Trashing Triangulation

Sadly, BackPages is no more, but Gerard Henderson continues to provide fuel for bloggers’ illogic spotting impulses. In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Henderson tackles Latho’s triangulation dependency.

Mark Latham is a long-time proponent of the Blairite ‘Third Way’, from his first book Civilising Global Capital, through a plethora of speeches, columns and books during his backbench exile, to an apparent fondness for the strategic political advice of Clinton political consultant Dick Morris during the recent election campaign.

Before the election, both Lindsay Tanner and Carmen Lawrence suggested it might be a referendum on the success of the ‘new politics’. It may well be that was the case, but it’s hard to argue it on the basis of Henderson’s typically confused reasoning.

So, in the spirit of BackPages and also of triangulation and other fashionable trichotomies, here are three ways Henderson fails to make sense…

UPDATE: Gary Sauer-Thompson has a number of posts on his site discussing the ‘Third Way’.

ELSEWHERE: Christopher Scanlon replies to Gerry in today’s Age.

First, Gerry gets his Left/Right dichotomy in a tangle. Gerry applauds AWU Secretary Bill Shorten’s call for Labor to “move to the centre of Australian politics”. This is coupled with a claim that the Socialist Left “opposed virtually all of the Hawke/Keating reform agenda at the time when it mattered”. Like many of Gerry’s generalisations, this one wouldn’t be too hard to pick holes in. Gerry goes on to say:

In an impressive performance on the ABC TV Insiders program last Sunday, the AWU national secretary, Bill Shorten, spoke about the need for Labor to publicly advocate attitudes beyond “progressive left-wing views”. The trade union leader argued that the ALP should “send a clear message to people who live in the outer suburbs and provincial cities, that if you have a dream to have an intact marriage, to go to church on Sunday, to have a mortgage, to want to send your kids to private school – then the Labor Party of the inner city does not look at you disdainfully”.

Referring to Latho’s “values” based politics, Gerry implies that Labor ran a terribly left-wing campaign contemptuous of suburbanites. Leaving aside the fact that “ease the squeeze” was not designed to appeal to the latte-sipping urbanites but to the suburban mortgage belt, the problem with this argument is two-fold. First, the ‘Third Way’ notoriously seeks to transcend the Left/Right divide by proposing a position which is “non-ideological” and expressive of values commanding wide support (the whole point of triangulation). Hence Latho’s “read to kids” stuff. So, by definition, such policies are supposed to move beyond the “old politics” of Left and Right. Secondly, Gerry might have done better to read Margaret Simons’ excellent piece ‘Latham’s World’ in the Quarterly Essay. If he had, he’d see that although many of Latho’s previous policy suggestions were not taken up in the campaign, those that Henderson perceives as class-based Leftism (ie Labor’s education and health policies) were in fact more characteristic of the one dichotomy Latham does like – insiders/outsiders.

So it’s a bit rich to say that junking the ‘Third Way’ implies a shift to the Left which must be corrected. The classic formulation of Blair’s ‘Third Way’ sought to accept markets but temper them with intervention, exactly the position that Gerry would presumably identify with the political Centre, and that he praises in Paul Keating’s recent speech at a book launch.

Secondly, Gerry, this is just silly:

Cameron is not the only one to have junked triangulation. So it seems has Latham himself. In a speech to the Fabian Society last Friday, he drew attention to the need for Labor to focus on upwardly mobile Australians and commented that “the new middle class is here to stay, with its army of contractors, consultants, franchisees and entrepreneurs”. In his speech Latham made no reference to Morris.

Hello? Hello? Is Latham meant to pepper every speech with references to Morris? Is a lack of such a reference in a recent speech proof that triangulation has been “junked”?

Thirdly, Latham and Morris’ mutual admiration does not mean that every step of Labor’s approach was modelled on the New Machiavelli’s dark arts. Gerry asserts:

Mark Latham was the first Australian politician to proclaim the theory of triangulation (or the third way) as taught by American political activist Dick Morris. Morris maintains that voters do not believe that governments can do anything about the economy. Consequently, it is smart politics to focus on values rather than grand policy – on such “values” as education, health, reading to children and the like.

It’s pretty clear from all the election post-mortems that Labor’s lack of attention to economic policy had much more to do with a perception that Labor could win by arguing that we could distribute better the proceeds of prosperity while at the same time “easing the squeeze”. And, I strongly suspect that Labor was blindsided by the Liberals’ interest-rates scare. The first may have contributed to Labor’s 48% vote (yes, in the suburbs too, Gerry) and the second was a fatal strategic error. But it’s just fanciful to lay the blame at the prescriptions of an American political consultant.

So, enough of Gerry. There is a serious debate to be had on the influence of ‘Third Way’ thinking in Australian politics. A species of communitarianism, this approach has many attractive features as well as a disturbing tendency to authoritarianism. A couple of starting points might be the Melbourne sociologist Boris Frankel’s New Left Review article on Australian Labor and British Labour (link pay for view) and my 2002 review of Latham and Botsman’s book in the Journal of Australian Political Economy. That debate’s probably worth a separate post, but I would be interested in readers’ views.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2021 years ago

Interesting post; however as a well known radical liberal ratbag, I might sit out the discussion of communitarianism.

2021 years ago

Gerry simply hasnt done his reading of Morris. Dick Morris advises for Republican and democrat canidates. His whole theory of theory of triangulation was taking the good bits from the republican party & getting them advanced by a democrat President.

Triangulation is pragmatic centerism by another name. Where latham went wrong & what Henderson failed to distinguish is that to sell this center position you do so from a set of basic values. Values best shown not by claiming them but by taking small steps like advancing reading to kids. You need to have the basics under control and then you can dazzle them with your values. Which in turn supports your unorthodox(ie nonleft/righ) positions.

Morri’s like Latham believed they had neturalised the economy. But they hadnt, and the new image they were selling wasnt inspiring enough to win votes.

And whilst Latham likes morris, theres a lot he didnt use and probably should have. But i seriously doubt Henderson has read enough to know this.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

I’m sure you’re right DrShrink, I don’t think Hendo bothers doing any actual research for his columns.

For that matter, contra Gerry, there’s a significant difference between triangulation (which you’ve well described) and Clinton’s DLC style politics and Blair’s ‘Third Way’.

I’m also unsure that Latham really understood ‘Third Way’ politics. He seems to have a voracious but undisciplined mind. If you want a laugh, go read my book review and see how Latho once thought Hegel was the answer to Australian politics’ dilemmas.

Gary Sauer-Thompson
2021 years ago

There has been some discusson of the third way in Australia re Latham over at for those interested.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Gary, can you please post the url – the html tags in Troppo comments have been turned off to deter spammers, so readers can’t easily link to the discussion to which you refer.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2021 years ago

Placing Hendo to one side what did everyone think of Bill Shorten’s comments? They sounded reasonable to this RWDB. So I guess I answered my own question.

2021 years ago

ALP: bloodletting

The bloodletting in the ALP sure is going on for a long time. Too long. It seems that everybody wants