When it was announced last week that former minister Stephen Conroy had taken a major position with gambling industry lobbyist, ahaha, Responsible Wagering Australia, the reaction was resigned, rather than angry. Coming on top of everything that has happened to the left and progressives in 2016, it was just a kiss of the whip.
Conroy had resigned abruptly some months earlier; doubtless this was motivated by no more than the sudden realisation that he had nothing further to give to the Australian people. That it created a time gap between his resignation and his acceptance of the new job surely had nothing to do with it — though it has worked out exceedingly well in that regard.
Watching another Labor/union heavy cross over to lobbying for business has lost its power to shock. There was merely a sense of something further deflating. Doubtless Conroy will gain some camouflage from the name of the group, which brings to mind an NGO. But of course RWA represents CrownBet, Betfair, Unibet, and Bet365, among others — all companies that have a duty to their owners to maximise their profits, which means maximising the presence and spread of gambling, in most circumstances. Labor heavies clearly assume they can all do this, and that opposition, or even awareness of it, will be minimal in places where it matters most, and that it can simply go on indefinitely, the political caste conveyor belt, from student politics to Parliament to Richo’s Chinese Restaurant.
They may be right. But these things are cumulative and times are changing. The Labor/business conveyor belt isn’t new — “Red” Ted Theodore was perhaps the first consequential Big Labor figure to make his fortune in the media, from, among other things, founding the Australian Women’s Weekly — but there were long decades in which most Labor figures were content to retire on their pension, as was, or even go back to their goddamn jobs (that’s right, Labor pols were once people who had had jobs).
That began to shift in the Hawke/Keating years and because of the politics of those years — Hawke’s endorsement of the idea of “consensus” followed by Keating’s giving it content as a business-friendly move. As the creation of consolidated unions and large super funds bridged the union-business gap, and most unions became, de facto, labour management organisations, delivering their members to the employers, the line between labour and capital dissolved. What difference did it make which side you were on, the union or the merchant bank, if you were simply managing the expectations of workers-members? The structural shift means that it is not merely the obvious rats — the Mal Colstons — willing to slip across. It is the people who never had much of a conflict model of politics in the first place, who simply find that there is no barrier, internal or external to the passage across.
Indeed, such is the spirit of the time that one has to note why it’s so undermining that Conroy slid across so easily. It’s not simply going from being a politician to being a lobbyist. It would be irritating even if Conroy were becoming a flack for the Australian Humidifier Manufacturer’s Association or some such. But his crossover involves far more. He’s taking the specific knowledge gained and applying it for profit back against structures he put in place. He’s doing it for an industry that relies on an addiction/dependency model in order to generate revenue, and sell the consumer to the product.
Labour as a movement relies on going in the opposite direction — to encourage people caught in the constraining circumstances of wage-labour to free themselves by becoming as fully understanding of their circumstances as possible, and change them through collective action. This involves a journey to fuller reflexive autonomy. Thus, the much maligned 19th-century temperance movement was essential to the creation of the labour movement — because without self-possession, en masse, there can be no collective action. You have to regain a continent selfhood in order to give part of it back to collective action.
The relentless spread of gambling works against that sort of subjectivity, that sort of citizenship. That it should be legal is as without doubt as that its spread should be limited. That’s especially the mechanised gambling of the pokies, which are simply “weaponised” Skinner boxes — conditioned-response tools, their design refined ceaselessly to bypass reflective decision-making. You couldn’t make up a better example of the manner in which atomised “choice” — hundreds per hour — defeats any possibility of real freedom, for hundreds of thousands of people in Australia, and the millions who are close to them.
Conversely, genuine and hard restrictions on their availability is, for many, the path to freedom, by removing the need to repeatedly make a decision not to gamble. The gambling industry adopted “responsible gambling” only after it realised that the social cost of its industry was so high that something would happen if it didn’t. Since then, it has offered a main course dolmades serve of fig leaves to put on the central fact of gambling: its relentless availability online and offline.
So Conroy’s new commitment is not just to a quick-bucks payout. It’s to an industry that actively demoralises and disempowers, and forwards the sort of society in which Labor cannot prosper, because you cannot base a party of collective advancement on an individualised and atomised social life. Would Stephen Conroy care about this? Who knows?
The current generation of Labor Right have always been something of a mystery to me. The old Labor Right were aligned against socialism and communism, understandable enough. The new Labor Right are such a mix of genuine centrists, venal schemers and delusional narcissists that it’s hard to draw a bead on them. They suffer from a want of ethical desire — there is nothing they want very much to happen, nothing they want greatly to change. It’s difficult to know whether someone like Stephen Conroy always aspired to be a flack for Big Destitution, or whether he’s someone who started with modest aims, and has had his ambitions up-sized by being around all that money. He could take his lifelong super and head up an NGO, and he’d still pull in $300k+ a year — and do decent things for the country. He wants to be where the big boys are, with their big incomes, as a toady and factotum for James Packer. Pathetic.
Well, keep at it. Individually these things make no difference. Cumulatively, they become too big to be ignored. Despite Brexit, despite Trump, despite the fact that labour parties are actually starting to die — witness Scottish Labour, now essentially a ghost party, a distant third behind the SNP and the Tories — they think they can get away with this forever. Yet when the populist impulse hits Australia it will, because so long delayed, hit hard.
Keep joining the banks, the global corporations, the industry bodies, Labor. Keep being not the faceless men, but the manless faces. You are taking a big gamble on the continued inattention of the Australian public. The party will deserve what happens, we won’t deserve the consequences of the party doubling down on its decades of elitism, complacency and self-satisfaction. Cue further gambling metaphors here. Note that they’re all about loss.