Another Perspective

Take Nothing for Granted

The political classes should never assume that voters are ever in the know.

By 5.23.12

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A to TAS commenter wrote yesterday, "Everybody KNOWS who Jeremiah Wright is." I'd like to tell a couple of little stories about what people know. The first is set in Western Australia, in a fairly affluent suburb whose inhabitants' general standard of education would, I guess, be at least equivalent to an average fairly affluent American suburb. Their houses were the houses of successful people. The state's leading university was nearby.

I was out campaigning with Sir Charles Court for a coming state election. Sir Charles was premier of Western Australia (a position roughly equivalent to a U.S. governor -- an Australian state governor is the Queen's representative, a largely ceremonial figure unless he or she needs to sack a government and call an election. The premier is the elected chief executive.)

Before becoming premier, Sir Charles Court had been minister for industrial development, largely responsible for bringing in the huge iron-ore exporting projects in Western Australia's North-West. Actually, a West Australian state premier is probably better known in that state than a US state governor is in his, because of WA's isolation.

In the case of Sir Charles, he was undoubtedly the best-known face in West Australian politics. Probably no political figure in the country had done so much to create employment and prosperity. He had transformed the state's economy and created whole new industries -- big ones.

We knocked on a number of doors. "Good afternoon, I am Charles Court." "Yeah?" It was obvious that at least a considerable number of the people -- who I emphasize were not hillbilly types, but had shiny cars, well-tended lawns, and nature strips, and every appearance of competence, literacy and prosperity -- had never heard of him, or at least did not recognize him. When I expressed amazement at this to Sir Charles, he told me it happened every time he went door-knocking. He sometimes deliberately took young politicians with him to teach them humility.

Story No. 2: I am at present writing the biography of another Australian politician, C. R "Bert" Kelly, another figure who transformed Australian politics and transformed Australia's economy for the better. He was elected in the late 1950s and sat in Parliament for about 20 years, fighting what was at first a virtually single-handed battle for lower tariff-barriers. During and after his parliamentary career he wrote well over a thousand articles for major papers and several books, and made countless speeches in and outside Parliament.

Tariffs were, at the time he entered federal Parliament, an article of faith in the community and strongly supported by the long-term deputy prime minister, John McEwen, who became Kelly's bitter enemy, as well as by the unions, the various Chambers of Manufacturers, big businesses, and other vested interests..

Gradually, gradually, Kelly gathered followers to this outré cause, explained countless times in every way he could think of that tariffs were not panaceas against unemployment but were doing enormous harm, and behind protectionist walls Australia had grown a clutch of uneconomic and inefficient industries with domestic markets too small ever to be economical at the cost of rational development. He had other causes in the general area of economic rectitude, but tariffs were the most central.

He lost his seat in 1977 and died in 1997. He was able to see a revolution in Australia's economic culture and a radical lowering of tariff barriers, but it had taken him a generation to turn the political culture around like a great clumsy three-decker ship of the line, even though he had overwhelming and unanswerable arguments on his side, and, latterly, some able allies.

He was a sparkling writer and quite apart from the economic lessons they contained, his brilliant articles, mainly on a dull subject, would be worth studying by any journalist, writer, or politician for their style alone. I recently traveled through a large part of Australia collecting material on him -- and found that an amazing number of people even in the general economic and intellectual classes had never heard of him.

One professor of history asked me how I was going to deal with the three policemen he murdered. This was an aspect of his career that was quite new to me and opened up whole new vistas for investigation. No one else had told me about this. Gradually it dawned on me that he thought I was writing about Ned Kelly, a 19th-century Victorian outlaw. But perhaps he was deaf.

The moral of these stories, as far as they can be transferred to America, is this: outside the political, academic and intellectual classes (and even inside them) an astonishing number do not know of political figures who those who inhabit the world of politics think famous and take for granted. The Mitt Romney campaign should not take it for granted that voters know who Jeremiah Wright is or what he has said. The stakes are important enough for me to break my rule of not commenting directly on U.S. politics.

An exposure of him is as important as economic arguments may be. Similarly, the Republican campaign should turn some of its guns on issues like the gutting of defense and the U.S. abdication of Space policy. My belief is that a large number of voters do not take in subjects that do not concern them directly unless they are explained repeatedly. This is even more the case when the U.S., unlike Australia, does not have compulsory voting. Ronald Reagan understood that part (by no means all) of a campaign is a simple, truthful, repeated message. Obama has made the presidential campaign a culture war, and Republicans cannot afford not to hammer every front, repeatedly.

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.