that it is not prices alone that make the world go round. Sociologists and even psychologists are imposing the idea that other ‘non-monetary factors’ influence behaviour and should be taken into account when economists do their models.

For instance: ‘a person’s position in the social structure conditions his economic choices and activity.’ ‘For a person who grows up in a high- crime neighbourhood, for instance, the choice between making a career stealing and getting a regular job often has less to do with comparing the utility expected from each than with the structure of peer groups and gangs in the neighbourhood.’ Among economists, apparently, this is breaking news. Laugh if you will, but don’t forget they’re in charge and have been for some time. The government’s just there to make sure the young are taught about Anzac and share trading.

It’s unfair to single out the banks again, but whenever you’re talking about how the country has changed somehow the banks sum it up better than anybody else. You would think they haven’t caught on to the sociology thing just yet, because they continue with great aggression to suck people in lower ‘positions in the social structure’ into debt at the highest interest rates and so compound their disadvantage and society’s problems. But, to be fair, they do draw the line sometimes. The Commonwealth Bank was set up just a decade after Federation to look after the hard done by, and while the mission statement has changed a bit in the last decade and a half, there are signs that they haven’t forgotten everything. This week they sent out a letter to credit card holders. The letter went as follows:

‘As a valued customer you are invited to accept our invitation for a credit limit increase from $xxxx to $xxxx.

‘Before accepting this invitation please consider your personal circumstances and if they have changed, for example, due to loss of employment, or are likely to change, for example, due to notice of retrenchment, you should not accept the invitation to increase your credit card limit. Instead please contact us immediately on 13 2221’.

The banks (and other modern companies) put it under the heading of corporate social responsibility, and you can see from the letter that we can safely leave it with them.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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