The not-always-reliable Oxford Companion to Australian Politics

For the last few days, I have been dipping into The Oxford Companion to Australian Politics, edited by Brian Galligan and Winsome Roberts. It contains over 400 entries on a wide range of Australian political topics. Many of the contributors are good choices: Ian Hancock on the Liberal Party, Murray Goot on public opinion, Galligan himself on federalism, Peter Coleman on political cartoons, Ian Marsh on think-tanks, and Judy Brett on political culture, just to name a few.

But the trouble is that Galligan and Roberts have also chosen as contributors people who are as much activists as academics on their Companion subject. A hardline lesbian feminist like Sheila Jeffreys is not the kind of person you’d ask to give a even-handed account of pornography or prostitution. But at least Jeffreys can tell the difference between fact and opinion, which is more than you can say for some other authors.

Take the ANU’s museum-piece Marxist, Rick Kuhn, who is given the entry for ‘class’. While unlike Clive Hamilton he probably isn’t ignorant of the sociological research on class in Australia, he does ignore it in favour of a straight Marxist account, right down to implicitly predicting revolution:

Not only Australia but the entire world is now dominated by the capitalist mode of production. It has not always existed, and it will not continue to exist forever.

Or take the man who has given me the pleasure of providing the material for a hatchet review, Michael Pusey. He’s given the entry on ‘economic rationalism’, a subject on which he managed to write an entire book without even knowing what it was. Alas, over fifteen years on he’s still clueless. Despite being corrected countless times, he still claims that:

economic rationalism may be more formally defined as the doctrine that markets and money provide the only reliable means of setting value on anything…

In more than twenty years in ‘economic rationalist’ circles I have never met anyone who believes that. In focusing on the supposed ideological foundations of economic rationalism, Pusey misses completely the most important thing about it – that this was essentially an issue movement like environmentalism or feminism, in which people with a wide range of philosophical beliefs (from social democrats in the ALP to libertarians in the case of ER), converged on a roughly-similar diagnosis and overlapping sets of solutions. There is no discussion of the economic issues of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that produced ‘economic rationalism’, beyond a passing mention of Paul Keating’s ‘banana republic’ warning. It’s like writing a history of environmentalism without mentioning environmental problems, or feminism without mentioning the social and economic position of women.

As he has in his books, Pusey makes incorrect claims about empirical facts. He claims that economic rationalism is associated with ‘a fall in real lifetime incomes for most wage and salary earners’ and that there is a ‘rising incidence’ of inequality. Certainly, the long boom has helped make many people very affluent, but the benefits of prosperity have been widely shared.

Pusey is so innumerate that anything involving numbers confuses him. On the very same page in his Economic Rationalism in Canberra he refers to Australia having seven and eight states; both numbers, of course, are wrong. In the Companion he tells us that ER began with the floating of the dollar in the early 1980s and that Keating’s banana republic comment occurred ‘some four years later’. The float was in December 1983 (not 1984, as he said in Economic Rationalism in Canberra), Keating’s remarks in May 1986, less than three years later. A trivial error perhaps, but symptomatic of Pusey’s apparent belief that his intuitions and impressions are an acceptable substitute for careful scholarship.

Entries as bad as those by Kuhn and Pusey may be isolated problems (I picked their names out of the list of contributors as people I thought unlikely to produce quality work), but they undermine confidence in the whole project. Careful editors would have rejected these obviously one-sided entries or at least demanded substantial revision. If they haven’t done so for entries I know to be nonsense, how can I have confidence in their judgment on subjects about which I know less? Ultimately it means as a reader I have to use my own knowledge of Australian politics and academia to decide which entries to trust, and which should be ignored or fact-checked before I use what they contain. Many of the undergraduates who will presumably use this book won’t be able to do that, and for them this will be a not always reliable companion to Australian politics.

25 thoughts on “The not-always-reliable Oxford Companion to Australian Politics

  1. Andrew, have you made a typo in describing Pusey’s account of the float: “…ER began with the floating of the dollar in the early 1990s …”? Did you mean 1980s?

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  2. Rajat – Pusey’s problems with numbers must be infectious. Thanks for doing my proofreading for me.

    Mark – So far I’ve tended to read entries I already know things about, which is perhaps not the best value-for-money test of a book like this. There is such a wide range of entries that I am sure that I will make further use of it. In entries I read I did learn things I did not know about early polling from Goot, and Coleman on political cartoons goes back to the 19th century, which I found interesting.

    Another problem is that this is obviously a rapidly moving field, which combined with the very slow nature of academic publishing means that some things are already well out of date. Galligan’s entry on federalism makes no mention of the WorkChoices High Court case, decided nearly a year before the book was released. Simon Marginson’s chapter on education uses 2003 data – 2005 data would have been available before it went to print.

    It does highlight the benefits of web-based publications that can be quickly and easily updated.

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  3. Just read The Impossible Pussey again. Nice. Interestingly, I attended a lecture on his latest book at Parly House a few years ago. Pussey’s misrepresentation of economists did not surprise me. What did strike me was the nods of agreement from the presumably reasonably well educated audience, who were having their prejudices confirmed, and their ignorance reinforced. That’s soft-left Canberra public servants for you, I suppose.

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  4. But Pusey is still the standard text in Oz cademe on the subject, which is why he was chosen. Which says so much about Oz academe.

    Besides, the corrections to Pusey are all in places that such folk apparently do not read.

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  5. Yes, one of the striking features of the dozen or score of books devoted to criticism of economic rationalism is the rather small number of references to work by economic rationalists and the large number of references to other critiques. Back in the 1980s I made an effort to publish outside the house literature of the reformers just to get to people who would never in their life be caught reading Policy or Quadrant. The long defunct Age Monthly Review carried some stirring stuff about Hayek, the Austrians and the HR Nicholls Society. God knows if it helped. Some of it was written under pseudonyms to give the impression that there were more of us. Some of this is now on line.
    http://www.the-rathouse.com/hayserf.html
    http://www.the-rathouse.com/hayaustriankey.html
    http://www.the-rathouse.com/revarbitration.html

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  6. What is it about sociologists and their tinear to economics? It is astonishing that one can graduate with a major in sociology, having taken no economics courses.

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  7. I don’t know if the statement you selected about the capitalist mode of production necessarily implies revolution. Aside from Marx’s specific critiques of early industrial capitalism, the term “mode of production” has more to do with technological-social relations between people than systems of resource distribution.

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  8. Not on the original topic, but taking up the theme, economics and sociology could have merged in the 1930s by way of Mises and Talcott Parsons. Mises, following Carl Menger in the “Austrian school” is probably the outstanding student of both topics in the 20th century and his approach, called “praxeology” was designed to pick up where Weber left off and bring the two fields together.
    Talcott Parsons for his part re-invented the Austrian wheel witb his 1937 book “The Structure of Social Action” but then he disappeared into systems theory (a non mathematical counterpart to General Equilibrium Theory in economics). A third party who was converging on the same point was Popper who picked up the ideas of the Austrians and promoted situational analysis in the human sciences.
    http://oysterium.blogspot.com/2006/07/success-and-failure-of-talcott-parsons.html
    All three should have or could have formed a united front to recast the direction of the social sciences but for some strange reason they never (and I mean almost NEVER, bar some waspish anti-Popper asides from Mises) referred to each others work, a tradition maintained by their followers (up to now). Beats me!

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  9. John, I take the point that they are thinking across the range of disciplines but the problem is that neo-Marxism is more than a security blanket, it is the framework and foundation of their thinking. Practically every assumption that they make about economics and economic history is false and that distorts both their definition of social problems and the solutions that they propose. They are a bit like astronomers who start from the fixed belief that the planets are moving around the sun in rectangular orbits and everything has to be made to fit into that framework.

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  10. Andrew has taken the bate and been provoked by three authors whom he loves to hate and their individual entries.
    He admits these may not be representative but claims, curiously, that their inclusion undermines confidence in the whole project. He expresses concern for undergratuates who will not have quite his knowledgement and discernment, and therefore not be able to evalutate what they read. What a lot of twaddle.
    Andrew hasn’t picked on entries from the other side: eg Peter Coleman on ‘political correctness’; nor John Roskam on ‘liberal democracy’. Both are fine pieces, and by committed proponents of liberalism and liberal democracy.
    Andrew, you should read a little further. Certainly add the entry on ‘postcolonialism’ to your hate list. But be challenged and perhaps instructed by other entries where you may be more the novice, and see if you can learn some new things.

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  11. Brian, as a prospective purchaser and reader of the book, I don’t think that defence cuts it. There are several things going on here: (1) an error of judgement in picking authors; (2) careless or uncritical editing; (3) a view implied in your comment above that sloppy work is acceptable; and finally (4) an intolerance of criticism and resort to personal comments, which augurs badly for the next edition if there is one. Sorry, but my confidence in the book is shot.

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  12. Brian – Unlike Rajat, my confidence in the book is not ‘shot’, but I do think that caution is needed. Many of the contributors are people I know from reading their work in the past are good scholars (yourself included). I bought the book partly because I am interested in new ideas but also because I do a lot of fact-checking, both for my own writing and when editing others. If Pusey’s entry got through whatever process you had for ensuring accuracy it cannot have been a very good process. But I used Pat Weller’s entry on ministerial responsibility in a post yesterday because I know he is careful and reliable.

    You’ve almost admitted that an entry I have not read, on postcolonialism, should also be handled carefully, believing I will see it as pushing a case rather than explaining an idea. I don’t have the time or the expertise to assess how many other entries fall into that category, and nor do the intended readers. That was the job of the editors.

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  13. Isn’t Brian suggesting that each entry was written by “true believers” for “true believers”? So the entry on economic rationalism reflects what it is – by its leading exponent.

    Maybe, Andrew, the book you’re loking for is “A Critique of Australian Political Concepts”. That may not be what the Campanion aims to provide.

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  14. Rafe

    Unfortunately, they don’t really. They share the same hostility to Science as all those “Studies” types – Gender/Cultural/Media/Luvvie/Whiteness/Communication/Yada Yada.

    A friend recently shared an interesting inisght from some research. Select a few universities. Go to each of their websites. Look at the Faculty bios for Gender/Cultural/Whiteness/Media/Luvvie Studies. See how none of them has any training in Biology, Maths, Stats, Neuroscience, Psychology. Then check their publications and see how often they reject the “essentialist discourse of Science.”

    Truly frightening. The Confederacy of Dunces is Here and living high on the ARC Hog near you!

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  15. John, I reckon you’re making this up.

    I just did a Google search on “essentialist discourse of Science” and what did Mr Google tell me?

    Your search – “essentialist discourse of Science” – did not match any documents

    Not a single one in their internet! Not one!

    And, of course, none on Google Scholar either.

    Now, I ask you, how can this be, if what you say is true?

    You shouldn’t make silly claims that can be easily checked.

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  16. This is what I found on the internet:

    “”essentialism: no one is quite sure what, in essence, it is, but it makes an excellent insult.” (McKenzie Wark, Dictionary of Received Ideas)”

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  17. Spiros

    I just ran the same search and came up with hundreds of thousands. Some real doozies. But don’t just rely on Google, go to the Faculty websites.

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  18. Well one of the meanings of essentialism is the excessive concern with the true meaning of terms that leads to endless “concepual analysis”, usually disconnected from issues of truth and falsehood (in the case of theories) and practical benefits (in the case of policies).
    http://www.the-rathouse.com/popessent.html

    That is a major activity in the social sciences and it tends to undermine the critical faculties of students who take it seriously while those who can’t take it seriously are likely to become anti-intellectual in reaction, thinking “if that is the life of the mind you can shove it” or words to that effect.

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