Losing faith in democracy: a review of Dead Right

By Caitlin Cassidy

Dead Right

Dead Right: How Neoliberalism ate itself and what comes next

Richard Denniss

Black Inc.

We are living in a culture where inflammatory political rhetoric against sections of society, designed quite particularly to ignite fear, has become the norm over the last few decades in debates over immigration policy.

In light of the horrendous terrorist attack in Christchurch, perpetrated against the Muslim community by a white supremacist born and raised in Australia, many commentators spoke out on social media, urging some politicians to hold themselves accountable for the anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric they have sparked in recent years.

In this climate of fear, paranoia and anxiety, Richard Denniss, chief economist at the Australia Institute, has written his latest book and Dead Right: How Neoliberalism ate itself and what comes next is all the more urgent.

In it, Denniss compels politicians to make some key changes in order to better shape Australia’s future as a democratic nation, in an exploration of what neoliberalism has done to our nation.

Thanks to the spread of neoliberal ideals, the land of the fair go, he suggests, we are no longer.

“While the policy agenda of neoliberalism has never been broadly applied in Australia, for thirty years the language of neoliberalism has been applied to everything from environmental protection to care of the disabled. The result of the partial application of policy and the broad application of language is not just a yawning gap between those with the greatest wealth and those with the greatest need, but a country that is now riven by demographic, geographic and racial divides.”

Denniss argues neoliberal rhetoric has harnessed fear as a political tactic, not only to justify economic policy but to win votes.

On the one hand, this rhetoric argues fear is good. Fear of the dole acts as an incentive to encourage people to work harder, justifying cuts to unemployment benefits.

Yet on the other hand, conservative politicians emphasise the dangers of ‘misguided compassion’ and the need to be ‘cruel to be kind’ in their offshore detention policies and attitudes towards refugees.

Cynically, Denniss suggests “talk of the need to be cruel to be kind is much more politically acceptable than talk of the joy of being cruel.”

Yet conservatives did not always demean those who had fallen on tough times. Former PM Malcom Fraser wrote in a message to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, of which he is a patron, that one of the reasons for the enormous success of Vietnamese migration in the 70s and 80s was that “at that time the major political parties did not play politics with race or religion, with the lives of people fleeing from terror.”

What has changed since the 1980’s that has caused such dramatic shift in thinking?

Though not naively dismissing market competition altogether, Denniss explores neoliberalism beyond economic theory, as having had wide political, social and cultural ramifications.

Denniss therefore questions why we have had 27 years of economic growth, yet the gap between high and low-income earners has grown in recent decades. So too has the gap between middle income earners and those on unemployment benefits.

“Most citizens aren’t interested in having philosophical debates about the relative merits of neoliberalism,” Denniss acknowledges, “but they do have strong views about subsidising coal mines and scrapping penalty rates. And governments are hard pressed to explain why they can afford to build stadiums, coal mines and toll road but can’t afford to build better schools and bigger hospitals or provide more public housing.”

One thing Denniss makes clear in his book is that we are experiencing a profound lapse in trust in government.

He cites a 2017 study by the Scanlon foundation which found that Australia’s faith in government has declined dramatically over the last decade. As it stands, only 28 percent of Australians think that the government can be trusted to do the right thing.

And why should they, when politicians themselves are spouting to the public that those among them can’t be trusted? Increasingly, members of parliament are getting themselves elected on the basis that politicians are corrupt and unable to do anything for the people. One Nation is one such political party benefiting from our declining faith in democracy. If we are not exposed to rhetoric that governments are a force for good in society, why shouldn’t we become disenfranchised, nihilistic and apolitical?

The recent school strikes for climate movement demonstrates this profound frustration. If the politicians are unwilling to do anything for us, we must look elsewhere for answers, or otherwise force them to take notice.

Denniss dismisses Morrisson’s “jobs and growth” tagline as infantilising the real problems facing our nation. We need bigger conversations, he argues, genuine debate about what services we want and how we want them provided.

“After 27 years of continuous economic growth, it is inconceivable that the thing Australia needs most is to grow our economy some more…What we really need is to rebuild our trust in institutions and confidence in this country.”

Denniss lays out some simple answers. Parliaments need to show us that they are capable of getting things done – that they can consider economic and social issues simultaneously.

He argues neoliberalism, as a political project rather than an economic one, has given powerful groups in society the ability to push their personal agendas and justify them as national goals. However, the cracks are beginning to show.

Neoliberalism has eaten itself – which means, to Denniss, that disenfranchised voters of the left and the right are revolting against the fractured idea that the “free market” can provide endless opportunities for workers and consumers, and that the nation cannot help us.

Yet, as Paul Keating famously said, “when you change a government, you change a country.”

Denniss has quite aptly timed his books release for a few months out from a federal election. Our situation is not hopeless. We have the power to choose what direction we want our nation to go in, what changes we want to see.

And so, he urges us, the reader: “Choose well…”