Maybe I phoned the wrong parties – from a small election ‘night’ breakfast of light beer, coffee and mustard herring with a few similarly frozen vote-junkies – but your correspondent detected a certain lack of enthusiasm when skyping in after Howard’s dissappointingly dignified concession speech.
Perhaps simple relief consumes itself too quickly. Deep down, despite all conscious knowledge, a lot of people were hoping for a rerun of 1972, and a government coming in with an explicit intent of reconstructing social life. But the Ruddslide seemed to have less of an impact, unless you count the person who was busy getting laid when I called.
Of course, no Western election is a true landslide these days. A 53-47 result, the biggest for a while, really means that in any room of 16 people, on average 9 prefer Rudd, while 7 prefer Howard and last time it was the other way round. Compared to elections – South Africa, East Timor etc – where people get 70% of the vote, there are no mandates.
But politics is obviously about more than responding to the presumed desires and preferences of the general public. If it’s a politics of values, it’s also about shaping the context in which these occur, of the context people grow up and form their values and character in.
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The deeply foolish idea that ‘there is no such thing as society’ is shown up by the fact that we tend to get our values from the various contexts in which we live. There’s probably one or two traditional cockies who voted Green, just as you might find a Glebe/Fitzroy website designer who voted for Lib/Nat.
The fact that they’re weird anomalies shows that most of our selfhood isn’t the individual part. If it was, political preference would be unpredictable. Our lives are meaningful largely because of the bits we didn’t choose, that go deep.
The great thing about Saturday’s result, no matter how far to the left one is of Rudd, is that the total dominance of Labor at both levels of government for a whiles to come, gives the opportunity to reshape the context of Australian politics, and the sort of values that are to be placed at the centre of life.
Rudd and the right may resist that at every turn, and win a lot of it, but they’ll be fighting on a terrain of values common to the left and not the right, in so far as the latter has any, any more. The Liberals will be irrelevant for quite a while, just maybe for ever – preaching to the converted and reminding the people who switched (back) to Labor that it was always a marriage of convenience.
The press will have to change its tone – noticeable already in News’s post-propter endorsement of Rudd, the equivalent of the old 50s scam whereby a race call would be phoned in late to a rural TAB, reversing the order of bet and result. Continuing the old cultural warrior-dom is just going to look crankish and irrelevant. In one of his famous essays, George Orwell noted that the moment he shot an elephant*, ‘it appeared to age instantly’. That’s what Andrew Bolt’s work suddenly looked like on Saturday night.
Given the context, it simply means that a struggle for progressive values moves onto a different kind of terrain and becomes a different struggle – one in which Rudd has to be held up to his own values when he falls short (border protection for example), rather than having to establish the basic principle that cruel xenophobia is wrong.
That demands above all a revitalisation and re-organisation of the Labor left, not merely as a distinct group, but as a group which is based on a set of common and distinct principles. Until the 80s, economics served to distinguish factions – in the brute form of national public ownership, the closed shop, etc etc. Since most of this is out of contention now, a different basis has to be established, and one that foregrounds ethical principles more than the simple old idea of ‘socialism’ did.
That means a few things – re-establishing the apparatus of debate on the Labor Left, such as a distinct thinktank, re-establishing (again) The Labor Essays series, being willing to make cross-party connections with the Greens, connect with community campaigns, the works.
When a swing is on… became the mantra of this campaign. Another way of saying it, is that it takes an earthquake to change the basic shape of the terrain. The earthquake started in ’99, when Steve Bracks knocked off Kennett and it’s been rumbling on ever since. If the demolition agent – a fairly empty and complacent right wing grouping – cleared the slate without having much to put in its place, that at least represents an opportunity. A polity changes, a society changes and everyone in it changes. The belief that there’s only individuals is what has done for the right right across the board.
And in matters of this sort, the symbolic is as important as the real. I mean, come on. If the real deal happens, and John Howard is replaced by a FEMALE, LABOR, ABC JOURNALIST, how could you not see, in her sparkling eyes, a reflection of the light on the hill?
*recent scholarship indicates that he never personally shot an elephant, just saw it being done .