Was it only me who
felt uncomfortable that our Governor-General in his autobiography found it
necessary to discuss the less-than-heroic proportions of the Prime
Minister’s “apparatus”? Or should I simply have accepted the revelation for
what many commentators said it was: a publicity gimmick to help sell copies
of a serious and somewhat colourless tome?
But somehow I felt
that he had demeaned both himself and his office. At a time when respect for
authority was plummeting, he had just given it another nudge downwards.
cannot be much doubt that politicians are generally unloved in Australia.
And though this may always have been the case, at least in the past they
probably got respect. Now they are often loathed and despised. Some
politicians say feelings against them are worse now than at any time they
Channel Nine made the
point clear in a promo for political commentator Paul Lyneham’s 1998
documentary feature “Sex, Lies and Politics”. “Australians hate
politicians,” said the voice-over. “Now you’ll hate them even more.”
When you consider some
of the perks that politicians receive - like their travel allowances and
their superannuation - or you reflect on some notorious political scandals,
like the “travel rorts” affair, it is easy to see why people might choose to
But the real reason
seems to lie deeper: in a pervading feeling that those in authority have let
us down; that those who once served us - not just politicians, but virtually
all those with power - now seem mainly to be interested in serving
themselves; that those we once looked up to no longer merit respect.
That is a far cry from
the early 1970s, when I was a fledgling reporter on the Auckland Star
in New Zealand and was sent to cover a visit by the Governor-General of New
Zealand, Sir Arthur Porritt, to Auckland University’s School of Medicine.
Sir Arthur was a leading surgeon - he was one of the Queen’s doctors - and
included on the tour were some laboratories, complete with shroud-covered
I mentioned this in my
subsequent report of the visit, only to be summoned by the chief sub-editor.
“This mention of the corpses doesn’t lend itself to the rest of the
article,” he told me, striking it out. “We don’t want to talk about our
Governor-General meeting corpses.”
Times change. A few
generations ago power in Australia alternated roughly between right and
left. Bosses and others with money were on the right, workers and people who
wanted more money drifted to the left. There were many exceptions, plenty of
crossovers and a big grey area as well; but the right-left dichotomy
remained. And certainly most power was in the hands of men.
Now, things are
different. A convergence of all manner of trends, such as entrenched
unemployment, the growth of technology, globalisation of industry and a big
move towards out-sourcing and sub-contracting, means that a new, educated
meritocracy is rising to power.
editor-in-chief of Britain’s The Observer newspaper, wrote in his
The State We’re In that we are now living in a “30-30-40 society”.
By this he meant that 30% of the worker population is disadvantaged, with
insufficient work or no work at all; a further 30% is marginalised, or
insecure, with part-time work, or full-time work with few benefits and
little security; and just 40% enjoys secure, stable employment.
In another acclaimed
Global Trap, first published in Germany in 1996 and quickly
achieving best-seller status throughout Europe, two journalists painted a
bleak picture of life in the 21st century. They wrote of a “20-80 society”,
a world in which just 20% of all adults have stable work. They quoted a
computer-company boss as predicting that the choice for many people will be
“to have lunch or to be lunch”.
They also quoted
President Jimmy Carter’s former national security adviser, Zbigniew
Brzezinski, as coining the phrase “tittytainment” (“tits” plus
“entertainment”) to explain how the elite 20% are going to take care of the
remaining 80%. Tittytainment does not refer to sex so much as to the milk
from a mother’s breast, coupled with a lot of distraction. As the authors
wrote: “Perhaps a mixture of deadening entertainment and adequate
nourishment will keep the world’s frustrated population in relatively good
spirits.” (In the Australian context, cable television, casinos and popular
women’s magazines spring to mind.)
We are seeing the
growth of an elite who seem to owe little allegiance to our culture. It is
an elite that transcends traditional class lines. Previously, a white-collar
job could generally be equated with a good income and a secure life;
nowadays no such presumption can be made. Many white-collar professionals
today are stuck in jobs with punishing hours, only moderate wages and little
security. Some blue-collar workers are very wealthy.
Doctors used to be
among the best paid of all the professionals. Even today, many surgeons
receive salaries that are generous by any standard.
Well, almost any
standard. According to the provocative “Retractor” column in the
Australian Doctor journal, written with what is presumably a touch of
exaggeration: “Twenty years ago a prominent surgeon would have earned more
than the CEO of BHP. Now they couldn’t pay the CEO’s superannuation.”
To read Australian
Doctor is to read of a crisis waiting to happen, as general
practitioners struggle - incredible as it may seem - to make ends meet.
Forced to raise costs to meet higher health-delivery standards, they are not
being adequately compensated by the government’s Medicare payments. Growing
amounts of paperwork mean increasing levels of unpaid work.
According to the
journal, a third of our GPs would quit if they had something else to go to.
Many say they would not advise their children to follow in their footsteps.
One part-time GP working 25 hours a week in a bulk-billing practice reported
that her income was so low she qualified for a family-allowance supplement
and a health-care card. Surveys have found doctors working around six hours
weekly without remuneration, including writing up notes, writing referral
letters and such other “duties” as signing passport applications and
Look at the fees
charged by family doctors for a weekend home visit. The government’s
suggested fee is $54.45, and Medicare pays a rebate of $46.30. By contrast,
the Australian Medical Association advises a fee of $82. My own family
doctor charges $65. Try to get a plumber to visit on a Sunday for that kind
of money. Some plumbers add a surcharge of $100 - on top of their regular
fee - for out-of-hours visits.
Now there is, of
course, nothing wrong with plumbers earning good money. But we forget that
our society was prepared to allow doctors high rewards precisely because we
assumed that they took upon themselves a duty of service to the community.
In return for being on call at any hour, and for undergoing years of
rigorous training and meeting high standards, including regular refresher
courses, doctors were allowed to enjoy relative wealth (and status). Now, in
a society that has forgotten its traditions, it is every man - and,
increasingly, every woman – for himself or herself.
Of course, there are
many plumbers and other tradespeople who willingly give of their time to
serve the under-privileged, while plenty of doctors take the phone off the
hook at night and at weekends. But the fact remains that we have entered a
period in which a self-serving elite, feeling no particular duty to our
society is on the rise. Even public “servants” in a growing number of cases
are paid according to “performance” rather than according to “service”.
As Christopher Lasch
pointed out in his book
The Revolt of the Elites, we are seeing a new kind of class warfare.
Previously, it was poor versus rich, vying for political and social power.
But now, the elites are actually cutting themselves off from society.
They pay to send their
kids to day-care centres (and lobby the government for generous subsidies
for this) and to private schools, they pay for private security patrols and
private medical care. They can afford good lawyers and accountants.
Meanwhile, state services in many of these areas seem to be in decline.
Some of this elite are
plugged into the global financial and business world. They communicate daily
with colleagues in many countries. They take their holidays abroad. They
have no sense of owing a particular duty towards fellow Australians. Many
are baby-boomers, members of what has become known as the “me generation”;
they feel they are “self-made”, and therefore are free to do as they choose.
They are certainly not
all rich, though they are often in positions where they are able to exercise
some kind of authority over us, such as in the media or in government or in
public institutions. And as they have in many cases abandoned the religion
of their parents, they do not necessarily feel constrained by moral
absolutes, by any feelings of duty or by a particular sense of right and
wrong. They have come to expect absolute freedom.
* Next chapter
* Previous chapter
Table of contents
* Send a comment
* If you enjoy this book, please consider a donation