Monday, 31 January 2011

A nation of True Believers?

Sorry for the lack of blogging - work and study have got me on the floor, crying that I can't get up.  But after the events of the week, I had some things I just had to say...

And look, a few people have commented in this blog to ask me why I'm an ALP voter.  People have asked on Twitter too, and I certainly get some stick from my Greens friends for being one of the few gays left in the ALP village.  It's certainly in a good question, and it's one I hope to fully answer over the next few weeks.

But you will be able to tell some of my basic beliefs through this post, because this post will be musings on some of Labor's troubled (and tortured) self-definitions over the past few days, and some ways in which I return to my theme that the body politic has irrevocably changed.

I'm not going to comment specifically on the Leyy and on the situation in Egypt: a lot of smarter people have covered this ground so I don't need to.  (Go read Pollytics on the Levy if you don't believe me; and the discussion between @Dr_Tad and @jason_a_w on Twitter was especially enlightening today on the Left's fragmented discourse on Egypt.)  But this week there's been some crucial steps along the way by the ALP at various state levels especially, which reveal in some ways the current philosophy of said party, and why I often throw my hands up in shame at it.

First, there was a new Premier in Tasmania.  Huzzah, another woman come to save the ALP from the wilderness.  And/or take the blame.  (See Kirner, Lawrence, Keneally, Gillard.)  I won't waste your time with the overt sexism of the Australian's coverage, or the implicit sexism of the ALP's tendency to 'anoint' chiefly female leaders in dire straits as a breath of fresh air/maternal figure/etc.

But the new Tasmanian Premier, who as Richard Farmer noted is essentially a party apparatchik with no outside experience, did state her case for why Tassie should stick with the ALP and what it stands for.

Apparently it's got something to do with Malcolm Fraser the child-killer and holding hands?

I kid you not. I understand the belief in modern-day politics that it's all about 'narratives' that enable people to relate to their representatives, but if you're going to tell a story about how you thought Malcolm Fraser killed children after the Dismissal, at least make it funny.

But the chief quote/'take away' from her speech was the following:

''And to me that sums up why I am a member of the Labor Party. It is about people. It is about helping people across that road.''

I appreciate Gidding's attempts to set the ALP in a narrative of support for the average punter who needs defence from the Powers That Be (that's the 'holding hand' metaphor there), but at the same time, the way she's phrased it comes over as the worst of the ALP Right's Big Nanny Statism of the past few years (net filter, wikileaks response, etc).  Gidding's from the Left faction apparently but like other Left faction members lately when called to power she quickly morphs into a nicer version of Stephen Conroy.

The optics of that vision are all wrong: it portrays Labor as the (potentially nagging) parent-figure, who looks after us and holds our hand and makes sure we Do the Right Thing - protective yes, but also limiting. Who really wants to vote for your Mum and Dad and be treated like a 5 year old?  

There certainly could have been a better way of phrasing the ALP's instincts to side with its 'everyman' base appeal, such as:

"As I grew up, I recognise that our side of politics is about people.  It's about support, help, and simple decency.  We know that most of the time, people stand on their own two feet and manage, but sometimes families and parents across Tassie need a little bit of extra help from Government.  Not a huge amount; just a bit, because they're struggling. And we recognise that when you're struggling it's not your fault, so we put a hand out to help with making sure your kids get a good education to inspire them, that infrastructure and technology are there to future-proof us, and that communities can turn to health services when they need to."

True, it's very small-target and managerial in some ways, but state govt isn't really visionary.  Still, it's more emblematic of 'core Labor values' of social justice, equality and public services than what she actually said.

The final message Giddings was a trial balloon, based on her experience as Treasure (and she's keeping that portfolio, apparently):

But having kept the Treasury portfolio she won only two months ago, she warned that with reduced post-global financial crisis revenue, the state should expect tightened spending.

So basically, neoliberalism wins!  As in federal government, the fiscal dictates of a previous Coalition government (Howard/Costello) have become Labor policy because we're too scared to push back.  Let's consider just how much Howardism has entrenched itself into mainstream political discourse.

Oh Kristina Keneally, every week a little bit more of the ALP's dignity in NSW dies under your decisions.  If you weren't so clearly from the NSW Right, I'd say you were a Lib plant. (Hey, anyone know if Arbib might actually be a US Republican mole?  Would explain a lot.) 

What about the costs for people living in Melbourne, which has the highest property prices in Australia? Admittedly Ted Ballieu was mostly for the levy before he was against it, so that's clarity and leadership for you.  What about Canberra, which has some of the highest rents in the country?  Not a peep from Jon Stanhope or Katy Gallagher, but that might be because the ACT is full of lefty hippies who don't mind paying (a generalisation).

And while Kristina is plumbing the barrel to be on 'Sydney's side', a premier is supposed to be on the side of all her state.  What about the rest of NSW?  Indeed, what about mateship and solidarity?  She's virtually enabling Abbott and co's fear campaign because clearly the most important thing in this world is money.  If she really wants to do something to help costs of living for Sydney-siders, she should have sorted out social housing, affordable rental property and public transport a while ago.  I recognise that Sydney-siders may indeed find that $70,000 is a different sort of income for them as opposed to people making that in Adelaide, Darwin or Hobart.  But we don't tax people differently because of where they live - and Keneally's naked appeal to the hip pocket nerve only emphasises the spending pressures on Sidney families that have everything t do with state government's lack of service and housing provision and nothing to do with macro-economic matters.

And in Victoria, they're parachuting in someone famous to a safe seat!

It's okay though, he used to be a strategist for the Australian Democrats and is the brother of Eddie McGuire, so his political sensibilities and capacity to appeal to Victorians are clearly demonstrated.

And because the seat is safe, even after the Tao of Ted swept the state, he's a shoo-in.  In some ways, this is even a positive: McGuire is supported by a faction of the Right (the Shorten/Conroy faction) and the Socialist Left.  The main Right's candidate is someone who has been investigated so many times for branch-stacking you think he'd have gotten the message.  Certainly branch-stacking is pervasive in parts of the Victorian ALP, and those who are tainted by it need to be shunned. But the fact that someone with that sort of suspicion and record could still be considered a possible candidate (and MP!) says a lot about the party machine. (Cf, not just a ALP problem - look at the new member for Dawson, plz.)

And Frank's already giving platitudes about lifelong learning and multiculturalism and jobs in his electorate, as you can see in the article linked above.

The problem with the 'small-target' strategy and principles is that it's based essentially on a political strategy whose horizons are limited to sandbagging.  By nature, it sets itself up into us-and-them paradigms: those who want their hands held against those who don't; the needs of Sydney versus the needs of everyone else; the needs of my electorate come first and the rest of you can get stuffed.  At the same time, there's always been a core defensiveness to the ALP's appeal: this was a party that supported the White Australia policy, and attentive to the needs of its working class base if asked to choose between job creation and climate action will choose jobs every time.

But it does say something about the lack of grand vision when the ALP is reduced to a series of petty kingdoms and base appeals.  It's also interesting considering the man who epitomised 'us-and-them' style wedging was John Howard.  His victory in 1996 was a classic example of peeling off voters from Keating by casting the issues as a struggle between 'sensible economic mainstream concerns' and 'the cultural elites' who cared more about Aboriginals, gays, the arts, etc than Ordinary Australians.

The us-and-them discourse continued under Howard, who claimed majority support mostly by redefining the majority at every turn. He was the sole arbiter for 10+ years of what was, and wasn't 'UnAustralian', and in doing so, the Coalition was masterfully able to turn most issues into a discussion about what it meant to be a 'Real Australian' with them occupying the higher ground.

In doing so, they managed very successfully and cleverly to capture the discourse for ten years, and to change it. Those who disagreed with Howard's socially conservative agenda were called UnAustralian, or the black armband mob, etc; and middle-class economic issues were placed as core to Australianness as opposed to broader social justice concerns for women, Indigenous, asylum seekers, gays, etc.  And honestly, the majority of Australians could better relate to someone who was a middle aged white bloke who liked the cricket and said he was helping with their mortgages and tossing them middle-class welfare.  The ALP didn't try to mount a counteracting social justice argument until WorkChoices, and then it was only about the just treatment of our own workers.

As the centre has been shifted to the Right - without much protest, so the Right has become the new Centre. We can see it in the way in which Tony Abbott is somehow treated like a mainstream conservative, despite the fact his opinions on abortion, gay rights and environmental policy would probably make him a fascist in most of continental Europe.  Conversely, the ALP has bought into Howard's legacy by playing up the patriotic game of trying to define 'Australian' for its own benefit - 'mateship tax' etc - but it's a failing game.  As the ALP continues to trying to debate on the Coalition's own terms, it can't help but lose.  And in appealing to the often individualistic right-ish hip-pocket nerve that it has of late (where's my job, my rebate, my handout?) it ends up refuting its own calls to solidarity and mateship that are typically hallmarks of what little true Leftist philosophy that remains.

If all that matters is your conditions, your family, your own bank balance, then why the hell do the flood victims count in the longer run?  For all the talk of mateship, it's undeniable that over the past couple of decades Australian society has moved to a more right-wing, consumerist paradigm in which individuals are encouraged to fall and succeed on their own merits and with government support for groups that need it increasingly withdrawn.  And the country's response to the Queensland floods was great, in terms of volunteering and donations.  But if you really wanted to help, what matters a few extra dollars more that's targeted to rebuilding?

And if you really wanted to be mates with all Australians, and help them out, where's the volunteering on weekends?  Where's the helping out in soup kitchens?  Where's the donating to mental health organisations, asylum seeker groups, the homeless, the disabled?  Why not become an aged care nurse or a teacher rather than a small-business owner, accountant or lawyer and truly see yourself helping generations adjust to the future?

In the 1980s, certain unions and student movements carried out broad, largely supported activism towards green bans and anti-apartheid.

It's funny how in 2011 we largely volunteer for people who most remind us of ourselves.

If the ALP wants to win back the debate, it needs to be prepared to lose on its own terms - and change the conversation.  Howard lost in 2007; now make sure his way of politics stays dead, buried, cremated - and relegated to the Tony Abbott way of counselling government.

1 comment:

  1. There are two glaring omissions from your analysis:

    (1) Any sense of the structural reasons for the the ALP moving to the Right. It just seems from your post that they were carried away by bad ideas and political cowardice. Is there something deeper underpinning the way that almost all social democratic parties around the world have moved so far away from their traditional supporters? Perhaps the parties' relationship to capital and the state could be considered?

    (2) A lack of historical analysis as to the trajectory of Labor's drift Right in a wider political context. You look to activism in the 1980s but by that time the movements of the 60s & 70s were in precipitous decline. What led to that political retreat, and what was the role of the Whitlam period, the Kerr Coup and Labor's response?

    Without addressing these issues your analysis is little more than wishful thinking about the ALP we could've had but little notion why we didn't get it.