Monday, October 09, 2006

Australian sectarianism’s re-awakening?

“Australia’s (Re)Awakening” is the ambitious title of the current (# 184) Overland’s feature article/“lecture”, by the late-30s Joel Deane, whose main claim to commentariat fame is being Victorian Labor Premier Steve Bracks’ senior speechwriter. Not only does Deane’s article fail to live up to its ambitious title or feature prominence, it is the sheer dumbest thing published in Overland – a journal that I usually respect – for at least a decade.

It is in mock-tribute to Deane’s article that I’ve titled this post – with similarly misleading pretensions. Australian sectarianism* is in no more danger of re-awakening than is the Australian Left, on present indications. Deane’s article does, however, contain a peculiar vignette about sectarianism in present-day Australia, so I’m going to salvage this from the article’s broader detritus, and then jump into a broader discussion of Australian sectarianism’s intersections with generations and class – as inspired by another article in the current Overland.

Deane’s vignette is styled, oddly-enough, as a disclosure of interest, randomly located in the body of his article:

At this point I feel I should make a disclosure. I live in Menzies, the electorate of the Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews – the architect of WorkChoices.

[Hell, Joel, my federal member is a useless (Labor) boomer bludger. I don’t, however, feel even slightly personally responsible for any woe that may flow from that fact. But Deane continues on, to a more substantive disclosure:]

Not only that [!], my family being former supporters of the Democratic Labour Party, I have a nodding acquaintance with the Member for Menzies, who was one of the guests of honour at the wedding of my older sister a few years back.

So Joel Deane’s “family” (by which he must mean his 60+ parents, and/or similarly aged aunts/uncles, and/or ancient or deceased grandparents, etc) were DLP (= Catholic, anti-communist “Left”) supporters four or more decades ago (the DLP has been politically irrelevant since the mid-1970s). Wow! And “not only that”, DLP DNA has seemingly been passed on into the current Xer generation of Deanes, so much so that Joel’s sister quite possibly at the very least preferences a Catholic Liberal candidate ahead of Labor (an old DLP trademark vote), and even the very-Labor-himself Joel actually managed to meet (and presumably, be civil to) Catholic Liberal politician Kevin Andrews at his sister’s wedding. Wow, Joel – that was one small handshake, but one mighty step for allowing your old dad to feel like it was 1969** all over again, I bet.

Under the Joel Deane worldview then, it would seem that Australian sectarianism is, improbably, not dead, but merely resting in a purgatorial gap between generations, awaiting intermittent brief revival when trotted-out at a wedding every forty years or so.

But then there’s another view altogether, under which Australian sectarianism has been seen very much alive and in captivity (= in the current-affairs section of the commentariat) as recently as 1993. Amidst a long article “Politics and Monomania” (also in Overland 184), Ken Gelder makes his exemplary point thus:

In 1993, Janet McCalman ended her book Journeyings – a biography of middle-class Melburnians – with a warning about the ‘meanness’ of middle-class governing elites, resentful of the rich and yet distanced from the poor. “For the youngest generation now in power,” McCalman writes, “ . . . their psychic apartness from the common herd presents this country with one of its gravest dangers.”

Australia’s cultural elites are out of touch – only this time the accusation was made by one of their own, and well before a culture-war along these lines was officially declared c. 2002 – you get the picture. Oddly, Gelder makes nothing at all of McCalman’s specificity about “the youngest generation now in power”, meaning in 1993 (as well as 2006, although that’s another story) baby boomers. But never mind that, it is McCalman’s covert sectarianism that is of most interest for now.

To understand McCalman’s sectarianism, it is first necessary to unpick her usage of “middle-class”. By this, she historically (to 1970, say) means about the 80th to 95th percentiles of Melburnians by wealth and income (more commonly in synch back then). They could also be termed the “professional classes”, although probably a more exact marker would be the particular schools they usually attended and sent their own offspring to: expensive and exclusive private schools, disproportionately weighted by Protestant affiliation. Thus, however the finer details of McCalman’s Journeyings “middle-class” might be understood, the essence is that they were not remotely “middle”, as that word is generally understood: they were way past the middle-zone of affluence, albeit still a distinct niche below the very rich (= the top 5%).

So what on earth was McCalman banging-on about then, re her warning about boomer cultural elites being (in 1993, at least) dangerously out of touch? And even if they are/were, doesn’t/didn’t the same point go double for her own (I’m assuming) WASP “middle” (sic) class?

The answer to the latter is a firm “No”. For starters, affluent, older-than-boomer WASPs would never “resent” the seriously rich. Until the post-1960s rise of the workplace meritocracy, every class in Melbourne well-knew its hereditary-cum-school place. The very rich were outwardly feted and inwardly coaxed toward philanthropy by affluent WASP women, for whom mediating the gap between the very rich and the deserving poor (aka “charity”) was often a de facto, if not actual full-time job. No risk of “psychic apartness from the common herd” (nor indeed the rare breed of the rich) for these matriarchal pillars of the community – they were the vital class cog for maintaining a fixed and smooth-functioning social order.

This same social order came under intense pressure from about 1970 on, of course. Suddenly, one’s parental occupation and school-place ceased to matter, at best. “Charity” became the primary responsibility of governments, through taxation. Suddenly also then, WASP matriarchs were stripped of their hitherto-vital class role – government public services had always been low on WASPs, but from the 1970s on, they became ridiculously so, with the new welfare apparatus being contemptuous of affluent WASPs, yet without being even particularly Catholic (!) about it. Fey but tasteful WASP “charity benefits” would persist post-1970s, but would overlap in category with school-fundraisers et al, until by the late 1990s, even feathering the nests of their own affluent-WASP class was nearly redundant, courtesy of substantial taxpayer-funding of elite private schools.

How relevant is any of McCalman's submerged sectarianism today? In the end, I’m not sure, but I don’t think that the narrow answer really matters. The fact that Ken Gelder can in 2006 cite Janet McCalman approvingly, on the noblesse oblige of her (and Gelder’s?) own class, versus the remote-from-both-ends boomer meritocratic elite speaks volumes. I query whether the boomer elite in 2006 could conceivably still “resent” the rich (for a large part, they now are it), but in any case, this Xer is miles from both the affluent WASP elite and the boomer elite. The former is seemingly being invoked by Gelder, to sternly put the latter in its place. I should be rapt to hear this, as an Xer, only the cure for boomer-itis sounds worse than the disease. My generation fits in where?

I wish I had a wedding to go to. Maybe it would all make sense then, what with my own ancestral DLP DNA being given a generational opportunity to re-awaken from the family crypt.

* Footnote for GenY: Sectarianism was the Catholic/Protestant divide, a pervasive force in Australian cultural and political life for a century or so, until the 1970s

** The “Don’s Party” election, in which It wasn’t – yet – Time for Gough: the Liberals won, on DLP preferences.

Dear Paul,

Thanks for reading the Overland lecture. Enjoyed the critique.

Joel Deane
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