John McTernan

Now, I am no defender of neoliberalism – the precise opposite – but judging from this essay, neoliberalism is under no threat.

Early in my career as an adviser, I was writing a speech for my boss. I ran an early draft past an older hand, who told me: “Whenever you get to a weak point in your argument, you attack Margaret Thatcher or the Tories. Cut out the attacks and strengthen your argument!” That advice has rung in my ears ever since when drafting polemic texts. It is a profound shame that apparently no one has ever taken Richard Denniss aside and given him similar advice. I am sure that somewhere in this rant that masquerades as an essay there is an argument, but you would be hard pressed to find it. Instead, the words “neoliberal” and “neoliberalism” are used incontinently – over one hundred times, nearly twice a page.

Of course, this is an essay on “how neoliberalism ate itself,” so one expects the word to be used. But there is a gap at the centre of Denniss’s argument: he fails to define his terms. He wants to slay a dragon, but to defeat an argument you need to articulate it, and in this essay you search and search for a credible definition of “neoliberalism” in vain. It flickers in and out of sight, always in the distance and on the horizon, but – to paraphrase Gertrude Stein – when you think you’ve got there, “there’s no there there.”

It would be tedious to give all of the competing and conflicting definitions of “neoliberalism” that Denniss uses, but here’s a short list. Neoliberalism is:

  • small government
  • sponsorship of museums
  • looking out for yourself
  • the last thirty years of Australian government
  • outsourcing public services
  • cultural change of hearts and minds
  • the profit motive
  • measuring efficiency and quality
  • the assertion “there is no alternative”
  • reducing the budget deficit and public spending
  • cutting regulation
  • the idea that market forces are superior to government decision-making.

I could go on, and indeed Denniss does, but unlike him I care too much for the reader.

Simply put, neoliberalism is whatever he dislikes, not just from time to time but from paragraph to paragraph. The saddest thing is that he knows that this is a candidate for the Miles Franklin Award rather than a serious piece of political commentary, writing at one point: “the policy agenda of neoliberalism has never been broadly applied in Australia.” Showstopper, much?

Perhaps you think I’m being unfair. Let me quote some key extracts. Unlike many miserabilists, he does offer a potential solution, but it is as opaque as it is vague: “So, what is to be done? Embrace populism.”

Populism, you won’t be surprised, goes undefined.

Denniss does, though, promote a reform agenda. Quixotically, he argues for more pollies: “While neoliberalism has trained us to think we already waste too much money on politicians, the fact is we have not nearly enough of them for them to do their jobs well.”

And his radical policy agenda? Front and centre is euthanasia:

The overwhelming majority of Australians support voluntary euthanasia. But as with equal marriage, historical and cultural legacies in the major parliamentary parties mean that passing laws that give people suffering chronic pain a degree of choice (a very neoliberal benefit) is currently beyond most of our parliaments. A free vote or plebiscite on such an issue would almost certainly lead to significant change that would appeal both to libertarians and to most people concerned with social justice.

As the senior bureaucrat says in Yes, Prime Minister, “Bold.” This is far from the most urgent of the challenges facing Australia in the twenty-first century, as even Denniss agrees, judging from the pressing problems he lists in his essay.

What is the fundamental problem of this essay? The clue is evident throughout in the constant reference to impersonal authority:

  • “neoliberalism has succeeded”
  • “neoliberalism has trained us”
  • “neoliberalism has made us more selfish”
  • “if neoliberalism has taught us anything”
  • “[neoliberalism] laid claim to words like ‘efficiency,’ ‘productivity’ and ‘growth’”.

This is remarkable. Everything is done to Australia, but no one is doing it. In the language of the playground, “A big boy did it and he ran away.”

This is the fundamental problem. Politics, in the end, is about choices and the allocation of resources – across ages, genders, regions and so on. Politics is about agency – and Denniss denies that to anyone in Australia. Things just happen – like the weather in Britain. Worse, his comically inept inability to define neoliberalism means that he allows a genuinely destructive mode of politics and economics to escape criticism. At one stage, Denniss seems to believe that neoliberalism can be defined as caring about value for money. On the one hand, for anyone who has ever had to balance a bank account, that is laughable. On the other, it is a massive concession – if that’s what he thinks neoliberalism is, then it makes sense to almost everyone. Hands up who wants government to waste money? In fighting shadows, Denniss legitimises what he opposes.

As he writes at one point, “Words matter.” And, as Freud would have recovgnised, Denniss’s own words are the most revealing:

The political right is hoist with its own petard. They were willing to destroy much of the public’s faith in experts and institutions to protect their friends in the fossil-fuel industry from what were, in theory, neoliberal policy tools such as the carbon tax and the mining tax.

The carbon tax and the mining tax are, of course, not neoliberal – they are simply market mechanisms. Here’s the rub: Denniss’s essay is not about neoliberalism at all. It’s about conservatism as an ideology – and its failure in Australia. Properly written, it would be a fascinating piece. But, for some reason, he feels the need to assert that Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd and Gillard – five very different prime ministers, four of them Labor – all governed according to a single neoliberal ideology. He is, to coin a phrase, Dead Wrong.


John McTernan is a British political strategist and commentator. He was UK prime minister Tony Blair’s director of political operations from 2005 to 2007, and director of communications for Prime Minister Julia Gillard from September 2011 to June 2013.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 70, Dead Right. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 71, Follow the Leader.


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