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.