Essay

Confusions of an economist’s daughter

WHEN WE WERE kids, we loved the ABC newsreader Richard Morecroft. He took care of rescued possums and gliders in his spare time. Sometimes he read the news with bumps under his suit jacket or an animal asleep on his lap. That's why we loved him - reading the news to the public, with his own secret. He was on TV telling us about the world and he was of the worlds we knew. We were used to people moving between ABC News and our world, and we were used to looking after animals: we'd wake to find poddy lambs shivering in tea chests by the wood stove on the winter mornings. We saw our uncle, who worked for Bob Hawke and then Paul Keating, in the background of a news story occasionally. And we saw our uncle, sometimes, on the weekends. Politics was not distant, or unreal.

When I was a kid, I spent my time in the back paddock. Terrified of snakes, I marched along in the summer, hoping they would hear my footsteps vibrate as I swung a stick through straw-dry grass. The sun split open the dirt, the creek jammed with dumped cars and washing machines trickled downhill, the sky went on and on. The blue hazy Brindabellas sat to the west, quiet. From the back paddock, the country stretched out and taut electricity lines followed, rushing down and then climbing away.

We lived half an hour's drive from Canberra. In the morning our dad would race into the kitchen after checking the sheep, his tie slung like a scarf around his neck. He'd leave in a hurry, his ute slipping around dusty gravel corners, the radio loud. "Good morning, this is AM." I imagine him now, knotting his tie in the rear vision mirror in the carpark at work. My dad is a free trade economist.

Dad wore his "It's time" badge with its rusted pin to our small country school to vote. He wore it to irritate the National Party voters and Christian fundamentalists whose community was ours. But it was important not to be selfish, our parents said, so we were a Labor-voting family. We were lucky because life was comfortable, but others were not so lucky and deserved a break. Fortunately, most Australians agreed, and our uncle stayed in his job for a decade. That was politics: the "It's time" badge, watching the news, Hawke's tears running down his crinkly face, Keating's "big vision", as dad described it, our uncle who was funny and full of stories, mum's interest in "the environment": we planted trees all through the freezing winters, we grew fruit and fixed the creeks. Actually, that wasn't politics - that was the just rewards of hard work and risk. It became politics when I moved to the inner city, where households I know build vegetable gardens on concrete and wait for the apocalypse because global oil reserves are, it turns out, finite.

 

POLITICS SHOULDN'T DIVIDE you from other people. My dad left the public service to set up a private consultancy firm with two Liberal-voting partners. They disagreed on politics, but their economics were harmonious. The kids of the partners went to private schools, and we went to Canberra's well-funded public high schools. (Mum was from establishment stock and sick of snobs; she wanted us to be "in society". Dad's father "grew up in a bark hut" and sacrificed a lot to give his family a chance: like this story, his life and fortunes map a national story - the post-World War II boom of affordable suburban homes and free tertiary education for my parents.)

In the 1980s and 1990s, free trade was right thinking, the "common sense" whose time had come. A Labor-voting economist and two Liberal-voting economists didn't just agree on economics, they were passionate reformers thriving on a shared sense of purpose. Economics transcended party politics, and became politics. The 1980s were a good time to be in the business of offering advice. Those beautiful paddocks, scattered with rocks and flecked with scars, quickly became ours. Just rewards.

If the Whitlam Government captured the political passions of the new social movements of my parents' youth, the Hawke-Keating era represented its capitulation to "pragmatism" - what critics came to call "free market ideology". In Australia, at the time, it was called economic rationalism. The country was remade, economic literacy campaigns explained, to meet the challenge of global competitiveness. Unless we come out from behind that high tariff wall, Keating coaxed, we would find ourselves in a "banana republic". And so, under the moniker of micro-economic reform, the dollar was floated, public assets sold off, and financial markets deregulated. According to Don Watson, Keating's speechwriter: "One school of hardline rationalists ... believed Australia began deregulation at the wrong end - the government should have started with the labour market and moved on to the financial markets later." The Hawke-negotiated Accords symbolised economic reform Labor-style: consensual, cushioned.

In feminist cultural theorist Meaghan Morris's portrait of Keating as treasurer, Ecstasy and Economics(Empress, 1992), she touches on the effect of the popularisation of the term "economic rationalism", otherwise known as "neo-liberalism", "market fundamentalism" (preferred by American commentator Thomas Frank) or "libertarian capitalism" (a personal favourite because it implicates the libertarians of the late 1960s and 1970s in the ascendancy of the free market in the 1980s). All refer to a radical reduction in the state's role and social responsibilities, a belief in "the market" as if it were a thing. For sociologist Michael Pusey, it's "market determinism", a faith-based system which recalls earlier dogmas. "Market determinism," Pusey writes in Economic Rationalism in Canberra (Cambridge University Press, 1991), "recasts society as the object of politics, rather than as the subject of politics. Further, society has been represented as some sort of stubbornly resisting sludge, as a 'general externality' and even as an idealised opponent of 'the economy'." Morris and others conclude that the term "economic rationalism" casts its critics as irrational: on one side, reason and "facing up to reality"; on the other, emotion and sentimental nostalgia.

Ironically, in a brave new world where "choice" and "flexibility" are the buzzwords, Australians were only ever offered a choice between two versions of one inflexible world-view: between moderate free market economics wedded to social programs, or a pure hit of the market, encapsulated in Liberal leader John Hewson's 1993 Fightback package.

After reading Morris's essay, I called the friend who recommended it: "I just didn't understand it."

"What's to understand?" he replied. "She loves Paul Keating."

Morris is entranced by Keating's media image - tall, dark, saturnine, seductive, and clear-sighted about what he stands for. "His attitude to my kind of politics", she writes, "is frankly contemptuous, [he calls it] 'basket weaving'."

"That's what I don't understand," I told my mate. "She loves Keating, but he hates her, and she knows it."

He shrugged. "She's from that generation that believe in the Labor Party." That explained it.

 

MY PARENTS LOVED Keating too, and their admiration seeped into our lives. As a teenager, Keating certainly captured my naïve political imagination. He was the "big picture", the Redfern Speech, Australia's place in a post-colonial world. He asked me to "face up to the reality" of my inheritance.

My secret places, where I'd spent years up trees with made-up friends, faded as the country offered its own unease, hinting at secrets. I had often felt fearful in the back paddock on my own. Its emptiness and absences suggested a kind of powerful presence. "Dispossession" was not abstract. I sympathised strongly with the need to acknowledge history, for healing and reconciling. I was a "basket weaving" adolescent: excessively privileged ("lucky") and excessively righteous.

While I understood Keating's scope to be expansive, in 1992, when he toppled Hawke for the top job, narrowness dogged him. In Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (Knopf, 2002) Watson describes the split within Keating's office, when he joined it, between the "pointy heads" - economic rationalists - and the "bleeding hearts". The pointy heads - including Keating - were attached not just to the free market, but to an ideological world-view, a "web of meaning and belief". According to Watson, "they shared a belief in a new order, and they were the ones who would lead us to it. There was an element of cleansing about it - cleanse the economy of government where prudent, cleanse companies of inefficiencies including people, cleanse people of outmoded thought."

Keating broadened as Prime Minister, to talk about Mabo, national identity, creativity, the region, belonging and the republic: he seemed to enter an abstract realm and, understandably, the new order's losers seethed. While Watson, who wrote the Redfern Speech, shows little instinctive feeling for Aboriginal politics, he empathises with "the bush", and he urged Keating to try to talk to, and make policy for, a regional and rural Australia in decline, as capital fled and communities were left to chew globalisation's dust. This left a vacuum that Pauline Hanson eventually filled. "And were we so stupid as to think that these people [Hanson supporters] had no reason other than racism for their disenchantment - no economic reasons, for instance? No loathing of Keating? And many of them Labor people, after all - people who felt Labor had lost touch and even betrayed them," Watson wrote.

The answer was self-evident. The liberal media ripped Hanson up, which proved her point. They focused on her racism; in doing so, they underestimated her appeal. Hanson re-politicised economics and, however crudely, challenged the economic rationalist consensus.

Howard won her constituency by adopting One Nation's stance on race, at the same time even more aggressively pursuing the previous administration's economic agenda. A recent series of ads by the Business Council of Australia notes that Labor governments served business interests well, but WorkChoices finished the job. Giant scissors cut through the constraints on capital. Snip, snip.

 

"IT'S IMPORTANT NOT to be selfish," my parents said, so we were a Labor-voting family. Yet the principle at the heart of Keating's baby, the new economy, was what Watson describes as "unrestrained pursuit of self-interest". This principle has, in my adulthood, proved to be his most enduring legacy. Sociologist Bob Connell calls it simply "the logic of greed". It's embarrassing to hear my parents' generation bemoan the greed, individualism and materialism of their kids. The logic of greed, the logic of the market, reaches into every sphere of life. The Baby Boomers might reckon we are brats but they started it.

The confidence of my adolescence has crumbled, and liberal moral outrage or dismay, as a response to neo-liberal hegemony, seems whiney.

Today, Left thinkers such as David McKnight and Clive Hamilton urge renewal as they grapple with a set of new social meanings and definitions engendered by two decades of broad economic consensus and the triumph, over the last decade, of the neo-cons. Yet neither fully acknowledges the extent to which the new economic consensus makes a society antithetical to politics.

The economic reforms begun by the Labor Party in the 1980s escalated a user-pays society, with citizens redefined as consumers. Political participation and interest are now, unsurprisingly, assumed to be on the wane. Refashioning citizens as consumers hollows out the concept of political participation. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu captured this transition in Acts of Resistance (Polity Press, 1998): "Citizens, feeling themselves ejected from the state (which ... asks of them no more than obligatory material contributions and certainly no commitment, no enthusiasm), reject the state, treating it as an alien power to be used as far as they can serve their own interests."

And yet, we find ways of reconnecting.

In September 2000, I took a tiny part in the teeming "carnival of resistance" that ringed Melbourne's Crown Casino where the World Economic Forum was attempting to meet. I had been involved in focused campaigns before - and since - acting in support of grassroots Aboriginal organisations. But in 2000 I found myself suddenly enrolled in a kind of crash course in "the things my dad never told me about free trade economics". Economic rationalism became the "IMF world-view". Global anti-capitalist organising, at its peak, coalesced around capital's pursuit of unregulated labour to maximise profits (No Logo by Naomi Klein was compulsory reading); the wholesale plunder of natural resources; the brutality of neo-liberal economic reforms demanded of loan recipients by the World Bank and IMF; the commodification of local knowledge and practices, such as seed collecting - in short, the subdivision and sale of the "global commons".

Global anti-capitalist actions like this served to highlight key concerns. Decisions that shape the world we live in are being taken not by elected representatives within domestic democratic systems - however flimsy we hold them to be - but by global bodies, CEOs and economists behind a high security wall: these meetings are a chance to force an interface between "the people" and the powerful.

Clive Hamilton's Quarterly Essay: What's Left? (Black Inc, 2006) confines his discussion of consumption and record material wealth, generated by economic reforms, to Australia, as if those ruinous flat screens aren't produced somewhere, by someone. To McKnight and many others, the anti-capitalist protest movement seems "mindless". But this is the global perspective on the social and environmental cost-shifting that becoming "globally competitive" involves. In Australia, the energy of opposition to globalisation has dissipated, although resistance has proved more sustained elsewhere. But my peers and I, who continue to initiate and direct our own projects and campaigns for social justice, cut our teeth on global anti-capitalism organising and theorising. It makes little sense to write this generation out of a story about contemporary political renewal.

As a movement, we were criticised for presenting few viable alternatives to free market economics. A fair criticism: we are at our most inspired when asked to analyse, and at our most stuck when asked to imagine a different world. Far from leading me to believe the neo-liberal mantra that "there is no alternative", I think a new emancipatory politic needs to begin by liberating constrained political imaginations.

My dad scorned what he saw as nostalgia for high tariffs - but, far from yearning for an era of protectionism that had its origins in the "white Australia" policy, our politics embrace global awareness, diversity and exchanges. Our criticism of globalisation is not confined to these shores. The political ideas I encountered that year proved secondary to their social meanings. Collective organising developed relationships and decision-making processes that evolved into long-term commitments and collaborations, which applied more carefully honed political ideas.

 

IN HIS MEMOIR Straight Left (Random House, 1994), Tom Uren, of the old Labor left, describes the first two terms of the Hawke Government - from 1983 to 1987 - in which he served as Local Government Minister, as "bloody awful, lacking real compassion for the people they should have represented".

Uren was born in 1921. He learnt about collectivism when he was a prisoner of war in the Burma-Thailand Railway construction camps; in prison camps, teamwork, camaraderie and comradeship ensured survival. This experience shaped his optimistic understanding of "human nature". Uren was born in the same year as my maternal grandfather, whom I call Papa. Uren grew up in a working-class household, Papa comes from the established Melbourne middle class; he grew up in a big house with domestic help - a class formation currently making a comeback. Papa was a beef cattle farmer in the Western District, and still serves on agricultural boards. He sent his young sons away from the farm to attend the same exclusive Melbourne school that he did. Papa was in Papua New Guinea during the war, a decorated officer in that "stupid, dreadful" thing called war.

Before my family moved to the farm I grew up on, we lived in the bush in Victoria. My grandparents were on a small farm nearby. I didn't know him then as the veteran, hard-working grazier, the authoritarian father, the patriarch. Beef cattle farming in the Western District now, says Papa, is doing well thanks to Japan.

Papa, it seems to me, gets softer as he gets older. We are the best of mates. When I moved to Melbourne for uni, Papa and I really became friends. We were easy companions, sifting through stacks of papers together over breakfast: The Age and The Australian daily. "It's very biased, isn't it?" Papa commented, once, of Murdoch's flagship. We'd sit out the front in the sun for tea and Anzac biscuits, and pop down the main street for errands. Papa doesn't like the way the yuppies' kids careen around on scooters, but he likes going to the cafes that have sprung up to feed them. We'd watch three lots of news at night: commercial, SBS and ABC. "Shall we have a TV dinner?" he'd ask hopefully, and we'd balance the trays on our laps as we ate and watched.

Inevitably, over my weekend visit, we'd have a kind of meeting. "Now I want to talk to you about some things, Eve," he'd say, reaching for his notepad - the agenda. We covered the basics: What was I up to? What would I do next? He'd get me to write down the answers sometimes, so that he could refer to them later. He sometimes listened to me on community radio in the mornings, on a station that captures the left's identity crisis: retrograde Maoist politics, union solidarity shows and "ethnic" broadcasting, our breakfast editorial style cynical. In one of our meetings, Papa raised a suggestion - at first tentative, and then stern: we were too focused on the bad things happening in the world. There is good news to be told, Papa insisted. "Is that a fair point?" I thought it was.

If I ever got upset, or was evasive, he'd cup my chin in his hand and look me straight in the eye. We often discussed social issues. What did I think about global warming? And always: "What do you think of the Aboriginal problem?" Throughout these conversations, Papa was patient and attentive as I fumbled for a response. I may be an opinionated bitch, and I've been lucky to work with some excellent people who've taught me a lot, but I don't know how to fix the Aboriginal "problem", which is everyone's problem. How does a state increasingly concerned with wealth creation rather than redistribution deal with its most marginalised citizens? It is punitive: the Aboriginal prison population explodes; horrific "revelations" of extreme, entrenched disadvantage and abuse are met with an authoritarian response.

Certainly, much of what I offered did not sit well with him; he is an old man at ease in Melbourne's ultra-conservative gentlemen's clubs. But, in good grace, Papa has handed responsibility for the world over to my generation. It's not because he doesn't contemplate pressing problems, or care. He sits silent through his news rounds, absorbing, frowning, nodding. His stake in the future is diminished; he defers to the "young people" who he thinks understand it best.

"You young people," he says, admiringly. "You have so much to worry about."

"Can a woman who rode a horse to school as a girl live to see the end of the oil age?" a friend asks his grandmother. Papa's life and family are steeped in the traditions of his class, but he knows he has lived through the "end of certainty". In an increasingly fractured society, it's the inequities of access to cultural and social capital that matter as much as the distribution of wealth. My income may come in behind the poverty line ("Is that why you're looking thin?" Papa wondered as we discussed my dire financial situation), but life is rich. The precariousness and uncertainty that underline vulnerable existences also define my life, but are rendered exciting by possibility.

Papa gets out his pen and says: "Tell me what it is exactly that you're doing again? Where are you living now? Write your new phone number here for me."

The biggest thing that young people have to worry about, Papa thinks, is climate change - we will inherit the terrifying legacy of so much human activity before us. "You young people have so much to worry about, but you're so educated. You think so much. You have so many responsibilities."

I think about my chaotic existence. "When you were my age, Papa," I say, "you'd fought in a world war, were married with two little kids, and were running an isolated farm in the Riverina."

"That's a fair point."

In 2002, I asked Papa to respond to some questions I had about "his relationship to the land". I was still trying to pull apart my deep attachment to the country that I grew up on - Ngunnawal country. "This isn't about how all the money-grubbing farmers stole all the land from the Aborigines?" he asked cheerfully before he agreed to reply.

He wrote me one of his few letters, although all members of the family regularly receive envelopes in the post, stuffed with newspaper clippings that include comments, underlines and exclamation marks. Papa began by excusing his jagged handwriting, pointing out - unnecessarily - that he didn't have a computer. He wrote that in 1947 he moved to a property in New South Wales on the Murray River: "Aratula was a lovely property. Dark loam with a creek, Bullatale, meandering through the centre into most of the paddocks. The whole area covered with occasional large red gum trees, then gum forest between the lower paddocks and Murray River. It was a delight to ride a horse and work the stock in such a setting ... There were two large mounds (about as big as a house) alongside two picturesque lagoons, backwaters of the creek. These were Aboriginal campfires where fires for cooking and warmth were kept going day and night."

Absences, presences: we forget, and remember again, how recently this land was stolen. Aboriginal blokes worked in the shearing teams; Aboriginal women worked as domestic help. Their old people probably grew up around those campfires.

In a rambling, sagging house I lived in briefly, I went through the back door one night and found my housemate in the kitchen hunched over the phone to her grandma, who lives in Canberra. The two of them whispered and giggled like young girls, deep in an intimate conversation. Years earlier, when my friend was a smack addict, her grandmother's support never wavered. While other family members shifted through phases of a more complex kind of love that mixed in guilt, betrayal and anger, her grandma remained an ally. Why is it that our grandparents, who have had to make the greatest leaps in understanding different experiences and new social meanings, do it best? If Papa is disappointed by who I turned out to be, as I feel my dad is, he doesn't show it. My dad the economist, who worked so hard through decades of relentless change, is an unfailingly generous person, and he has poured his successes back to his family. He instilled a social conscious in us all, but he's dismayed by my interpretation of it. Most of all, I suspect the thing he wants from me is stability. He's looking for some certainty.

When I ask Papa, nervously, what he thinks of my ratbaggery, he says: "I admit, it's been challenging. I've learnt a lot from you over the years." 

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