Dennis Glover on Labor’s Bonfire of the Inanities

Here’s Dennis Glover’s go at articulating his dismay at the kinds of things I expressed dismay about here.  I’ve always been amazed at the extent of antagonism that Labor holds towards the Greens. It seems so obvious that the right relationship between them is as occasionally uncomfortable fellow travellers. It’s a monument to the small-mindedness of all players that they can’t manage this except in extremis. And a stark contrast with the right which has precisely the uncomfortable relationship with those of broadly like mind, which has managed a coalition for decades.

In addition to the childishness of the ALP’s discomfort with its Green fellow travellers which reminds one of nothing more than student politics, comes its spin-doctor driven approach to eating its own ideology and intellectual framework. To speak very broadly the left’s role in the political and ideological eco-system is to speak on behalf of collective values and of the value of collective institutions (which is not necessarily government) against the right’s championing of self-interest (along with a kind of insistence that collective institutions other than government – like the family, and the institutions of civil society – have a kind of unproblematic organic existence). Of course a healthy society, any healthy human institution, comprehends a balance of these perspectives. Of course neither side is ‘right’.

If it had any conception of its own role in this scheme of things, it might at least have considered whether to build the NBN as a public good (in which case it would proudly subsidise the establishment of the national network with economics textbooks to back up its decision) rather than a private good.  It might have named MySchools and MyHospitals websites OurSchools and OurHospitals. It might have jumped on the HALE index which reveals that its efforts in education are not just good for equity but, at least according to our methodology which wasn’t developed to put it in a good light, worth a couple of decades of micro-economic reform. And so on.

The irony in all this is that ultimately this doesn’t just lead to badly designed right of centre policy, it has been an integral part of Labor’s disastrous inability to politically connect with anyone much – including laughably enough the traditional working class base of the party.

Anyway, enjoy Dennis’s piece:

Two stories in 10 days caused me to double-take. The first was the Prime Minister’s widely reported speech to the Australian Workers’ Union national conference in which she rhetorically riffed off the fact that the party she leads isn’t called the social democratic party or the progressive party or the moderate party, but the Labor Party. The second was the less-reported but just as dispiriting revelation that after Greens leader Christine Milne officially broke the alliance with Labor, high-fives were shared in the PM’s office.

In a literal sense of course the PM’s speech was right – her party is called the Australian Labor Party, and it can be social democratic and progressive without changing its name. And it was the Greens who formally broke the alliance. But why does this still sadden me?

It’s because of the implicit message. Perhaps her speechwriters just got carried away with their schemes and tropes, constructing a rousing concluding sound bite for the brothers, and perhaps one of the office grey-beards told the high-fiving woodchucks to chill; but there seems to be a lack of deep thought over the wider implication: for now at least the big left project seems over.

Think about it. Today unionism covers about 18 per cent of the workforce, while 37 per cent of Australians have university degrees. The global financial crisis makes social-democratic state intervention in the economy more needed than ever. Global warming is the emerging issue of the new progressive generation. And yet Labor’s leader picks now to narrow the party’s potential appeal.

Taken alone, neither organised labour nor believers in the social-democratic state nor educated progressives can deliver the left the majority it needs to influence the direction of the country.

But together they can. Three out of three of these constituencies means potential government. Two out of three means certain opposition. One out of three means existential crisis.

This narrowing of appeal makes no sense, especially when you consider what the government is actually doing.

What could symbolise the social-democratic project with greater moral clarity than the recommendations of the Gonski review of school funding? What could symbolise the progressive project better than a carbon price?

So why use this as the moment to kick out the intellectual underpinnings of the wider cause? Why choose now to advertise your contempt for the progressive voters who supply half your daily political oxygen? Why make a speech that makes you sound like a Reagan Democrat?

I guess we know why: the need to simultaneously please the Green-hating leaders of the AWU and the (supposedly) elite-hating voters of western Sydney. The question is, how long can rusted-on Labor supporters be expected to be forgiving of this sort of tactical electoral manoeuvring before they start questioning whether Labor actually remains at its heart a social-democratic and progressive party?

A few days ago, a lifelong Labor member told me his partner had had enough and had decided to vote Green. I’m even having trouble keeping my own partner in line, and her grandparents met at a Labor Party election rally during the Great Depression, her family staunchly Labor ever since.

How many such people can Labor’s tacticians afford to alienate before their movement simply dies?

This can’t go on. Instead of casting doubt on its own philosophies and setting its traditions against each other, Labor heavyweights should be making speeches drawing those philosophies and traditions together and defending them.

It’s not that difficult. The choice isn’t between the unions, social democracy and progressivism. All three are part of Labor’s history and soul, and Labor has to find a way of uniting them in an appealing program for office if it is to succeed again. It’s the necessary formula for political success on the left, proven time and again by names such as Hawke, Clinton, Blair, Obama, Rudd and Julia Gillard herself.

This isn’t just a task for Labor. It requires give and take from all sides. Aggressive unionists must realise that pressuring vulnerable Labor leaders to cut ties with middle-class moderates, progressives and environmentalists is selfish and stupid. Progressives and Greens must occasionally cut Labor some slack over electorally diabolical issues.

There are times when unions, social democrats and progressives will necessarily be in competition, but fights can be quarantined and accommodations made. Hang together comrades, or hang separately.

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murph the surf.
murph the surf.
8 years ago

Fights can be contained and accommodations made?
How well are the Faulkner/Bracks/Carr report recommendations going then?

Tel
Tel
8 years ago

And a stark contrast with the Coalition which has precisely the uncomfortable relationship with those of broadly like mind, which has managed a coalition for decades.

Give or take Barnaby speaking his mind in public; and a long string of “Once Nationals Now Independents”.

GrueBleen
GrueBleen
8 years ago

You write as though you still believe that there’s a core of ‘higher ideology’ in the ALP. I see no evidence for any such thing. As you observe “… which reminds one of nothing more than student politics …” which of course it does, because that’s what it is. It’s “turtles all the way down”.

In a world in which the likes of Greg Combet and Bill Shorten – amongst the better union reps as far as I can tell – have never “worked” a day in their lives, but none the less are considered “union men”, then what is there left to say ?

I suppose one could say, as Glover did that “It’s the necessary formula for political success on the left, proven time and again by names such as Hawke, Clinton, Blair, Obama, Rudd and Julia Gillard herself.” Well, none of the above actually strike me as being “left” in any meaningful way – how about you ?

The ALP and the “left” are basically dead from a combination of victory and defeat: victory in general terms in liberalising (with a small ‘l’ and no party affiliation) society and in gaining some rights and equity for the oppressed classes together with a massive defeat in terms of the ‘grand ideology’ – lost in the death of ‘socialism’, and mutated into ‘democratic’ capitalism (or economic rationalism as it’s known by its weasel-word name).

leinad
8 years ago

Glover drops a clanger when it comes to characterising this grand progressive project:

What could symbolise the social-democratic project with greater moral clarity than the recommendations of the Gonski review of school funding?

Technocratic education funding fixes drawn up by ardent social democrat David Gonski are beacons of moral clarity now?

What could symbolise the progressive project better than a carbon price?

Ah, carbon pricing, that great progressive cause endorsed by raging lefty Greg Hunt, is a mainstay of the European conservative policy response to climate change and had bipartisan support at the 2007 Federal Election and beyond.

Whatever the merits of either set of policies, it speaks volumes that Glover considers them progressive totem poles.

leinad
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Yawn.

A resounding riposte.

We’re supposedly talking about Labor’s abandonment of a broad progressive agenda, yet asking what’s progressive about Gonski and carbon pricing is out of bounds?

Where is the moral clarity in Gonski? What value buttons does it push? Who has made the case for it in clear, moral terms, of public education as a public good as opposed to technocratic goals like higher results in national assements? What’s social democratic about it? This lay person hasn’t heard anything on those fronts, which is odd, as it’s meant to be all of those, according to Glover. Is it just social democratic because Labor supports the recommendations?

Likewise with carbon pricing — passing it off as a progressive rallying point is an odd choice on Glover’s part when the assumptions behind the policy rely on an ability of markets to price externalities that remains at present undemonstrated and the politics of carbon pricing in Australia and elsewhere continue to be warped by sectional interests.

These policies could be pursued to progressive ends but it remains a fact that the case for them has seldom been made from a progressive angle, least of all by Labor.

Patrick Caldon
Patrick Caldon
8 years ago
Reply to  leinad

There’s a common preconception that Australian left is not technocratic, or that to be progressive is to be anti-market or something.

But that hasn’t been so since Whitlam – it was he who abolished the tariff system the Australian right were so fond of. I can make similar points about compulsory defined contribution superannuation and dividend imputation.

Alan
Alan
8 years ago

Australia’s major parties are some of the least open, least transparent and least accountable parties in the democratic world. Ed Millibamd was elected leader by a three way electoral college of MPs, branch members and unions. François Hollande won a primary of Socialist Party members. All Canadian parties elect their leaders through a delegate convention elected for the purpose. Julia Gillard negotiated a deal with the AWU. And, infamously, Eddie Obeid sacked Nathan Rees and elected Kristina Keneally by controlling a subfaction that could then control the right as a whole and then the NSW Right could control the caucus as a whole.

And yet if you talk to senior people in the ALP they are convinced that the only possible way to organise the party is rule by party grandees, of party grandees, for party grandees.

After the 2010 election Gillard thanked voters who had ‘kept the faith’. I like the idea of faith-keeping, but it seems to me that a party keeps faith with its voters, it does not demand they keep faith with the party. Really some of these people sound like George Pell when they insist that apparatchiks rule OK.

Labor sees the Greens as an existential threat and you get absurd language about the ‘stolen votes’ the Greens take from the ALP. I would have thought those votes belonged to the voters rather than the ALP. Essentially it’s a blame game. Something is seriously wrong and it cannot possibly be the performance of the ALP nomenklatura so it must all be the fault of the Greens.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago

Its not about not about left, right progressive vs whatever. The performance in front of the AWU was a statement of whoowns the party, who owns the keys to the playhouse and thats not negotiable ,no matter what.

And I would love to know what is it about the party that killed Carbon tax Mk 1 that is so fellow traveler progressive anyway?

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago

Typos burrr
Its not about left, right progressive vs whatever. The performance in front of the AWU was a statement of whoowns the party, who owns the keys to the playhouse and thats not negotiable ,no matter what.

And I would love to know what is it about the party that killed Carbon tax Mk 1 that is so fellow traveler progressive anyway?

observa
observa
8 years ago

You’ll never get a moment’s peace with the jangling alarm clocks.
Worse still if you try and drown them out.

You reckon Rudd wouldn’t be absolutely pissed making the right call after Cope, with the full blessing of Gillard and Swan only to have them about face with the Greens subsequently? Stew in yer own juice cum September rats and one pundit might have guessed right that Kev’s reading Howard’s bio over and over and plotting the long haul back to remake Labor in his own image. You never know he might have picked up a trick or two along the way and what were we all thinking when the Libs replaced Downer with Lazarus with the triple bypass?

What doesn’t kill them or want to spend more time with the family, makes them stronger.

observa
observa
8 years ago

john r walker ‘ would love to know what is it about the party that killed Carbon tax Mk 1 that is so fellow traveler progressive anyway?’

Well IMO Brown had the natural Green objection to handing out compo to the ‘big polluders’. After all if they were to change their grandkiddy killing ways how in Gaia’s name could any self-respecting Green accommodate that? Well except for political expediency to grab the reins of power which if they got unmanageable they could comfortably leave in the grubby hands of Labor and wash their hands of it all. Back to being noisy alarm clocks again, not to mention keeping the bastards honest!

Now if that were not enough Cope clearly showed a global ETS, although theoretically cute, was jurisdictionally doomed and extremely problematic in practice so where was PlanB for the faithful? The obvious was a straight carbon tax regime that could be carefully sold to the various interest groups and implemented at a pace that wouldn’t frighten the horses. If a Rudd Govt didn’t appreciate that then surely the Gillard Govt should have after her emphatic election statement.

Looking back at the competence and diligence of the Hawke Keating years you can immediately appreciate the difference. The Accord was no self indulgent kumbaya gabfest of the party faithful, but a serious gathering together of the players with a serious stake in the game to thrash out a reasonable consensus and then implement it. Noone will be fully pleased with certain compromises but they own the result and the ensuing policy direction is seen as reasonable and fair for all. Even Gillard could have achieved that with a straight carbon tax accord, whereby an initial modest tax is introduced with clearly staged increases and tradeoffs in company/income tax, etc. Basically a level playing field price income effect that is braodly acceptable in its pace of change with no gaming or rent seeking by the players. She could even have dismissed all other direct intervention programs to be rolled into one straight carbon tax and offsetting income compensation, at the same time wedging an Opposition with any silly direct action plans.

So what happened? The worst of all worlds. Breaking trust with the electorate, kowtowing to the noisy alarm clocks, having to dole out anachronistic compo to the ‘big polluders’ and building empires led by activist loons like Flannery and here they all are with those polls. Softly softly catchee monkey but you have to ditch ideology for the tradeoffs and hard yards of bedding down your important priorities in office just Like Howard with a supposedly unpopular GST reform of the ubiquitous WST. Within a year or two there wasn’t a Labor State Premier or Treasurer arguing against the rivers of gold, unlike their Federal diehards in Canberra. Do what’s achievable and build trust with competence is what it’s all about.

Steve 1
Steve 1
8 years ago

This is a prime example of people sitting around saying why can’t we all just be friends without actually looking at why they can’t just all be friends. First off there is an assumption that the fractious relationship between the greens and the ALP is the ALP’s fault. I believe the fault actually lies with the Greens. With the Coalition, the National/Country Party spends most of its time attacking their poltical enemies, the Labor Party, and not their allies the Liberals. The Greens spend most of their political energies trying to take seats off the Labor Party. Part of the National/Country Party is to broaden the appeal of the conservative vote, whereas the Greens have little interest in appealing to the middle ground and infact build there base by attacking Labor everytime it moves to the middle ground on any issue and finally the greens have made no secret of the fact that they wish to become the main oppostion party of the Left. The right of the ALP believes that it is impossible to appease the Greens because no matter what is delivered, it will never be good enough, additionally, appeasment doesn’t have a great track record of success.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago
Reply to  Steve 1

“impossible to appease the Greens” it is pretty hard to deal with people who are really attracted to the formula ‘two plus two equals five’.

observa
observa
8 years ago

This is a prime example of people sitting around saying why can’t we all just be friends without actually looking at why they can’t just all be friends

.

That’s true but Labor under Gillard should have cracked their whip hand over the Greens a lot more, particularlrly as they would have had the experience of Brown voting with the Opposition over carbon tax Mk1.Even when the Greens sprang their hissy fit recently they were still going to vote with the Govt. But really it would seem Gillard Labor had a lot in common with silly Green policies and hence they’re on the nose now with the punters that count. Perhaps Abbott would be in the same boat if he’d managed to talk the Indeps. around after the last election.

Whatever Labor is in a helluva mess now and that comes down to a couple of main shortcomings. Firstly it’s obvious they lack serious management skills and that comes down to a lack of diversity. They have to resolve the problem of too many union hacks and uni teat types never having had to sing for their supper in the marketplace. Whatever happened to the shrinking pool of talent from the Hawke/Keating era is their number one question to answer now. It is a general problem for the political parties and why we’ll need to move the Reps to a national proportional representation model at some stage similar to the Senate now and reverse the Senate to a seat based Review house.

The second problem for Labor is one for leftists in general and it’s been patently obvious with this Govt. Emotion at the individual level can’t always be carried over into policies for the common good and what do I mean by that? Well the most obvious is their uber compassion for boat people and their resultant ugly tradeoff with children on the rocks, not to mention the horrendous cost to budgeting and that has ramifications for Gonskis, NDIS, dental schemes, etc. They lost the punters listening to the drama queen compassionatte and yet when push came to shove the latest Home Stay figures show only 4 refugees on their warm fuzzy program. Where are all the noisy compassionatte opening their homes you may well ask. Not out at Rooty Hill spreading their good words, that’s for sure.

How does well meaning leftist emotional compassion need to be tempered by an appreciation of the fallacy of composition? Well firstly you don’t go places for short term gain and inevitable long term pain by raising expectations with futile brain farts like fuelwatch and grocerywatch, not to mention good old bank bashing and the politics of class and envy. Let your competence and diligence with policy do the talking but eschew the temptation to rattle the taxpayer bucket at Bert Kelly’s cow like they did with $400 set top boxes, $1500 pink batts and $2500 laptops, etc. Just take those STBs for pensioners. Imagine how pissed off every pensioner is that bought their own, particularly if just before the big announcement of freebies? Same with insulation and laptops, you’ll pee off as many as you make smile with this divine right of elected kings.

How do you manage something as simple as ‘poor’ pensioners facing an added expense with the cutoff for analogue TV? You use your brains and know the admin cost of any PS driven initiative will be nasty and you don’t pick winners but treat all pensioners fairly. You’re all getting $50 toward buying a STB at the supermarket next pension day folks and won’t Rotary, Apex, Lions, etc just love to help out any of our senior cits who don’t have a tech savvy family member or neighbour about to set it up for them. Building community spirit and not pissing off the majority of pensioners who never needed the nanny state and what’s more not leaving the taxpayer open to rorting for a new or spare STB when they already had a perfectly good one or more likely a digital flat screen anyway.

Nope, that STB scheme got up to around $650 per STB delivered at last count, when every taxpayer knew that could buy you a new digital flatscreen. And on and on the went, the latest doling out millions for a call centre subsidy in Tas for Vodafone, while the ambulance chasers are calling for signups for a class action against Vodafail. Scintillating stuff to wow the undecided punters out there. We all know about the problem of marginal seat pork barrelling but it was Howard’s cash splash for Merseyside hospital that made up their minds that time. One bridge too far John.

Labor have to vow never again to live beyond our means and continually lie about it because it’s an emotional discipline they need so desperately if they’re ever to implement any real reforms. It’s all a bit late for even a signature NBN now.

observa
observa
8 years ago

I see the official train wreck post mortem has begun although Kelly glosses over a small matter of that $90bill black hole that took a decade of desirable dirt to pay off. Greens note there might have been the odd truckload of dirty coal among that lot and the next pay back period.

I was wrong about the compassionatte not supporting the PM out in the trenches at Rooty Hill though. Seems the misogyny maidens were rallying around the menu just to prove to us all emphatically that it’s not only faceless blokes in trousers that can carry on the class struggle.

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