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Living in the 80s

November 14th, 2010

If you want to see why the Labor party is in so much trouble, it’s useful to read this piece in the Oz by Paul Howes, one of the brighter lights on the right of the party. Howes says

For a generation or more we have witnessed a flowering of tory political culture. We have watched ideas flowing out of places such as the Sydney Institute and the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne. The IPA, the HR Nicholls Society and the Sydney Institute may propose policies that are abhorrent to me, but they’ve created a culture of ideas to nourish conservative politics.

This would have been an unremarkable claim to make in the 1980s (a generation ago). But today ?? The Sydney Institute is Gerard Henderson, who hasn’t had a new idea since the “Federation Trifecta” in 1990. Around the same time, the IPA with John Hyde rose briefly above its history as a conduit for business donations to the Liberal Party and its present role as an advocate of anti-science delusionism on issues ranging from tobacco to global warming to the Murray-Darling Basin (the latter not quite so much since the departure of Jennifer Marohasy). The HR Nicholls society has been moribund for years – its last notable contribution was as the 2006 venue for Nick Minchin’s disastrously leaked suggestion that WorkChoices had not gone far enough (he was bagged for this by John Howard in his autobio)

Howes goes on to mention, and dismiss, a plethora of leftish thinktanks (Per Capita, the Centre for Policy Development, Catalyst, the Australia Institute, the Evatt Foundation, the Fabians (Disclosure: in one way or another, I’m associated with most of them)) any one of which has had more new ideas in the last few years than the moribund shells he describes have had in decades.

Howes’ assessment reveals that, like most Australian politicians and commentators he is still in thrall to the 1980s agenda. The fact that, far from coming up with “brilliant new ideas”, Howes is sticking with an orthodoxy that was already solidifying when he was born in 1981 wouldn’t matter if these old ideas had proved their worth. But they have comprehensively failed, most notably in the current global crisis.

Howes is no fool and has at least made explicit what is merely implicit in the thinking of the average Labor politician (Bligh, Fraser, Keneally, Gillard and Brumby being obvious examples). But it is little wonder that the Greens are making such headway when the major parties offer a bipartisan consensus on such tired and failed ideas.

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  1. November 14th, 2010 at 21:39 | #1

    The right wing think tanks aren’t very good at coming up with new ideas, but they are pretty good at churning out op-eds and getting them published. Part of the reason for this is is that it is pretty easy for these groups to get things published when organisations like the ABC are very happy to publish them in order to meet their ‘badly thought out rightwing rant’ quota.

    The right is also doing better at creating narratives in the mainstream media than more progressive voices. This is partly because it is easier to get their voices heard in a conservative media environment (see above), but also because both the ALP here and the Democrats in the US are terrible at this. Conversely, Howard (and perhaps to a lesser extent Abbott) are very good at creating a narrative (no matter how ridiculous) and using it for their political advantage.

  2. Alister
    November 14th, 2010 at 21:56 | #2

    I’d suggest that the Labor party is in trouble because their ‘leading lights’ are those such as Paul Howes. If he’s the best example of the up-and-coming thinkers of the ALP, then there’s not much of a future for them as a party of ideas.

  3. Alister
    November 14th, 2010 at 21:59 | #3

    The often insightful Andrew Elder has more to say on Paul Howes.

  4. Laurie Gaffney
    November 14th, 2010 at 22:18 | #4

    Couldn’t agree with you more!@Alister

  5. November 14th, 2010 at 22:22 | #5

    Golly, how things change so swiftly! It seems yesterday we were reading more or less the opposite stuff on this site.

  6. Alice
    November 15th, 2010 at 06:50 | #6

    @Steve at the Pub
    Its really a sign that the Greens are making headway when the Liberal party has agreed to preference Labor in a coming election. Bit like Coles and Woolies teaming up to prevent competition. If people have any suspicians that Labor and Liberal are the same and have the same tired, failing free market pro privatisation neoliberal policies and are now colluding to prevent political change this is all the more reason to vote Green. Paul Howes is just a prime example of the unthinking poll decipering populist machine men that lead from behind the scenes in Australian politics in both major parties.
    Here we have Julia Gillard on the international stage shaking hands and pushing for yet more free trade agreements. At NSW state level studies have now been done showing that privately operated toll roads would have put the NSW budget ahead by 4.6 billion had they constructed the toll roads themsleves. Now the machine men are fleeing the sinking NSW ship like the rats we always knew they were only to make way for new rats of the same colour. Despite reaping income from electricity assets which would have paid for the assets in 15 years and retained them in public hands they continue to strip sale electricity assets before they go and a parting theft. In the case of QLD rail, institutional investors are now going to be permitted to speculate the price up if it falls short (legitimised private sector market manipulation).

    If we want change, real change, we have to change. Politics is not a football match although you could be mistaken for thinking its a scrum for aggressive type A bullies in Australia.

  7. Alice
    November 15th, 2010 at 06:51 | #7

    Sorry above comment should not be addressed to anyone but the comment link.

  8. Ikonoclast
    November 15th, 2010 at 07:26 | #8

    I agree that the right wing, neo-con and neo-classical ideas are tired and have failed socially and economically. Look at the GFC, look at our high labour under-utilisation rates etc etc.

    However, even though these ideas have failed empirically (provably and measureably) they still hold complete sway politically. Both major parties and all corporate culture subscribe to them and the public either agree, acquiese or demonstate no power. Big question. Why do failed ideas keep holding sway over the minds of people? Why does blind belief keep ignoring experience?

  9. gregh
    November 15th, 2010 at 08:12 | #9

    @Ikonoclast
    interesting question – basically if you repeat something often enough it becomes ‘true’. The rise and dominance of privately owned media empires in the USA, coincident with the USAs economic and military dominance, has pretty much destroyed any chance of effective long term policy in the west.

  10. Alice
    November 15th, 2010 at 09:11 | #10

    @Ikonoclast
    The prof is on to it Ikono – zombieism. Id add the ratchet effect of government whereby old crocs who have been working away for years at this neo liberal claptrap have indoctrinated new comers, who indoctrinate new newcomers, who all indoctrinate politicians, who then indoctrinate new politicians and no-one says stop “what the hell are we doing”? So hence we have the redhead overseas saying “we should beware of losing our committment to free trade and at the same time not even having a clue just how much of Australia’s food producing land is being bought by foreign firms.
    Whats actually needed is more than a bit of nationalism and a bit of national pride and some putting the interests of the national economy ahead of Globogod and zombie faith in private sector free marketism oh and some economics lessons in how to quantify the present value of past mistakes.

  11. Ken Lovell
    November 15th, 2010 at 09:12 | #11

    Ikonoklast we all have mental models of how the world works and ought to work. It’s very difficult to continually challenge them; it’s exhausting and can lead to serious psychological problems. One reason most academics would make terrible managers is that academics usually want more data and better-designed studies before they recommend a policy response to a problem whereas managers have to make do with what’s available.

    It’s interesting to read some of the published work by academics like Brendan Nyhan which demonstrates that people with deep mental models are unlikely to change their minds no matter how much contrary data they are given. Indeed in many instances, data that falsifies the mental model has the paradoxical effect of reinforcing it.

    The idea that if only people understand the available evidence they will proceed to make rational decisions is itself a kind of mental model of how the world works and ought to work; one to which many educators are deeply attached. Psychologists and politicians understand it is a deeply flawed notion.

  12. Ikonoclast
    November 15th, 2010 at 09:21 | #12

    @Ken Lovell

    What you say fits the empirical data Ken. Ergo (I assume) humans will never make rational decisions. I’m not being saracstic. I really do think you are right. Makes nonsense of all rational choice theory does it not?

    Humans simply chase proximal goods ie near term gain. So a situation (climate chamge , resource depletion) where we need to act logically for long term reasons… well this situation screws us basically.

  13. JamesH
    November 15th, 2010 at 09:28 | #13

    It’s not about ignorance – the “failed ideas” support powerful vested interests, and any reform which promotes the (diffuse) general good against a specific power-group who lose out is always almost impossible to get through.

  14. Ken Lovell
    November 15th, 2010 at 10:21 | #14

    Howes’ piece is truly awful. It’s an edited summary of a a speech – one can only hope the speech was more coherent. Among the gems: the ALP membership is moribund … and Howes never attends branch meetings. New apparatchiks should attend indoctrination classes to learn to hate Stalinist thugs … but never mention the split cos who cares about ancient history? Labor needs to ‘learn to tolerate dissent’ … but then again ‘in an election environment … we need focus and discipline’.

    Interestingly he never mentions any great new ideas of his own and the whole thing boils down to an extended whine about his ‘mates at Sussex Street’, whom he presumably wants to replace with himself and his mates at the AWU and SDA. I recall Howes writing an impassioned love letter to Israel earlier this year, in the course of which he said we ought to be proud that a forged Australian passport helped in an extra-judicial killing. It’s interesting that Michael Kroger will be launching Howes’ book in Melbourne, and that Bill Shorten was another recent guest at the Sydney Institute. In my extensive experience with the AWU years ago, most officials preferred the company of the bosses to that of their members. We had better expense accounts. Perhaps some things don’t change.

    Alister @ 2 I would change your comment to ‘If he’s the best example of the up-and-coming thinkers of the ALP, then there’s not much of a future for them as a party.’

  15. November 15th, 2010 at 10:49 | #15

    Pr Q said:

    But it is little wonder that the Greens are making such headway when the major parties offer a bipartisan consensus on such tired and failed ideas.

    If there “the Greens are making such headway” then why was there a 2.58% 2PP swing to the L/NP in the HoR in the 2010 federal election? Undoubtedly the GREENs are poaching Left-liberal voters in the ALP, but that is clearly a swing within the Left, from Centre-Left to Far-Left. Not a swing from Broad Right to broad Left.

    Its possible that the swing to the GREENs is ephemeral, reflecting Left-liberal dissatisfaction with the ALP’s ditching of CPRS. If the ALP swings back to the Left on the climate change issue it might recoup its pinko-greenie voters. Too early to say for sure.

    Pretty much the same polarising phenomenon is observed in the EU and US where there has been a polarisation of sentiment towards the Far Left and Far Right. This is especially obvious in the US where the independents and moderates got clobbered at the congressional elections.

    And it must not have escaped Pr Q’s notice that the Right, in particular the Far Right, appears to have been the net winners from this process. Perhaps the typical response to moderate economic stress is knee-jerk regressive, as occurred in the eighties.

    In short, now that the great post-Cold War boom is sputtering to a close there is a Great Divergence observable in both ideological positions and psephological alignments. So my Great Convergence theory appears to be past its use by date. [sob]

  16. November 15th, 2010 at 11:08 | #16

    Pr Q said:

    This would have been an unremarkable claim to make in the 1980s (a generation ago). But today ??

    I remember as a uni student coming across DP Monyhan’s observation, made around 1980, that “of a sudden, the GOP has become a party of ideas.” That was certainly true then, the Keynsian-Beveredgian consensus had more or less collapsed. And we were in the high-tide of post-modern lunacy in cultural studies.

    Back then Right had all the new ideas, more or less re-invigoration of its best old ideas.

    – Neo-liberalism in economicspolicy
    – Neo-conservatism in social policy
    – Neo-Darwinism in anthropology
    – Neo-realism in foreign policy

    But Moynihan’s claim is 30 years old. Its looking a bit tattered now.

    Since then Left has achieved intellectual superiority in strategic and economics policy. The US’s unlawful attack on Iraq has destroyed the credibility of Pentagon militarism. And the GFC has destroyed the credibility of Wall Street liberalism.

    The Right has retained its intellectual dominance in social policy and anthropology, although the Left no longer holds to preposterous anti-scientific positions in these areas. It still leans heavily on political correctness in order to bolster its position. This running sore continues to undermine the Left’s claim to scientific rigour, not to mention intellectual honesty.

    Over and above all these the Left has achieved total victory in ecological policy, which is arguably the most pressing issue in public policy. The Right has completely blown it on this, which has severely damaged its credibility in scientific areas.

  17. November 15th, 2010 at 11:27 | #17

    Pr Q said:

    Howes goes on to mention, and dismiss, a plethora of leftish thinktanks (Per Capita, the Centre for Policy Development, Catalyst, the Australia Institute, the Evatt Foundation, the Fabians (Disclosure: in one way or another, I’m associated with most of them)) any one of which has had more new ideas in the last few years than the moribund shells he describes have had in decades.

    Would Pr Q care to give us a brief digest of good “new ideas” coming out of these Left-wing think-tanks “in the past few years”? And while he is at it he might, in the spirit of scientific self-criticism, own up to intellectual areas where the Left’s position is weak.

    IMHO the only good new idea the New Left has had in the past generation has been climate change policy. (Bearing in mind that the civil emancipation of women, coloreds, gays and indigenes was well under way by the late-sixties, pretty much two generations ago.) So the New Left can’t really claim credit for that.

    Like Pr Q I have some strong Left-wing sympathies, but mostly towards the Old Left. For sure opposition to privatisation and deregulation are good ideas, but they aren’t new.

    Perhaps in ideology, there is nothing much of any good that is new under the sun.

  18. November 15th, 2010 at 12:09 | #18

    Pr Q said:

    why the Labor party is in so much trouble,

    The ALP is in government at the federal sphere and in five out of six state jurisdictions, no? That does not seem to be too much trouble. True, soon to be four out of six when NSW hits the dust. And then there were three when QLD goes the same way.

    But victories for the L/NP at state level do not exactly mean a ringing endorsement for the Left.

  19. Bayardo
    November 15th, 2010 at 15:06 | #19

    “Howes is no fool”

    Maybe not, but he’s a manipulator and a hack. Why exactly is he a ‘leading light’ of the ALP right? This is a bloke with a few years experience as a left activists before getting a job in the ALP. Union official? What union struggles has he been part of? Rank and file members of the AWU refer to him as ‘lumberjack’ Howes!

    He is in “thrall to the 1980s agenda” because that’s whats needed to get a head in the ALP right. It will take more than few social democratic thinktanks to change things and the system that lets leaches like this posture as political leaders.

  20. may
    November 15th, 2010 at 15:10 | #20

    Ahh those 80′s achievers.

    skasey and user pays(and pays and pays and pays) and echo-gnomic rationalism ( a social phenomonon defined by fear and greed acting with enlightened self interest) and aircraft carrier shoulder pads and bondy and “we will rule the Chinese beer market” and minnie mouse shoes and peplums and spandex.

    die,die you bastards!!

    forgive me JQ,i couln’t help it.

  21. Peter Evans
    November 15th, 2010 at 18:59 | #21

    Oh for goodness sake. In a nutshell, the whole “the government is the problem” palaver that underscores all the ideology of the right for the last three decades has just been a scam for a bunch of rich people to get their hands on even more wealth. To transfer the wealth built up by the post-war boom, and significantly in public hands through the workings of the welfare state and a regulated mixed economy, into private hands. A prime offender like Murdoch is still at it, not to mention the egregious evil otherwise known as the Koch brothers and their ilk. It’s nothing but a damn scam.

  22. Alice
    November 15th, 2010 at 22:03 | #22

    @may
    ROFL May – Im over my chat limit but I just couldnt let your comment go without a huge belly laugh – Im with you – die all mutant offspring of the 1980s policies!

  23. Alice
    November 16th, 2010 at 19:11 | #23

    @Alice
    I rather think Keating is more half the problem with the madness Australia has leapt into in terms of rampant de-regulation and rampant privatisation (biting us on the bum badly) – him and his ego really did help support the liberal party for most of the 1980s and into the 1990s.

    Little Johnny Howard couldnt have got a better ball boy. Yes die all those who fell for the scam outlined in Peter’s post at 21 in the 1980s. Damn scam for a bunch of rich people to get even richer is right. But then keating always was fond of his Italian suits. He has a lot to answer for.

  24. Tony Lynch
    November 17th, 2010 at 12:31 | #24

    The thing is, in any corporate/bureaucratic structure, new entrants do not bring new ideas if they want to work their way up the c/b chain. What they do – as Howes does so unreflectively – is signal to those above them in the c/b chain that they are “sound chaps”. They thus out 80 the 80′s nutters now greying away above them. (Incidentally, to te growing extent that universities are simply another c/b chain these days, the same is true there.)

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