26/10/2004 - 22:00

Is this the death of collectivism?

26/10/2004 - 22:00


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Since the recent Federal election I have had numerous discussions dissecting the result and the following convulsions in Federal Labor.

Since the recent Federal election I have had numerous discussions dissecting the result and the following convulsions in Federal Labor.

The conversations have also included the understandable refocus on the State election and the prospect of tax cuts that has been raised more vocally since John Howard was re-elected.

I am trying to frame in simple terms the changes that have occurred in Australia to bring about these circumstances, particularly if they are as permanent as I suspect they are.

All of it points to the end of a period of collectivism, where it was generally believed the best way to make things work was for everyone to pool resources to get a fair deal for all.

I imagine the 1970s were the peak, when collectivism at its extreme form – communism – was in place in many countries. In Australia, collectivism was reflected in obvious ways, such as strong unionism, State health and State schools, as well as other ways such as banking, where the State held sway either directly or through incredible regulation.

In a sense this collectivism suited Australia as it matured. It offered a safety net to those who had traditionally suffered from exploitation and held back those who profited too much, often at the expense of others.

Some wrongly call this egalitarianism, but that is another argument for another day.

Many Australians have tried to buck this collectivism over the decades, but most failed. It has really only been the advent of television that seems to have heralded its end – or at least coincided with its demise.

Maybe TV brought America into our living rooms and drew our attention from the UK with its far more extreme collective ideals.

Or maybe broadcast-style news coincided with rising education levels, ensuring every strata of society had some understanding of what was going on.

Whatever the reason, collectivism probably really started dying when Whitlam was dismissed (is it any wonder Australia didn’t want his acolyte 30 years later?) and has been chipped away by respective governments of every hue as the public has become better able to look after itself.

We are all individuals, as the joke goes.

In a sense, collectivism got us through Australia’s tough adolescent times unscathed. But we’ve matured now and we don’t need it, at least not as much.

Successive deregulation has left us increasingly in charge of our own destiny. It’s a selfish world in many ways, because we are forced to look after number one first.

The deregulation of banking brought choice into financial services. Now its up to us, to a point, how indebted we are, not a bank manager answerable to no-one but a faceless boss in Melbourne.

Many choose private schools for our kids and elect for surgery at a hospital paid for with insurance.

In some ways this path was not selected. Collectivism, inevitably, is a let down. It started to fail more people than it supported because that is its nature. If people pool resources and the result is success, they naturally want to do more. Unfortunately there is a limit to the resources available – especially when some people realise it’s their resources that seem to be contributing most.

Even the primary producers, the great stalwarts of collectivism (despite a perception of individualism) have turned their backs on many of its forms – because they no longer need them. They have done their job. Of course, collectivism through regulation still exists in the bush (the wheat export monopoly, for example) but it is dwindling.

Australians are over being told that someone else can run their affairs better than they can. Collective education, health and transport has actually sown the seed of its own demise.

Mr Howard recognised that the old bastions of collectivism, except perhaps security, have been left behind. Unions don’t really matter, bank bashing is boring and governments can’t run hospitals, schools or power plants better than anyone else.

But does that mean collectivism is dead? Maybe not. Just as in nature, what looks like the end may just be part of the cycle.

Federal Liberals may have milked the end of traditional collectivism but can they, or others, harness the next wave?

Are shareholder activism, class actions, chat rooms discussing the best priced Internet deals or university alumni the future of collectivism? They are groups of like minded people with a common cause, just like the collectives of the past.

I think there is big change occurring here. People are actively choosing what collectives they want to be a part of and they are cautious about the cost of entry and exit. They want to join forces when it suits them but they want to be able to move on when they feel like it. It’s a book club one week and Qantas Club the next. James Hardie is feeling this wrath at the moment.

They are mobile and flexible and prepared to discard and move on.

Political parties beware. This type of collectivism is powerful but hard to control.

It doesn’t work if you are still clinging to the baggage of the old and it’s not interested in being told what to do by a bunch of powerbrokers at an annual conference.


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