Many years ago I interviewed the newly elected New South Wales premier Neville Wran about his ambitions for his state. Disappointingly, they appeared pretty unexciting: more cafes, more outdoor eating spots, more inner city nightlife.
So if this was really the limit, I asked, why had he given up a stellar legal career for the thankless drudgery of state politics? Nifty did not miss a beat. “To keep the other bastards out,” he rasped, and, when you looked at the other bastards — leftover henchmen from the appalling regime of Robert Askin — this seemed a pretty laudable aim.
One could argue that Tony Abbott’s guiding credo is not all that different, although his negativity in Opposition probably has less justification. But then comes the more pertinent question: just who are the bastards he is seeking to replace, and what, if anything, do they represent?
The question has to be pertinent, because the bastards themselves are asking it, and in increasingly shrill and desperate tones. Over the past few days the ALP and its supporters and critics have been engaged in a positive or*y of navel gazing, without, it must be admitted, finding much except fluff.
It started with Greg Combet’s launch of the book All That’s Left, a collection of essays edited by Tim Soutphommasane and Nick Dyrenfurth, seeking to identify a sense of purpose and direction for the party. Combet, a leading figure of the Left and a senior cabinet minister widely seen as a prime ministerial aspirant, was unable to go beyond cliché: Labor needed to reaffirm its guiding values of equity, social justice and compassion.
Some, like the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher, saw in this an implied rejection of the right-wing power brokers who installed Julia Gillard as leader, and in particular the trolls of Sussex Street and their chief nibelung Mark Arbib, now improbably waving the banner of gay marriage. But other commentators blamed Gillard more directly.
In The Australian (where else?) Ross Fitzgerald said bluntly that she lacked the political courage to attempt any big reform. Peter van Onselen described the challenges facing her as colossal but not impossible, and pointed to a lack of ideological direction and concerns over what the party stands for. Paul Kelly, as always the most pompous, saw her besieged by policy challenges that demand far-reaching and convincing responses that so far seem beyond Labor’s political character. Surprisingly, he refrained from setting her a series of tests.
The AWU national secretary Paul Howes said the challenge was to effect change to make society more equal, prosperous and progressive and to involve the electorate in the changes — but added that Gillard seemed unwilling to provide real leadership on climate change and refugees. Mark Latham, in an only marginally rabid essay in The Monthly, also suggested climate change as one issue on which Labor could and should crusade but concluded that the difficulties were too formidable; the unions in particular would be too much baggage.
And the same applied to his other ideas, that Labor should become the party of social capital, rebuilding a sense of community, and that Labor should take on the existing power establishment — which of course includes the unions. Boof’s conclusion was that the future actually lay not with Labor but with the Greens — a conclusion with which Bob Brown naturally agreed, although he might have had his doubts about its source.
And so the list went on, with the pontificators lining up to give their views on the dire plight of Labor and the need to relocate its heart and soul — but not one making a solid suggestion for a positive move Labor can make in government. Because this is the real point: Labor is in power, still, in every parliament in Australia except one.
This situation is unlikely to endure for very long, but the time for frenzied introspection is after losing, not before. Government is a time for action, and if a defeat appears to be looming, this makes the need to get things done in the days remaining all the more crucial. And in Gillard’s case, the stricture does not apply: her minority government may appear tenuous, but there is no reason to suppose it will collapse in the foreseeable future.
She and her colleagues should not get caught up in post-mortems about the campaign of 2010; leave that to the historians and the academics, and, if the party must involve itself, to the backroom apparatchiks; that, after all, is what they are paid for. She is there to govern and must be seen to be doing so, to be — how should one put it? — moving forward.
And the unexpected re-emergence of the banks as a major public issue provides a perfect opportunity to do so. Gillard and Wayne Swan lost the early initiative to the Opposition but there is ample opportunity to regain it. Their proposed legislation to lower exit fees should be seen as just a start, as should Joe Hockey’s bill to bring in the ACCC and Nick Xenophon’s limited exercise in the senate.
Swan should establish a root-and-branch inquiry into the industry with the aim of increasing competition and eliminating anti-social charges and practices and he should do it before Christmas. There will be no lack of public support. Some 80 years ago, Pete Seeger sang:
I saw the weary farmer, ploughing his sod and loam;
I heard the auction hammer, just knocking down his home.
But the banks are made of marble, with a guard on every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver that the farmer’s sweated for.
Attitudes haven’t changed that much; just about everyone still hates the banks, and of course they have always had a special place in the demonology of Labor and the Left. It’s time to take the lead and get stuck into the real bastards.