Flat White

Why we should close down Canberra

30 November 2020

5:00 AM

30 November 2020

5:00 AM

The go-to quote for the illiberal intelligentsia to justify their suppression of speech comes from US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. It was Holmes who wrote in 1919 that “[T]he most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic”. It never seemed to have challenge thinking to ask whether, in a world of trade-offs, whether it would be better to remain silent and not alert patrons that the theatre is on fire. 

Of equal challenge is the context in which this “anti-shouting” position was made. This quote is from a US Supreme Court judgement in Schenck v. United States which considered the case of Charles Schenck, who was convicted under the US Espionage Act. But Mr Schenk did not actually shout fire in a crowded theatre.   

Charles Schenck was the secretary of the Socialist Party of America in Philadelphia during World War One. He organised the printing of 15,000 copies of a pamphlet opposing conscription and U.S. involvement in WW1. Schenk was arrested and charged for violation of the Espionage Act and convicted for attempting to obstruct the draft — not exactly shouting fire in a theatre. 

Schenck appealed to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the decision violated his First Amendment right to free speech. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld his conviction and he served six months in a US federal prison. 

The fire in a theatre argument is frequently used as a shibboleth to support the suppression of speech not liked; from so-called hate speech to offensive speech to politically incorrect speech. But in as much as Holmes’ writing is used as a cudgel to empower illiberals, there is another Holmes’ judgement that that should be used to repel the Australian illiberal hordes.   

In the 1927 Buck v. Bell case about the power of the US Government to forcibly sterilize citizens, including the disabled, “for the protection and health of the state”, Holmes wrote in support of this law that “[T]hree generations of imbeciles are enough”. 

Well, let it be said that in Australia, three generations of imbeciles are also enough. 

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a generation is about 30 years, thus three generations would be around 90 years.  Coincidently, the Australian Capital Territory, which houses Canberra, was established in 1911, 109 years ago. 

Today, the population of the ACT is approximately 420,000 persons. The working age population, aged 20 to 65, is approximately 260,000. The number of people employed in is approximately 235,000. Almost one in two people working in the ACT work for the government with the number of public sector employees approximately 103,000. Most likely, a significant proportion of the rest work for organisations supplying or advising government. 

While the national unemployment rate as at October 2020 was 7.0%, it was a meagre 3.9% in the ACT. Notable is that the national 7.0% is artificially suppressed by government programs such as JobKeeper and bankruptcy law changes, and is only likely to increase in the near term. The ACT rate, on the other hand, is not likely to increase. 

Average weekly earnings across Australia are $1,713 yet the average weekly earnings in the ACT are $1,861, the highest average across all Australian states and territories. Greater than NSW ($1,749). Greater than Victoria ($1,709).  

If there was actual production in the ACT, this might be a case study to promote the socialisation of the means of production. 

At the centre of the ACT de-industrial complex is Canberra, the home of the Commonwealth Parliament and the Commonwealth Government.   

Canberra seems to attract and retain people who are generally uncomfortable with risk. They generally believe that humankind’s problems can be solved through legislation, regulation and taxation. They believe in the “perfectibility” of man through process or education, or in many cases re-education. 

But this is not about politics. Politicians come and go. Governments come and go. This is about bureaucracies as bureaucracies are perpetual. 

Their world view revolves around aggregation and centralisation of power and resources, into their hands of course, because they have the wisdom, training, expertise and objectivity to centrally plan and implement solutions to everything. They love job rotations because it is great for a public service career and because it makes tracing accountability next to impossible. Cross-departmental committees and studies are the coin of the realm. 

They speak of diversity but do not live it. Yes. Perhaps they have some diversity of skin colour, genital plumbing and gender pronouns, but very limited evidence of cognitive diversity. 

They build specialist schools for themselves, especially of public policy and administration that perpetuate and indoctrinate the belief that every economic, social and environmental problem can be solved through a government scheme and cocktail of experts, other people’s money and legislation. 

With every subsequent generation, this world view is concentrated and refined ever further.  Canberra is full of second, third and even fourth generation public servants. There are and have been departmental secretaries who are married or partnered with other departmental secretaries.   

Consider some other places where central bureaucratic government is run from a single city and where it is not. Which citizens have relatively better government? Where the administrators live among and closer to the administered. 

Washington DC is America’s government town. It is frequently described by many as the swamp in need of draining. On the other hand, most Australian public servants look to London for many of their ideas.   

If Australia is to survive and prosper, we need to close down Canberra. Just shut it down and send the departments and public servants to the four winds. Let the buildings remain empty as a monument to remind us of the costly errors made. As Oliver Wendell Holmes presciently wrote, three generations of imbeciles is enough. 



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