Lazy Luddite Log

2.7.07

At The Hogg & Stone

In the public bar of the Hogg & Stone everyone has an opinion and it is one they have arrived at by thinking for themselves. Reference to authority is left at the door. Succumbing to peer pressure is considered wimpy. Subscribing to groupthink is given short shrift. The floor and walls are lined with carpet to prevent the tavern from having an echo-chamber effect. Bob can drink wine with his beer-swilling mates. John likewise can drink beer with his wine-quaffing friends. Debate at the Hogg & Stone is lively. And it is okay to dissent even if you are dissenting to the dissenters...

Okay - that was just a wee bit of creative writing inspired by the title of this entry. What I am referring to are two personages in Australian political life (both more well-know from the 70s to the 90s than they are now). One is Bob Hogg and the other is John Stone. Both public figures have impressed me in the past specifically because they have publicly expressed opinions at variance with the political movements they belong to. It is to them and to the ability to dissent that I dedicate this post.

Bob Hogg is a member of both the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions and has held key positions in both over time. One would think that someone like Hogg would want to tow the party line but then in 1999 I noticed he had an opinion piece in a major paper in which he was (indirectly) criticising the then federal Labor Party opposition to the introduction of a Goods & Services Tax (GST). Hogg directed his criticism at independent (now retired) Senator Brian Harradine for having decided to decline negotiating with the Howard Government over A New Tax System. By writing this Hogg was also effectively criticising his own party colleagues for likewise opposing the GST. Why? For Hogg the introduction of a GST was an effective long-term strategy for securing core Labor policy objectives (e.g. the funding of public health and education services). The same tax (under the name Value Added Tax) had been implemented in Europe (by stablemates of the Labor Party in the Socialist International) for the same welfarist objectives. Hogg amusingly described the legacy of the Roman Catholic Harradine to his many descendents of having to cope with underfunded schools and hospitals as a result of an aging population and shrinking tax base. In the letters pages in coming days Hogg copped a lot of rather irate and even personalised criticism for daring to say something at variance with that of his party. But if we are to have any chance of assessing policy on its merits we have to do exactly what Bob Hogg did.

John Stone is both a member of the National Party of Australia and has been involved in free-market think tanks such as the H R Nicholls Society (making me think of him as more a Liberal that a National but then there are always personal and circumstantial factors in what party one finds oneself in). In the last six to eighteen months I have noticed Stone having opinion pieces in the papers in which he is roundly criticising the Howard Government for its efforts to transfer power and responsibility for all manner of portfolios from the state to the Federal level. We are in a unique time in Australian history in which all state and territory governments are in the hands of one party (Labor) while also having a Liberal-National government at the Federal level. It may be pragmatic for Howard to want to centralise his power but Stone reminds us that it is the Liberal Party that has traditionally defended 'states-rights' while historically Labor was much more into notions of centralising power by such moves as abolishing states or removing upper houses (which is why the Queensland state parliament is unicameral). Stone is scathing of Howard because his efforts to centralise power are purely self-serving and overlook the very important role states play in diffusing power in our nation. Stone wishes us to preserve this particular check-and-balance on government authority and warns that it is one that will come back to haunt the Libs and Nats once Labor returns to power as it eventually must (much as the abolition of the Queensland upper house came back to bite Labor on the bum once Bejelke-Petersen won power there). John Stone is interested in the long-term functioning of our political processes rather than in how much power his side of politics can amass here-and-now.

I happen to agree with Hogg and Stone respectively on the two issues discussed here. But I make reference to them for a much more important reason than just to express opinions on two disparate issues. I refer to them because of my concern that at all levels and in all areas of political life we are far too prone to peer pressure. It comes under lots of names these days such as 'echo chamber effect' or 'groupthink' and in all those guises it hampers our ability to understand one another and come to decisions that serve our best interests as a society. I use the phrase 'peer pressure' because in that form everyone understands what it is and recognises it as a problem whether at work or school or in the home. It happens at the political level too and it can be very difficult to overcome or even be aware of. It is something that anyone active in political life (which extends even just to friends discussing issues informally) needs to be aware of lest they succumb to or perpetrate political peer pressure.

So come have a drink with me down at the Hogg & Stone...

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2 Comments:

  • In any state where the right to dissent is protected, some dissenters will object to that right being upheld, and seek to restrict specific kinds of dissent. To suppress those dissenters in favour of protecting the right to dissent poses an obvious ethical conundrum. Not to suppress them impairs the right to dissent.

    It seems odd to me that free and open discourse needs to be so heavily regulated and moderated. Perhaps the above illustrates one reason that's so.

    The barman of the Hogg & Stone, corkscrew in one hand, stubby-opener in the other, gazes calmly around the public bar. It's a loud crowd, but well behaved... so far. He nods to the bouncer at the door. She nods back. They are both keenly conscious of where the nearest pressure-hose is...

    By Blogger Jac, At 10 July, 2007  

  • Hehehe... thanks for extending my story Jac.

    I think it is more a technical than an ethical conumdrum similar to the question of "is it right to tolerate intolerance". In part such phrasing confounds our desire to be consistent. But in order to be consistent we have to get past the wording and into the practical effects of what we do. I would support some limits on dissent but only if it was demonstrably necessary.

    Still you make me think of another issue: The distinction between arguments and fights. Many of us are conflict averse so we do all we can to minimise arguments. This becomes a problem if debate is a necessary part of groups solving problems.

    The key is to develop an ethos of playing nice so we can be firm in how we argue and focus on the topic rather than the personality of those arguing.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 18 July, 2007  

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