Sunday, 13 September 2015

On electability.

With the election of Jeremy Corbyn to leadership of the U.K. Labour Party, there's been various commentary from social democrats, centrists, liberals and conservatives on the issue of electability.

Putting the issue of Corbyn's specific electability to one side, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about the concept of electability and what it means.

First, electability is often considered to be some form of rational or pragmatic response to the political centre. 'Here are what the people want to vote for; so to get their votes we must appeal to their aspirations.'

The key thing to remember here is that the people are many, not singular. The people are a many-hued gestalt, seething with internal dissent and disagreement. Take even one issue which has recently garnered majoritarian support: marriage equality. Conservatives can support it, a la David Cameron, because it reinforces existing institutions. Classic liberals and libertarians can support it, because it involves removing the state from an infrigement upon the individual. Collectivists can support it because it engages notions of broadening the concept of community and driving greater equality. 

'The people' support marriage equality now: but that agreement is built on tenuous assumptions and papers over different rationales as to how society can and should work. Say you got all the people - 'the people' who sought marriage equality in a room and then asked them about economic policy, about free trade and competition; about migration and Indigenous rights and genetically modified organisms. That agreement would shatter and reform in a hundred different ways.

This first notion of electability relies on an assumption that 'the people', that is, 'the middle ground' are fixed and coherent. Compromise is necessary and parties hew to a given centre. My point (and I think it's largely well-known) is that the centre is incoherent: the same 'suburban voters' who want lower taxes also often want no free trade and less migration and a nationalised Qantas and jobs for Australian workers. They want high pensions but no money to those lazy unemployed folk. They want more refugees but disdain asylum seekers. They want action on climate change but are ambiguous about paying for it.

They, they, 'they'. But who are 'they'? Other than people, and people change their minds. We've seen it recently in the shift over Syrian refugees; we've seen it in their attitude to the Abbott government, elected with what could surely be seen as a solid mandate and yet lagging in the polls almost ever since. Politicians like Whitlam and Attlee both proposed programs that were in their own way revolutionary, seeking to use government and establish institutions that had so rarely been tried before.

And of course, the point about the swinging voter is that they swing. The voters who delivered government to Kevin Rudd in 2007 through a swing from Howard also decided six years later they didn't really want any of that pro-climate change hope and idealism stuff, and laptops for kids either cost too much or wasn't done quickly enough. The political centre is an imagined fantasy that reinforces the existing power bases and allows them to limit what's acceptable.

Putting in practice a political platform that actually reflected what the average 'swinging voter' wanted (based on polling data) would be a mess of anti-immigration nativism and right-wing low tax dreams. It's also curious to note that despite both parties aspirations to recognise the voter's aspirations, no major political party has actually gone there. It's also important to recognise that the 'median voter' is not in any way representative of a coherent political centre, as mentioned above - people's attitudes to policy is a mix of the self-serving, the aspirational and the generously collective.

The notion of electability focusses on chasing votes, rather than persuading them. As such it's not exactly inspirational and narrows, rather than enlarges, the landscape upon which politics is played.

Does it work? Well, sometimes, yes, probably. But it's not a given and shouldn't be treated as such.

This leads me to my second point, which is the substantive message that the pursuit of electability sends to those who are the otherwise unelectable.

I've already mentioned that electability assumes a responsive attitude to voter's intentions; that parties move to them and harvest their votes. It also implies a form of wisdom of crowds - that while persuasion is possible, it shouldn't be attempted, because 'the people' know best. We often see this attitude in accusations of 'lefty elites', those who look down at your 'average suburban type' and call them racist, bigoted, homophobic, etc.

Fundamentally, electability assumes that 'the voters' are right.

Increasingly this notion is being recontested, as it should be. After all, majorities of (white) people once thought that women were men's property or that certain other people should be taken as slaves. Majorities distrusted Catholics, or Jews, or Muslims, and barred them from holding official roles in society, or worse. Republicanism led to deportation; conscientious objectors got shot; suffragettes were viewed as silly and hysterical.

The majority of Australians at various points supported the white Australia policy and capital punishment. As a gay bloke with a disability, I am all too aware that for much of the last century, I would have been imprisoned, subject to shock treatment, chemical castration and seen to be unfit to be around children, if the average voter had their say.

To minority communities, electability reminds us of a dangerous precedent. We can see this in movements like Black Lives Matter, which often split the centre-left between structural critiques and those who argue for 'respectful' debate. This is symptomatic of broader debates between principle and power across the centre-left: to work within an already compromised system, or to reimagine the possible.

It's important to remember that there are natural shifts in public opinion - the support for marriage equality was once seen as unthinkable, for example. The community changes and opinion changes too. All too often these changes (marriage equality, climate change, economic equality, domestic violence) leave politicians flat-footed and inauthentic: they were trying to keep up with 'the people' of yesteryear, not the ones of today. A focus on electability instills skills at backward-looking responsiveness, not a capacity to anticipate these shifts in values.

Politicians have often done great things that are not popular. Making assumptions that people can't be convinced both speaks to the weakness of your argument and a broader lack of faith in the community.

We can all list examples where parties and leaders have chosen not to embrace the worse instincts of the mob, or even to appeal to their preferences; political parties recognise that on many issues, 'the voters' are not 'right' and actively seek to oppose populist views. And the mindless repetitions of 'electability' serve as a reminder of its own failings as a concept - if anyone campaigns against migration or for the death penalty they'd be labelled populist.

But isn't populism just another form of electability? Why is it that parties disdain populism but crave electability? Where's the boundary, and who decides it? After all, modern social democratic parties often insist on continued tax cuts, reduction of public services, etc etc in recognition of the appeal of 'fiscal responsibility' but they are willing to oppose populist positions on free trade or migration. Why embrace one 'electable' position but not the other?

So ultimately 'electability' is a reminder that someone else is deciding what and who is electable, and in that sense, it cheapens our sense of who we are. Not fixed, but mutable; not solid, but nuanced; contradictory and emotive and as capable of being wrong as anyone. 

It's more useful in the long run to consider what lies within the bounds of electability - to consider what politicians are willing to oppose the voters on, and what they aren't. This analysis reveals electability as a useless construct, one that tells more about those who preach it than any objective reality.

Steve Jobs once talked about how his task was not to give the people what they wanted, but the thing they didn't know they wanted. Electability reduces what we can talk about in politics, and for that reason alone, it should be discarded as a rationale.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

I am human and I need to be loved.

So today was the annual ACT ALP Conference. I attended as a delegate for the CPSU, and was fortunate enough to speak on a motion in relation to marriage equality. The motion essentially asked the national ALP to rethink its policy of not binding on marriage equality until 2019.

While I had always hoped to speak, and had been considering speaking all day, nerves did get the better of me up at the podium. What follows is the extended and unexpurgated version of what I said:

Comrades, you know I should support this policy - it means I don't have to get a boyfriend till 2019. (Gentlemen, you can form an orderly queue.)
But I don't, because the Labor Party is based on two concepts: solidarity and opportunity - that by working together, we create a better future. And right now it is hard to see that better future. It will happen tomorrow, we are told, but the problem with tomorrow is that tomorrow never comes.
Solidarity demands the acknowledgement of the Other as ourselves; it asks us to recognise everyone as human beings, deserving of dignity and respect. As a party which has long supported better outcomes for women, for migrants and refugees, for indigenous people, for people with disability, what are we to say? What are we to tell them? That we will treat them just as well as we treat the gays. 'You'll get what you want, but later.' What is our example?
Solidarity demands better. To use a medical metaphor, you can't be half-pregnant. You can't half-support a policy. And so if you do support marriage equality, you vote for it. You don't dither.  You don't say 'Yes, but not now.' Give me justice, but not now. Give me equality, but not yet.
To paraphrase Saint Augustine - Lord, give me justice and equality, but not yet! 
Or to quote him properly: "Love, and do what you will."
Where's the harm? What's the cost? 
A great man in my community said that 'You gotta give them hope'. And I wonder where is the hope we give to queer Australians, young and old, gay and bisexual and trans, who wonder when that hope will come.
I am tired of waiting for a tomorrow that has not dawned.
If not now, when? If not us, who? 
I commend this motion to the floor. 
(I was the last speaker. The motion passed.) 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Greatest Moral Challenge of our Time: One Progressive Response to Climate Change.

Can we please stop talking about the facts?

I know that seems odd: today as many of you will know was the National Day of Action on Climate Change. Lovely turn out, nice speeches, representation by a lot of progressives and activists, including my local ALP member, Senator and many party colleagues.

And of course, facts and evidence are prevalent at these gatherings, as they often are when the ALP and Greens and general activists talk about climate change.

But when we talk about facts, or the evidence, then the facts themselves because the centre of the debate. Who commissioned them; whether scientists have vested interest in seeking grant money; whether definitions are correct and comparable; what anyone means by 'global', 'climate' and 'warming'. The debate becomes heavy and ripe with a lot of confusion, and arguing with someone for twenty minutes on The Drum about how they don't understand the evidence doesn't exactly demonstrate the sort of clarity the debate needs. Focussing on the evidence brings the evidence into question; makes it contestable.

Fundamentally, climate activism has relied on everyone being rational, which is generally speaking not a great assumption to make about humanity. (See also mainstream economics, homo economicus and how we fucked that up.)

Facts don't convince the people who need to be convinced - if they did, we'd have convinced them. And the actions of conservatives have cleverly called the facts into question, essentially through the use of value propositions to create an emotional connection with the populace.

"The weather is always variable" is a values statement; so is the proposition that "we shouldn't do anything to harm growth" - and that's doubly problematic as we still often define 'growth' as productivity created through extractive processes. So we're caught in not being able to clearly articulate and conceive of what a post-coal world looks like, and thereby people in Gippsland and in the Hunter fall prey to scare campaigns and fears and who can blame them?  They have a job now digging stuff up; sure it'll end, but not now, not now - it will definitely end if the coal fired station shuts down and there's no alternative for them that guarantees them a job.

Climate anti-activism isn't denial of the evidence; it's based on values which regard the evidence as either flawed or irrelevant, or views the potential harm to our current economic structures as too great. (How great a harm is too great?  Well that's a value proposition too.)

In 2007, one man had the political nous to make climate change a clarion call, a moral issue. Building up expectations, Kevin Rudd was felled by those same expectations - it can't be that much of a moral issue if you completely fuck it up - but there was briefly the chance there for a new narrative, not bogged down in 'what the science says' or disputes over facts.

It's that clarity, that sense of moral purpose that progressives must return to if we want to succeed in making the argument. Pollution should be prevented not because of the wealth of evidence about climate change but because in and of itself polluting is a bad thing.

I'm not asking progressives to ignore the science; I'm saying the argument we have fundamentally drags us down into the science, when what we need is not facts at the core of our purpose, but a genuinely moral stance. Keep it simple, stupid.

And until we make that shift, conservatives will be appealing to doubters by muddying the waters; a contested argument cannot convince information-poor and swinging voters. Only clarity can - and conservatives can muddy the facts all they want, but they cannot contest a clear sense of morality.

So please, lay off the facts, tone down the evidence and be absolutist. Say something like this at the rallies:

We come here because we know that this planet is ours for stewardship and for care. We come here because what we have done to our planet is poor, and badly done. We have seen it in oil spills; we have seen it in the ozone layer; we have seen it in the way our chemicals have seeped into the lifeblood of this world, changed the life around us, and not for the better. We cannot trust that we will muddle a way through this time, as we have muddled our way through other problems in older times; we act to curb pollution now because we must and because it is the right thing to do.

We have treated this world too often as one big rubbish tip, and this must stop.

We have not asked what damage we cause, by pouring into the air and sea the refuse of our lives, and this must stop.

We have all too often assumed that what this world is just there for the taking, and the using, and this too must stop.

There are some who say this change is too great or too costly; that it is not needed, that the world is not changing too quickly or too badly. I say - we say - that through this work we will have cleaner air, better water, a richer realm to leave for our children and more sustainable energy sources for a brighter world. If the world is not at risk, then we will still have all those things - cleaner air, better water, a more bountiful world with greater diversity, richer soil and cheaper energy and how are these things not good?

It will not be easy; we will have to change our ways, change the way we think about sourcing our energy and disposing of our garbage. But it will not be too hard; already many people have the opportunity to think; to pause, and to consider. We recycle. We use water-hardy plants in our gardens. We use energy efficient appliances, and much renewable energy is already being used in our grids, to power our homes, without cause for complaint.

It is these little things we do together; all the little steps we take that help - Government has a role to ensure that we can take those steps, by investing in renewable energy, by setting standards and goals, by ensuring that those who pollute greatly will pay.

It is this cause that we all support: after all, there's a common saying - "Don't shit where you eat." I think it's time we started making that a reality.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Comment on the ALP Draft National Platform

The ALP Draft National Platform is here.

My comment was somewhat limited (700 words max, trying to be pithy).  I realise this does mean anyone from the Party who is totally obsessive can work out who I am.  But I'm sure they are far more busy doing much more meaningful things.  Like counting numbers.


The provisions relating to the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers are contradictory and illogical.

The language implies that the obligations placed on us by our signatory status as members of the appropriate UN conventions are voluntary adoption on our part and did not enter into legal force following the adoption of the said conventions. This is incorrect.

We claim to maintain our adherence to these obligations and to ensure that asylum seeker claims will be processed by Australians in Australia and under Australian law. Yet the current Labor Government continues to excise certain proportions of our territories in order to prevent these obligations from being met in all cases. Why should we adhere to any obligations in only the ways we choose to do so?  It's like saying we will obey the law, but only when we feel like it.

The National Platform does not clearly state that seeking asylum is not actually a crime and that those who are considered refugees should find sanctuary.  It does not address the use of security concerns or the lack of documentation which can be assessed by intelligence agencies to refuse to let people who have been declared as 'genuine refugees' into the community.  This speaks to a backward assumption of terror, paranoia and scapegoating, remembering that the lead terrorist attacks have been undertaken by 'home grown' activists or long-stay non-humanitarian arrivals.  It speaks to policy and assumptions brought in under the previous LNP Government, which were not based in evidence, research or a fair understanding of our international obligations.

It is completely understandable that our policies have died in the public's view and our polling is so dire, with the Party unable to get traction or cut through Opposition criticism. As we've continued to scapegoat refugees, to say that it's fair to not help out sometimes, that we can only afford to look after our own, why shouldn't the miners say the same? or the coal producers? or big business?  Why should we consider the needs of low-paid workers, Indigenous Australians, or sell pokies reform?  Vested self-interest has become the norm and we utterly failed to change the basis of this 'national conversation.'

Should this platform be adopted at conference as is, I will no longer be able in good conscience to be a member of the Party, to undertake activities to promote Party candidates or policies, or to honestly consider my vote to be rock solid for the ALP.  As a gay male I understand the disgusting Howardism that has crept into the party and our failure to combat it, but if we fail to treat fairly with some of the most vulnerable in the world, then our definition of 'fair go' becomes meaningless, vacuous and self-interested. It also will fail to hold water in the long term: what makes union members or low paid workers so special?  why should we look out for the environment, or women's rights, or learning, or culture against self-interest, consumerism, profit and need, if we won't consider refugees?  Either everyone deserves fairness or we all don't, and if we all don't, let's just declare it a dog-eat-dog country and join the LNP.

Friday, 22 April 2011

The Perils of Being a Progressive

Once upon a time, social and political action was defined in broadly economic terms:

In generalising hugely, we can posit that Leftism operated on the premise of collective action - that by banding together, those without power (in an economic sense) could provide a counterweight to the heft of those who dominated economic and political spheres. The greatest concern was the flow and control of capital, and the lack of capital opportunity available to those who were powerless within a capitalist paradigm. In that sense, regulatory and legislative action by Government was an adjunct to collective action by workers - it enabled and promoted their capacity to organise themselves, work collectively and consider their capacity to be treated 'fairly' in an economic sense by management.

Protecting the 'working class' was foremost a consideration for the Left - which is why policies which were protectionist (whether tariffs or the White Australia policy) were heartily endorsed by unions and unionised workers of the Left. Analysis of social aspects were often pushed to one side, as the operating paradigm was an economic one, one necessitated by the capitalist society in which workers existed. If the key indicators were job security, fair treatment, safe workplaces and equatable pay, then issues such as concern for homeless, unemployed or those needing welfare were considered to be issues of fair access to gainful employment and the creation of safety nets (health, education, welfare) for those still unable to benefit from the employment market as much as others.  Left Government provided a regulatory framework which backed up the capacity of society to enable equitable access to jobs and job security.

As political discourse increased through the 20th century, the capacity and role of Government became contentious.  In the examples of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany (plus Franco's Spain and Peron's Argentina), it could be seen that the Left-Right spectrum was too simple.  

You can have libertarian lefties (Gandhi) who would role back the capacity for government/the state to interfere on the premise that communal living and economic development is self-regulating in the best needs of the community, and the interference of government reduces the community's democratic nature.  You can have authoritarian lefties (Stalin, possibly Peron) who reduce everything to a command economy to ensure equality of the proletariat and erase class distinctions. But then the power of government officials becomes their own class system.

You can have authoritarian righties who assume control of the economy in order to build upon corporatist interest and actually divest the working classes of equality in the name of 'greater goods', often national interests in a time of constant war (Franco, Hitler).  You can have libertarian righties, who peel back government interference and endorse the capacity of the market as the best judge of value (Ayn Rand.)

Authoritarian generally means stronger government control, regulation and authority over the citizenry, the polis and the systems of business and corporatism. Lefties /tend/ to have /some/ authoritarian instincts as we recognise the capacity and need for government to protect the working and economically disenfranchised classes.  (Also a generalisation).  And righties in theory tend to be libertarian, with a visceral distaste for government regulation. In practice, of course, things are much different.

But a consideration of economic (left-right) and political (authoritarian-libertarian) views is limiting, because it fails to take into account the cultural desires to which government and economic structures will be put.  More recently, a further consideration has been placed into governance and political attitudes: cultural or social beliefs, such as gay marriage, drug usage, and treatment of refugees/free mobility of populations.

We label the poles in this case 'progressive' and 'conservative' and often they've become catch-all descriptions and replacements for Left and Right. In Australia, both the ALP and Greens compete for the 'progressive' label, but when you think about it, the current struggle of the ALP is because many of those in the ALP are economically Left but socially conservative, framing problems simply in terms of the struggle for scarce resources in a capitalist and consumerist society.

Progressivism is about looking to the future and believing that culture and society is an ongoing process of improvement; conservatism is about the language of having 'lost our way' and needing to return, to look back for inspiration. Progressivism makes an ideal that hasn't existed yet; conservatism turns what has existed into its ideal.

So instead of four quadrants, we have many different sectors and a greater understanding of the struggles internal to parties and between parties and affiliated organisations.

Personally, it's one of the reasons I hate the catch-all use of 'progressive' by individuals on the Left, as it says nothing about the whole picture of your political beliefs and stances. It only captures a social or cultural dimension, and its reductive in its suggestion that 'progressivism' is a singular category.

After all, we can have:
Progressive-Left-Authoritarians - those who are socially progressive in part because they identify economic equality with the ways in which minority groups are ultimately excluded from society, and endorse the need for government to Do Things to achieve equality and inclusion (gay marriage, targets for women on boards, use of government to promote acceptance of refugees etc).  Government is used to provide for universal equality.  The Left faction of the ALP could probably be placed here.

These come into conflict with:
Conservative-Left-Authoritarians - those who believe that government should use its regulatory power to enable greater power and economic strength to the 'working class'. They also tend to see social issues (gay marriage) as a distraction from government's core business of helping them, and consider potential actions from this economic lens. Migrants are then seen as a threat and a competitor for increasingly scarce resources in a capitalist society; and green movements threaten the viability of industries and jobs by putting the long-term sustainability of the planet ahead of the short-term consequences to workers.  Government is used to provide targeted support for union and working class interests, especially when they are under threat (manufacturing subsidies for example)  These are often the cohort of former ALP members who have reacted most strongly to the ALP's movement on social issues over the past thirty years and may now vote for the LNP as they see the LNP as providing the most economic security through tax cuts.  They also tend to view the ALP and the country through a cultural lens in which things were better 'back in the old days' as the party simply protected a unified cohort of workers regardless of the environmental or social consequences of their industry.

Then there's Progressive-Right-Libertarians.
These are the Malcolm Turnbull's and David Cameron's of the political world, those who believe social equality is achievable and doable in a world where economic equality is a matter of individual attainment. They view government's place as removing barriers to achievement and opportunity, rather than enabling the polity to achieve and gain access.  They believe in the power of the market and the individual and disdain the need for collective action.

They conflict with Progressive-Right-Authoritarians.
I'd say Sarkozy is one in some ways. Wants to get the government out of the economy, but utilise it to achieve socially acceptable (acceptable, not necessarily just) outcomes through regulation and imposition which create a unified culture.  There's a new wave of right-authoritarians in Europe who are progressive on social issues and don't see the need for government to deal with the individual, but do see the need for government to impose identity on the community (Muslims, migrants, etc) in order to maintain order and compliance.

I'd suggest the Australian Democrats were most likely Progressive-Left-Libertarians, in that they had a distrust of government and its institutions ('Keep the bastards honest') which meant they preferred individual responsibility with collective action in order to ensure the best and most equal polity.  I also think this categorisation of them is a bit iffy and doesn't touch on their internal policy divisions.  Some of the Australian Greens are also here, but there's also a healthy recognition of the potential and value of good governance associated with the Greens.  The UK Lib Dems tend to be hazily here, although close to the centre economically, which causes tension (as it did with the Australian Democrats).

Conservative-Right-Authoritarians tend to be the populist lot who want Government to do all it can to preserve existing societal conditions and who venerate their own culture, and therefore disdain government attempts to achieve economic equality or social inclusion.  One Nation, for example.

Conservative-Right-Libertarians are those even crazier mob who tend to exacerbate the potential for Government to do anything wrong and distrust any form of social change. They worship at the altar of the individual and tend to place responsibility for status and wealth on individuals (ie. if you're not employed, it's because you're a bludger.)  Society should be dismantled as a concept as it compels individuals to give up their norms to a larger whole. There was elements of Thatcherism which met this model but she was also Authoritarian in some impulses.  The One World Government conspiracy theorists are at the extreme end of this categorisation: the existence of government as an implicit and existential wrong which threatens individual freedom (see also: Party, The Tea.)

And yes, there are Conservative-Left-Libertarians somewhere, although their wish for economic equality and the removal of government go hand in hand with a halcyon perspective on communal living. They still believe in the need for social boundaries and structures: it's probably a bit Old Labor, really.

This post however, was supposed to be all about why I think 'Progressivism' is an empty suit of a word, and misses most of its point in the current political discourse.  In the US it's gained fashion as opposed to saying 'Liberal'; here it's used to indicate something in opposition to conservatism. It also reveals the split within the Left (in western social democratic tradition) between Left Conservatives and Progressives - but it also parades an individual's social stances  before their economic stance.  It assumes you can enact progressive social change without touching on or explicitly promoting the need for economic equality: that you can be Progressive without having to actually call yourself (or be) Left.

And that, I think, is a mistake.  But that's a post for another time.

Anyway, where does everyone sit on my hideously complex schema?

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.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

The landscape, post-Brumby.

This isn't intended to be a post mortem of the recent Victorian election: there are many reasons, most of which have to do with Labor losing control of the narrative and considering its opponent to be unelectable and thereby a threat. (You'd think we'd have learned that one after the federal election.)

But this is will be an examination of the structural changes facing both parties.  There's big differences between both the LNP and the ALP's standard voter in Victoria and federally, from the halcyon days of Jeff (1992) and John (1996) to Julia, Ted and Tony (2010).  For all the whinging about Labor's problems, the shifting patterns of voters - and the type of voter who tends to 'die in a ditch' to support a particular party has affected the future of LNP, ALP and Greens.  But it's the ALP who is disproportionated affected by the changes.  With an increasingly divided electorate, the growth in consumer lifestyles and a corresponding trend in education, health, and social justice being viewed as 'lifestyle concerns' for those middle class types who can afford them, the ALP is finding itself increasingly and cleverly wedged by both the LNP and Greens, reduced to a bolted-on primary vote of 35% - and even that I'd imagine would reduce in time.

After all, there are still 25%-30% of voters willing to give their primary support to the ALP in QLD and NSW, no matter the state parties' problems there, so we can possibly consider that to be a 'low water mark' that the ALP should watch out for.  With the recent federal election and Victorian election giving an ALP primary vote in the high 30s, we have to start considering if this is the new norm - and why this might be so.

This post continues on from my pre-election analysis of the split in the Left between the ALP and the Greens (which can be found here), recasting and emphasising some of the points, and raising a few new ones.  I don't think it should be a shock to anyone who is really engaged with politics, but I do find it odd the amount of self-denial there appears to be among the ALP over the appeal of the Greens, in the Greens over how limited their appeal is, and over the state of the Lib-Green voter.  I'll also try and respond to some of the criticism I got on that post and through Twitter - I have a lot of Greens friends!

The thing I think we can take away from the Bailleu victory, and the four successive Howard victories, is how the rise of consumerist culture has broken a lot of the traditional political affiliations. We can see through Howard's loss in 2007 that your average voter and family doesn't want basic rights at work taken away, but with the fracturing of employment security being taken as normal, and the understanding by Gen Y that they'll have how-ever-many different careers in their lives, the value of unionism has plummeted.  It's not really about what benefits the workplace gets, as what benefits you individually get, and we react as a united front against evil management types or workplace deregulation only if the attack on the group is seen as an attack on the individual.  In other words, "I don't really care that they screwed over Employee X, but I worry it means they can screw over me, too."

Education, like good health and social values, is increasingly being seen as a utilitarian pursuit.  As a former teacher, I was very conscious that over the past decade it's become far less about 'What Will Help You Be a Better and More Well Rounded Individual' and 'What Will Help You Fit In and Get A Job.'  English Curriculum in Victoria speaks about how the student should better understand the structure of society so they can better fit in and achieve; ten years ago the curriculum talked about how the student should better understand the structure of society because that way they can critique/rework it for the betterment of everyone.  That's a pretty big jump.

In some ways, I think that's because we're victims of our own success.  In an increasingly affluent society in which your job is relatively safe, secure and stable (and employers held to standards by government and regulators), we can afford to think about the short-term.  About the new car, new house, better suburb, kids going to a private school, nice clothes, etc.  If we lose our jobs, it's shitty, but hopefully they'll be something else out there, and well, what did we expect?  Capitalism isn't supposed to be nice to people, is it?  The previous core base of the ALP's support, the working and industrial 'class' are those people in factory or manufacturing or industry work (mining, forrestry) where organised labour and class struggles decades ago mean they don't have to worry about work fatalies or being abjectly used.  The growth of the service industry and of lower-level management positions has also swollen the ranks of those who may previously have supported the ALP for job projection and regulation, but now with their growing affluence, and a lifestyle in which they are judged based on wealth and possessions, they increasingly opt for the short-term advocate of their financial gain.

Tje LNP has been brilliant at that under John Howard and now Tony Abbott, and under Ted Baillieu at a state level.  Suburban voters might like gays to be married cos it's fairer, and they might want environmental issues, but when push comes to shove it isn't a priority.  As a group who are largely up to their eyeballs in debt trying to sustain a certain middle-class lifestyle that's no longer about the quality education or connections but is about the house, plasma TV and the location of the house and kids' school, they'll plump for whoever can give them the best deal on stamp duty concessions, cost-of-living increases, etc etc.  And that's perfectly understandable - if your priority is basic government services and just keeping your head above financial flooding, there's little room to be thinking of the gays or the refugees or the environmental movement.  That's doubly so when the LNP wield the threat of systemic change like a cudgel: if we settle all the refugees, won't they take all YOUR jobs, and won't all YOUR taxes be used to take care of them rather than allow for tax cuts/rebates/transport?  If they're all concerned about the gay marriage, why aren't they fixing your suburbs/planning/hospitals?  If they give everything to the Greens, won't all the factories and industries shut down and everyone lose their jobs?  WON'T NAZIS AGAIN RIDE ON DINOSAURS?

Fear and insecurity is a great tool to use, and appealing to the hip pocket nerve is a guaranteed victory.  The problem around social issues, and the big systemic changes that both the ALP and Greens tend to advocate these days is that they are forging into the unknown.  We don't know how moving to a low-carbon economy will affect costs of living and job security; we don't know what accepting more refugees may do to already stretched social services (which isn't a reason to NOT do so, but we have to admit that if we are going to settle more boat people as we should, we have an obligation to make sure they get good counselling/mental health support/English language education/job skills/etc); and we can't even sell people on the benefits of the NBN because most of them involve changing the paradigm more than the first telephone did.

Just how the goalposts have shifted is something the ALP Right is very aware of, which is keen to talk about 'bread and butter' issues like job creation, economic management and low government debt.  The Right often derides the Left for trying to pander on environmental and socially progressive issues, as often those socially conscious voters are seen as bolted on Green or even Liberal, who may never vote Labor.  (See the washup post-Brumby amongst the Victorian Right, which sees social policy and environmental issues as opposed by working families who want trend conservatively, economically speaking, and therefore fall increasingly into the LNP camp.)  To the ALP Right, appealing to the inner city set is self-defeating: they either want you to go further cos they support the Greens or although they are socially progressive, as many inner city voters are, they are also Liberal and distrust ALP connection with government waste and union thuggery.

But there's a flip side to that: traditional voting patterns are shifting, and even as the ALP vote fractures between the 'working family' mob for whom low taxes and middle-class welfare are priority and the higher-educated, progressive type who is swerving to the Greens, the LNP vote has also shifted in turn.  More and more inner city voters trust to a lack of Government regulation and free market principles (Lib), but yet believe due to their social circles and their education in social equality and environmental action.  Just as there's a growing hub of Leftists in the ALP who are going Green, there's a swelling group of small-l Liberals who dislike the current trend towards authoratative conservative fundamentalism. They'd never vote Labor - that way lies union dominance, crap governance and waste - but at some point like those of us on the Left they'll be ask to consider their priorities - economy versus environment.  At that point things will get interesting.

I do think that the Greens will hit a 'high point' of 20% of the vote though, barring some ecological catastrophe which wakes the populace up.  This is not to say most voters are stupid, easily led or trapped in some sort of class consciousness.  It's just that increasingly both ALP and LNP have to appeal to short-term outcomes - and in doing so, long term policy and systemic concerns such as infrastructure, transport and the environment gets pushed off the political radar, or is seen as a 'barrier' to getting quick action on tax cuts, home prices, cost of living, etc.  The reason why the Greens will hit 20%-ish and not go up is because essentially the Greens ask most voters to take a giant step into the unknown by making huge systemic alternations to the current state of the economy, education system, career path, style of living and infrastructure.  They are the sorts of changes which can be a bit scary, and certainly it's why the LNP and the ALP Right tends to play the 'But the Greens will end up making you pay more in power bills!!!11' card.  As said above, though, the fear works: and I doubt more than one fifth of voters have the capacity, education and upper middle class income to not think about themselves and their immediate short term prospects.  As a upper middle class wanker, I can afford to think long-term, and also to support hitherto unparalleled changes to the Australian economy - no matter how many factory workers it puts out of a job.  As I've said before, a green economy with decently paying and secure environmentally derived jobs can't just spring up over night.  As a member of the ALP Left, I'm torn about action on climate change, because it's the largely limited-educated outer suburban types, the workers that the ALP was created to help advocate on behalf of, who will get fucked over by progressive change.

Now, if the 'wet' wing of the Liberal Party somehow rose again, then at least we could get something happening...maybe not with the moral certainty and bravado of the Greens' advocacy, but it would least remove the issue from being 'Greenies vs Normal People With Threatened Jobs.'

So the great lesson from the Brumby result is that voters increasingly care about short-term capability in Government, in 'wins' on the board, and disdain anything seen as too radical and unsettling.  Make sure the voter knows what they'll get from you, and you'll probably romp home.

Which is why we're pretty stuffed, really....