Opinion/Comment, Politics

The Opera House is not a billboard

Gladys Berejiklian’s intervention forcing the Sydney Opera House to promote horse racing illustrates more than the extraordinary power wielded by shock jocks like Alan Jones. It also exemplifies the degradation of “the public” as a concept in Australian life.

By Jeff Sparrow

In her initial opposition to Racing New South Wales’ promotional schemes, the Opera House chief executive, Louise Herron, referred to the site’s world heritage status, a classification explicitly predicated on a humanistic universalism.

“World heritage sites belong,” says Unesco on its homepage, “to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.”

As Herron tried to explain, the very concept of “world heritage” implies a community with interests distinct from – and, quite possibly, opposed to – the imperatives of commerce.

But that’s now a very unfashionable perspective.

In her recent book Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean chronicles the rightwing assault on the idea of “the public” by tracing the influence of James M Buchanan, one of the most influential (and yet little-known) thinkers of modern times.

An economist who began his career fighting against school desegregation in the American south, Buchanan pioneered so-called “public choice theory”, a doctrine that took the concepts of classical economics and applied them to the realm of politics.

Market theory famously posits the individual as first and foremost a rational profit maximiser, making economic choices entirely on the basis of self-interest. Buchanan insisted that political and public decisions should be understood in the same way. A parliamentarian might claim he looked out for the country but he inevitably simply protected his own privileges and entitlements. Bureaucrats manoeuvred to create more bureaucracy; academics, whatever they said in their scholarly papers, really sought further funding increases.

As a result, commercial decisions were necessarily more legitimate than government restrictions on commerce, since the latter merely cloaked sectional motivations behind self-serving bunkum about “the public interest”.

As Dan Hind notes in The Return of the Public, the Buchananite argument presented electoral democracy itself as fundamentally flawed.

“Since everyone’s vote was no more than an expression of individual self-interest, and no individual could possibly expect their vote to be decisive in an electoral contest involving many thousands or millions of voters, there was no point in voting … [Public] choice theory transformed voting into a defective prototype for shopping.”

In her book, MacLean lays out how such ideas were systematically promoted by neoliberal think-tanks, various endowments funded by the notorious billionaire Koch brothers and the conservative media networks, until they formed a kind of common sense on the right.

Jones might not have read Buchanan or his associates but his on-air tirade about the Opera House expressed a similar sentiment.

Hence, even as he berated Herron and her concerns about heritage, Jones also invoked popular sovereignty.

“People reading the Daily Telegraph this morning,” he snarled, “would be thinking ‘who the hell do you think you are, you don’t own the Opera House, we own it … you manage it … you don’t have a right to fence it off’.”

But when Jones insisted the Opera House belonged to “the people”, he didn’t mean a traditional notion of the public as a democratic institution.

Rather, he conflated the “people” with the commercial success of the Daily Telegraph, 2GB and the Everest Cup itself, an event that Jones described as “providing $100m to the economy, delivering a tourism boom to Sydney [and sending] Sydney around the world.”

Within this marketised framework, objections that the Telegraph (or, indeed, Jones’s business partner) might have stakes in the Everest Cup missed the point.

For neoliberal theorists, everyone pushes vested interests – and those who pretend otherwise were liars.

Hence Jones’s denunciation of Herron as a self-seeking hypocrite, with her invocations of Unesco a mere cover for her own privilege.

In 2013, Daryl Dellora interviewed Jørn Utzon, the architectural genius behind the Sydney Opera House, about how the construction came into being. Utzon’s comments open a window on a very different attitude to the public.

He explained: “[Labor premier Joe Cahill] said we want this building because many people in this town have shown that they want expressions like opera, theatre, and music in the same way as they have in big cities in Europe. And he said, ‘I do not want my people to miss anything that they could get in Europe.’ It was that simple and nice and marvellous.”

Of course, the old social democratic notion of “the people” wasn’t quite as straightforward as Utzon made out, not least because a simple conception of “the public” tended to elide the class divisions that allowed some to benefit more than others from state-funded initiatives.

Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that a huge chunk of what makes Australian cities liveable today – parks, monuments, museums, etc – stemmed from an idea of the collective good that’s flatly incompatible with modern market theory.

Berejiklian wasn’t alone in endorsing Jones, after all, with both the NSW Labor leader, Luke Foley, and the federal ALP heavyweight Anthony Albanese, the darling of the Labor left, backing Racing NSW’s advertising.

It’s difficult to imagine a state government building something like the Opera House today – indeed, we’re lucky they haven’t sold it off entirely.

In one sense, all this might be dismissed as a storm in a teacup, merely another demonstration of the influence exercised by the shouty blowhards of talk radio.

Yet the same arguments underpin the ongoing assault on the ABC, since, without a commitment to an idea of the public, a public broadcaster makes no sense at all.

MacLean argues that neoliberal theory constitutes an attack on “the very norm of public spiritedness”, defining any attempt to advocate for collective outcomes as, at best delusional and, at worst, deeply dishonest. It presents society as a scramble between antagonistic and selfish interests, and defines that scramble as both necessary and good.

Think about that in the context of another, even more important, site on the world heritage list.

Unesco calls the Great Barrier Reef “a globally outstanding and significant entity”, a natural wonder of “enormous scientific and intrinsic importance” and “superlative natural beauty”.

It’s also under threat from climate change.

The Sydney Opera House will survive the crass promotions of Racing NSW but, once the Great Barrier Reef dies, it will never come back.

Yet, if we can’t conceive of a public existing in the here and now, what basis do we have for protecting the environment for the generations yet to come?

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First published at the Guardian Australia.  Monday 8 October 2018.

See: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/08/the-opera-house-debacle-is-neoliberal-hostility-to-the-public-at-work

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