A soulless Labor vision

My column from the Fin, on the latest call for Labor to abandon everything but the kitchen sink is over the fold.

A soulless Labor vision

With the Labor party in the electoral doldrums all around the country, it is certainly appropriate for Labor leaders of the present and recent past to reflect on what has brought the party, until recently dominant at every level of politics, to such a low ebb. Julia Gillard recently presented her vision, focused on working hard, not complaining and setting the alarm clock early.

Now Kristina Keneally, having led the NSW Labor Party to one of the worst defeats in its history, is having her say. Along with her husband Ben, she has written a pair of articles setting out new directions for Labor, published by that longstanding ally of the Labor movement, The Australian.

In some respects, the Keneally manifesto is a source of sardonic amusement. In language reminiscent of Tony Blair’s now-departed New Labour, she speaks of the need for Labor to undergo ‘rebranding’.

Keneally argues that the Labor Party’s official objective of of ‘democratic socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ should be abandoned in favor of a commitment to ‘increasing the incomes, opportunities, choices and self determination of working people and their families’. She suggests using a quote from Ben Chifley’s famous ‘Light on the Hill’ speech, ‘We are a movement that has been built up to bring better conditions to the people – better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind anywhere we may give a helping hand…”

Few would argue that the socialist objective, effectively unchanged since 1921 is a good description of Labor’s current position. But having pushed through to completion one of the most financially unsuccessful, procedurally improper and politically suicidal privatisations in in Australia’s history, Keneally might have done better to keep silent on this topic.

Of course it’s hard to disagree with increasing income, opportunities and self-determination, but that presents something of a problem. Labor’s opponents promise exactly the same thing, as does just about every political party in the world. In the ad agency language Keneally favors, this is hardly a unique selling proposition. So, Keneally suggests increasing the salience of the proposition by abandoning any reference to a ‘raft of additional concepts such as sustainability, equality and rights’ which are not ‘core to our mission’. The result would be a program focused entirely on the famous ‘hip pocket nerve;.

On a superficial reading, Chifley’s speech, with its emphasis on raising living standards and bringing happiness to the mass of the people, might seem to focus on similarly narrow concerns. But such a reading reflects a lack of any understanding of the historical background of Chifley’s speech.

Chifley did not see ‘the light on the hill’ as something that could be achieved by exercises in corporate branding, or that aimed at ‘putting sixpence in someone’s pocket’. He opened his speech by describing the need for the Labor movement ‘to create new conditions, to reorganise the economy of the country,’. While he did not spell this out in his brief remarks, he did not have to.

Chifley’s listeners knew that the Labor government he (and previously John Curtin) led had in fact transformed the economy and the role of government. In its 1945 White Paper, Full Employment in Australia, the government committed itself, for the first time in our history, to maintain full employment, a commitment restated in Chifley’s speech.

Chifley’s reference to the need to ‘create new conditions’ was a lot more than the empty rhetoric of the Keneally manifesto. Among a list of achievements far too long to set out in full, Chifley’s government created the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and the Australian National University, introduced Australian citizenship.

Chifley did not view such ‘additional concepts’ as equality and rights as non-core issues. The massive expansion of social welfare benefits and the increased progressivity of the tax system under the Curtin and Chifley governments led to greatly increased equality of both opportunity and outcomes, the effects of which have, to a surprising extent, survived the ‘reforms’ of the past thirty years. And Chifley’s Attorney-General ‘Doc’ Evatt, played a central role in the drafting of the UN Declaration on Human Rights.

Chifley’s achievements will be remembered as long as the Labor Party survives, and perhaps longer. The best that can be hoped for the Keneally government is that it will be forgotten as quickly as possible.

30 thoughts on “A soulless Labor vision

  1. On the other side, all we have to look forward to is another two year continuation of Tony Abbott’s “No Lie Left Untold” National Tour.

  2. Fran, I agree with you 95% of the time but having the labour party and union movement fall under Moscow’s influence would not have done us any favours.

  3. @James Haughton

    having the labour party and union movement fall under Moscow’s influence would not have done us any favours.

    1. That was never at issue
    2. Attacking this non-issue served more than any other single factor in keeping the ALP from power 1949-72
    3. It laid the foundation for the hollowing out of the ALP following the failure of the reformist vision of Whitlam in 1975

    In short, history speaks against your implicit claim that the treachery of 1949 by Chifley “did us (the left) a favour”.

  4. John,

    You have ducked the question that Keneally was trying to answer. If Labor is not in favour of “democratic socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, then what is it for? It is all very well being in favour of “equality”, but if you have no idea how to achieve that (and Socialism was a mechanism that appeared plausible for a time), then that is a meaningless goal.

    Gillard seems to be trying to replace “equality” with “equality of opportunity”. The latter at least seems reasonably achievable, even if it falls far short of Labor’s original mission.

  5. Fran,

    Like James I agree with a lot of what you say, but my family was involved heavily in the ’49 strike on several fronts. Some were rozzers, some were miners and my old man was in the ALP in the Blue Mountains. The Communist party under Sharkey really did believe that Australia would be better off if the Russians invaded, and acted accordingly. I know this because I have family members who joined the Communist party in the forties believing exactly that and held that position until the early seventies in some cases. Also, the miner’s strike was not wildly popular amongst miners at all, especially on the Western Coal Fields where it was seen for what it was, a political strike with the union flexing its muscle against the ALP government. If the miners union was so wildly popular, look at the voting results by booth in Lithgow for the CPA in the ’49 and ’51 elections.

    Look beyond the mythology Fran. People who live through history seldom see it as such because (a) they don’t know what the outcome will be and, (b) they call it life.

    As a third point I’d point to the number of people who later became industrial group union leaders “Groupers”, who weren’t the fanatical Santamaria worshipping Catholics (like in Victoria) but were the Trots who got a rough shove from the Coms in the forties.

    Finally, if you think the Communist Party anywhere in the thirties and forties was a good thing, re-read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, especially the last two chapters. I know many a good worker that got bashed by Comms – as many a good worker got bashed by the Cops. The sanest view is that neither the Communist party nor the Government were particularly useful for working people, but Chifley was a damned sight better than Menzies. These days I’d vote for Menzies above the last six Australian Prime Ministers.

    And three cheers for six weeks annual leave!! Julia Gillard needs to be reminded of what my Grandfather told me in Nepean District Hospital in 1978: “Son, nobody on their death bed ever wishes they’d spent more time at work”.

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