Marian Sawer: How Mr Fat became Ms Bleeding Heart: Market Populism and the Future of the University

Marian Sawer: How Mr Fat became Ms Bleeding Heart: Market Populism and the Future of the University
The Journal for the Public University, Volume 2: 2005


Populism, with its view of a world divided between untrustworthy elites and the virtuous people, has a long history in Australia. This article examines the ways in which current populist discourse differs from that of the past and the particular threat it poses to public institutions and to liberal values. It provides a genealogy of the current form of populist discourse, in which anti-elitism focuses not on political or economic elites but on a ‘new class’ of humanities and social science graduates who espouse progressive causes. In doing so it emphasises an aspect of populist grammar neglected in academic research on populism—the attribution to elites of contempt for ordinary people. It argues that this is a significant mobilising device used to call into question public institutions and the expenditure of tax revenues on so-called elite projects such as social justice or environmental protection. It also draws attention to the feminised nature of the elite targeted by current populist discourse, as contrasted with the bankers and international financiers targeted in the past.

Populism and populist name-calling has a long history in Australia; the early arrival of representative democracy was accompanied by repeated claims that politicians and political elites were betraying the interests of the people. The message of populism was that despite official doctrines of popular sovereignty, politics had actually escaped popular control.[1] Populists called for the reassertion of popular control through devices of direct democracy, such as referenda.

There have been many different kinds of populism, including Right-wing and Left-wing forms, but all are characterised both by anti-elitism and by the exaltation of and appeal to the people.[2] The structure of populist discourse is based on drawing a political dividing line between, on the one side, an untrustworthy and parasitic elite and, on the other, the virtuous and long-suffering people. Or, more briefly, between us and them. Populist leaders offer to defend the interests of the people from the depredations of the elite. This is the grammar of populism.

The grammar of populism also involves another element. To mobilise political emotion effectively along the us/them divide, elites have to be shown to have contempt for ordinary people and their values. During the French revolution it was not enough to depict Marie Antoinette as part of the parasitic aristocracy; she also had to have contempt for the common people and their hunger—‘let them eat cake’. This attribution of contempt is central to populist strategies and can be seen again and again in political speech in Australia. It is an aspect of populist discourse that has been overlooked in the academic analysis of populism,[3] but is very significant in the way populist discourse currently operates.

Populism has often been hostile to intellectuals and to the liberal values we like to associate with universities.[4] The current version of populism, however, poses a distinctive threat. In the past, populist leaders tried to mobilise and speak for the people through denouncing city-based elites—such as bankers, corrupt politicians, international financiers and ‘Mr Fat’, with his cigar and top hat. Today the elites targeted by populist politicians, talk-back radio hosts and the Murdoch press are, to quote a Hanson supporter in the federal election last year: ‘ the bleeding hearts, the politically correct, who control everything we do’.[5] They are still city-based, but are predominantly humanities, arts and social science graduates rather than bankers or financiers.

How did this shift of target come about? In this article I want to provide a short genealogy of current anti-elitist discourse. I also want to draw attention to how elites became female, one of the strangest feature of contemporary anti-elitism. These issues are explored more fully in Us and Them: Anti-Elitism in Australia, which examines anti-elitism from a number of methodological perspectives.[6]

But to start with, what do elites do, according to today’s anti-elitists? Current anti-elitist discourse has little in common with the academic study of elites, where elites are made up of those who exercise political, economic and perhaps symbolic power. It is symbolic power only that is the focus of anti-elitist discourse. Elites are held responsible first for imposing political correctness on the Australian people and then for disputing the people’s verdict at elections and continuing to complain about issues such as human rights, social justice or honesty in government. As the anti-elitist columnist, Angela Shanahan, describes them, these are non-issues—‘no-one in the suburbs actually cares about stuff like the bizarre children overboard saga.’[7] At the same time 'people in the suburbs' are characterised as the repository of genuine virtues, whose generosity and tolerance are abused not only by boat people, but by the elites who support the claims of asylum seekers.

The children overboard saga derided by Shanahan was about Australian government claims in 2001, subsequently shown to be incorrect, that asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea, thus proving their unsuitability to be admitted to Australia. It was a saga due to sustained government attempts to block access to the truth of the matter; many of the facts emerged only because the government did not at the time control the Australian Senate, which was able to conduct a detailed enquiry. But if no-one in the suburbs really cares, why should it be important that public institutions, including universities, should foster critical reflection on such issues of public conscience?

Members of the Association for the Public University undoubtedly warrant inclusion among the elite as defined by today’s populists. They probably read Fairfax newspapers such as the Age, which have a relatively high degree of editorial independence from their owners, and listen to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which has similarly tried to preserve editorial independence from government. Seeking information from sources that carry a diversity of perspectives and, worse, talking to others about public issues, are enough to attract labels such as being a member of the chattering class, the latte set, the macchiato mob, bleeding hearts, the moral middle class’ or, since the 2004 federal election, ‘doctors’ wives.’ The Federal Environment and Heritage Minister decries the need to pander to 'people who spend time sitting in cafés sipping lattes' when deciding issues such as the exclusion of grazing from the Alpine National Park.[8]

Talk about public issues is the defining element of democracy according to the theorists of deliberative democracy, who stress the need for such talk to be informed by a wide range of perspectives and respectful of different points of view. Populist discourse, on the other hand, tends to be very dismissive of those who engage in public debate and who embrace diversity and difference. An example of Australian political speech that very skilfully deploys populist distrust of talk and complexity is a song called ‘Son, You’re Australian’. Here are some lines from it:

Never mind the fancy dancers
Plain-thinking men know their right from wrong
Don’t deal with silver tongues and chancers
Keep your vision clear and hold it strong.
I watched as things began to change around me
The fancy dancers got to have their say
They changed the vision, spurned the wisdom
And made Australia change to suit their way.
It’s time we cleansed the muddy waters
And do the things we know must be done
So that we teach our sons and daughters
What it means to be a true Australian.

Populism has traditionally been a form of ‘outsider’ politics practised by those who come from outside existing political elites, This kind of traditional populism was at the heart of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. Traditional rural populism rallies the people against the fast-talking city-based elites who are said to sell out the interests of the bush to the interests of corporate finance. Pauline Hanson tapped into such traditional themes of populist politics in Australia, including fears of non-European immigration and desires for protection against the banks and global economic competition.

Yet this song ‘Son you’re Australian’ predates Pauline Hanson and is by no means articulating an ‘outsider populism’. This is not the naive composition of someone from rural Australia protesting against corrupting city ways and foreign influences. In fact it was commissioned by the leadership of a mainstream political party and written by one of Australia’s most commercially successful writers. The insider anti-elitism of ‘Son you’re Australian’ does not protest against elite commitment to economic globalisation and competition, as did Pauline Hanson. For Pauline Hanson, economic rationalists were part of the elite. For others who are practising populist politics more successfully than Pauline Hanson, economic rationalists are by definition part of the people rather than part of the elite. They want to ensure that the people are able to make democratic choices through the market, without interference from welfare-state busybodies or social engineers with 'un-Australian' values..

So where do these definitions of the elite come from that exclude corporate lions and international bankers?

The genealogy of today’s populism

The populism being practised by major political parties in Australia today does deploy traditional populist themes, but its exclusion of the traditional target of populist denunciations, the economic elite, can only be explained by where this new anti-elitism comes from. In part it comes from the concept of the ‘new class’, developed in the 1970s by American neoconservatives like Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol.[10]

The new class identified by American neo-conservatives in the 1970s consists of university-educated intellectuals radicalised by the social movements of the previous decade. These arts and humanities graduates allegedly have a vested interest in expanding the public sector, in which they will have privileged roles, thanks to their cultural capital. They have a class interest in maximising redistribution, at the expense of wealth creators. The new class speaks a language of public interest and equal opportunity, but this is a mask for their own self-seeking. Economists Milton and Rose Friedman helped popularise the concept in their best-selling 1980 book Free to Choose, which depicts the new class as acquiring high incomes for itself through preaching equality and promoting and administering the resulting legislation.[11]

The neo-conservatives associated the new class with values such as environmentalism, feminism, multiculturalism and minority rights more generally. Neo-conservative critics did not regard these values as having any authentic ethical content; rather they were said to be elite ‘fashions’, helping to distinguish the elite from everyone else. These values were cosmopolitan in nature and led to the new class subordinating the national interest to international standards of human rights or environmental protection at the expense of business.

In accordance with the grammar of populism, the new class had to be shown not only to be self-seeking and untrustworthy in terms of the national interest, but also to be contemptuous of the values of ordinary people. In neo-conservative accounts, members of the new class sneer at, have contempt for, look down on or wince at the values of ordinary people—although no empirical evidence is provided of such behaviour. The columnist Janet Albrechtsen is word perfect in the way she reproduces this neo-conservative anti-elitism: ‘When they [electoral losers, gay rights activists] do not get their way, they sneer at dowdy, unsophisticated Australia for falling behind swank social fashions paraded on the international stage’.[12] The idea of contempt is necessary to discredit the values being upheld by the new class—who would want someone contemptuous of them spending their taxes?

These ideas were introduced into Australia through the magazine Quadrant and were given a wide airing through the book The Great Divide by sociologist Katharine Betts.[13] This book positioned the author on the right side of the ‘great divide’ between the world of ordinary people and the cosmopolitan world of the elite. She warned that while new class advocacy of increased welfare expenditure might make it appear sympathetic, ‘at bottom’ the new class was contemptuous of the materialism and parochialism of the working class. This view of a new class elite lecturing the electorate to accept asylum seekers and wincing at ‘basic Australian values’ has been taken up with enthusiasm in free-market journals and in the Murdoch press. [14]

The Murdoch press has also been particularly involved in promoting another component of contemporary anti-elitism, the concept of ‘special interests’ . This concept comes from public choice theory developed in the 1960s by American economists James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. This theory is based on rational actor premises, whereby both individual and collective action are motivated by the desire to maximise returns. The term ‘special interests’ debunks the idea that groups that purport to be pursuing the public interest are in fact motivated any differently. It is particularly applied to groups such as environmentalists or equality seekers that invoke state interference with the market. The activity of such groups, whether seeking to protect workers, consumers or the environment or to promote equal opportunity, will invariably be revealed by public choice analyses to benefit the new class. As we have seen, the latter supposedly thrives on the growth of state intervention in the private sector.

Public choice theory has been very successfully popularised in the English-speaking democracies, both through think tanks created for this purpose and through means such as the ‘Yes, Minister’ television series devised by a disciple of Milton Friedman. The think tanks have enjoyed exceptional access to the mainstream media, particularly papers owned by Conrad Black and by Rupert Murdoch. A glance at the Opinion Page of the Australian will confirm this. Excluding articles on foreign affairs, over 24 months in 2003–04 the Australian ran 126 Opinion Page pieces from authors associated with neo-liberal think tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the American Enterprise Institute. They ran seven pieces from authors associated with progressive think tanks, three of which were from the Jesuit Social Justice Centre, UNIYA.[15]This is quite apart from neo-liberal think tank personnel recruited as journalists to the paper.

The publications of the think tanks themselves specialise in exposing the cosy conspiracy between rent-seeking ‘special interests’ and bureaucrats seeking to maximise their budgets. For example, they unmask environmental activists as the special interests that manipulate public opinion into accepting more powerful regulatory agencies to protect the environment. In return they receive large contracts to research environmental threats.

Another example used of a rent-seeking special interest consists of single mothers who have supposedly calculated they can obtain a better ‘rent’ through the state than they can through the market or through marriage. In this new and confusing era of social policy, dependency on husbands is a virtue, and rewarded by tax privileges, but once husbands have disappeared then dependency is both culpable and a major social problem. It is perhaps salutary to reflect on the changing way that dependency has been constructed over time. For democratic theorists of the eighteenth century it was dependence on employers that was morally suspect, unfitting people for the independence of thought required of democratic citizens.[16]

The discourse of special interests is usually found in company with anti-elitist discourse, so it is new class elites and their associated special interests that are responsible for spending hard-earned taxpayers money on wasteful social welfare, environmental or equal opportunity projects. Bankers and international corporations, on the other hand, are on the side of the people, to say nothing of millionaire talk-back radio hosts. The ‘tsars of talk’, like other ordinary Australians, are allegedly persecuted by the all-powerful thought police trained in arts and social science faculties of universities. These thought police object to racial and homosexual vilification and waste tax-payers’ money on ramps for the disabled.[17]

Ms Bleeding Heart joins the elite

In 2001 Gerard Henderson wrote a very pointed article about how Malcolm Turnbull had ceased to be a member of the elite, despite being a merchant banker educated at Sydney and Oxford Universities and member of the Australian and Athenaeum Clubs. He had ceased to be a member of the elite because he had come out in support of the government’s position on asylum seekers. Henderson commented:

‘These days, apparently, to move from the elite you do not have to divest property, change professions or even resign from gentlemen’s clubs. That’s because a so-called elitist is now judged according to a range of opinions on social issues. Not on inheritance, or wealth or even education’.[18]

While millionaire merchant bankers exit the elite, its ranks are filled by those concerned with the environment, human rights, equal opportunity and social justice. Its core members appear to work in the human services and in education. Many are women, are not particularly well-paid and would not even have been granted access to the kind of clubs traditionally associated with the elite. They tend to work as teachers, librarians and social workers or sometimes as public servants or public lawyers. It is these groups that are most likely to express values that put them into the elite category. While Mr Fat, or the money power, was once the target of political populism now the target is often Ms Bleeding Heart. This change in gender is not made explicit, however, as gender, along with other social and economic cleavages would complicate the binary frame of populist discourse where both elites and ordinary people are underspecified.

Meanwhile Ms Bleeding Heart is not only demonised in populist discourse but also blamed for the Labor Party losing electoral support. As former Labor Leader, Mark Latham, expresses it in his diaries: 'People don't trust us on national security because they see Labor as a soft touch to the bleeding hearts.' He cited a focus group comment: 'You can't trust Labor any more, the bleeding hearts get to them.'[19] Ms Bleeding Heart had been prominent in organisations such as Labor for Refugees and Rural Australians for Refugees that lobbied to change Labor's policy.

The bleeding hearts may have cultural capital and some influence in the formation of public opinion, but they are hardly a rich and powerful elite in the sense that term is usually understood. They may have international connections, and this is one of the many complaints brought against them—that they refuse to accept the verdict of the Australian people and are in league with United Nations bureaucrats in New York and Geneva (‘corrupt, unelected UN busybodies’). The bleeding heart elites allegedly invoke interference with elected governments to impose norms and standards that the electorate has rejected, for example on the treatment of asylum seekers.

It should be remembered that democratically elected Australian governments played an important role in the development of the international human rights norms, and that Australians also play an important role in the UN committees that oversight them. The populist claim that the constraints of international law represent an affront to democracy, through tying the hands of popularly elected governments, has to be balanced against the claim that protecting the rights of individuals and of minorities represents a gain and not a loss for democracy.

Apart from the alleged propensity to sell out Australian interests in the name of international human rights standards, bleeding hearts are also, as we have seen, characterised as having contempt for ordinary Australians. It may seem counter-intuitive that workers in human services and helping professions, such as teachers and social workers, would display such contempt but it is required by the grammar of populism. Empirical evidence is neither required nor produced to back up claims of contempt.

Elites writing ‘black-armband history’ (expressing sorrow at the treatment of Indigenous peoples) are showing contempt for, and sneering at, the national pride felt by ordinary Australians. Advocates of a more generous refugee policy are deriding the generosity and sense of fair play of the Australian people. Such talk about reconciliation and refugees is ‘sneering snobbish chatter’ of the kind that taxpayers don’t have time for but which makes them feel guilty: ‘If only we could break the vicious cycle of [this] publicly funded moral snobbery’.[20]

Environmentalists also have contempt for ordinary workers and farmers and their livelihoods. Feminists promoting equal opportunity are showing contempt for the values of ordinary women. The Prime Minister has talked of the ‘stridency of the ultra-feminist groups in the community’ that sneer at and look down on women choosing to provide full-time care for their children.[21] In fact, of course, it was feminists who campaigned for national time-use surveys to measure the volume and distribution of unpaid work and to calculate its value to the national economy. Housework had long been trivialised and overlooked. Given the dominance of market values, only the translation of women's work into monetary terms was likely to give it increased recognition. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) was persuaded to undertake time-use surveys and these provided data for estimating the contribution of unpaid work to the economy. The ABS calculated the value of unpaid work as 58 per cent of the value of GDP.[22] It was not feminists but the Howard government that stopped the recording every five years of the volume of unpaid work being contributed to the economy.

As we have seen, the attribution of contempt for ordinary Australians plays an important role in discrediting the values expressed by coffee-drinking inner-city elites. Why would you listen to people who had contempt for you and whose voicing of ethical issues is really just a form of moral vanity or a parade of elite fashions? This attempt to deride any concerns over civil liberties, human rights and equal opportunity as simply an elite agenda without any authentic moral content is one of the most worrying aspects of current anti-elitism. Such derision of the 'moral middle class' is part of a broader agenda whereby any collective pursuit of the public good is derided and virtue is seen only to reside in private market choices. Indeed one columnist in the Australian recently remarked that while corruption in local government was unfortunate and robbed ratepayers, at least the councillors were only pursuing personal profit rather than being engaged in social engineering![23]

It is not the first time in Australian history that there has been a sustained attempt to deride the pursuit of the public good. The late nineteenth-century idea of the ethical state was important in the development of institutions such as conciliation and arbitration and non-contributory old-age pensions. But by 1920 such ideas of public virtue were being discredited as the wowserism of clergymen and being replaced by muscular ideas of national efficiency—aided by the growth of professional economics anxious to disentangle itself from the embrace of Christian ethics. It was only the arrival of Keynesian economics that brought about a revival of earlier notions of the capacity and responsibility of the state to promote the equal opportunity of its citizens.[24]

The target of current anti-elitism consists of people who have had a certain kind of university education that has given them, or reinforced adherence to, liberal values. Such attacks on so-called elites are also an attack on the public institutions where liberal values have been fostered and contribute to a decline in confidence in them.

Today's populism gives a license to those who want to increase political control over universities and to undermine any mandate they may have to act as a critical conscience of society. It justifies moves to increase surveillance over the funding of humanities and social science research funding. As we have seen, the public values conserved in universities are now depicted not just as the self-interested agenda of elites who want public or community sector jobs, but also as expressing contempt for community values and for the taxpayers who fund universities.

It is not only universities that are being undermined, but also courts, tribunals and other watchdog agencies whose role it is to protect individual rights and uphold standards in public life. One only has to remember the forged Commonwealth car records, manufactured to impugn a member of the High Court. As the Clerk of the Senate has pointed out, the police investigation of this forgery strangely did not result in any charges against the driver who allegedly concocted the record and destroyed others.[25] As a result of this and similar incidents we are witnessing a decline in public morality which is quite startling and which university academics have less and less opportunity to comment on without endangering the soft money on which universities are more and more dependent.


ABS. ‘Measuring Unpaid Household Work: Issues and Experimental Estimates’, Cat No 5236.0, 1990.

Betts, Katharine. The Great Divide: Immigration Politics in Australia. Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove, 1999.

Canovan, Margaret. ‘Making Sense of Populism’. In Yves Mény and Yves Surel, Democracies and the Populist Challenge. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2002, pp. 25–44.

Evans, Harry, ‘Executive and Parliament’. In Chris Aulich and Roger Wettenhall (eds) Howard’s Second and Third Governments. Kensington: University of NSW Press, 2005, pp. 42–56.

Frank, Thomas. What’s the Matter with Kansas? New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.

Fraser, Nancy and Linda Gordon. ‘A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the US Welfare State’, Signs, volume 19, issue 2, Winter 1994, pp. 309–336.

Friedman, Milton and Rose Friedman. Free to Choose. London: Secker & Warburg, 1980.

Sawer, Marian. The Ethical State: Social Liberalism in Australia. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2003.

Sawer, Marian and Barry Hindess (eds). Us and Them: Anti-Elitism in Australia. Perth: API Network, 2004 .

[1] Margaret Canovan, ‘Making Sense of Populism’, in Yves Mény and Yves Surel, Democracies and the Populist Challenge. (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2002), p. 27.

[2] Margaret Canovan, Populism. (New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1981), p. 294.

[3] The classic text has been Margaret Canovan, Populism, op.cit.

[4] See, for example, Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004).

[5] Letter to the Australian 9 September 2004.

[6] Marian Sawer and Barry Hindess (eds) Us and Them: Anti-Elitism in Australia. (Perth: API Network, 2004 ).

[7] Angela Shanahan, ‘Insiders left in the bleating obvious’, Canberra Times 16 October 2004: B3.

[8] Senator Ian Campbell, Interview on ABC radio 14 October 2005.

[9] Bryce Courtenay, ‘Son You’re Australian’, Liberal Party of Australia, 1988.

[10] See Tim Dymond, ‘A History of the “New Class” Concept in Australian Public Discourse’ and Damien Cahill, ‘New Class Discourse and the Construction of Left-Wing Elites,’ In Sawer and Hindess, Us and Them, op.cit, pp. 57–75 and 77–95.

[11] Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose. (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980).

[12] Janet Albrechtsen, ‘Why gay marriage is a bad idea’, the Australian, 13 July 2003.

[13] Katharine Betts, The Great Divide: Immigration Politics in Australia. (Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove, 1999).

[14] See Sean Scalmer and Murray Goot, ’Elites Constructing Elites: News Limited’s Newspapers 1996–2002.’ In Sawer and Hindess, Us and Them, op.cit., pp. 137–159.

[15] Audit of the Australian’s Opinion Page undertaken by Gillian Evans, Political Science Program, RSSS, ANU, March 2005.

[16] See Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon, ‘A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the US Welfare State’, Signs, volume 19, issue 2, Winter 1994, pp. 309–336.

[17] See Steve Mickler, ‘Talkback Radio, Anti-Elitism and Moral Decline: A Fatal Paradox?’ In Sawer and Hindess, Us and Them, op.cit., pp. 97–-116.

[18] Gerard Henderson, ‘Welcome to the new elite: Anyone can join’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 November 2001: p.14.

[19] Mark Latham, The Latham Diaries. (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2005), p. 235.

[20] Steve Atkins, Letter to the Australian 18 October 2004.

[21] John Howard, Transcript of interview with Alan Jones on 2UE, 16 March 1998.

[22] ABS, ‘Measuring Unpaid Household Work: Issues and Experimental Estimates’, Cat No 5236.0, 1990.

[23] Stephen Matchett, ‘Council zealots drive the panzer squad parking mad’, the Australian, 24 February 2005.

[24] See Marian Sawer, The Ethical State: Social Liberalism in Australia. (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2003).

[25] Harry Evans, ‘Executive and Parliament’. In Chris Aulich and Roger Wettenhall (eds) Howard’s Second and Third Governments. (Kensington: University of NSW Press, 2005), p. 52.