Tanya Plibersek (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Seven years ago, during the 2013 election campaign, there was a debate at the Broncos Leagues Club in Brisbane — just about the most blokey place you could have, outside of a men’s rights meeting in a UFC changing room I guess.

(In the foyer, they had a statue, over a fountain, of a bronco rampant, and I do mean rampant. You could have hung your coat on that thing. Your club fees at work.)

There, Tony Abbott — remember him? — was spruiking his scheme for paid parental, mostly maternity, leave. It was something not popular with his party, nor much of the base.

In the Q&A a man stood up, not a blokey type, but a tradie, and he said that he supported the idea of extending the existing, paltry arrangements. But Abbott’s idea of making it 1:1 with existing salary up to $150,000 was a deal-breaker for him, and many others, and he wondered why so much consideration was being given to the “pretty little lady lawyer from the North Shore” who would be taking up such a scheme.

With that killing phrase and caricature, the scheme was dead, and faded from the campaign.

The moment returned to mind last week when Tanya Plibersek began spruiking the idea of an Australian pledge of allegiance — part of Labor’s push to ditch its image as, to paraphrase Woody Allen, “inner-city communist homosexual pornographers” and reconnect with the ‘burbs.

That push is worth doing, indeed it’s essential for Labor to do, though the move created a howl of reproach from parts of the left inside and outside of the party.

There was, after the shock election loss, some hope on my part, that Labor might turn things around by having a deep think about what Labor and labour was in 2020, what social class and party was, and what a social democratic should therefore propose.

Faint hope. They’ve gone for the symbols and gimmicks.

Fair enough too, to a degree, to get back in the game. But the crucial art to this schtick is knowing what you can get away with, and, dear me, does anyone really believe that Tanya Plibersek has a deep desire to stand before a flagpole, make the cubs/brownies salute and recite a loyalty pledge?

The trouble for Labor in starting up all this malarkey is that Plibersek is exactly the sort of person people have in mind when they talk about “pretty little lady lawyers from the North Shore”.

Plibersek and her retinue will squawk at that and insist that her family came over on a raft, worked in the slurry pits, she got to uni etc etc… so “pretty* little lady lawyer from Newtown” then.

People outside both Newtown and Mosman make less distinction between them than those within them do. They may like or dislike Plibersek, see her as a good member, but they know who she is, and she ain’t the pledge-making type.

Nor is Chris Bowen, nor Richard Marles, nor Penny Wong. Albo maybe, just maybe, but only ‘cos he looks like a nasho lance corporal on latrine duty.

Indeed, the ham-fisted manner in which Labor has taken up the patriotism cause has the risk of taking them backwards, since it is, to many, so obviously not felt.

When was Australia Day ever about pledges of allegiance, before the day became a culture-war artefact? Wouldn’t it have been better to suggest a barbeque? They could just about get away with that, if they skipped the artisanal sausages and grilled swordfish. And there they could find some way to talk about the nation from within progressive traditions, something felt and personal. 

Whatever their class origins, Labor’s leaders may love their country and their society, but they aren’t “patriotic” in the sense they’re trying to dodge up. At the heart of patriotism is an irrationality, like love — you “know” at one level that your country, your lover, is not special, but really, they are — that can’t be faked. 

This mildly comical pledge push (a pledge pin! On your inner-city elite uniform!) appears to be a revival of Tim Soutphommasane’s “progressive patriotism” idea, spruiked a decade or so ago before being adopted by Kevin Rudd, and then, for a while, by Ed Miliband and other great political successes.

The problem with Soutphommasane’s formula, which sought to overcome the idea that all progressives think Australia is a racist sinkhole, was that it proposed to remove all concrete content from patriotism and replace it with a series of abstract values, to which we adhere.

It was, in other words, an elite piece of cultural engineering, exactly the sort of thing that the mainstream found suspicious and creepy.

Nick Dyrenfurth, in his recent programme for Labor’s renewal via a return to a more socially conservative — or more, let’s say suburban-aligned — value base, has recommended Soutphommasane’s programme without recognising that it’s in direct contradiction to the reconnection he seek for the party.

The idea of a pledge is exactly that sort of abstract formula that looks like patriotism to people who don’t really know what the passion of patriotism feels like. It’s like that episode in Third Rock From the Sun when they try and work out what the purpose of french kissing could possibly be.

That is a fault with Dyrenfurth’s programme — the general aims of which I agree with — more broadly: it’s an elite re-engineering of the party, in the cause of being less elite.

If followed — and it appears to be influential — it will produce these embarrassments all the way to 2022. And it will always be undermined by Labor’s elites themselves, who won’t be able to keep up the act. Take a look at Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy’s statement today over whether one right-wing culture warrior should get a minor gong or not. Yeah, really crucial issue.

If you’re a pretty little lady lawyer from the northside, that is.

Labor is going to have to find a way to connect to the mainstream from within the progressive tradition. Otherwise it will be on the barbeque, not around it.

*I’m keeping the “pretty” in, here and below, out of sheer gallantry.