False balance

An almost-universal feature of current Australian political commentary is the idea that the process of major party breakdown is a symmetrical one, affecting both side of politics equally. At a global level, this is broadly true. European social democratic parties have faced huge challenges arising from their complicity in austerity, and their inability to formulate a coherent response to racism and xenophobia. Quite a few, like PASOK in Greece, have disappeared altogether.

In Australia, the situation is very different.  The rise of the Greens, and the formation of an effective Labor-Green coalition, long predates the crisis of neoliberalism. And the coalition has become more stable over time, not less. As Labor has moved, slowly but substantially, to the left on most issues, the  Labor-Green coalition has come to resemble, more and more, the permanent coalition between the Liberals and Nationals (nearly always treated as a single party in Australian discussion. The issue of refugees has provided the most important single point of difference, but hasn’t driven the kind of collapse seen in Europe. Moreover, there has been no sign of any kind of radical or populist left alternative to the Labor-Green party. Rather, the remains of the old Marxist left have continued their gradual decline.

The contrast with the chaos within the LNP, and in its fractious relationship with the various far-right groups* it now relies on for support could not be more evident, and has been discussed at great length. I’m just hoping that we can get past the ritual need for balance, and recognise that, in Australia, this problem is specfic to the right.

The fact that the right is in a chaotic and chronic mess doesn’t mean they will necessarily lose. Labor has shown the capacity to mess things up massively, even without any serious ideological divisions, as in the Rudd-Gillard feud and the spectacular corruption of the NSW party.  But that’s just day-to-day politics.

The bigger picture is that the Australian left is making a successful adjustment to the collapse of neoliberalism, while the right is not.

* There are also the centrist independents, most of whom hold seats that would normally belong to the LNP.





Life in a Socialist Future (updated)

I’ll be talking at the Ngara Institute’s Politics in the Pub event in Mullumbimby tonight. Unfortunately, their website appears to be offline today, but I’ll link if it comes up.

The talk won’t be quite as utopian as the title might suggest, but it will be a  “light on the hill” vision rather than short-term politics . I’m trying to think about how life might look 30 years from now, if Australian society returns to the progressive path we seemed to be following from the 1940s until the defeat of the Whitlam government.

For those readers unable to make it to northern NSW on short notice, there should be a YouTube of the event later and I am working on some articles that I hope will clarify my optimistic vision of a possible future.


Updated: Here’s video from the Facebook livestream.

Queensland: beautiful one day, denialist the next?

One of the striking features of the current crackup on the right is the assumption, apparently widely shared, that climate science denial and subsidies for coal are winning issues in Queensland, however much they might appal the toffee-nosed elitists of Wentworth (and, presumably, Warringah and Kooyong among other long-standing Liberal party seats that can now be safely ignored).

Those pushing this view might consider the recent Queensland election, in which proposed subsidies to Adani were a key issue. Not only did the government and the Greens make gains in south-east Queensland at the expense of the LNP, Labor held on to seats in Townsville and Rockhampton where Adani was supposed to be a winner.

Economics in Two Lessons

’ve just sent the final manuscript of Economics in Two Lessons back to Princeton University Press. I’ll have to correct the proofs, but apart from that, my work here is done.

US publication is currently scheduled for May 2019, hopefully with an Australian edition to follow. I’ve set up a Facebook page (see below) and have been posting extracts regularly.


Economics in Two Lessons Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/EconomicsInTwoLessons/?modal=admin_todo_tour

Welcome to the minority

The Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom obviously hasn’t turned out the way its advocates in the right wing of the LNP expected. Far from securing their rights to discriminate against gays,  church schools are almost certain to lose that right with respect to students, and will probably also lose it in relation to teachers. A recent opinion poll shows overwhelming opposition to discrimination, even stronger than the vote in favour of equal marriage last year.

The failure of the right on this reflects a central fact about the rightwing version of identity politics. Whereas leftwing forms of identity politics typically assert the rights of minorities[1] to a fairer share of power and respect, the right wing version starts from the assumption that their identity is that of the majority whose historical rights are under threat.  So, they see no inconsistency in demanding expansive definitions of freedom for themselves, while rejecting it for others.  The same thinking explains the pressure for a plebiscite on equal marriage: despite ample evidence from opinion polls, the right could not believe they were in the minority[2].

The situation has now changed, and rethinking is needed, both on the right but on the left. Rather than looking to expand the powers of employers to sack people on religious grounds unrelated to their performance at work, those concerned with religious freedom should be concerned about the possibility that such powers will be used against them in the future. A comprehensive protection for workers against dismissal on the basis of grounds unrelated to their performance at work is what is needed here.

As regards the left, we shouldn’t allow large, publicly funded institutions like church schools to practise discrimination. But we need to think more carefully about individuals with religious objections to gay marriage (for example, bakers who don’t want to bake cakes with messages of support for gay marriage) in the same light as other religious minorities who seek protection for their beliefs: Jehovah’s witnesses who object to blood transfusions, Muslim women who want to remain veiled, and so on. Most of these beliefs seem strange and objectionable to non-believers. But where they can be accommodated without doing any serious social damage, we should do so.

More broadly, as I suggested when the Ruddock review was announced, we should take the opportunity to push for a comprehensive Bill of Rights. Now that they are clearly in the minority on crucial issues, perhaps religious believers might see the merit in a supporting such a measure.


fn1. Women aren’t a minority, but they are under-represented.

fn2. It’s typically, though not always, at the point where dominant/majority status is slipping away that this kind of politics emerges.