Tony Abbott retains a great deal of party support. Unfortunately most of it is in the Labor Party, whose leadership must be simultaneously crossing themselves and pissing razor blades at the possibility that there may be a spill that dumps a man much of the Coalition never liked or identified with anyway, and who has done everything he could to confirm them in that opinion in the last 16 months.

With Abbott in the top spot — has he even had a chance to move into the Lodge or is he still at the police college? Are we allowed to say now that that’s just weird, living in a barracks with fit young men, and some women, when PMC has already paid for a rental for your whole family for the entire time the Lodge will be out of commission? Are we now allowed to say that it’s, like, Pasolini/Tinto Brass-level weird? — where was I, with Abbott in the top spot, the Coalition is running on 43-57.

Exciting. Could they widen? Could it hit 40-60? Would that constitute a spill-triggering event in itself, presuming Abbott hasn’t joined the Fadden/Forde end of the historical PM batting order by the time the next polls hit? Could Labor be dealing with a PM who’s a republican, believes in climate change and economically right-wing but not a dickwit with regard to negotiations by the time the trees on Capital Hill have turned to russet and the last of the January fish pie special at the cafeteria has climbed out of the bain-marie by itself?

We could. Whatever soothing effects the Press Club speech has had on some, it appears to have driven others in the opposite direction and convinced them that the man is incorrigibly rigid and delusional, and that there is no upside to leaving him in place. These are the “Abbott-haters”, apparently. They now constitute a third of the parliamentary party. Perhaps Nick Cater can do a quick phrenology check to see if they have the right skull bumps for responsible government.

Which is of course terrible news for Labor, for they have either shown primo security in guarding their comprehensive pitch for the 18 months of a post-Abbott government, or they have nothing in the barrel, de nada zilch zero zip. Based on the last 20 years of Labor, I wonder which it is?

Obviously it was right for Labor to stand well out of the way last year, as the Coalition’s forces were steadily undermined by Clive Palmer’s Guevara-esque guerrilla tactics. The Coalition was essentially its own opposition, with a little help from Palmer United for a good six months. But that should have been the ideal time to start developing quietly, slowly, some new idea of what Labor is in the 21st century, what its new pitch is, what it’s for. Developing it from the ground up, first of all, and then getting it out there in a low-key way.

Something. Anything. There is nothing. Labor is full of people with good ideas, committed to making a better society, yet there is no leadership in place to gather these ideas up and move towards a new idea of Labor. That is emphatically not a suggestion for a 90-page plan starting with the socialisation of all industry. It is simply an observation that Labor throughout its history was wont to renew itself periodically, with a few pauses, and the current pause is about to hit its third decade. What began as a trade union party of white men became a socialist nationalist party, then a modernising social democratic one, and then a postmodern social market party.

At each point it has had a proposition about what group of people it represents, what it believes the good society is, and how it wants to get there from here. Now, it is simply clueless. “How do you deal with them?” I asked a Greens senator recently. “Do Labor seem confident, or is it like The Poseidon Adventure, and they’re tapping in Morse code from the inside of the hull?” “Poseidon Adventure,” he said. “You go to different parts of the hull to hear what different factions are saying.” Original, not remake, in which the stricken liner represents the hubris of technological society, and the theme song was There’s Got To Be A Morning After. Those were the days. When disaster movies had a song. I wonder, if it were a movie, what the Coalition’s song would be at the moment? Probably There’s Got To Be A Morning After.

“Now, unions are managers of multi-billion dollar capital funds, with an employment dispute resolution service as a side line.”

Labor figures have produced books, some of them good (I especially enjoyed Paul Howes’ Confessions of a Manless Face), and they’re full of ideas for piecemeal reform, but there’s no proposition they can put to a class base, or the electorate as a whole. That’s because there’s very little analysis of how society has changed in what is now a quarter century since the last big proposition was put. That one was the idea that one section of the Australian settlement — tariffs and protection — should be pretty comprehensively abandoned, the pain of a restructuring recession borne, and enhanced training and education be applied to fill the gap with new industries and services. As that process undid old forms of material solidarity, the nation would be reintegrated by a new “cultural nationalism”, with themes of republicanism, post-Commonwealth identity, and multiculturalism at its core.

That was not merely a strategy, it was underpinned by an idea of the good life, of what we should be moving towards. Labor had been, ostensibly, a party of the working class, with a “new class” add-on, and had let the economy and society determine culture. Now it was going to propose a whole new idea of the good life — highly educated and mobile rather than fixed, culturally recombinant rather than settled, global rather than parochial — and take a big section of the population with it. Implicit in that proposition was the idea that a section of the old working class — many of whose working lives, and worlds, were shut down a decade earlier than they would have been — would not go with them, but that new groupings would.

That worked in 1993, but by 1996, the mix had become contradictory. The new national culture being proposed felt alien and elitist to those who had been hardest hit in the early ’90s. John Howard didn’t have to promise to do anything about the economic or life changes to get their vote — he just had to say “political correctness” 189 times and “comfortable and relaxed” once. But in the scheme of things it didn’t matter. He continued most of that program, especially high non-white immigration. Inconvenient as it is to supporters and detractors, Howard’s historical achievement was to make Australia decisively post-European, and to continue and extend the atomising effects of Keating’s other signature policy, compulsory individual superannuation.

This latter policy is Keating’s most significant contribution, and one Labor has yet to deal with. When Bob Hawke left office, workers were dependent on collective arrangements through the state for much of their welfare over life, and trade unions were still workers’ representation bodies, however short they fell on such duties, funded by fees. Now, unions are managers of multi-billion dollar capital funds, with an employment dispute resolution service as a side line. Workers have had their life paths and fortunes not only individualised, but embourgeoisified — anyone looking to retire at 60 and live to 85 on super will be living at least a decade on funds accrued from investment. Good luck to ’em, but the material reality is that they are, in part, rentiers, to use an old Marxist term, with a direct personal interest in the health of the stock market. This is a decomposition of the working class at a fundamental level (something I have found very difficult to explain to actual Marxists).

Thus, it has caused a fundamental decomposition of Labor’s primary vote. As the “new class” — or knowledge/culture/policy workers as I am wont to call them — departed to the Greens, a whole section of suburban workers that Labor could have held onto (especially as it distanced itself from the Greens, culturally) became biddable free agents. It’s not just super obviously: it’s high wages (massively high by a global scale) for jobs that are paid at a pretty basic level elsewhere, property as an asset, private health insurance. This transitional working-middle class is, in its particular form, pretty distinctive to Australia. In the US, it’s simply called the “middle class”, and it’s squeezed, hanging onto a house, living from paycheque to paycheque, fearing bankruptcy if chronic illness strikes. In Europe, it remains bound up in collective welfare: the teacher, the plumber, the shop owner, the nurse all live in public housing, with universal healthcare, oriented to a pension that will support them in a decent manner. And in the UK it’s just pov everywhere, except for Russians and Sir Prince Philip.

So the Australian working-middle class has distinctive power — capable of swinging substantially from side to side — and a distinctive ensemble of political values. Because most are workers, they want state-supervised wage and conditions fixing, they want a moderate social-market style welfare system in place, and they want a viable state sector. But they’re open to privatisation on a case-by-case basis and very attentive to the budget bottom line, and the health of the wider economy. The latter is seen as directly impinging, in a way that it didn’t a generation ago. Budget irresponsibility will be punished, but so too will ideological slash-and-burn, especially if it is seen as threatening an irreversible change. The ’90s angst about “PC” and “elite cultures” etc is gone now. A whole tranche of those most worried about it have simply died of old age.

The ranks of the working-middle class is being filled by people in their 30s who believe in Anzac Day and an apology and recognition, a traditional church wedding and same-sex marriage, stopping the boats, and that multicultural society is just how the world is. They know what debt is because they hold a mortgage that’s 400% of a couple’s combined salary, so they’re not impressed by the Coalition’s intellectually insulting proposition that all debt is death. But they’re dismayed by Labor’s unwillingness to talk about how it got to be as high as it did, and what they’d do differently. They are particularly uninterested in culture wars: they couldn’t give a damn about premiers’ literary prizes or 18C, and it took knighting Sir Prince Philip to get them interested in the government’s cultural follies. What the Right presents as a war on their behalf against elites, they see as an elite game, when they pay attention to it at all. Gonski mattered to them because everyone’s kid is in a class with an autistic kid (or is the autistic kid), and all teaching stops when a single teacher has to attend to her/him. Christopher Pyne’s curriculum review, by contrast, is just more self-indulgent disruption, more Churchill kitsch, a moving target as their kids try and focus on exams on which their lives will hinge. They live in worlds knitted together with social media and global media in which local life is as prominent as it ever was, but national life — the Empire! the Commonwealth! the “It’s Time” nation! creative nation! — has faded from view, save for intense moments of national regrouping, such as the accidental death of one cricketer once. That’s what such moments are for — they substitute for what was once a sustaining, continuous and very present sense of identity. The idea that the government should be setting a cultural agenda strikes them as tantamount to a category error.

“Without this expansion of the domain of struggle … Labor not only has no purpose, but it remains dependent on crisis and failure on the Right.”

Thus they want a government that is very mildly on the centre-left, but that combines that with judicious management. And decisively eschews the cultural malarkey. The good news for Labor is that this class will choose the ALP to do that when the Coalition starts to direct policy from the IPA playbook. The very bad news for Labor is that this class will gravitate to a Coalition that is moderate and evidence-based, and strongly prefer the Coalition as economic managers — because the funds that the government is managing are theirs in a very direct sense, and not simply a general thing called “the economy”.

When a Coalition grouping gets that right, the great sucking sound you hear is many many people whose parents would never have voted anything other than Labor rushing to a Coalition that, if it can keep them over two or three election cycles, might hold onto ’em for good.

Labor has thus deconstructed its base very ably, but it hasn’t built a new one. And it doesn’t have much of an idea how to. From the late 1960s to the 1990s, Labor built up a formidable array of allies giving it advice not merely in economics, but in sociology, and media and cultural matters. This allowed it to successively change its ideas about society, as society was changing rapidly in a post-’60s era. These have pretty much all been chased away now. First-rate figures like Hugh Stretton, Peter Westerway and Anne Summers gave the sort of input that MPs and their advisers can’t get themselves because they’re so focused on the tactical moment — and they were used as much by the Right as by the Left of the party in this matter. Such figures would be derided as wankers these days and given no place. The publication that allowed Labor to repoint itself, the annual Labor Essays, is as distant as Peterloo and the Charter. The 1970s/’80s process whereby the Hawke/Keating/ACTU “Australia Reconstructed” strategy came from the Left — from Laurie Carmichael and the eurocommunists around the CPA — and could only come from there, has vanished too. Labor, as a parliamentary grouping, has let a whole political-cultural hinterland die, without understanding that that was its habitat.

What survives is a narrow and self-mythologising economism, coming largely from the Per Capita group, which amply demonstrates the truth of the old idea that to a hammer, every problem looks like a nail — and a rationally calculating, utility-maximising, marginally useful hammer at that. The world is rising up against the world this sort of economics has produced, but the centre of Labor can’t see that, because that is all that it can see. The only discourse that could be called social-analytic in the Labor camp is that of Tim Soutphommasane — but it’s policy-oriented, and pretty thin stuff compared to what has gone before. Other Labor academics/intellectuals are just vacuous or, below that, Troy Bramston.

Should the Coalition dispatch Abbott, that is going to be the problem from hell for Labor — especially if the new leadership has the audacity to clear the decks, pretty much define the last 16 months as an extended hostage situation, they had to say what this lunatic told them to, etc, etc, but now let’s get back to it. The rapid collapse of Abbott is a gift to the Coalition, and one they could maximise if they made it an occasion for generational change. That is, elevate Bishop not Turnbull, put the latter as Treasurer — where he would be seen by the public as a non-political expert — sack Pyne and Brandis, and replace them with quiet managers with modest programs. Announce a five-year plan for return to surplus, re-affirm a commitment to Medicare, to a modified Gonski and NDIS — which, in realpolitik terms, can be eviscerated in instalments — a new package for higher ed, and congratulations you are now the natural government of Australia again, and you can just bang bang bang Labor over the head with deficits and debt. Labor has nothing to say back, because it has not created anything else to say.

What could/should Labor do, supposing that the Coalition leave Abbott twisting in the gibbet by the crossroads, and they get a reprieve? What they should have been doing is reflecting on what a progressive party is for in the first place — what is implicit in its being. Its general mission is to not take given social existence for granted — to say that there are better and worse collective situations, and that the whole of social life, or a dimension of such, must be transformed at certain times, in service to that. If you don’t believe that, you shouldn’t be in Labor. You should leave and join the Liberal Party and try to make it into a more rational classical-liberal party with a few social-liberal bells and whistles. But if you want to be a Labor Party then what was once its mission — real material improvement of working-class life — has to be seen as a particular case of a more general mission (and I’m leaving out any discussion of the socialist objective). The first part of that struggle was to make people recognise that life was political at all, and that wages, conditions etc were not ordained. That was a reorientation within the left itself across the 19th century, since the movement had began as one that was merely pushing for the extension of liberal rights to the working class.

Today, there is going to have to be the same struggle to draw in a whole series of given conditions as political: housing affordability, free time, childcare and support, commuting and urban quality of life. These are all the things the Right has succeeded in convincing the working-middle class are simply ordained, and how life is — that you work like dogs to pay off floorspace, have no public transport, no time with your kids, or you can’t combine work and childcare because there’s no gain, and so on. These are the barriers in Australia to life getting to the next stage — to a qualitatively better life than the previous generation, and one more expressive of human needs and desires, both simple and complex. That has to be the proposition that Labor makes to the Australian people and makes often enough to turn this stuff — which people bitch about endlessly at barbecues etc — into a political demand. Without this expansion of the domain of struggle — which is in no way a revival of the idea of a bigger state, simply a smarter, more responsive one — Labor not only has no purpose, but it remains dependent on crisis and failure on the Right. The Right are not going to be in crisis forever. They may no longer be in crisis by the end of this week. The Abbott-govt Blunder might have keeled over, leaving Labor on top, banging on the hull, but it could turn again. It’s not over till the fat lady sings. And she’s singing There’s Got To Be a Morning After.*

*oh hang on, that was Maureen McGovern.

Peter Fray

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