Saturday, April 19, 2008


Summit participants less kingpins than slaves to status quo

Andrew West, smh

April 19, 2008

Kevin Rudd and his fellow organisers of this weekend's 2020 Summit reportedly ploughed through 20,000 pieces of paper from 8000 applicants wanting their say in Australia's future.

They could have saved themselves the trouble and read a concise 23-page essay by Martin Luther King.

This week marked the 45th anniversary of King's most famous treatise, the "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" (written on April 16, 1963 and published in Why We Can't Wait, 1964). It was the great civil rights leader's call to moral arms in the face of pleas for restraint from Birmingham's "respectable" citizenry.

In the letter, written from his cell after his arrest during a demonstration, King told the city's white religious leaders that their faith in the "moderate" administration of Birmingham's new mayor Albert Boutwell - who had replaced the uninhibited racist, Eugene "Bull" Connor - was misguided. "While Mr Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr Connor," King wrote, "they are both segregationists, dedicated to the maintenance of the status quo."

King also hit out at white moderates who, while mouthing platitudes in support of racial equality, condemned efforts to achieve it, insisting black Americans wait for a "more convenient season".

"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will," King added.

Almost a century after Abraham Lincoln had emancipated the slaves, more than 150 years after William Wilberforce passed the first act to end slavery in British colonies, and almost 2000 years after St Paul's injunction that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; but all are one in Christ Jesus", the man who walked in the footsteps of Christ was saying the time for talking - for tinkering - was over.

King no longer cared about the approbation of the respectable middle class.

There is a lesson in King's letter for this weekend's summit participants. We no longer live in a country of enshrined racism, but over the past 25 years the social solidarity of Australia has frayed. Public services, such as health, education or transport, have been wilfully ignored or actively undermined by economic policies that emphasise private gain over public good.

Rudd understands this, as his 2006 essay on the "brutopia" of rampant free markets indicates. He knows a society in which the chief executive of a bank can earn 600 times the average wage is unhealthy, even obscene. But then look at the list of summit participants pondering the future of the Australian economy.

David Morgan, the former Westpac chief whose last pay cheque was $10,570,442, is running a discussion that is scheduled to include fellow bank boss Ralph Norris; a media magnate, Lachlan Murdoch; the country's wealthiest man, Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest; Michael Chaney, the former Wesfarmer's chief executive, whose $7.9 million salary was described by the company's chairman as "outrageous"; and, of course, Alan Moss, whose Macquarie Bank salary reached $33,489,818 before his recent retirement.

Does anyone honestly believe that people with such a vested interest in the barely regulated economy are willing to change it by restoring genuinely progressive taxation or giving shareholders the power of veto over executive excess?

Are the former premiers on the panel, Bob Carr and Steve Bracks, who sanctioned such a system and now profit from it as consultants to Macquarie Bank and KPMG, going to agitate for laws to break down concentrations of wealth, as postwar Labor and Liberal governments did, and restore the balance between public good and private enterprise that made Australia one of the world's most equitable nations?

John Robertson, the stirring secretary of Unions NSW, will need his megaphone to be heard over the chorus of consensus in favour of preserving today's economic orthodoxy.

Are the serving and retired politicians who will consider the "future of Australian governance" - George Brandis, Michael Tate, Michael Lavarch, Matt Foley, Geoff Gallop - willing to embrace participatory democracy by advocating part-time state parliaments made up of citizens with real jobs who share the economic burdens of their constituents? Are they ready to democratise the political machines that put them in power by introducing a primary system for the selection of candidates and spending caps on election campaigns?

You can bet on a recommendation for a republic where the head of state is chosen by Parliament or, at most, elected from a small list of "bipartisan" candidates (meaning uncontroversial folk who have never taken a stand on anything) whom the Parliament has approved. Rabble-rousers, progressive populists, even small-d democrats need not apply.

Writing recently in The Nation, Alexander Cockburn explained the problem with such officially sanctioned "conversations" among political and economic elites, who are after all the real elites in our society. "'National conversations' are clubby affairs," Cockburn wrote. "Their prime purpose is to exclude the unconversational, meaning intellectual or verbal excess - [to exclude] above all, unseemly questioning of the essential functionality of the existing system."

In Birmingham in April 1963 the existing system denied the very humanity of black Americans.

In contemporary Australia, the system has widened the wealth gap and increasingly exposed ordinary citizens to economic risks taken by corporate elites.

With different participants the 2020 Summit might have overcome the problem that King identified in his letter: "It is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily".

Michael Duffy is on leave