Economic ‘White Knights’ Will Come At A Cost

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see the network of wealth and privilege gathering strength in Australia.

Whether they are rallying against the mining and carbon taxes or seeking to use the media to promote their views, the rich and powerful are muscling-up and the pendulum of our democracy is well and truly swinging in their favour.

The latest play by mining magnate Gina Rinehart to bring Fairfax to heel is another chapter in this protracted battle for our nation’s future.

It’s ironic that the Liberal Party makes much of the so-called “faceless men” of the ALP, yet does not appear to be as concerned about the growing influence of Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart on their own side of politics.

These unelected individuals have only secured their wealth and associated political clout by mining the natural resources that are owned by the nation in common.

In contrast to most political activists, their agenda appears to be less about making the world a better place and more about making money – and lots of it. While their primary concern is securing the policy settings that will enable them to better pursue their financial interests, their motivations are often presented as being more altruistic: these ‘white knights’ are not concerned with the health of their own bank balances, rather the health of the Australian economy.

One of the unhelpful consequences of the bipartisan consensus on economic rationalism is this conflation of the interests of the business sector with that of the nation as a whole. Certainly these interests can align but they are also often in conflict, yet within this frame any moves towards better distributing the benefits of prosperity (however modest) are dismissed as ‘economic vandalism.’

We need only turn to the United States to see the long-term consequences of a political system where the privileged few are given free reign over the economy. It’s a right that is defended zealously by the business sector, which mobilises to kill off any reform that threatens its interests.

In this context, a strong and independent media has an important role to play. It has the potential to expose vested interests and critically evaluate policy claims.

Here, Rinehart’s assault on Fairfax is deeply disturbing. Her refusal to support the principles of journalistic independence suggests a desire to use Fairfax as a vehicle to further promote her financial agenda. While the Fairfax board has stared her down this time, Rinehart’s ambition poses an enduring threat to media diversity in Australia. Any takeover of Fairfax has the potential to shift the goal posts even further towards Rinehart and her associates.

So what is the solution? Obviously the parliament is critical in ensuring that the policy settings are right. Protecting the integrity of key public services – like the media – from unfettered corporate influence through mechanisms like public interest tests, is a good start.

But the responsibility cannot rest entirely with our politicians. We in the community also have a responsibility to consider what is in the long-term national interest. While the likes of Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer have a role to play in our economic progress, we should think carefully about the price we are willing to pay. After all – as our friends in the United States would no doubt remind us – once we let the genie out of the bottle, there is no putting it back again.

 This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on the 4th of July 2012. 

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