(England vs Germany – always the agonising decision of who you want to lose )
With the resignation from the Ministry of John Faulkner, a great part of what was left of the Left has left the centre of the ALP. Faulkner returns to the backbench from a brief and one suspects not particularly happy time as War Minister, although it says ‘defence’ on the letterhead. We can’t know what he really thinks of the futile, directionless, meaningless war in Afghanistan. He’s a genuinely good man, but he’s also been a good party man, trotting out the war against terror line.
Every general knows the importance of strategy, and Labor is willing to spend Australian lives to not be outflanked where it matters most – in the op-ed pages of Murdoch tabloids. Possibly the deaths of three recently killed servicemen, together with the revival of a baroque logic-chopping refugee strategy, pushed him to come to a decision – one certainly hopes he was as sickened by presiding over military funerals, as many were watching him do so. Possibly he’s escaped what would have been his fate as a latter-day Rubashov of Darkness At Noon, so devoted to the party that he was willing to offer his annihilation as a last service to it.
But with all due respect to Anthony Albanese and a coupla others, that’s pretty much it for anything resembling a Left in the Labor Party. To be sure, it was a vestige of a vestige in any case, for the simple reason that the Labor Left had ceased to produce anything resembling a distinctive intellectual and political position in opposition to the dominant – and now widely discredited – neoliberalism of the last decade or so.
The idea of left and right factions emerged in the 40s, though the different forces are present at Labor’s inception, constituted around two different ideas of doing things – the Right a mix of the Catholic social movement and corporatism, the Left with a critique, Marxist or marxisant, of a life dominated by the market and the commodity.
The solution, whether nationalisation of key industries or a Meidner-style plan of buying up the private sector through mobilised capital (pension funds etc), never got to second-base, and the chaotic denouement of the Whitlam government finished it off altogether. In effect you can date the decline of the Labor Left from 1976 — since many of its distinctive positions in the 80s were based around discrete or foreign affairs issues, such as uranium mining and the US alliance.
You could say that Labor was drifting righwards from there — in fact it appears to have been drifting to the doldrums. The transformations of the Hawke-Keating years were a series of assemblages with ideas drawn from right, centre-left and left. They changed a great deal, but much of their impetus was in the service of a conservative ideal — to preserve, through piecemeal changes, state/union involvement in setting wages and conditions.
In other areas, education in particular, welfare provision via superannuation, it advanced the notion of a commodified world whose success was defined by a one-dimensional measure of growth. When that roadshow finally fell apart in 1996, there was nothing left in the tank – a situation accurately and searchingly portrayed in Andrew Scott’s Running on Empty.
What happened then was very strange. For a full decade the ALP failed to develop anything resembling an alternative programme or perspective. Various well-intentioned people attempted to try and hint, then cajole, then shout about one from the outside about the need for Labor to work out what it was for, other than to keep the Tories out. But internal policy development was close to nil. Instead, two sons of Labor grandees took their turn at pursuing their private fantasies. The situation was made worse by Mark Latham’s loss in 2004 – not because he lost, but because he seemed to suggest that having ideas and grand theories in profusion was somehow fused with a lack of leadership abilities.
Labor was let off the hook by the simultaneous rise of Rudd and the hubris of Howard. Rudd’s one man political movement — writing essays on the German theologians, proposing grand theories of the crash, starting a thousand hares running etc — was impressive at the time, but in retrospect it vindicates Rich Hall’s observation that while it’s impressive to play guitar and harmonica at the same time, once you strap cymbals to your knees it’s all over.
But for Labor, in a permanent state of pointlessness, Rudd was a godsend since he provided the appearance of a fighting party of ideas all at once. Whether that would have been enough had Howard not mounted a full frontal attack with Workchoices, remains to be seen — but it certainly allowed business as usual to continue without anything amounting to a rethink. It also permitted Labor Unity to concentrate on its current hobby of dividing regularly, like amoeba, into ever smaller sub-factions, based around differing states, or branches of the Slurry Handlers Union, or the personality disorders of their leading lights.
Yet Ruddism’s end was in its beginning — or its head was up its arse more prosaically. Ruddism was a technocratic set of interlocking plans with no real political subjectivity. Its ends came from outside — a commitment to growth without a higher purpose, or subcontracted to plaint intellectuals in the 20/20 conference — while its whole focus was on means, or on very concrete and particular achievements, lacking a broader narrative. One could see that in Rudd’s farewell speech. Some found it moving. I found it, I must say, passive aggressive, a long statement of ‘look what you’ve done to me’. Rudd’s concrete achievements are numerous and that shouldn’t be diminished as the right wing press are eager to do, but his inability to summarise or synthesise them in that speech was a tiny picture of what it must have been like to work for. Every detail provoked further detail, until the object was lost.
In that respect, seeing Gillard’s brief reign to date as some major departure from the Rudd period is an error. The clever-clever approach to the boats issue – Christmas Island processing and the Indonesian solution – has given way to the baroquely bizarre East Timorese hop-scotch. The idea that this is a regional solution is nuts. Of all the frikkin problems East Timor faces, a flood of people trying to get in ain’t open of them.
The Henry review and the tax reforms arising therefrom were sold as managerial efficiency, even though it was a head-on attack on resource capital – it was as if the Labor party had spent so much time selling the idea of a depoliticised, I am you am we all am Australian blah blah blah, that they started to believe it themselves.
During the early period of the Rudd government, I thought they might have managed to take the steam out of the boats issue – while also thinking that it was crazy not to attack it head on, and talk back to the weird swirling tempest of fears, false impressions and fantasies that attach to the issue, right from the get-go.
That was not on moral grounds, but on the political principle that a Labor party is always, in the last analysis, a progressive and universalist party, and any attempt to express itself in a particular or chauvinist form cannot stand for ever — even if, as per the White Australia Policy, it lasts for decades. A conservative party can always talk more naturally in terms of them and us. Historically, one-time progressive parties only manage to outdo conservative parties by leapfrogging them, and becoming fascist parties, as per Italy, Argentina etc etc.
Had the DLP emerged in the 30s rather than the 50s it would undoubtably have taken that path as well.
Labor’s current strategy is a sort of audacity in reverse — it is so timid, imitative and pandering to the formula of its predecessor, that I find it impossible to get morally excited about. M’colleague Bernard Keane accuses Julian Burnside and others of holding the Australian public in contempt, while Gillard is engaging them in dialogue. I think it’s exactly the reverse. To criticise someone or a whole group as wrong, politically and morally, is to at least recognise them as an other, an adversary. Gillard’s strategy is to release steam by a series of really old tricks — ringing the political correctness bell, keeping refugees offshore. Jesus, political correctness? Howard used that from 1994-1998 and then switched to the ‘elites’.
To think a strategy like that has a chance of working is to see your electoral base in such Pavlovian terms, that you have effectively abandoned the most vestigial respect for them as reasoning beings. Political correctness? What more could be said about refugees than hasn’t been aired by the Bolts, Joneses, Akermans etc over the past years. Even the editorial staff of Der Sturmer would be pushed to up the ante.
But of course by now ‘political correctness’ doesn’t refer to anything. It’s a trigger word, just as offshore processing is a trigger concept responding to a series of interpretations of polling data that may or may not have tapped into anything even half-way expressive in the key marginals.
God knows which is worse – the failure of this strategy, or its electoral success. For of itself, nothing much is changed by these strategies. So if people who really are concerned by the miniscule number of people arriving on boats can’t see through it, then they really are pretty tragically manipulable, and the cynical base on which the Labor party works is correct.
But politically, Labor has nothing else. Once the Rudd circus left town, there’s just a bare big-top shaped piece of earth, and Wayne Swan and a ukelele.
Of course the trouble with opening up a discussion ‘without political correctness’ is that it quickly flows out of your control. Labor is keeping the news cycle under control by a repeated series of announcements edging the Coalition out – although as of today this seems to be as much by the refusal of East Timor to agree to this arrogant colonial assumption as anything.
Once that falters however, the Opposition can let rip, and portray itself as the real deal, ready to implement its ‘successful’ programme of mandatory detention and TPVs all over again.
Gillard Labor appears to be working on the assumption that it can fight on the Opposition’s territory – indeed that it an constitute itself as the Opposition to the Rudd government, and then either turn to the attack on the Abbott Coalition on Workchoices etc grounds, or….or what? Are they going to run on being a zero-degree government, with no great claim other than having backed away from their earlier craziness?
Campaigning on the Opposition’s territory, in the penumbra of conservative fears, is a big risk – based presumably on the assumption that Gillard’s lead on Abbott as preferred prime minister will do the trick. One of the difficulties for Labor in campaigning against Abbott was that it could not paint him as the true jesus-creeping self-flagellating Waringah Mullar Omar that he is, alienated from the majority of Australians, when Rudd was in charge because Rudd was equally , well, non-BBQ material. By borrowing the dog-whistle, Labor clearly hopes they can present Gillard as Howard in a pants-suit, and Abbott as the complement of Rudd. The one advantage of this that I can see is how smartly it’s shut up the demented Gillardistas, who saw her accession as some sort of positive turn.
Neat trick – down to hanging out with the Navy – but if it doesn’t work, and the public prefer the real conservatives to the market-ready imitation, then Labor is really flat-out fucked and through the floor. Rudd’s single term then stands in retrospect as a weird interruption in a conservative remaking of Australia. The resources for reviving Labor as a living force are practically nil.
But of course the same applies to the Liberal party. They’ve come up with a shopping-list of commitments, mixing fiscal discipline with open-ended commitments on parental leave that approach the Scandinavian in their generosity. Should they lose what then? Another leader taking them back to the centre? A further trek right, to become a minority party? The Liberal-conservative balanced that sustained the party is in flux.
More than most elections, this one may be to the victor the spoils, because both parties have emptied themselves of content by reversing the relationship between their identity and the political market.
God knows who to barrack for in this one— it’s England v Germany all over again. There’s a great advantage in Labor having this whole strategy repudiated — even from a rightward trending electorate — and the political bankruptcy of the party and its grim leadership. On the other hand, the taxidermy of Tony Abbott…. In either case, nothing’s on offer one could start to get excited about. Which at least means you can kick back and watch it over a drink or two.