Menzies’ heir

Most of the press coverage of Julia Gillard’s Whitlam oration has focused on her partisan digs at the Greens, and even then only in an “inside football” way, that is, on the likely short-term political implications rather than the validity or otherwise of her criticism.

The only responses I’ve seen pay any serious attention to what is (or at least is presented as) a major restatement of Labor’s vision have come from bloggers, such as Trevor Cook, Kim at LP and Jonathan Green. It’s also worth rereading this piece by Mark Bahnisch responding to an earlier speech. I broadly agree with much of this commentary, but I thought it would be worth offering a response of my own.

Both implicitly, by omission, and explicitly, in rhetoric and substance, Gillard’s speech represents a repudiation of the Labor tradition exemplified by Gough Whitlam, and even, in many respects, of the market liberal reworking of that tradition under the Hawke-Keating government.

It is a speech that could have been given, with absolute sincerity, by John Howard on behalf of the Liberal party, and marks, in both large and small ways, Gillard’s acceptance and celebration of the values and beliefs of the Liberal party as espoused by its leaders from Menzies onwards. Indeed, with more historically apposite examples (Reid, Deakin and Lyons for example, instead of Barcaldine, Curtin and Chifley) this would have made quite a good Menzies oration.

Let’s start with the omissions. Gillard’s speech contains no reference (either in words or substance) to poverty, unemployment, justice and injustice, equality, rights or freedom, let alone to such political ideas as capitalism, socialism or social democracy.

It contains only a single reference to unions, as “ensuring working people succeed together and that their work is recognised, rewarded and appreciated.” No suggestion, then, that workers might sometimes be in conflict with employers and that unions might represent and protect workers in that conflict.

The only reference to the global financial crisis is as a justification for running a Budget surplus so as to be prepared for emergencies. (I should make clear that I agree with Gillard on this point. But the GFC had a lot more lessons, which she has apparently forgotten or never learned, about the instability and inequity of global capitalism.)

Next, there’s the explicit repudiation of Labor traditions and adoption of Liberal rhetoric and policy viewpoints.

* Gillard asserts “We have moved beyond the days of big government and big welfare”

* In her attack on the Greens, Gillard appropriates the rhetoric of John Howard about “sharing the values of every day Australians, in our cities, suburbs, towns and bush, who day after day do the right thing, leading purposeful and dignified lives, driven by love of family and nation.”

* Gillard claims that Labor is ” a party of government with all the attachment to the political centre and to pragmatic decision making that comes with being a party of government.” This is historically the position claimed by the Liberals, as against Labor’s view that the purpose of achieving government is to change society for the better

* Gillard correctly enough accuses Abbott of “abandoned a 25 year consensus for reform in Australian politics and embraced a populist substance and style quite alien to our political traditions” and says that “the growing extremism of the Abbott Liberals is such, the party of Howard is disappearing from view.?” Implicitly, Gillard presents her own government as the legitimate heir of the consensus embodied by Howard’s.

* Gillard embraces a crowding out theory in which “the private sector will employ more people, spend more money, and build more projects – and that means unless the government pulls back on spending, we will be chasing the same scarce resources.”

Finally, there’s Gillard’s own statement of “what Labor stands for, what we aspire to achieve, what our culture is and our role as a party of government.” According to Gillard

The historic mission of our political party is to ensure the fair distribution of opportunity. From the moment of our inception our mission has been to enable the son of the labourer, the daughter of the cleaner, to have access to same the opportunities in life as the son of the millionaire, the daughter of the lawyer.

Note that, even here, Gillard cannot bring herself to use the word “equality”.

The Liberal Party of Australia, in its Federal Platform, is not so squeamish, asserting that it believes

In equality of opportunity, with all Australians having the opportunity to reach their full potential in a tolerant national community.

The Liberals then go well beyond Gillard, asserting their belief

In a just and humane society, where those who cannot provide for themselves can live in dignity.

Nothing in Gillard’s speech suggests any awareness that there are Australians who cannot provide for themselves, or any desire to do anything for them. Quite the contrary. The theme of “those who do not work, neither shall they eat” is stated repeatedly, for example with reference to being the “party of work not welfare”.

It might be argued in Gillard’s defence that, while the Liberals espouse the rhetoric of equality of opportunity, a Gillard-led Labor party will actually deliver it. On this score, Gillard’s record speaks for itself. As Minister for Education, and as Prime Minister, she has maintained the SES-based system of funding private schools, introduced under the Howard government, which delivers huge sums to the richest schools. This is an explicit repudiation of Whitlam, who resolved the bitter and sectarian State Aid dispute with a needs-based funding system. If Gillard is delivering equality of opportunity, she is doing so with the policies of John Howard. Despite announcing a review of the system as minister, PM Gillard has promised no change as a result.

Finally, of course, it might be argued that Gillard is right to adopt the views of the Liberal Party. On economic policy, such a claim seemed plausible during the years of the Great Moderation, when market liberalism seemed to have resolved the chronic problems of capitalism. To maintain it in the light of the GFC puts Gillard in the absurd company of Alan Greenspan, who recently observed

Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global “invisible hand” has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.

As regards equality of opportunity, it’s been pointed out many times (including here and in more detail here) that equality of opportunity can’t be sustained if its combined with gross inequality of outcomes. The conversion of the United States from one of the most socially mobile countries in the developed world to the most sclerotically immobile illustrates this fact.

Gillard’s speech, coming from someone who is still nominally a member of Labor’s “Socialist Left” faction, is a clear and well-argued exposition of the position of today’s ALP. It seemed, briefly, that Kevin Rudd might promote a rethinking of that position but the moment passed and is unlikely to be recaptured. Any positive thinking about Australia’s future will have to come from outside the Labor party.

UpdateMore from Bernard Keane

78 thoughts on “Menzies’ heir

  1. @Monkey’s Uncle

    I agree it is not looking good for a productive discussion but for different reasons.

    You try to suggest you have outlined falacies in my initial reply to a post that talks about ‘baby boomers’ and home ownership affordability. I agree you tried. But you did not succeed because, as you say in your second last paragraph, you never disputed that which I actually wrote.

    As for the topic of this tread, I understand during Menzies’ time home ownership was a desirable goal of many if not most Australians. Who is the heir of Menzies?

  2. @Alice

    Like your son, James Packer also got a subsidy from his parents (and I got a subsidy from mine but not of the same size!!) These are good examples of the difference between ‘opportunities’ in words and in outcomes.

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