It is perhaps some indication of just how shallow and instrumental Australian politics has become that it was the prime minister’s embrace of relatively moderate proposals for reforming the ALP which dominated media coverage of Julia Gillard’s speech to the Chifley Research Centre in Canberra last week.

Not that organisational reform is unimportant. Instead, as has been pointed out repeatedly by Bernard Keane and Guy Rundle in the virtual pages of Crikey, Labor’s current set of dilemmas are more fundamental in nature. Hence Gillard’s iteration of the party’s core values merits some close analysis.

Party organisation may change, but Labor values endure — or so Gillard would have us believe. The PM’s assessment of Labor’s values as elaborated on Friday may be summarised as: opportunity for all through access to education; leaving nobody behind due to health or disability, and a general sense of intergenerational responsibility, all accompanied by pride in “union heritage and union links”. Nobody on the left of politics could disagree with any of this, but as a formulation of “values that we have fought for in the past and that we will fight for to our last breath” it feels pretty anaemic. The ALP’s vision of the good society and the party’s sense of mission must be greater than equal opportunities with labour-traditional twist.

Having set out her version of Labor’s values, the prime minister then argued the central predicament of our times — and the political challenge for the ALP — is that unprecedented liberty of choice has come at the cost of people feeling grave insecurity:

“We live in an age which at its best is one of individual empowerment and at its worst is one of stress, anxiety and confusion … for too many people, the lived reality of a world of so much promise is actually one of feeling adrift in a sea of information and overwhelmed by too much change. The lived reality is one of feeling that they have lost control of their own lives.”

In this context, Gillard sees the political problem for the democratic left as arising from the tensions between liberty and equality:

“[M]any commentators have predicted that the social democracy has past its use by date. That our notions of collective action, solidarity, unionism, are incompatible with today’s individualism.”

Gillard’s response — her particular effort at the squaring of liberty with equality — is to suggest that in an age of globalisation, the emancipative purpose of the latter is to facilitate the former:

“[T]oday our ethos of collective action must respond to individual needs and demands for choice and control … Australians want to make their own choices and control their own lives. But this can only happen if the power of collective action, in creating opportunity, sharing risk and not leaving any one behind, is joined to meaningful individual empowerment, joined to personal choices and control. This is our Labor mission today.”

What is so striking about this analysis is the extent to which it reproduces an idea of the good life that seems inherently neoliberal as much as anything socially democratic. Counting how often a key term is used in a speech can be a crude tool, but in this case the word cloud precipitates a clear story. In Gillard’s rendering of Labor’s values, the word “society” is not mentioned once, while the word “choice” appears more than 20 times. There is no real sense of the communal as having a value beyond the fulfilment of self, or that the Labor Party’s abiding purpose should be more than just realising gain on the part of individuals.

Any ambitious government must also have a socio-political strategy and the problem for Labor is that you can’t rectify preferential abundance and self maximisation — “[i]t is our task to ensure that every Australian has every choice” said Gillard — and assume that collective institutions will look after themselves. This much should be clear from the UK experience, where a decade of New Labour’s harping on about aspiration had the well-documented effect of transforming the electorate in to being far less inclined towards social redistribution.

The life paths referred to by Gillard are also revealing:

“For a long period of time, our great movement believed that the highest aspiration of working people was for a decent job. Now we understand it can be to run a decent small business. Protecting rights at work will always be central but building skills, rewarding enterprise, encouraging the embrace of risk, helping people be their own boss, is part of the dream of working people too.”

The contrast between the “aspiration” for a “decent job” and the “dream” of running a “decent small business” at the expense of all else is striking. It is right for the thrift and hard work of small business to be honoured by a Labor prime minister, but it is extraordinary that no other life paths — vocations, professions, public servants, farmers or full-time parents, for example — rate any mention.

The Australian lives implied in Gillard’s speech are also curiously invulnerable. Incapacity is spoken of as a “risk”, as if it were somehow possible to never be a baby, or to avoid the need for succour that precedes dying. Natural life paths are obscured, while care is impliedly conceptualised as unfortunately necessary, to be provided for as a “service” rather than something essential to realising our humanity.

Gillard correctly diagnoses the sheer array and consequences of choice in a globalised world as a source of deep social anxiety, but her prescription does not address the central angst of uncertainty itself. The fundamental omission is fraternity (and sorority) to go with liberty and equality (and the 21st century addition of sustainability).

In her rendition of Labor values, the prime minister left out any sense of how community — which is essential to an enduring sense of the secure self — is meant to cohere or function in the face of the hurry and instability of post modern post industrial globalisation. You cannot mend the existential insecurity of too much choice with more choice: it is a logical and sociological non sequitur.

Peter Fray

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