Although it is risky to predict the future, it seems likely that when future Australians look back to 2011, they will be surprised by the extent to which the wealthy and powerful were able successfully to champion their own interests under the rubric of "the common good".
A recent article by Gina Rinehart is a case in point. Rinehart — who was this year named Australia’s richest person in the Forbes magazine rich list — has recently purchased stakes in Fairfax and Ten Media; there has been speculation that she seeks to ensure her views on Australian politics and economics receive a wide audience. Writing in the National Times last week, the West Australian mining magnate expressed concern that Australians "make ourselves less attractive to investment" than Singapore, a nation whose economic and social policies she applauds.
The article mostly focuses on the familiar miners’ complaint of "red and green tape" and raises the spectre of "a messy Minerals Resource Rent Tax and carbon tax". With respect to the latter, there is no mention of climate change — the implication is that governments simply tax out of bloody-mindedness, mean-spiritedness, or both.
Rinehart was of course a high-profile opponent of the resources super profits tax and its successor the MRRT; she appeared at what has been derisively referred to as the "billionaires’ rally" in Perth on 8 June 2010, flanked by Andrew Forrest. Writing in Crikey at the time, Richard Farmer commented: "Australia’s richest woman on the back of a truck using a megaphone to shout ‘axe the tax’ must rank highly on any list of this country’s most revolting sights. Rarely has a billionaire exposed naked self interest in as ugly fashion".
In her article for the National Times, Rinehart is at pains to invoke the national interest. In particular, she states definitively that "Australia needs guest labour … even if limited to hot or remote areas or to unskilled and semi-skilled positions".
For "Australia", however, can be substituted the words "the mining industry". Somewhat unconvincingly, Rinehart seeks to justify her call for guest labour on humanitarian grounds, beseeching her readers to "consider the terrible plight of very poor people in our neighbouring countries in Asia". This seems somewhat hollow given that the nationals of these countries would only be retained as labour on a temporary basis. As if to acknowledge the cuts to the national welfare state that her low-tax vision would necessitate, Rinehart suggests that guest workers would be able to provide "services for our own war veterans, the elderly and the disabled". It is somewhat novel to encounter advocates of the creation of a mobile underclass in 21st century Australia.
The article overlooks the inherent potential of guest worker programs to exploit the poor and desperate. Rinehart notes that "Singapore, Dubai and even Europe have had guest workers for decades" but the examples she uses are particularly problematic: the guest worker system in Dubai has been described as "the dark side of the Dubai dream" — a BBC investigation in 2009 documented a "grim tale" of overcrowded and unsanitary accommodation camps, underpaid workers and disillusionment. The Singaporean guest worker system has also been subject to critique on humanitarian grounds, being characterised as "indentured labour".
Rinehart also fails to analyse the social problems arising from guest worker programs in Europe, which have contributed to racism and resentment among the national populace as well as a failure to welcome and integrate migrants into society. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent comments about the "failure" of multiculturalism have been widely reported; it is important to note that contemporary problems in Germany have their roots in a tendency to see Turkish migrants primarily as cheap labour rather than as members of the national community. Last year, Merkel herself argued that her country had viewed immigrants as "guest workers" for too long, complicating efforts at integration into German society.
Indeed, there is a disturbing void at the heart of Rinehart’s article: while she can clearly envisage the kind of economy she desires, she struggles to evoke a sense of civil society beyond the statement that "we should all be able to live safely in our homes and suburbs". The value of democracy, social inclusion and equity is not mentioned.
Rinehart concludes by urging her readers to "consider becoming a member of ANDEV (Australians for Northern Development & Economic Vision)". This new lobby group is ‘about encouraging businesses and the people of Australia’; the website features a prominent Australian flag.
In addition to opposing any form of mining tax, ANDEV champions the formation of a "Northern Economic Zone". The zone would encompass the north of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. Companies operating with the Zone — including Rinehart’s own Hancock Prospecting Pty Ltd — would enjoy the ability to bring in temporary labour for construction periods. Such labour will presumably be paid at reduced rates, and in the national interest of course — ANDEV explains helpfully that "high wages due to scarce labour during construction don’t just risk turning companies away from making future investments in Australia … they push up prices for everyone else". ANDEV also champions reduced personal taxation for Australians willing to live and work in the Zone, with its "excessive heat", "multitude of snakes" and "distance from city life and amenities".
Here we see once again a concerted campaign to change government policies to suit the mining industry. Who is running it? Robert Manne wrote critically in 2001 that Australian journalists had "taken remarkably little interest in the informal ideological groupings that help determine their country’s life". Manne cited the involvement of members of organisations such as the HR Nicholls Society and Samuel Griffith Society in the seemingly disparate pursuits of championing free market economics and constitutional conservatism, opposing native title and seeking to discredit the 1997 Bringing them home report on the stolen generations.
These confluences continue; as journalist Luke McKenna notes, ANDEV’s membership list "reads like a who’s who of ultra-conservative Australian business", with links to "radical climate sceptics, anti-immigration campaigners and IR reformers". For instance, among ANDEV’s members is the longstanding industry figure Hugh Morgan, an avowed opponent of native title as well as a member of the Lavoisier Group who likened the Rudd government’s ill-fated carbon pollution reduction scheme to "economic self-mutilation". Fellow climate sceptic Ian Plimer, a geologist and company director, is also a member of ANDEV, as is John McRobert, a campaigner against company, income and profit-based taxes.
There is nothing sinister or unethical in the existence of lobby groups which advance particular interests. It is important, though, to be sceptical of those who seek to equate their own economic agenda with the good of the nation as a whole. It should also be noted that debates as to the mining tax and carbon tax illuminate flaws in the soothing metaphor of the marketplace of ideas and the idea lying behind it — that free public conversation between the citizenry will result in "truth" or in superior policy. The metaphor ignores the role that power plays in our society and the distorting impacts of unequal power on public discourse.
As present debates demonstrate, the marketplace of ideas is not truly free — some positions are heavily subsidised.
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