In contrast to John Howard, apparently Bomber Beazley mostly didn’t bother to read much of the MSM until recently. It’s said that he’s now begun taking a leaf out of Howard’s book in this respect, and assiduously reads the op-eds every morning. It certainly looks like he reads SMH political “blogger” Andrew West anyway. On Thursday West opined:
The strongest message to take from the Howard decade is also the simplest: have a core of immutable beliefs, become known for them, stick to them. And understand the basic rule in politics — given the choice between an imitation and the genuine item, the voters will usually opt for the real thing.
That very evening, the 7:30 Report ran a story about Labor on Howard’s tenth anniversary, where lo and behold Beazley pontificated ponderously:
What I take and learn from John Howard is pursue your core views, make them salient in politics.
But what are Bomber’s “core” views? Does anyone, even Beazley himself, have the faintest idea? There’s no problem at all in identifying Howard’s “core” beliefs. West’s version of them is jaundiced but contains elements of truth:
For most of his public life, John Howard has believed in five things, all of them wrong (in my opinion) but, by God, he has stuck to them.
He has dedicated his political career to the destruction of trade unions, undermining our national health insurance system, privatising the people’s assets, muzzling his critics by enfeebling the universities in which many of them work, and curbing immigration. (Only on the last point has Howard changed his view, having realised that business migrants brought with them money and the kind of thrusting mercantile culture he so loves.)
A more restrained report card would acknowledge that Howard backed off the destruction of Medicare fairly early in his decade of rule, and his government’s privatisation push only completes a process begun and substantially enacted under Hawke/Keating. A more balanced (if somewhat generalised) summary of Howard’s core political beliefs is found in Paul Kelly’s contribution to The Australian’s Howardian paean titled The Howard Factor (a book which was elegantly demolished by historian Judith Brett in today’s SMH):
The ideas that shape Howard’s rule are economic liberalism, social conservatism, cultural traditionalism, national security, family support and national pride. It is a complex yet powerful mix.
Thus we can readily pin down John Howard’s beliefs in either specific or broad philosophical terms. What about Beazley?
I can’t think of a single specific matter of substance for which Beazley has clearly and consistently stood, nor do I have the faintest clue about his personal political philosophies. In process terms, he’s certainly a lifelong passionate devotee of verbosity and the small target strategy, but substantive beliefs or philosophies? Your guess is as good as mine.
Gummo may well be correct in suggesting that Beazley and Howard are almost indistinguishable. Then again, he may be doing Kimbo a grave injustice. It’s impossible to tell.
Beazley’s current version of the small target strategy appears to involve publishing a series of policy “blueprints”. In Beazley-speak, “blueprint” appears to mean a document containing lots of waffly rhetoric and precious little substance, although in fairness his “skills and schools” blueprint does actually contain a couple of specific policies in relation to apprenticehips.
The “infrastructure and investment” blueprint, on the other hand, merely promises to conduct a “National Infrastructure Audit”, establish a “National Infrastructure Priority List” and create “Infrastructure Australia”, which Kimbo describes as “a Commonwealth body to drive rebuilding”. Exciting even visionary stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. And how does the Great Circumlocutor intend to fund his vision (such as it is)? Well, despite the fact that this “blueprint” was released after the debacle of Sydney’s Cross-City Tunnel had become evident, Beazley’s considered position is:
Public Private Partnerships can be a good way to take advantage of private sector expertise and operational efficiencies such as project management skills, innovative design and risk management expertise. Some experience suggests they are most appropriate for large-scale, complex capital projects with significant ongoing maintenance requirements.
It’s beyond fisking really.
Many commentators suggest, from varying standpoints, that federal Labor’s policy vacuum is rather more than a manifestation of the obscurantism and lack of ticker of a particular political leader, but instead has systemic and historical roots. I rather like the following account by Ashley Lavelle in a recent Brisbane Institute paper:
In the wake of the watershed 1996 federal election defeat, it was unclear at the time whether Labor would continue in the Hawke-Keating economic rationalist mould, or whether it would aim to recapture its lost working class support by charting a more interventionist path.
There is clear evidence that the ALP chose the latter. Labor was willing to publicly recognise that the party’s economic rationalist policies of free trade, enterprise bargaining, microeconomic reform and privatisation had alienated large sections of its support base. Despite this, the newly elected leader Kim Beazley insisted after the election: ‘We were a good government and we are not going to apologise’. In 2000, Beazley commented: ‘We all now largely agree on…the need for fiscal discipline, an independent monetary policy, deregulation of financial markets, the floating of the dollar, low inflation and a more open economy’. Thus, in the late-1990s, when significant minorities of the population in the advanced countries were taking to the streets to voice their anger at the iniquities of global capitalism, Labor was talking up the benefits of free trade and globalization, just as it had in government.
A significant consequence of all this is the widespread perception that few differences separate Australia’s major parties. This perception was heightened at the 2001 election on ‘border protection’, when Labor adopted the infamous ‘small-target’ strategy that sought to minimise the party’s differences with the Government.
The period of Simon Crean’s leadership that followed that election loss was largely a non-event. As a minister under both Hawke and Keating, Crean was connected to the unpopular reforms of those governments in the 1990s, and could not relate to voters. When Latham took over the leadership in late-2003, he attempted to take Labor in a different direction but, only in style not substance. Despite Latham’s past as a free-marketeer, there were populist undertones in his rhetoric and policies, including his promises to govern ‘for the people, not the powerful’ and, in his nomination as the ‘number one issue facing our democracy’ the ‘loss of public trust and confidence in the political system’.
Latham’s populism was part of a political strategy developed as an alternative to the ‘small-target’. The latter was a consequence of the absence of fundamental disagreement between the parties because Labor’s acceptance of neo-liberalism and globalization pose real strategic dilemmas for social democrats aiming to defeat a neo-liberal government. The effect of the almost universal adoption of liberal capitalism among mainstream political parties after the fall of the Berlin Wall has been to take the politics out of political debate. This is as true in Australia as it is elsewhere.
Lacking a distinctive political program, Beazley was reliant on discontent with the Government to catapult him into power. Crean had formally abandoned the ‘small-target’ approach, but failed to replace it with an alternative. One way in which Latham tried to deal with the strategic dilemmas confronted by Beazley and Crean, was through his populist style and a diversion into (sometimes bizarre) policy areas, including the importance of reading to children and the ‘crisis of masculinity’. The populist style, however, could not mask the fact that in (particularly economic) policy terms Latham was promising business as usual. Undoubtedly Labor’s failure to put forward a collectivist, progressive alternative to the Government’s utilitarian appeal to individuals’ economic interests on interest rates contributed to Labor’s 2004 defeat.
Beazley’s re-assumption of the leadership in 2005 brings us to the present crisis. Labor’s inability to present an alternative on the key issues of the day – war, terrorism, economic inequality, corporate power – stems not just from the prevailing orthodoxy of neo-liberal ideas, but also from the current fragile economic context. Social democratic progressive reforms have almost always been carried out during periods of boom when such reforms did not threaten the economic system. After the social democratic golden age of 1945-70, the world economy has been in and out of recession. Despite Government claims about the strength of Australia’s economy, economic growth in the 1990s averaged 3.5 percent, compared to 5.3 percent in the 1960s.
Many theorists argue that economic globalization prevents social democrats from implementing anything other than neo-liberal policies. There is no doubt that claims about the consequences of globalization are frequently exaggerated, and it is also true that it is often used as a stalking horse for a neo-liberal project in need of justification. However, irrespective of whether globalization prevents social democratic policies, many social democratic parties believe this to be true. For example, Labor backbencher Duncan Kerr argues that because of globalization in ‘large areas…national legislators can be little more than mere spectators’. Senator Steve Hutchins suggests that ‘governments no longer control the national economy…now [they] must be content with tinkering with the edges, working at the margins’. The implication of this kind of thinking is that any changes under a Labor government will be very minimal indeed.
This self-fulfilling conviction of policy impotence appears to be shared by Labor’s philosophical opponents as well as ALP politicians themselves. As Paul Kelly sees it:
Howard has been lucky to govern during an era of historic weakness in the Australian Left. Yet he has a keen grasp of this weakness and exploits its two main flaws – namely, that the Left’s social and economic solutions no longer work and that its hijack by middle-class progressives has alienated the Left from a majority of the Australian community.
Yet recent research by Gabrielle Meagher and Shaun Wilson demonstrates fairly clearly that Australians have not moved to the Right during the Howard era nor been “alienated” from the sorts of social-democratic ideals for which the ALP once stood. It’s just that Labor doesn’t stand for them anymore. Nor is Kelly’s glib dismissal of the efficacy of social-democratic policy prescriptions in a globalised world sustainable on the facts, as Fred Argy showed in an excellent recent post here at Club Troppo.
What Labor desperately needs is a leader with the guts and salesmanship to present moderate, clear and concrete social-democratic policies to the Australian people as an alternative to Howard’s Way. God knows who that leader might be, but it certainly isn’t Kim Beazley. Barring some miracle, not even an unexpected recession is likely to shift Howard from Kirribilli House the way things are looking. He’ll easily convince Australians that the best move is to opt for a steady hand on the tiller through rough seas, and that the steady hand to choose is the very one that has already guided them through a decade of uninterrupted prosperity.