In the aftermath of Queensland — a place that, like Vietnam or Dresden or Hell, has become an event — it’s worth revisiting a debate that’s been going on round Leftish traps, regarding the ALP in power, and in the next election. This has centred around two strategies, based on differing perceptions of the party’s character and chances:
1) Grit your teeth, ignore the crap and support the ALP at the next election. Why? Not because of its centre-right policies per se, but because it holds certain things in place, making it easier for a real regeneration in changed circumstances. Thus what remains of Labor’s capital-labour settlement — what’s left of arbitration, Fair Work, etc — not only retains some protections for workers, but also maintains the principle that forces other than the market alone should set the conditions for work, and the framework within which wage and conditions are set.
The carbon tax is slight, but a real commitment, on a global scale, to collective action against climate change. Medicare was politically untouchable in the Howard era, but no longer is. And so on. Labor’s sneak victory would mean that it is as arrogant, out-of-touch and short-sighted as ever before, but that’s the price of the ticket. Should the federal Coalition suffer a loss under Tony Abbott, the above institutions can be preserved through a period in which the failures of a red-in-tooth-and-claw market have not yet become visible to sufficient numbers.
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Meanwhile, the Coalition will be in fresh crisis, having tried a liberal leader (Malcolm Turnbull), a conservative leader (Abbott) and a petrol-station Mr Blowie (Brendan Nelson). It will be devoid of real talent and charisma in its front bench, vicious infighting will begin, generating either an unelectable conservative putsch — even as we speak, Mr Mirabella is laying out his “first gentleman” suit and choosing cufflinks — or a leadership more in line with the distinctive political mix of Australian life, for the inevitable point when it returns to power. Labor will thus have had an epochal, framework-setting win.
2) The worst thing that could happen for Australian politics in the mid-run — i.e. the next 15 to 30 years — is for Labor to somehow eke out another victory in 2013. The party with no real program, save for the aggressive neoliberal agenda of its Emerson wing, would use whatever combination of knavery and fluke got it a victory to decisively avoid any encounter with real reflection that might lead to a durable 21st-century political program. The party would be incapable of leading rather than following, should society continue an easy-money-fuelled rightwards drift, and it would have no credibility should China cough and fall over sideways, and our pitifully underdeveloped condition reveal itself. In this scenario, the Left should actively desert Labor, throw its energy towards the Greens. Labor is most likely cactus anyway, and then participate in Labor’s soul-searching and reconstruction during its decade out of office.
Following the Queensland defeat, there is now a third possibility — that Labor will suffer result 2), and be turfed out, but be subject to process 1), learning nothing and drifting on. There is the junk analysis — such as Bill Ludwig’s comment that Australians don’t like women in power — and the flummery, such as Peter Beattie’s comment that Julia Gillard should buy a house in Queensland. There is simple denial, such as the “it was time” analysis, always a bogus one, especially to explain a wipe-out. Then there is plain and simple magical thinking, which lies at the centre of it — Anna Bligh’s comment that though she was pretty sure the public turfed her for the surprise asset sales move, she “knew in her heart it was the right thing to do”.
Good God, where to start? With Beattie? Move to Queensland? What, so the electorate can throw rocks at two women whose policies and conduct they hate, rather than one? Yeah, that’ll work. That is one right out of the Bligh-on-MasterChef box: “Here’s something I prepared earlier — the fire sale of the electricity grid. Mention it? Did I not? Oh.” Where does this pitiful delusion come from, that people won’t vote Labor simply because they don’t know their leaders well enough? Beattie is the rule-proving exception among these political professionals, a man who retains a sense of how most people see the world. For the rest, keep them away from the people they might well vote for, for the same reason you don’t take the kids for a look-round the abattoir on the way to Sizzler.
As to Ludwig’s comment about women, well, yes the public won’t vote for them, if they keep getting given a chance at power only when things are in crisis, and a shit sandwich has to be delivered. Were some of the women in question to have refused this obvious raw deal, they would have been labelled as “scared of power”. When they take it — from both personal ambition and a sense that the precedent has to be set under any circumstances, they are then declared to be the poison in the chalice. Marvellous.
But above all, what is most significant is that absolute refusal to question either the wisdom, politics or necessity of the asset sales, one of the single most politically destructive moves in the history of Australian politics. Labor had a more solid relationship with sections of its electorate in Queensland than anywhere else — a relationship grounded in its ancient history but forged above all by the decades-long fixed electoral dictatorship of Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
The sense that Labor, the majority choice, was excluded from power by a fix, gave Queensland Labor an extra dimension of solidarity with its base, just as that was withering away elsewhere, under the impact of the wholesale reconstruction of economic and social life in the 1990s. The asset sales move, which treated Labor’s own supporters with utter contempt, and communicated to them that the party’s loyalty was to a technocratic elite, could not have been more precisely designed to f-ck up that relationship if it had been designed in the LNP skunk-works room.
Everything about the way the asset sales were handled — from Bligh’s remark that they were “not negotiable” to the mixing-in of profitable and loss-making assets in the sales basket, to the needless internal war created by the process — was a disaster created by one thing only: the notion that there is an abstract, depoliticised and technocratic series of decisions to be made, within a fixed framework, and that politics is what happens beneath that. Doubtless many of the arguments about refinancing public works were rational, but the non-negotiability was based on the assumption that that was the only possible good that people might see. The alternative possible good — the idea that it is inherently good for large-scale infrastructure to remain in the people’s hands — was simply discounted.
Bizarrely, a partial privatisation program could have been won, if it had been proposed to Labor’s base and the state as a whole, and argued for, as part of a social-democratic (or social-market) bigger picture. Pushing it through as a whole destroyed the remnant idea of a Labor social contract in the state, and any notion of trust. Given the shift to the Right, Labor’s neoliberals will continue to deny that the asset sales played any part. But the reports from exit polls and polling booths appear to be in no doubt that it did (which is why I feel it is at least plausible to write this assessment from half a world away).Why did Bligh, a life-long activist and member of the Socialist Left, take the decision to become the agent of such neoliberal aims, and adopt a crash-through-or-crash strategy? The question is the answer. The social-democratic left collapsed intellectually before it collapsed politically, unable or unwilling, at the heart of the party, to rethink new ways of managing a progressive politics after the failure of large-scale state ownership.
Bligh is an ex-student politician, turned community activist — and like many of that breed, one suspects, rather thin on the intellectual front, and perhaps impatient with anything that isn’t very action-oriented and piecemeal. There has developed on what remains of the “Left” in Labor a resolute anti-intellectualism with regards to politics — the sense that anything deeper than a two-page policy/spin document is a “w-nk”.
That has proved particularly disastrous for Labor for several reason. The first is that it has been willing to open itself to two leaders — Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd — who did have ideas, and then simply adopted them, in the spirit of “we’ve got to have some text to put in the leaflets”. But both men held their ideas as a distinct and individual body of insights, preferences and obsessions, not as the representation of a larger current of thought. The intellectual-political core became an expression of their personalities, not of the ideas themselves, such as they were.
But this has also proved disastrous because the only people in Labor or around it with a consistent body of ideas are the neoliberals — the Craig Emersons, Marn Ferns, Michael Costas, and a host of less-public figures. They’re either schooled in economics faculties — in the same way that a burr-headed rivet is “schooled” in a press — or they came to it through the long failures of centre-left politics. The latter group sell it like a new faith, the former are simply incapable of thinking outside of its percepts. They steamroller whatever vestigial and instinctual opposition practically minded people of a leftish disposition might put up.
Increasingly, many such people in Labor see any intra-party remnant opposition to neoliberalism as “the real enemy”, and direct more energy against that, than outside of the party. That state of affairs means that the party membership boundary no longer describes a single entity. The division between the neoliberals and what remains of social democracy in the party is greater than the fiercer political splits of the ideological faction years. Whatever the difference between a (Catholic) Right and a Socialist Left, neither thought that the market should define human being, social institutions or public culture.
The ALP neoliberals, out of fascination at the alleged (and illusory) Promethean power of a virtually unlimited market to lift the world to a higher state of being, are utterly indifferent to any more rounded conception of existence, the role other institutions — the state, NGOs, community networks, voluntary organisations, etc — might play in it, and how a social-democratic party might find ways of working through mediating non-market, non-state institutions. So now neither Right nor Left in the party have much time for genuinely new ideas, and they fuse with a clique of professional spin doctors, some of whom have gone from failure to failure across several continents, spruiking a pseudo-scientific expertise as the reason they should be hired afresh.
We have seen such a mix of delusion, bafflement and before — the pyramid cities of the Lambayeque Valley in Peru for one, whose inhabitants believed they could hold off the approaching conquistadors if only they could tear enough hearts out of living chests. High-priestess Bligh’s asset sales was a mild re-enactment — a state in a country in a resources boom believing that the answer to a mild deficit was to privatise the heart of state-owned infrastructure.
The belief system that makes this sacrifice appear rational is an imaginary one; the consequences are all too real. For Labor to be anything at all over the next two decades, it will have to begin a parallel strategy — first, drafting some sort of next-term program it could take to the people in the next election that would project a genuine idea of how life could be better, and from what basis that springs. But it should also lay the ground for the work it will have to do in opposition, when it most likely ends up there — to work out what a Labor Party is for, as something more than an outpipe for global capital. For the men and women of action, such a process will undoubtedly seem like a “w-nk”. But in Queensland now, there’s not a lot of action and sod all to do. There’s a reason the now-deserted Lambayeque Valley is known by the locals as Purgatorio, and it’s a long-walk through.