For the love of Jeff

Victoria’s intellectuals are blind to the Premier’s popular appeal. Here’s why.

ROBERT Manne on this page on Monday (``The state of silence‘’) bemoaned the apathy of Victorians towards Jeff Kennett’s undercutting of democracy. Such indifference, argued Manne, means Victorians must ultimately bear responsibility for anti-democratic outcomes such as the silencing of public servants, the nobbling of the director of public prosecutions and the auditor-general, and the demonising of ``quality’’ media such as the ABC and The Age.

Manne’s argument exemplifies the frustration of academic and journalistic intellectual elites – aka the chattering classes – at our inability to use our knowledge and reason to convince ``ordinary’’ Victorians to punish the Liberals at the ballot box tomorrow.

Having grown up in Reagan’s America, this frustration has a familiar feel for me. Like Victorian intellectuals today, American intellectuals back then were aghast at the anti-democratic policies and practices of the Reagan administration. And, like their Victorian counterparts now, American intellectuals then sought to persuade their countrymen that Reagan’s contempt for democracy merited his removal from office.

But more importantly, America’s chattering classes refused either to acknowledge or to analyse – in public at least – the indifference of most Americans to their knowledgeable and well-reasoned rejections of Reagan’s demagogic and populist leadership. Indeed, the most profound analyses of Reagan’s enduring popularity were that he was made of teflon and that the average person was incapable of understanding the importance of the separation of powers to American democracy.

Like America’s elite in the 1980s, Victoria’s intelligentsia in the 1990s have either ignored their inability to stop the rising tide of Jeff-worship, or proffered condescending explanations of the public’s failure to heed their warnings.

With so much ink having been used on the subject of why Victorians should vote against Kennett, it may be appropriate to dedicate some space to pondering the indifference of the vast majority of Victorians to this message.

In my view, this ineffectiveness stems from the inability of Victorian intellectuals to recognise and acknowledge that we – unlike most Victorians – are stakeholders in the processes essential to democracy. Intellectuals assume that public policy decisions are, and ought to be, knowledge-based, and that we will be the source of much of that knowledge.

We believe that democratic participation gives power to ``the people‘’ to shape and share in the exercise of power. Most importantly, we include ourselves among ``the people’’ who not only have a responsibility to participate, but whose participation is valued, and will make a difference to the way things turn out.

Many Victorians lack the sense of enfranchisement and empowerment that we intellectuals presume. They don’t expect to participate in decisions that affect them, nor necessarily see the value in doing so. They would like a fair go, but don’t necessarily expect they will get one.

It may be that our assumptions about the nature of power and our relation to it are learnt early. When I am treated unjustly, I rant about ringing the ombudsman, or bang out indignant letters of complaint to my local member. My husband’s upbringing was less privileged than mine. He watches these energetic bouts with a wry smile and asks, ``Why don’t you save yourself the trouble and just bend over and take it?’’

I see my efforts as meaningful and necessary gyrations in the search for a justice I deserve and that can be achieved. He sees them as silly ram-like batterings at a system that owes me nothing, and will see me where it wants me in the end. For him, the only realistic approach to power is to placate its hunger, and by so doing, avoid the worst of its wrath.

This attitude to power explains the Victorian public’s love affair with our despotic Premier, and their antagonism to the nation’s intellectual elites.

In the eyes of ``ordinary’’ Victorians, Kennett’s more realistic understanding of the realities of power puts them on an equal footing with intellectual elites. The Premier’s intuitive – rather than knowledge-driven – style of decision-making strips the intelligentsia of their privileged access to the Kingdom’s decision-makers. His disdain for the dogged pursuit of power and influence by special interestgroups sees him cut through the red tape of the process-lovers, to get on with the business of governing for the majority.

Kennett has power and he is on the side of ``ordinary‘’ Victorians. For many Victorians, cultivating the favor of powerful friends is the best – indeed the only – way to avoid ``bending over’’.

Like the Premier, many Victorians see the pursuit by media organisations such as the ABC and The Age of honest and accountable government, as stupid and irrelevant. Far from seeing their interests served by highbrow reporters on the trail of the truth, many Victorians seem to concur with Kennett’s assessment of such scrutiny as the nitpicking obsession of pedants with little grasp of the concerns of ``ordinary’’ Victorians.

If we are to fathom why the majority tomorrow will fail to heed our calls to protest against the upending of democracy in Victoria, we intellectuals need to take a hard look at ourselves. We must acknowledge how our alignment with power shapes our assumptions about, and valuing of, democracy, and how those with a different understanding of how power operates, and a less robust sense of personal entitlement, have come to see us – not Kennett – as the enemy.