This workshop will bring together a team of Academy Fellows and national and international experts to analyse a development of major significance in the life of the nation, public perception of the negative role of elites. The project draws on a range of disciplines to analyse and provide historical and comparative perspectives on anti-elite discourse. It will contribute to critical understanding of this development and to a more balanced public discussion of the role of elites in contemporary society, including political, bureaucratic, business, scientific and cultural elites. The workshop will be an important step in the development of a broader research project and the clarification of central issues.
In the last ten years a significant new public discourse has emerged in Australia focusing on the supposedly negative role of elites in Australian public life, and a suggested gap between the values, interests and policy preferences of elites and those of ordinary Australians. This populist discourse has contributed to a distrust in institutions of representative democracy and in expert knowledges inhering in a range of public institutions.
The focus will be on anti-elitist discourse in contempoary Australia and its consequences for the quality of public life. Also examined is the social context in which this anti-elitism has developed, the diversity of elites (economic, intellectual, political, sporting) and differences between the actual role of elites in public life and the role ascribed to them by anti-elitist discourse.
Anti-elite discourse has a long if intermittent history in Australia, beginning with the rural populism of the 1890s and then partially displaced by a discourse of conflict between capital and labour. Populist anti-elitism in Australia, and throughout the West more generally, has enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s and it is particularly associated with anti-immigrant sentiments. In many countries recent anti-elite discourse is closely associated with two other discourses, that of ‘special interests’ and that of the ‘new class’, both suggesting that cognitive elites have a vested interest in maximising economic redistribution.
Scholarly analysis of anti-elitism is not currently as developed in Australia as elsewhere. However there is existing research and research-in-progress which will feed into this project.