Glenn Milne has an article in this morning’s Oz about the (alleged) political watershed/revolution that voting for a Latham-led ALP would involve. Milne’s article includes a long-ish quote by Labor fellow-traveller and ANOP pollster Rod Cameron:
“For the first time in my 30 years in this game, the issue of values is paramount as an election battleground. This is what brought Latham out of the ruck and he managed, to some extent, to change the national agenda a values agenda. Energy, conviction, aspiration, fatherhood, passion, courage, generation X, independence, different political priorities all of these diverse but values concepts suddenly became important.
“Values will be more important than policy for Mark Latham. Policy will be there eventually and spelled out in partial, not full, detail, much to the chagrin of some journalists and commentators. And the policies that Latham does unveil will be presented through a values prism.
“The battle lines have been set. The parties have chosen their corners and they won’t fundamentally change. One side is offering values and the other is putting up a conventional political agenda, emphasising a steady stream of electoral bribes, pork-barrelling, targeted largess 1, some promises regarding services and a massive dollop of political advertising dressed up as government advice to the community.”
I can’t help remembering the ballyhoo in the leadup to the election of the Howard government in 1996. It too was touted by many commentators (quite possibly including Glenn Milne for all I know) as heralding a return of “values” to politics. Howard made much of his implementation of a Ministerial Conduct Code and Charter of Budget Honesty to differentiate himself from Paul Keating, who was broadly perceived as shonky and discredited as a result of fiascoes like the vanishing “L-A-W law” tax cuts and the Roz Kelly whiteboard affair.
Of course, we now know Howard wasn’t really interested in ‘values’ at all. The Ministerial Conduct Code was jettisoned as soon as he discovered it would inevitably result in the ongoing wholesale sacking of Cabinet colleagues, while the Charter of Budget Honesty has delivered nothing of the sort. In fact, its only tangible effect has been to induce successive Labor leaders to avoid releasing their detailed economic policies until the last possible moment. Few would now associate Howard with ‘values’ (at least in the sense of integrity) except possibly as personifying their antithesis.
Is Latham any more genuinely interested in ‘values’ (leaving aside what those values might be)? I suspect the answer is a heavily qualified “yes”. Although I’ve previously suggested Latham’s policy announcements about reading to kids, the role of fathers and the like can in part be seen as Dick Morris-style ‘symbolic’ campaigning strategies intended to ‘cut through’ conventional political discourse and speak to voters’ ‘real’ concerns (thereby also facilitating a ‘small target’ strategy to avoid the Charter of Budget Honesty), there’s another (but related) element as well: communitarianism.
Communitarianism, as some readers will be aware, is both a philosophical and political movement that became quite popular among some on the ‘soft’ left in the 1980s and early 90s. The Blair Labour government’s early successes in the UK are often credited to an overtly communitarian orientation. Communitarianism seemed to offer a ‘third way’ between capitalism and socialism, advocating policies that would restore ‘heart’ and a sense of community and belonging to the ruthless edifice of global capitalism, without challenging any of the fundamental assumptions of 1980s neoliberalism.
Mark Latham’s policy writings, especially while in the parliamentary sin-bin when Beazley was leader, are strongly influenced by communitarian thinking, and announcements like “reading to kids” clearly suggest that he still thinks in that way. So it may well be that Latham has a sincere intention to implement a communitarian, values-based agenda in government. What that might actually mean in practice is harder to assess.
This excellent essay from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains a detailed discussion of communitarianism:
Such political communitarians blame both the left and the right for our current malaise. The political left is chastised not just for supporting welfare rights economically unsustainable in an era of slow growth and aging populations, but also for shifting power away from local communities and democratic institutions and towards centralized bureaucratic structures better equipped to administer the fair and equal distribution of benefits, thus leading to a growing sense of powerlessness and alienation from the political process. Moreover, the modern welfare state with its universalizing logic of rights and entitlements has undermined family and social ties in civil society by rendering superfluous obligations to communities, by actively discouraging private efforts to help others (eg, union rules and strict regulations in Sweden prevent parents from participating voluntarily in the governance of day care centers to which they send their children), and even by providing incentives that discourage the formation of families (eg, welfare payments are cut off in most American states if a recipient marries a working person) and encourage the break-up of families (eg, no-fault divorce in the US is often financially rewarding for the non custodial parent, usually the father).
Libertarian solutions favored by the political right have contributed even more directly to the erosion of social responsibilities and valued forms of communal life, particularly in the UK and the US. Far from producing beneficial communal consequences, the invisible hand of unregulated free-market capitalism undermines the family (eg, few corporations provide enough leave to parents of newborn children), disrupts local communities (eg, following plant closings or the shifting of corporate headquarters), and corrupts the political process (eg, since the mid-seventies special economic interests in the US have gained more power by drawing on political action committees to fund political representatives, with the consequence that representatives dependent on PAC money for their political survival no longer represent the community at large). Moreover, the valorization of greed in the Thatcher/Reagan era justified the extension of instrumental considerations governing relationships in the marketplace into spheres previously informed by a sense of uncalculated reciprocity and civil obligation. This trend has been reinforced by increasing globalization, which pressures states into conforming to the dictates of the international marketplace.
More specifically in the American context, communitarian thinkers such as Mary Ann Glendon indict a new version of rights discourse that has achieved dominance of late. Whereas the assertion of rights was once confined to matters of essential human interest, a strident rights rhetoric has colonized contemporary political discourse, thus leaving little room for reasoned discussion and compromise, justifying the neglect of social responsibilities without which a society could not function, and ultimately weakening all appeals to rights by devaluing the really important ones.
Critics of political communitarianism have noted that its advocates have typically favoured fairly conservative, ‘family-centred’ and somewhat authoritarian policy prescriptions, while leaving most if not all of the neoliberal economic agenda (which has arguably contributed in a fairly major way to social alienation and the breakdown of community) completely untouched and unchallenged. Political communitarians fiddle around the edges of social reform, attempting to put a human face on feral capitalism but not achieving very much in practice because they accept uncritically that there’s no viable alternative to the ‘minimal state’, deregulated, privatised neoliberal agenda.
Is that what we can expect from Labor under Latham? I suspect so. Latham’s communitarian assumptions (i.e. that neoliberalism only needs to be humanised at the margins) might even be correct, but it’s a measure of the intellectual poverty of Australian political discourse that mainstream media commentators don’t even seem to have recognised the communitarian strand of his thinking, let alone attempted to analyse the theoretical underpinnings of the policies it spawns.