Pareto’s menagerie …. election reflection

Link here to original at UTS Newsroom

In summary:

  • Andrew Jakubowicz reflects on the 2010 federal election and what it means, moving forward, for policy-making and the higher education sector

My Chinese-Australian cab driver in Townsville said it all. Anna Bligh was like a commie, he said, and there was less and less freedom. No way he’d be voting for Gillard.

So the Queensland electorate of Herbert stayed with the Coalition – the Liberal-National Party (LNP) – and real-estate auctioneer, Ewen Jones, is now MP. Jones participated in a panel I’d chaired the day before the election at the International Unity in Diversity Conference, in Townsville, with the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and Greens candidates in a sort of Q and A. The audience quizzed them on issues to do with cultural diversity, ranging from asylum seekers to ageing immigrants, and on to cervical cancer screening.

As the debate that Friday canvassed the issues, it was clear we were in a policy-free zone, at least as far as the local candidates were concerned. A week before I’d posted a query to Facebook – “And if it’s Coalition plus conservative Independents 75, ALP 74, and Greens 1… then what?” That election evening, my query was being rolled out in spades, or so it appeared. And until Rob Oakeshott finally dropped the lotto marble into the box 17 days later, “then what” seemed a reasonable summary of the situation.

Looking back, with all the benefits of hindsight, at the trajectory of the Labor Government and it’s almost (and maybe yet to be) nemesis, the Coalition, I’m reminded of the analysis that Gaetano Mosca, an Italian political scientist, made of the circulation of elites back in the 1890s.

Mosca argued the political class was made up of competing elites, seeking to gain support from the “masses”, and consequently developing the better political organisation skills. While political programs are important as a means of setting organisational goals and evaluating effectiveness, it’s organisational planning, discipline and delivery that underpin successful elites.

Mosca’s compatriot, Vilfredo Pareto, broke apart Machiavelli’s metaphor for the successful Prince – where foxes avoid traps and lions scare off wolves. He envisaged a situation where marginally differentiated factions of the elite pursued strategies of either foxes (capable of experiment and innovation – but lacking fidelity to principles – and inherently unstable) or lions (loyalty to class, patriotism, religious zeal, conservative stability and willingness to use force).

Pareto did not believe in progress, only a constant tipping back and forth, as the unscrupulous but inventive foxes opened up new vistas until the system began to totter and the lions came in, stolid and unimaginative, to reassert order. As society stagnated under the lions, the foxes would once more wriggle into the scene and it would all move right along.

It would be hard to go past Pareto when reflecting on the ALP foxes and the LNP lions. The Greens seem to be a newish animal altogether, given they are for innovation, thinking outside the box (foxes?) but for probity and honesty (lions?).

Perhaps they are a koimanu, which is a lion dog in Japanese mythology that guards temples. In Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, they all intertwine – “If thou wert the lion, the fox would beguile thee; if thou wert the lamb, the fox would eat thee; if thou wert the fox, the lion would suspect thee…”

So maybe the Greens are the proverbial lambs, though now with fangs and claws – and the Independents are surely Machiavelli’s wolves.

With the parliament now in control of its own business, it’s actually anything goes. A conservative Independent could put up legislation, get Coalition support and other independents on line (say WA National, Tony Crook, pushing a regional funding policy off the back of the mining tax that he hadn’t manage to stop), and the hares would be away.

Let’s take the problem of immigration and population size. Universities around the country are in serious shock in the wake of the cut-back of international student numbers triggered by the Indian student attacks, and the changes to settlement rights associated with student visas.

The new tertiary education minister, Chris Evans, didn’t do much to resolve the Indian students problem in his previous portfolio. In fact he has blocked tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of students who expected to be able to settle here after graduation from any hope of permanence.

Important policy questions will have to be addressed and the Greens will drive them despite the Independents endless lists of ‘wanna have’. In the Northern Territory there was a huge swing against the ALP in the electorate of Lingiari, most of the 13 per cent going to the Greens, a pro-Green independent and an Aboriginal candidate.

In inner urban electorates in Sydney, Albanese was driven to preferences, with a nine per cent swing, most going to the Greens and putting them ahead of the Liberals on first preferences. Plibersek saw a six per cent drift of her primaries, with over half going to the Greens. Laurie Ferguson in Werriwa copped an overall 10 per cent swing.

The ALP hard vote in previous elections – working class migrants and middle class trendies – essentially fragmented. The drivers were anger over missed opportunities, a sense the ALP was ‘anti-immigrant’, failure of environment policy, racism against asylum seekers, and failure on gay marriage. On all of these issues ALP members Albanese, Ferguson and Plibersek were seen as having to subordinate their personal values to Party discipline.

For the UTS community, the future holds some major challenges. One will be developing new ways of recruiting, retaining and servicing international students. Universities need public support for this, and government understanding.

UTS’s commitment to increasing our share of low socio-economic status students has to be further embedded in policy, with effective support services. The research expansion of the university depends on ensuring the now volatile political class remains friendly to universities after the hostility of the Howard years.

Given some in the ALP see universities as the forcing ground for their new bete noire/best friend (the Greens), and the Coalition has history of antagonism to universities in general (except in regional centres), the successful positioning of universities in the public mind as major contributors to national wellbeing, wealth and sustainability could well determine our futures for the next decade and beyond. The Pareto menagerie has come to life.

Byline:

Professor Andrew Jakubowicz, Head of the Social and Political Change Group, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

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