16 December 2008

The end of big ideas Labor

People used to be frightened of the Labor Party because it they were all about Big Ideas. The Liberals were most successful when they whipped up fear of these monsters. Look at Whitlam, and how all those ideas stuffed into the bottom drawer over 23 years of opposition (even by deep thinkers like Lance Barnard or Freddie Daly) led to whole new departments and tax hikes.

Now it's clear that the era of Big Policy Labor is now over. Rudd and Rees and all those other four-letter words one might use to describe Labor leaders today show us that Labor has bonsai'd itself into irrelevance.

With the Emissions Trading Scheme, Rudd has produced a weak effort that is not backed up with any sort of social transformation: no new energy-generation industries (and associated jobs, comrades), no education on how you can cut back on your power bills (yes, it's petty but we all have a role to play - in other words, some national leadership would be nice), no incentives for existing renewable-energy technology - and worst of all, no moral leadership in addressing the environmental problems that affect our climate for the worse. Not a scrap of passion from that extinct volcano, Peter Garrett - no power either.

The same thing happened with the Aboriginal apology: yeah, Rudd got the headlines, but nobody is any clearer about what problem the Northern Territory Intervention is trying to solve, let alone how well it might be solving it. Once Labor would have been all about looking at and addressing the causes of Aboriginal injustice and disadvantage: now it's all off-message, look away, look away.

What about all those other Big Issues for which Labor is supposed to be the flame-guardians and standard-bearers? A republic? No. Universal healthcare? There is an idea that has stalled since the recession of the late 1980s, hardly going to get a run now. Immigration reform? Yeah, right. Promise me that the Cordelia Rau/Vivian Solon cases could never recur now, go on. Labour market reform? Arts funding? Substantial reform in education? 15% super? Anything at all?

We could, I suppose, blame all these foundered dreams upon the Global Financial Crisis, but that would be a crock. Whitlam too faced global economic crisis but either crashed through or (mostly) crashed, suggesting there was something of substance in either case. Nowhere is there any evidence that there are big plans to be put on hold. Nowhere is there any evidence that, if the economy bounced back, the Big Ideas would get a red-hot go.

The less said about Rees in NSW, the better. Working people are suffering more in hospital, less well served by schools and dithering about in unsuitable transport because of the Carr legacy (advised by Rees) of government by press release - a pose replicated in other states. Queensland, WA and SA cannot water themselves, Melbourne has Sydneylike transport problems and Brisbane is heading that way too. Tasmania and NSW have governments wholly owned by spivs, as happened in WA under Burke and Joh's Queensland. If Jack Lang could build the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the very teeth of the Great Depression, Rees has no excuse playing silly-buggers with light rail. SMH cartoonist Alan Moir is right to draw Rees with a garbage bin for a head.

All that remains now is for Labor to be shunted into Opposition and to wonder what it was all for, and to struggle for motivation to go on beyond one's own ego - just as is happening with the Federal Coalition.

Yeah, the Federal Coalition. The only power they have these days is the power ascribed to them by Labor for their own inaction - but even that is bogus.


  1. Well, we TRIED having big and inspirational ideals. That was 1975. It didn't work out so well. (I'm a 'Whitlamite', not an admirer of how it actually worked in practice.) People took the wrong lessons from the Dismissal. The problem wasn't the IDEAS, the problem was how the ideas were implemented.

    Now, that's a very slippery slope to go down -- some say the same thing about Iraq. 'It would all have worked out, if not for...' And many of the ideas deserve to stay in the 1970s. But Labor has been so traumatised by the failure of Whitlam, and to a lesser extent Keating, that we've been forced into a deeper and deeper defensive crouch. We've become enamoured of the notion that the only way a Labor leader can win is by staying as close to the Liberals as possible and hoping that they screw up first.

    It's unsustainable in the long term. The thing that keeps Labor alive in our long periods in the darkness -- and boy are they long, and boy are they dark -- is that hokey, concocted, irresistable narrative of proud past achievements, a shining red line throughout history connecting us to Whitlam and Chifley and Fisher. A cautious strategy may work in the short-term, but it risks eroding the base of the party to the point where there's really nothing to keep us going in the dark.

    It's a larger-scale version of what happened to the UAP -- out of government, and after the death of Lyons, it really didn't exist for anything or any ideal. Ideological bankruptcy is the only way to kill a major party in a two-party system.

  2. Big Rexy Connor's pipeline thing is the very sort of PPP that Rees, Tripodi and the rest of them would be all over today, and the 1975-76 Budget (along with the Land Rights Act and the no-fault divorce legislation) was passed in its entirety. You can't have it both ways: either those ideals were poleaxed by Kerr and his cur, or they weren't. OK, I'll give you Medicare if you agree that the states have pretty much negated it by blowing the health budget on 'monitoring' and PR.

    There was plenty wrong with not foreseeing that the postwar Keynesian accord wasn't a given, plenty wrong with not scooping up the broken and ignored men who came back from Vietnam and clutching them back into the bosom of the working class. It's ridiculous that that Vietnam remains a festering ulcer in the very guts of this country.

    Have you read John Button's Quarterly Essay on the ALP? Disagree with any of it?

  3. Well, we believe very different things, Mr. Elder, and it's unlikely I'll convince you of my views -- and in any case, that's really not what we're arguing about.

    And it's not Kerr that I meant by '1975' -- sorry, I wasn't clear. It was the resounding landslide defeat that followed -- the Dismissal was largely theatre. Labor took a far greater blow from the election of 1975 than the events leading up to it. Any attempt to justify the Dismissal as 'the ruling class striking back' is utter rot. We weren't dismissed for our ideas, and our loss was, and this is again a matter of our different opinions, the result of bad government, not bad ideas.

    I've skimmed through Beyond Belief a few months ago, but haven't read it in-depth. Going by the comments in the back of the next QE, his main points are a) the decline of the base, b) the uselessness of the union affiliation, c) the factional system, and generally structural factors. I agree with much of that -- Labor's structure is totally rotten, undemocratic and nepostic.

    But the answer requires policy rejuvenation and the rebirth of 'new ideas'. The question is: why would you join the Labor Party? Kevin Rudd's 'reforming centre'? Nathan Rees'...whatever? Mike Rann's eerie smile? You can see someone inspired by Chifley, or Whitlam, or even Keating, or at a pinch loathing of Howard, but without actual ideas of our own why would anyone join the Labor Party? And without new membership, the decline of the base, the entrenchment of an undemocratic structure, and policy drift are all inevitable.

  4. Firstly, I'll congratulate you for being the first Labor person to wrestle with the idea of the election result as popular rejection - and the implications for democracy - rather than the demonisation of Kerr.

    I'd be interested in those aspects of the Whitlam legacy that petered out by about 1980, because in there are some of the moderate liberal issues in which I'm more interested.

  5. Really? I'm the first? I thought it was the Conventional Wisdom in upper Labor ranks, regardless of public rhetoric; the Hawke government was a conscious repudiation of Whitlam's style and substance, because we'd tried that and people hated it. Whitlam's status as 'deity' depends upon most senior Labor figures gritting their teeth and grimacing -- it's to rile up the base, not a demonstration of conviction.

    The antiquated bits of the Whitlam agenda? Well, for that you have to see What Whitlam Was. And Whitlamism, although it's been adopted by the cultural elites as our own, was essentially designed as Western Sydney politics. Dramatic expansion of the welfare net and social services. It's no wonder everyone focuses on the quote that 'Whitlam found Western Sydney unsewered and left it fully flushed'; that was the heart of the agenda, which was basically making social democracy acceptable by removing its dour connotations. Even Whitlam's cultural agenda has to be read in that light: it was an attempt to expand the reach of Australian culture beyond traditional 'elites', through using spending to make it accessible to the growing middle classes. And in the Campbelltown/Liverpool heartland, where I live, it even worked, sort of -- the development of new museums and galleries keyed to a suburban audience derives from those Whitlam ideals of lavish spending on Australian culture.

    At the same time, you're right, Whitlam's ideas were based upon the idea that the money would always be there. That's not going to work in the modern age, simply because fiscal theory has developed. But a new Whitlamism DOESN'T require massive spending and the expansion of government, contrary to popular belief. Its heart was in the results to be achieved -- that is, increasing equality of opportunity and access to those in Western Sydney and similar areas. Mark Latham's tenure as Mayor of Liverpool involved an attempt to do the same through public/private projects, which although it didn't work in practice proves that you can attempt to reduce inequality between the suburbs and the inner city without going to Jim Cairns' fiscal policy.

    But in any case, the Hawke government wasn't interested to the same extent in such things -- it didn't revive DURD, its expansion of the social safety net was, even in the circumstances, half-hearted, and its focus generally lay elsewhere (often understandably). Whitlam's problems didn't lie in 'too much too soon', which I continue to believe is a myth, they lay in poor implementation and poor selling. Governments CAN excite and inspire the population; we're not babies, we're not stupid, and sometimes a certain grandeur can be an electoral plus. Certainly, much of the Whitlam style can be discarded, but the sense of a new era of expanded horizons which he brought is, I think, even more essential today.

    Anyway, just my two cents.

  6. It's interesting that all elections since 1972 have been fought and won in the outer suburbs of the major cities (and here I include places like Wyong and the Sunshine Coast as 'outer suburbs'), but whacking up a civic centre does not a community make. The linkage between Whitlam and the local mayors and ward-heelers was never strong enough to make that localism convincing - same with Rudd and the mayors a few weeks ago.

    I wish Whitlam had spent a bit more on public transport. Same with Wran, I wish he'd followed through on his early promises in that area - Granville and 'Woollahra Station' curbed his enthusiasm for that aspect of the big-picture, it seems. Nice dodge on the Vietnam thing, by the way. And don't get me started on the Whitlamite freebies that vanished before us Gen Xers could get to them.

    When you talk about 'What Whitlam Was', I suspect your description might have been fair up until 1969, when he got a whiff of victory and the Libs began crumbling before his eyes. I think it's that very 'grandeur' which makes the trooby levers so credulous, and the rest of us so immune from rhetorical flights. Grand plans issued from Canberra/Macquarie Street/far-distant administrative centre can look awfully silly on the ground, and that's what does for visionary government: whether it's forcing schoolkids to drink warm curdling milk for the sake of their health (OK, I'm not blaming Whitlam for that) or moving to regional centres (you first, no after you), I think Australians are right to be suspicious of dreamers who haven't done their sums. People like John Fahey and John Howard thought this was a means for sinking any and all big ideas, but I think the visionary who's worked it out from the ground up is an idea that hasn't been tried. And won't be into the foreseeable future.