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Peter Brent: Ills from too many smarties


SO Roger Sandall agrees with Tony Abbott that intellectuals are to blame for Australia's problems (Opinion, January 9). Others point to Roger, Tony and their ilk. They're both wrong: it's the SMARTIEs who hold all the cards.

What is a SMARTIE? Well, like all good acronyms, the parts matter less than the sum. Serious Men Advancing Really Tough Ideas . . . Energetically. That'll do.

SMARTIEs are men with macho dry views on economics plus progressive social ones, and they can be found predominantly in our mainstream media. This superficial complexity gives them a tendency to be very pleased with themselves.

The SMARTIE to end all SMARTIEs is this paper's International Editor, Paul Kelly. An exceptional over-achiever, widely respected by colleagues, with many books under his belt, all those articles, that television series, last year's Walkley: Kelly is the doyen of Australian political commentary.

He is a former editor-in-chief of The Australian and the paper is still much in his image: opinionated in favour of an open, forward-looking Australia with an efficient economy. Strongly against racism; for the republic, reconciliation, engagement with Asia, the GST, labour market deregulation and internationalisation. Reform reform reform, tolerance tolerance tolerance.

But don't call them intellectuals! Flabby, wordy hand-wringers with a tendency to see unnecessary complexity and, worse, a less than total commitment to orthodox economics, SMARTIEs are not. Muscular, balanced, efficient, correct yes, they're our heroes.

On the ABC's Insiders during last year's election campaign, The Age's editor-in-chief Gregory Hywood complained to Barrie Cassidy that the voters could only choose to go backwards: socially with Howard; economically with Beazley. This is classic SMARTIE: part SNAG, part Genghis Khan.

While SMARTIEs tend to fancy those things maligned by Abbott reconciliation, republic and so on these issues can't hold a candle to economic reform. So while not strictly partisan, SMARTIEs tend more often than not to prefer Liberal to Labor.

Still, they adored the Hawke government until its unforgivable backsliding of the 1990s. Paul Keating, unable to do wrong as treasurer, was a huge prime ministerial disappointment to them, taking his eye off economic reform in general and the budget deficit in particular. There are no greater sins in SMARTIE-land. Lukewarm towards John Howard at the March 1996 version, SMARTIEs threw themselves at the feet of his GST in 1998.

SMARTIEs like Peter Costello very much, not just because they see him embodying their twin agendas. They disapproved mightily of his re-election strategy. No, not whipping up hysteria on boatpeople; that was pretty embarrassing but no hanging offence. Squandering the budget surplus certainly was. With the election done, they will be expecting a return to the path of correctness. Failure in this will see the Costello for PM campaign begin in earnest.

SMARTIEs instinctively know the national interest. They gently keep the democratic process humming along, within reasonable parameters, to give us governments that are strong, mandated and focused on the important issues.

So since the campaign, SMARTIEs have been reconstructing the Government's credibility. Suddenly, after November 10, the terms of the campaign were not border protection and appealing to irrational fears, but economics and interest rates. SMARTIEs don't want another do-nothing Fraser administration hampered by the perceived illegitimacy of its manner of gaining office. The country needs a government confident in itself and prepared to make the tough calls.

That is why we suffered Kelly's repeated televisual reminding late last year that "And this is the important thing, Barrie" the Prime Minister's stunning election win was one for conviction politics, for a man who takes the correct decisions and is justly rewarded by a perceptive populace.

Don't get me wrong, I quite like SMARTIEs. It's a bit like having the US as the world's superpower. They're not perfect. In fact, they're quite arrogant, largely unencumbered by self-awareness, show scant interest in the legitimate concerns of others and sometimes express an exasperatingly simplistic view of the world.

But on the whole they're actually pretty good guys who work hard and possess a decent set of basic values. They're more often right than wrong. And they really, really like the job: If someone has to do it, SMARTIEs are infinitely preferable to any of the other creeps with a hankering for it.

Peter Brent is editor of

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