Twilight of the Elites: an important new offering by Professor David Flint, chair of the Australian Broadcasting Authority
and Convener of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM), is sure to be one of the more influential texts of 2003. What
the book lacks in terms of the breadth of its readership base, it makes up for in that base's strategic value: the conservative intellectual elite which has
captured the Liberal Party, and now determines the nation's policy agenda. Twilight of the Elites is worth reading if only to gain a glimpse of the kind of thinking
that is going on in government circles today.
The canvass employed by Flint is wide-ranging. From Indigenous affairs to foreign policy, from education to health and welfare, from republicanism to judicial activism:
Flint's prognoses cut against the grain of what he identifies as "elite" opinion. This "elite", comprised of the "socially liberal left", we are told, count for only 10 per cent of the Australian population, as evidenced by the 2001 election showing of the progressive minor parties. (ie: Democrats/Greens) This being the case, the inclusion of that stalwart socialist, Paul Keating, within
the ranks of this group, seems to defy belief.
According to Flint, this socially liberal "elite", entrenched within the media and within academia, has commanded power well beyond its numbers. Alleging that the "opinion-makers" of this "elite layer" have fostered a culture of intolerance and "political correctness", Flint draws upon
the writings of 19th century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, to suggest a veritable spiral of silence: "[The] majority, feeling isolated, begin to
retreat into silence rather than speak out for what it mistakenly thinks is a minority view."
Unfortunately, Flint fails to recognise that the "spiral of silence" induced by "political correctness" is mirrored, in turn, by the populist
opportunism of the major parties in regard to concerns such as refugee policy. While praising the United States for its tradition of "self-criticism",
and alleging no link between media proprietorship and editorial policy, the author
also ignores the tide of fear, aggressive nationalism and media conformity that
overcame that nation in the period leading up to and including the recent Gulf
Having abandoned past claims to universalism, much of today's "liberal
left" has substituted traditional socialist aims for an arbitrary hierarchy
of identity - based movements and struggles. The new "postmodern intellectual
hegemony" is commonly characterised as much by its abandonment of universalism
as it is by its cultural relativism and its rejection of Reason.
In regard to this, Flint makes some telling points. Rejecting relativism, Flint
asserts the primacy of Western traditions, including the foundational role of
"Judaeo-Christian ethics". In doing so, Flint only recognises what the
Left itself ought have recognised long ago: belief systems, and systems of government,
are not only "different" but they adhere to certain social and ethical
objectives that, ultimately, we must judge as either right or wrong. Those liberal
political traditions inherited from Britain (Flint would probably contest this
description), by this reckoning, have played no small role in preventing such
extremes of violence as have been known elsewhere in the world.
Flint does appear to forget, however, that the legacy of the Enlightenment
is also part of Australia's inheritance from the storehouse of Western tradition.
And as Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, would have reminded us: secularism
and Reason need not be perceived as being in opposition to faith.
Flint's defence of the "Judaeo-Christian tradition" also raises
disturbing questions regarding the double standards exhibited by some proponents
of cultural relativism. For Flint, it is astonishing to find that Christianity
is "fair game" for an often degrading ridicule and caricature, while
other religions and cultures are considered "above criticism" in the
name of pluralism and relativism.
Determined to break decisively with that "black armband" view of
history identified by conservatives with the "left-liberal elite", Flint
unsparingly celebrates Australia's traditions and legacy. While his identification
of the brutally Imperialist First World War as a "struggle for freedom and
democracy" (!) is astonishing, his solemn recognition of Australia's role
in defeating fascism in World War Two is cause for praise. (and also for reflection
for those who see "nothing to be proud of" in Australia's past) For
Flint, "practical reconciliation" between Indigenous and non-Indigenous
Australia, via the provision of education, health care and housing, is the alternative
to a Treaty or an apology. But as survivors of Japanese atrocities during World
War II could well testify, the recognition and dignity afforded by an apology
is infinitely more valuable than material compensation.
Many of Flint's remaining prescriptions will be sure to raise concern. Despite
the inequity and inefficiency of America's overwhelmingly private health care
system (by Flint's figures, 12.9 per cent of US GDP compared of 8.6 per cent for
Australia), the author makes plain his preference for this model as opposed to
Medicare's universalism. While showing no concern for the impact of rising university
fees on access and equity, Flint does flag his concern with the expense of welfare,
singling out single parents for special attention. Determined to slash levels
of progressive taxation and social expenditure (already well below the OECD average),
Flint seems oblivious to the impact of "welfare reform" and spending
cuts upon a layer of Australians who already barely subsist - often below the
poverty line. Slashing government expenditure is thus raised abstractly to the
status of "an end in itself", divorced from any social consequences.
Flint's avowed philosophical universalism is undermined by his stated belief
that United Nations treaties (eg: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights),
were only meant to apply to "less democratic regimes". Meanwhile his
emphasis upon Australia's interests with regard carbon emissions negotiations
shows little concern for Australia's responsibilities. Finally, Flint's insistence
upon personal responsibility is incongruous in light of the apologies he makes
for a Prime Minister who seems to know only what he wants to know (whether we
refer here to "children overboard", or overblown assessments regarding
the "threat" posed by Iraq).
Twilight of the Elites is nothing if not controversial. Its condemnation
of figures for whom a shallow republicanism had become a surrogate for traditional
social democratic values is stinging. Furthermore, its appraisal of media ethics
raises serious questions about the blurring of the lines between report and commentary.
While Flint's uncompromising conservatism will disturb many, there is no doubting
that this volume is an important contribution to public debate in this country,
comprising an open statement of much that government figures dare not argue publicly.