Good god there must be some snappy way to open a piece on John Faulkner’s Wran oration, something piquant expressing the paradox about the way in which the most admirable figure in the Labor party has delivered a set of solutions which simply recapitulate and deepen the problem. But I got nothing, nada, zip.

It’s just very depressing to have to echo, of all people, Mark Latham, to speak of, of all people, John Faulkner: the address Annabel Crabb describes as the “speech of his life” is, in fact, his Seinfeld moment: it is a speech about nothing.

Faulkner’s Wran oration says little more than commentary on the Labor Party has been saying for the past two decades — that it is becoming a narrow professional outlet, separated from a dwindling membership base, steered by daily public opinion and reliant on an increasingly personality-focused media.

Indeed, this recitative has now become a part of Labor tradition itself, stretching back to Gordon Childe’s How Labor Governs of 1912, his excoriating attack on Queensland’s professional machine Theodore government. Labor, in this account, is always fallen from its former view of purity and intent. Labor loves these Eeyore moments — it appeals to its mendicant Catholic Irish soul.

That notion of original sin is never very helpful in getting a clear-eyed view of what’s gone wrong, and never more so than now. For Labor genuinely is in dire straits, subject to a double whammy — having become the depoliticised machine that Childe slated early on, it has now ceased to be an effective version of it. The tragedy of modern Labor is that it does nothing well, neither holding a political-ethical line, nor delivering sure and steady governance and reform.

Disentangling that double problem is tricky, and the arguments Faulkner brings to it don’t do the trick — indeed he has no arguments about why this has occurred, merely a recitative of what has occurred. To a degree this represents one of the problems that has beset Labor: it is not that Bondi flotsam such as Karl Bitar washed up on the shore of the party, but that the people who most want to reform it lack even the ghost of a theoretical framework to reflect on how modern society and parties work.

Faulkner, like many of the activists Labor attracted in the 1970s and ’80s, were those who always cleaved to the anti-theoretical side of life. Emerging from the social movements of the day, they were never attracted to the Marxist tradition — and the declining theoereticism and sectarianism of that period propelled them further away, not merely to being anti-big-T-theory, but to anti-systemic thinking. To linger on anything other than practical reform was held to be self-indulgent.

Perhaps I exaggerate and someone will dig up various writings by Faulkner and others in that spirit — but let’s stipulate for the record that there is nothing of that sort in the Wran oration. Faulkner cannot even understand his own causes, and older models of Labor, except in that dissected, atomised way. Here for example is Faulkner on what Labor used to stand for, and actively debate:

“Opinions, however, varied on what should take priority in that struggle, and what policies and legislation would best achieve it. Ending Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, defending unions and unionists in the workplace, fighting apartheid in South Africa, free tertiary education and health care, decriminalising homos-xuality, better sewerage for the suburbs, workplace equality for women, preserving Australia’s environmental heritage, modernising Australia’s censorship laws, preventing nuclear proliferation — the list of Labor’s concerns was a long one.”

It should be obvious to anyone that practically all these issues are isolated social movements (albeit with some kick-on), which have little to do with what should be Labor’s core mission — advancing the notion of a good society based on universal human flourishing, collectively and individually, achieved largely, but not exclusively, by redistributing economic power to create something approaching genuine democracy. State socialism, and then social democracy, were two ways of trying to do that, but they should not be confused with ends in themselves.

Faulkner can only figure that core aim as a defensive one — defending unions in the workplace — and their practical applications, free education and healthcare.

What he figures as vigorous debate between the factions, about these issues, wasn’t per se about these issues — it was about two differing conceptions of the political role held by two factions, the Catholic Right and the Socialist Left, who would otherwise have been different parties.

The Catholic Right had a conception of labourism that was conservative not emancipatory: based on Rerum Novarum, it asserted that Labor’s role was to limit the nihilistic process of capitalism in the name of an ordered society, extending positive freedom — freedom from hunger, freedom from penury — to the working class. The Socialist Left — stretching back to the decision of the Victorian Socialist Party to join with Labor in the 1910s (bringing a young John Curtin with them) — had an entirely different conception of the political, even if this came and went.

They were not communists, but they shared a conception of political possibility with the communists to a greater degree than current political history is willing to admit (both Chifley and Curtin, for example, were interested in, if barely informed of, the Italian Communist Party’s gradual creation of an alternative model to Stalinism, which would eventually become eurocommunism).

The main game was not per se Vietnam or apartheid — it was what Tony Benn once succinctly summarised as the purpose of genuinely progressive Labour parties: to create permanent irreversible change in the periods when it was in power, even if that meant spending a lot of time out of it.

Indeed, by the time of the period Faulkner is talking about, the late ’70s and into the ’80s, when he remembers bitter factional disputes, that debate was already over. In the mid ’70s, the whole spectrum had been radical and transformative — the Whitlam government was pursuing the idea of buying up the entire resource base of Australia, and pursuing the Swedish “Meidner” plan of buying up the private sector through the stockmarket to socialise it. Bob Hawke’s ACTU was pursing the model of creating a producer-consumer circuit via worker-owners such as Bourke’s department store, and the Solo petrol station chain. An impossibly radical plan today, at that point it was being attacked from the left as lacing people into consumption.

With the collapse of the left very rapidly in the 1970s, an entirely different idea of Labor’s path to redistributing power took over, one conceptualised within the “social market” neoliberalism of Hawke-Keating. Ostensibly more radical it was limited in aim — conforming society to market-generated ideas of human being and the good life. Labor became an agent of means, not ends.

Not only did left and right collapse into each other within the Labor party, but Labor essentially conformed itself to the explicit agenda of the non-Labor forces, who saw no contradiction between the market and the good life. But to acknowledge this is to acknowledge a collapse within Labor that cannot be reversed by the mean contained within its own structures — administrative reform, reconnecting with the activists, etc.

Were the Labor Party to have a genuine idea of a better way of living, it would be able to reach effortlessly to reconnect with people who were once its constituents, but who can no longer be described as a unified working class (a point I’ll return to on Monday). They don’t want state socialism or even social democracy, but they would go for permanent irreversible change in the fabric of their lives — like using the power of the state to create affordable housing by fixed rate state mortgages, compelled land release, large-scale urban replanning and the like.

Labor should use this and public bond issues to guarantee everyone can get a first home, close to good facilities in any major city for $150,000. If it partnered that with extended paid parental leave, mandated flexible working hours, and real action on climate change, it would be in power for ever.

In that situation, it wouldn’t matter a damn about the decay of Labor cadres, the profusion of maggots at the top, focus group obsession, etc. A philosophy of life that flows to policy is what Labor needs. The rest is noise — and sadly Faulkner’s Wran oration adds to it.