Anthony Albanese at the 42nd annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade in Sydney (Image: AAP/James Gourley)

Several weeks ago, a friend remonstrated with me over my characterisation of Labor’s leaders as ageing student politicians. “Sure, most of them, but not Albo. He never played the game.” Cue several weeks later from The Australian:

Screaming socialists at the Mardi Gras“.

Anthony Albanese has been filmed flipping the bird at etc etc…

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Trots v Labor Left at Mardi Gras. It’s difficult to think of an activity that is more ’80s student politics, short of copping off amid the chemicals and heat of the bromide camera room of the student paper.

Socialist Alternative were assailing Albanese for hypocrisy on various points by being at Mardi Gras. Albanese replied: go to hell, he’d been going for more than 20 years.

Fair enough. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? No one’s going to care about Albo flipping the bird (I love Richard Marles’ facial expression beside him in the photo. I know we’re not supposed to do these gags anymore, but it is the look of a long-suffering husband).

But the question is whether the Labor leader should be at Mardi Gras at all?

Following Labor’s 2019 shock not-shock defeat, there was a new push to get the party out of the crosshairs of being greenie-leftie-inner-city.

The first step in that was renouncing its waffling policy on the Adani Carmichael mine, a policy I’m sure was wholly about Queensland rural votes and nothing to do with the influence of ALP hacks turned Adani lobbyists like former Queensland state secretary and Shorten mate Cameron Milner, no sirree. 

Well, I didn’t like that much, but at least it was a sign that Labor was serious about ending the double-game, whereby they stopped trying to both limit their vote leakage to Greens in the inner city while consolidating their base in the suburbs.

The out-and-proud Labor contingent at Mardi Gras suggests they still haven’t got it. Despite all the talk, they still aren’t willing to do what it takes to re-mainstream Labor. 

What it takes to do that, to really do that, is to renounce many of the political habits accumulated since the mainstream-progressive coalition was formed in the 1960s. This coalition survived only so long as the industrial economy and its social classes constituted the social core, and knowledge/culture groups a periphery.

Now the industrial economy is gone, the knowledge/culture economy has come to the centre and its operant group has become a class in its own right. Discursive power, regulatory power, values power have become dominant, or at least significant.

Culture has become a site of struggle across this broad division.

Mardi Gras is a prime example of that, especially in the paradoxical thing it has become. Starting as a mix of Dionysian excess and political protest, it was drawn into the tourism ambit — while retaining the decadent leather/latex/BDSM — before becoming a festival of diversity with a lot of glitter.

Yeah, I know. As the rundown of floats makes clear, the event has become a vast trail of moralising on wheels and corporate pinkwash. Grizzled veterans complain about how acceptable it has become. 

Nevertheless, that’s not the way it looks further out from the GPO. For the actual burbs, it is still an assertion of a contesting ethic, even in an era when same-sex marriage can get a 65% yes vote.

By and large, that’s not so much the old-school horror at “sodomites!” (though it may be in western Sydney, which voted no in the plebiscite) as it is a question of where a Labor leader stands, of who they are for.

Will most of the mainstream care that Albo went to Mardi Gras? No. But some will. They’ll see it as a sign that Labor leaders, for all their talk of going back to the burbs, can’t shake their inner city affiliations.

Indeed, Mardi Gras now perfectly captures the discursive power relations of our era: dozens of floats insisting on a rigid ethic that excludes traditional values, while equating freedom with what many would see as corrosive sexual decadence.

Mardi Gras, coal mines, a pro-boss Fair Work Commission, and the impoverishment of single mothers. Sweet policy suite, comrades. 

People notice this. And it matters. To beat the News Corp hit squads, Labor has to do everything right. It has to absolutely show itself to be a representation of the values and habits of the vast majority.

The great progressive coalition is over, as a unified political force.

Increasingly, powerful sections of social-cultural progressives will be drawn to centrist economic policies and figures that embody it, from Emmanuel Macron to Pete Buttigieg, and to policies that benefit an elite in the name of progressive values. (The rise of a distinct form of surveillance-carceral feminism in response to violence against women campaigns is an example of such.)

Labor leaders talk about rejecting elite and green concerns, and then they dive back into them. It’s all over the shop. 

Albo’s amazing Madani Gras tends to confirm one’s suspicions: that Labor’s leaders really can’t take the full ‘burban trip. They don’t have it in ’em. Formed in the era of the great progressive coalition, they don’t really believe it’s over.

But it is.

Kevin Rudd, the only Labor leader to get a majority in the last 25 years — I repeat, the last 25 years — was so naturally mainstream he may as well have been aluminium-cladded.

Labor has to be on track to win by 20 seats to win by 10, and by 10 to squeak it in. You either go in absolutely hard on the trek to the suburbs, or you stick with the idea of the progressive coalition and make it work.

If the latter, the idea of rubber-stamping Adani Carmichael is absurd. If the former, stay away from Mardi Gras.

Either way, choose a lane. Because time, like a leather BDSM troupe, marches on. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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