The news cycle in Australia, already fast, would appear to have crossed the sound barrier if the reaction to John Faulkner’s Wran Lecture is anything to go by.

On the one hand this was held to be a bold intervention in business as usual in the ALP, unprecedented etc etc. Yet on the other, after a flurry of reports, it has disappeared beneath the waves, without any follow up. The oration struck me as a little content-free, to say the least, yet even I’m surprised at the degree to which people have moved on.

Of course more than the news cycle, the response may be due to the paradox of the oration itself — though it purported to tell the ALP a few home truths, its effect was rather the opposite. It reassured the true believers that the party was one of, well, true belief, and that therefore no deeper questioning of the context and character of the party was required. The myth of the Fall was remobilised. The good party in Australia had fallen into the hands of apparatchiks and focus groups, but things were solid underneath.

Over the weekend, a few people — and they got a bit shouty about it — wanted to tell me that I’d been too harsh on Faulkner, who is one of the good guys, and doing his best in difficult circumstances. Well, fair enough. Attacking the Faulkner oration wasn’t intended to be a plague on him, or the whole house — rather, it was a expression of some disappointment that one of most high-profile people still interested in the ALP being a transforming party could say so little about the deeper political and philosophical questions it faces.

But of course this is the most important thing the ALP has to do — since even the apparatchiks who would be cynical about anything like that must realise by now that Labor needs something that can as used by a ‘brand’, if they can see it no other way. The last five years should surely have shown them that.

Five years ago — it seems, sometimes, like twenty — the party was facing a confident coalition who appeared to have made the tricky jump of becoming the natural representative of the Australian people. The books looked good, even if that disguised a lot of unevenness. Suddenly they were gone. WorkChoices was a part of it, but if the ALP had been in its current low-horizon piecemeal shambolic state, it could have lost that one too. What it had was Rudd, and — as it now seems — his virtually one-man proposal that the ALP should be a party that tries to change the basic conditions of people’s lives, for the better, after having presented them with a programme for doing that, and being voted up on it.

Yet even Rudd’s pitch was fairly anodyne in terms of what has gone before; and it quickly veered off into eccentric wonkiness, such as the 2020 conference, and then lost its nerve altogether on climate change. That it was driven by one man who became politically isolated was indicative of the fact that it was a continuation of the problems the party has had since 1996: the absence of a core self-understanding of its own mission or reason for being.

Getting to the heart of that is crucial to the ALP’s survival and revival as a party that is not simply, perpetually, on the ropes. Whether its collapse would be a good thing or not is another question — but since that is not on the cards, and the only choices are robust Labor or a half-dead one for large-scale progressive politics, it’s worth throwing some ideas in.

Labor, at is heart, for all the anti-intellectualism and pseudo-gangsterism that sometimes surrounds it, is an existential party, or it is nothing at all. By existential, I mean it is a party that has to have an idea about what qualitatively matters in people’s lives, about what sort of comprehensive vision it is playing back to its supporters and potential supporters, based on their various expressed demands and desires. That programme has to express those desires, but it can’t be merely the sum of them — it has to transcend them, and to carry a grander idea of life than conservative parties, or economist liberal ones.

For much of its existence, Labor’s existential mission was expressed in a simple task: the advancement of positive freedom, the freedom that comes from not being one week’s wages away from penury, unable to afford a doctor, perpetually at a landlord’s mercy and the like. Such freedoms are existential not because they satisfy our animal needs, but because they allow us to take those for granted, as secured, and thus develop genuine and uniquely human aspirations, projects and lives. When a whole class is subject to the absence of this freedom, then you have an existential-political movement — one that separates itself entirely from charity, religion or the like.

But when these needs have been by and large satisfied, three things happen — first the monolithic class on which you were based breaks apart, second, those who are still subject to that unfreedom are pushed into minority subclasses lacking political clout, and third, the existential role of your politics becomes lost as the idea that politics bodies forth human meaning is scattered by the very prosperity you achieved in the first place.

When you’re faced with that dilemma, a party can do one of two things: it can either convert itself into a party of conservative prudential management of the status quo — which is arguably what an outfit like the German social democratic party has done — or it can go deeper into the heart of existential politics and devise a new programme, a new style of programme, to present to supporters.

The interesting dilemma for the Labor Party is that sometimes option one isn’t available, because another party has grabbed that cultural role — and if you try and take it from them, you will always be found wanting. European social democratic parties became conservative in style because of the European way of life — more collective, modest in personal consumption, etc etc — to which they fitted. Labor can’t do that, because our very form of life — suburbanised, individualised etc — fits the Liberal minimalist model.

Going deeper into Labor’s existential core to come up with a majority programme of real human progress, means drawing social questions back into the political realm — questions that Labor has acquiesced in being indivdualised or excluded from politics. Faulkner’s willingness to refer to ancillary political achievements — Vietnam etc — of Labor — showed a continued unwillingness to connect the older style of big politics to a new expression of it. I would have thought there was ample room for that in starting up questions about how people want to live, the various structures and textures of their lives, and whether wider genuine choices would not be something people wanted.

That would be, above all, about politicising all that has been sold as inevitable — that securing first housing in a big city must involve diving into a flaming pit of debt (often, as some are, weighed down with student debt) in a way that ties you down to ceaseless work, or the fear of losing it, to the vast unpaid labour of the commute, to the lack of real flexibility in gaining free time without trading away security — and so on.

The truth is that though Australians are relentlessly sold the idea that they live in paradise, the reality is that many people lives are weighed down with these obligations, and stunned into anxiety by the prospect of worse. They live this way in a situation of growing inequality, and a sense of exclusion for all but a diminishing class. The fatalism that many Australian commentators mistake for acceptance or consent then creates an almost perpetual displacement of political anger — to refugees, who symbolise yet more competition, that of the whole world, or recently, bizarrely, to Indonesian meatworkers.

Labor will live by tapping into that unspoken demand — the demand for a better life less easily quantifiable than earlier expressions of it. It will have to do that, as it had to do it in the nineteenth century, detaching people from pious notions that poverty was god’s will, and advancing a notion of right, as a human being. It will have to do that because there is no other way for it to proceed — save for twilight half-existence that has now lasted for fifteen years, and could go on perpetually. Whatever will fix it, it sure has hell won’t be an admin review.

Peter Fray

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