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. There is only one major party now. It’s called the Lib-Labs. It comes in two factions who pretend to be opposed and who dominate parliament by forming both government and opposition. They always SAY the opposite of each other and swap roles in this regard when swapping government. But they always DO exactly the same thing as each other in power, so government policy in practice is always the same, no matter which faction of the Lib-Labs is in government.

    As we can’t vote the Lib-Labs out of power under these current arrangements, we must vote them out of existence by voting for Greens, Democratic Socialists and left leaning independents.

    Destroy the Lib-Labs! Do it at the ballot box!

  2. Then again, Kristina Keneally is only being honest when she suggests that concepts such as sustainability, equality and rights were and are not core to the mission of her erstwhile State government and the NSW Labor Right.

  3. @Ikonoclast

    They always {occasionally} SAY the opposite of each other and swap roles in this regard when swapping government. But they always DO exactly the same thing as each other in power, so government policy in practice is always the same, no matter which faction of the Lib-Labs is in government. {my correction}

    It’s like déjà vu all over again …

  4. Of course, what us leftists recall of Chifley is deploying the troops against the miners and the laying of the foundations of the anti-communist purges that utltimately destroyed the ALP as a functioning organisation, keeping it from office for all but 3 of the next 34 years and turned it into the hollow “soulless” shell that it is now … We recall Wran and hsi egregious successors Unsworth and Carr and the thus the thread linking that assault on the miners with the ascension of spivs like Arbib and Gillard.

  5. The political party that makes the most believable pitch for equity in depleting resource use, particularly oil, and access to alternatives – energy, jobs, affordable shelter, good food, culture – will impress voters first up. Failure will quickly consign them to oblivion.

  6. Isn’t the issue that political parties themselves are doomed, for much the same reasons that aggregation media (newpapers, TV stations) and shopping malls are: INFORMATION (aka, glibly, as the internet) is vastly more accessible. The need for some sort umbrella organisation to do your bidding in the halls of power is greatly diminished when you can go find out for yourself what the issues and thinking on some issue is, and outsourcing (which is what a political party is) is not nearly so necessary or desirable. There’s no requirement to buy into a whole program. The game is sorting through the shit and sloughing off the PR slag that gets dumped on you every minute of every day.

    The corollary is that representative democracy as we know it is going to change drastically. But not without a ton of turbulence and denial on the part of political parties. It’s begun.

  7. What’s ironic is that if the federal labor government manages to implement a carbon tax and subsequently a cap and trade system, it would no doubt endlessly trumpet these changes as “the greatest reform since …”.

    But these changes won’t remove the poverty traps faced by the poor, or increase access to dental procedures that the rich don’t give a second thought to, or provide access to high quality education denied to the poor, or reverse the growing inequality between rich and poor.

    Reducing the volume of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere is obviously an essential change to make. But with all the energy and time being put into this change by the government, and presumably at the expense of any other discussions about social or economic change, ultimately it’s just about changing the consumption patterns between fuel types. And if that’s the only reform that a Labor government can implement in its term then it shows the paucity of their vision.

  8. 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

    Maybe not that surprising in the income tax system. Top marginal rate of 46.5% now starts at $180,000. Not much evidence of survival there. Still nowhere near as bad as the US however where a single taxpayer earning US$16,000 pays $1,982.50 Federal income tax while someone earning AU$16,000 in Australia pays zero income tax. The conservatives get most of their ideas from the US.

  9. Chris @9 Shouldn’t that be ‘someone earning $6000 in Australia pays zero income tax?

  10. No, Pablo, the Low Income Tax Offset means the EFFECTIVE tax threshold, in all but fairly rare circumstances, is over $16k in Australia.

    Mind you, boconnor wasn’t quite comparing apples with apples here. If the person in the US qualifies for the Earned Income Tax Credit or other tax credits (as most will) they’ll pay a lot less than the $1982 quoted – depending on their circumstances possibly a negative amount (ie they’ll get a tax refund bigger than their liability).

  11. PS – Clinton massively expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit precisely to give back-door tax cuts to the poor rather than just to the rich, as his congressional conservatives wanted. Numeracy is a powerful tool to use against innumerate ideological opponents :-).

  12. Thanks dd.
    I guess that the Henry suggestion of a $25k minimum fits better with a 16k current effective tax figure.

  13. One thing I reckon Chifley would be appalled by is the present Labor Paty emphasis on work. It was during his time that four weeks annual leave became mandatory, and long service leave was introduced. Now we work the longest hours in the world (ten weeks a year longer than the Dutch, IIRC) and don’t like taking holidays. Yet the Labor Party has never mentioned increasing the mandatory annual leave amount. And remember the wages/profit share, that was talked about a lot in the Hawke/Keating era? Can you imagine Swan giving a talk about that?!

  14. Clinton massively expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit precisely to give back-door tax cuts to the poor rather than just to the rich

    That earned income tax credit is zilch for a single income earner earning US$16,000, BTW. It cuts out at $13,450 and is never more than $457. Even the “progressives” in the US are swingeing with their taxation of low income earners.

  15. Freelander @ 11: Woah! I thought the nepotism in NSW Labor was bad but that list is breathtaking

  16. @Freelander

    I couldn’t understand a word of it. Maybe I dont know enough NSW political figures. Anyway, personality politics is meaningless other than I suppose to point the amount of neptoism going round.

  17. I think the Labor Party has shifted away from equality as core to their mission. There has been a concerted effort to paint equality as a negative, and to assert that inequality allows those who work harder to be rewarded for their efforts. Wealth and success are seen almost exclusively as the result of individual initiative and endeavour, rather than a product of chance, and rather than something achieved within a society. While I would probably not advocate equality of outcome (although a greater degree of this is desirable), I would advocate equality of opportunity and equal access to certain fundamentals (such as healthcare).

  18. @CJ

    I believe that it is possible to advocate equality of outcome while accepting that in practice, neither you nor even your grandchildren may live to see it. Unless you strive for equal outcomes, the chance of you realising equality of opportunity is actually very poor, because almost anything can be rationalised as fitting the latter specification and therefore almost any compromise seems principled.

    In my view, politics for leftists starts with the struggle for equity on a global scale and the design of the vehicles — material and cultural — that would underpin it.

  19. There would be too much cognitive dissonance in the Labor Party if they were forced to preach equality publicly, while their daily practice remains somewhat different. Preaching the nebulous ‘aspirational’ is less of a problem. While no longer believing in equality (of opportunity or of outcome), I suppose they recognise that allowing the populace to be ‘aspirational’ is benign. While the population aspires, to what it probably will never have, they are more likely to stay where they are, with less complaint. The US is full of aspirational people, and hence, are unable to focus their rage (except at the latest manufactured external enemy).

  20. I thought Keneally’s concession speech was very good and she talked about the way that the ALP had behaved “put at risk the principles for which the Australian Labor Party stands – fairness, equity and social justice”, and she had some good stuff about how their programs had contributed to equity.
    And then she writes that tripe in the Australian. I was hopeful hearing the concession speech that someone in the Labor Party got it. Then she resiles from her own words. Dis-spiriting.

  21. Great to talk about how “the ALP had behaved”, but not about how, “I, Kristina Keneally, have behaved”, and lets face it, her behavior, especially during the closing months, was a shocking continuation of the NSW Labor government outrage. You can’t imagine they were “her” words. Those were simply words she or her advisors thought appropriate, useful, for the occasion. Probably as meaningful for her as a recitation, syllable by syllable of some language she had never learned.

    Later occasion, different venue, The Australian, different recitation; although this time possibly with a lot less dissonance.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. @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”.

  25. 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.

  26. 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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