All Australian progressives have had the dream: that some Bernie Sanders-like figure will rise up, gain enough support, and rescue Australian politics from its neoliberal stupor. But who really believes it’s a possibility?
The mainstream left in Australia has been in a state of ideological confusion for some time. The Labor Party tried to distinguish itself from the Coalition in the 2019 election by pushing what they claimed was a “bold policy agenda”. The fact that they saw it in this way is telling of how far they have moved toward the centre in an effort to steal votes from the right.
These days, voters who espouse modern leftist views see themselves more clearly represented by the Greens, and the Coalition continues to successfully convince centrist voters that a vote for Labor means higher taxes and a disastrous economy.
It’s unclear what lies ahead for Labor — and the party’s new leader hasn’t done much to quell the disillusionment. Anthony Albanese has brought nothing new to speak of since he succeeded Bill Shorten after Labor’s May election defeat. Albanese and Sanders are white male politicians, sure, but that’s where the comparison ends.
What Labor needs is a new leader who can break from Australia’s narrow political discourse; somebody who can break with the myth of “progress”, in the name of which anything is permitted.
If there is a chance of Labor shaking things up, now’s the time to do it. An economic crisis has been looming for some time, and the Grattan Institute has found that “today’s young Australians are in danger of being the first generation in memory to have lower living standards than their parents’ generation”. The neoliberal path that we have so fervently marched down is starting to look like a dead end.
So, how could things change in a radical way on the left? Either somebody could appear who, like Sanders, is able to rouse such support that our current complacency turns into fervour, or the public could demand such a figure.
The former situation would require someone within Labor ranks to go against the current grain of Labor thinking and convince the party that they should put their bets on a leader who stands out.
This shouldn’t be entirely ruled out. It’s possible that Labor’s current centrist rhetoric speaks more of a fear of pushing the public too hard than of true centrist belief. Yet none of the familiar faces have espoused any truly socialist values on the economy or led us to believe they are willing or able to battle the nationalist xenophobia that isn’t going anywhere without a fight.
Given this, the latter option is worth more thought. It’s often said that the Australian public is too politically disengaged to support such radical figures. Disengagement doesn’t exactly sum up the current malaise on the left, though. It can better be described as a state of resignation.
Those who once believed radical change was possible can’t even begin to conjure an image of who would bring about such changes today. Meanwhile, young Australians, in all likelihood, don’t even remember Australian political discourse as anything other than the monotonous tit for tat that it has become.
It’s not surprising that people are resigned. It isn’t easy to maintain hope in the face of the rising tide of right-wing extremism, the refusal to accept the global climate emergency, the steady degradation of workers’ rights and the demonisation of minority groups for political purposes. The fact that this trend is global makes resignation feel like a practical stance.
Resignation, though, is a dangerous thing. Resignation is what allows for horrendous atrocities to occur. The sense that we, as individuals, are powerless in the face of change — that occurs in a seemingly extra-human manner — diminishes not only our ability to act, but also our capacity to envision a future that is unlike the present.
It’s up to us to overcome this resignation. We do have the ability to demand better from our politicians, and we have the responsibility to do it. Right now.
Elise Addlem is a writer and philosopher from Melbourne.
What can the Australian public do to demand more from our politicians? Let us know by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication.