Who will rise to the challenge of defending the public sector and a progressive system? By Guy Rundle.

Guy Rundle
A collision course in the culture wars

There is something either apposite or ironic about Christopher Pyne being the Minister for Education, a small man trapped in a small boy’s body. When, as part of his portfolio, he visits schools, they sometimes don’t let him leave. So it is sometimes a little difficult to take seriously the range of initiatives he is letting loose. A perpetual student politician in more ways than one, Pyne was right out of the gate when the Abbott government was installed, muttering about killing the Gonski program, to which Abbott had committed himself, appointing, in Kevin Donnelly, a caricature fundamentalist conservative, to conduct a review of the national curriculum, and most recently appointing a panel to review teacher training. To save their valuable time, Pyne has already described such courses as “theoretical, ideological and faddish”.

Together with the onslaught against the ABC, it amounts to a culture war of sorts, though it is so haphazard and rushed that it has the feel of a clown show version of that waged by the Howard government from 2001 until its demise. Most grizzled veterans of previous conflicts expect the Australian Research Council and the Australia Council will be next. Given current form, those bodies will probably be put under the supervision of Gina Rinehart and the character played by John Jarratt in Wolf Creek. These attacks have produced in many of those in the crosshairs exactly the behaviour desired by the attackers – a sort of hyperventilating swoon, references to “unacknowledged legislators” and threats to move to New Zealand.

But it has been a half-hearted protest, more resigned than assertive. There are many reasons for that, from Abbott’s recent comprehensive win to Labor’s chaotic non-leadership. Furthermore, the rise of social media has atomised public life substantially in the decade since Howard’s schmaltzkrieg. But above and beyond all that, there is a difficulty in articulating a strong and simple idea of what is being defended, in each of these cases, and others, and that makes them easy targets.

Liberals such as Chris Pyne may well have a wilfully naive idea of the world – there is the truth, which is Anzacs and free markets, and the rest is ideological tosh – but they are matched by an equal intransigence from the left-liberal side. Many of the institutions people are trying to defend have remained unexamined for decades, their current form bearing the imprint of a Whitlam-era creative surge, a different era, with different priorities and alliances.

Take the curriculum, for a start. Compared with Howard’s chaotic process, the Rudd/Gillard curriculum redesign was scrupulous in the extreme.  Contrary to the caricature of it put out by Pyne – especially that of history subjects – it gave a rounded and pluralist overview in individual subject units. Yet its overall structure – three mega-themes of sustainability, Australia-Asia, and indigenous Australia – is exactly the sort of simplistic co-option of learning that undermines the idea of an independent and critical education. It’s easy for Pyne and co to unleash the Empire Day parade when the model they’re reforming is obviously shaped by Labor, if not Ruddite imperatives. 

In other cases, the institutions are exposed because they have been left so long unexamined. You would have to be pretty sure that the government will make a move on the education system soon, advancing the notion of a “free-school” model as developed in Britain, the US and Sweden – whereby state schools are managed autonomously by groups of parents, teachers’ consortia, or even corporations. Such schools have mixed results in Britain, and they are popular with parents. Overall, they cut with the grain of the era, towards autonomy and decentralisation. Having some sort of progressive model of such a changed system might be a good idea, but the forces of public education remained committed to a top-down state system redolent of the 1950s. Labor has had years at both state and federal level to anticipate such challenges and offer a progressive response, and failed to do so. It will now be forced into defending a system that many find increasingly unsatisfactory. 

The Australia Council proceeds on a cosy model, derived from the 1970s, when there was still a belief in the clear superiority of “high” culture, especially in a country that had been deprived of it. Decades on, mass and pop culture has as much cultural authority, and the question of why we should pay for obscure arts cannot be answered with a simple reference to “quality work”. The question can be answered, but not in the old ways, and it was another institution that never got rethought. The need for such re-evaluations is essential, not merely to defend and extend the things themselves, but also because there are institutions under attack – such as the universities and the ABC – that  need defending on relatively unchanging grounds, as the essential components of a free and pluralist society.  

One suspects we are about to pay dearly for the failure of groups that believe in government to reinvent government when they had the chance.  The Abbott government is the last of the neo-conservatives – believing that you can let the economy be ceaselessly globalised, while holding the society together via a mildly authoritarian cultural state, bonding us via Anzac and Bradman. That formula barely worked post 9/11. It doesn’t work at all now, which is why the government appears so scattershot. It only prospers at it because Labor agrees with about 70 per cent of the formula, and has no remaining mechanism – or perhaps spirit – left for core policy innovation. 

So what remains of a public sector and a progressive culture must be defended at the same time as it is reinvented, from outside the centre. That, in its own way, is as much a challenge for progressives as the khaki kitsch that the new small men are determined to smother them in.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 7, 2014 as "A collision course in the culture wars".

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Guy Rundle is an author and commentator. His most recent book is Trumped! Election ’16 and the Progressive Collapse.

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