Irony and/or paradox?

It seems to be a great irony or paradox that, at a time when corporate communicators are preaching the virtues of apologies when things go wrong, Right wing political communicators are preaching the virtues of ne regrette rien.

Equally, it is odd that at a time when some of the world’s most successful companies are becoming more and more like universities used to be, universities are becoming more and more like very old-fashioned companies.

The first irony leapt to mind with Maggie Thatcher’s death (perhaps the first and most prominent proponent of no regrets and no turning style) and John Howard and George W. Bush’s significant lack of contrition about the invasion of Iraq and the consequences in their decadal comments. George W. was relaxed about it and combined his comments with some reflections on becoming a grandfather. Howard put together a detailed case for why it was all a good thing. Both were demonstrating the modern Right’s never back down, never apologise and never admit error style. Of course, they are not alone historically. Neville Wran was famous for arguing that you should never say you are wrong. The late Peter Blazey, when working for Andrew Peacock, was a strong opponent of Peacock’s apologies and possible resignation offers over the Sheridan sheets affair. (For those too young to remember, or too lazy to Google it, this was probably the least significant and least culpable offence by a Liberal Minister in Australian history).

But in recent years it has become a hallmark of the Right. For instance, when Alan Jones, made his infamous comments about Julia Gillard’s father ‘dying of shame’ there was a chorus of right wing voices justifying his comments or anathematising those who objected to his actions. In Mark Latham’s Not Dead Yet Quarterly Essay he discusses the reaction in a detailed footnote listing “increasingly ludicrous defences of the broadcaster” from Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen, Paul Kelly, Gerard Henderson, Tom Switzer, Neil Brown, Rowan Dean, John Roskam, Errol Simper, Nick Cater, Nick Leys, Jennifer Hewett, Piers Akerman and Paul Sheehan. (You can find the detailed references at pp76-77 of the Quarterly Essay and Latham’s excoriating comments on ‘the moral decline of Australian conservatism’ on page 53.) As an aside it is rather amusing that none of the above crew, in being as enthusiastic about Margaret Thatcher as they were about Alan Jones, seem to have talked about her pioneering political role, based on her scientific training, in raising awareness of the dangers of climate change.

All in all the chorus on Jones was a bit like the worldwide adherents of the 1930s Comintern swinging behind the party line. In defence of the party hacks of the 1930s the alternatives to straying from the line could be rather serious. In contrast, today’s consistent chorus didn’t get told what to say, weren’t threatened by fatal consequences and didn’t conspire together or anything like that – they just all seem to think the same way on the same issues and attack anyone who disagrees. We will shortly see the chorus start up again to justify Tony Abbott’s and Joe Hockey’s new policy on deficits and surpluses. It will be a case of: four legs good, two legs bad, Labor deficits bad, Liberal deficits necessary, four legs good, two legs better, Labor deficits bad, Liberal deficits better, faster than you can list the members of the chorus.

The second irony sprang to mind during a discussion with some academic colleagues. It is no accident that companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook and others tend to call their office complexes ‘campuses’. In many respects the open and inquiring cultures they cultivate are very similar to the best of that in traditional universities – with the added advantage of being rewarded with options worth millions of dollars. In contrast universities – largely due to intrusive and largely unnecessary regulation imposed by successive governments– are becoming more and more managerial and bureaucratic. There are probably no Australian universities, with the probable exception of the Open University, that spend less than 50% of their total revenues on administration and similar overheads. The steady growth of a compliance culture has led to more and more managers checking things rather than initiating things and fewer and fewer staff actually teaching students.

A senior politician who has had some dealings with universities in his past and current life told some people recently the hoary story about the worst academics being promoted, in the past, into admin jobs. He was told that still happened, but that they were also joined by hordes of managers who seemed to specialise in nothing but excruciating managerial jargon.

All the evidence suggests that companies who say sorry at the right time and in the right way do better than those who don’t. Equally companies with bright, independent minds competing to innovate and think of new ideas (particularly in service industries which depend on the intellectual horsepower and property of people) also do better. Might the principles apply to politicians and universities as well?