The Australian Labor Party is Dead

[This was published by On Line Opinion, 12 May.]

Isn’t it time we declared the Labor Party officially dead?

The party has become a façade, an empty shell, a Faux-Labor Party.  It lost its vision long since.  It has forgotten why it exists.  It has no purpose, other than to gain power for the egos that inhabit it.

Lacking a vision, Faux-Labor is purely reactive.  Lacking a vision, it cannot frame issues to its advantage.  It cannot seize the initiative.  Caught awkwardly in its opponents’ framing, it is forever on the back foot, only ever able to be less bad, never able to proclaim a noble goal and pursue it.  Its collapse in the polls is surprising only for its speed.

It has been a long road to this sorry pass, but some key forks can be identified.  For many of Labor’s former supporters, the last straw was Kim Beazley’s knee-jerk endorsement in 2001 of John Howard’s decision to cast legal asylum seekers into concentration camps.  The Party exposed itself as hard-hearted and witless, preoccupied with internal power struggles, easily wedged by a canny opponent.

For a time it seemed Kevin 07 might restore some shreds of integrity and purpose to a moribund party.  He wrote of his Christian dedication to the less fortunate.  He proclaimed his hero to be none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died for his courageous defiance of the Nazis.  He projected himself as smart, steady, decent and, yes, courageous.

Now Kevin Rudd has distinguished himself in a profession notorious for hypocrisy, spinelessness and backflipping.  He will condemn asylum seekers to remote desert camps.  He will violate our international obligations by refusing to process many of their applications.  He has dumped a string of campaign promises.  His threat to tax the miners is a minor crowd-pleaser, but otherwise his latest moves on tax reform are typically timid.

Topping everything, of course, is Rudd’s dumping of action on global warming.  He wasted two years creating then failing to enact a pathetically weak policy, a policy that was much more about saving Big Coal than saving the planet.  He never came within coo-ee of matching his soaring rhetoric on the issue.  He deserves the hammering he is receiving from his own words.  So Rudd is not the saviour, not of Labor nor of Australia.

Unless Rudd’s capitulation is soon over-ruled, it will be seen as a critical failure.  It will be seen as the moment when Australia dropped the ball, when we lost our best chance for an orderly transition to a smart, carbon-free economy and our grandchildren were condemned, instead, to a desperate, acrimonious, rear-guard defence of a failing lifestyle.

Labor’s hollowing-out started well before Rudd and Beazley.  One might mark the day in 1983 when Treasurer Paul Keating floated the Aussie dollar and began the great deregulation of the Australian economy, so becoming the credulous champion of the neoliberal ideology.  This is the ideology that funnels wealth to the rich and feckless, leaving the rest to scramble, that gambles for the quick buck and fails to invest for the long term, the ideology, in other words, that continuously undermines everything Labor stood for.

One might mark the day, earlier in 1983, when Bob Hawke and Keating backstabbed Bill Hayden and seized control of the Party. Thus began the regime of the timid, the regime of those terrified of the media powerbrokers, the magnates who brought Gough Whitlam down with their self-serving enmity, with their confected hysteria and with the help of an international oil crisis and a debt bubble not of Whitlam’s making.

Oh, you say, but Hawke and Keating laid the foundations of Australia’s remarkably prosperous and stable economy.  But our so-called prosperity is precarious, paid for by the national credit card despite a mining boom and a big increase in working hours, misrepresented as “productivity gains”.

The Opposition rabbits on about public debt but, as economist Steve Keen has shown, it is dwarfed by private debt, principally household debt inflating a housing bubble.  In 2007 the net increase in private borrowing amounted to 20% of the GDP.  Without that borrowing from the future we would have been in severe recession.

Our economy is a house of cards, a fragile shell hollowed out by greedy financiers.  It has been propped up through the first phase of the Global Financial Crisis, but a new phase is threatening in Greece, with European authorities apparently learning nothing from past experience, recent or distant.

We have paid a high social price for this smoke-and-mirrors economy.  Neoliberalism promotes selfishness and rampant consumerism, and we have become less tolerant, more obese, less healthy and more stressed.  We have less time for our families and communities.  The Aussie values of decency and a fair go are withering, leaving us prey to haters and fearmongerers.

Labor was founded to stand up for the powerless.  Just one hundred years ago it won a landslide victory and formed the first stable Labor Government.  Though more often out of power than in, and though brought down repeatedly by internal division, Labor reshaped the political landscape in Australia, and many of its proposals became mainstream policy.  People forget that the rich didn’t just give away their power.  It only happened because ordinary people worked together, and thus gained the power to claim back some of the share that is rightfully theirs.

For all its flaws, Labor had a vision and it had principles.  In 1965 Arthur Calwell stood in parliament and proclaimed Labor’s opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war.  As anticipated he was ridiculed and villified, Labor lost the next election and Calwell missed his last chance to be Prime Minister.  But he was right and, as Don Watson has observed, he stiffened Labor’s spine and eventually they won because of it.

Whitlam had vision, and he changed Australia.  I was overseas during his term, and I returned to a country, more open, more vigorous, more exciting and more adventurous than ever it had been under the great grey blanket of Menzies’ paternalism.

All that has been abandoned and forgotten.  We are left with Faux-Labor, a hulk and an obstruction, blocking our initiative and decency, sucking the enthusiasm from our youth, chewing up and spitting out the few good people who still try to give it life and make a difference.

At this critical time, what we most need is leadership.  What we get is politics as usual.  The art of the possible, they call it, but in their limp hands it is expediency, nothing more.  Real leaders don’t accept the usual.  We have not had a real leader for a generation.

Faux-Labor lives on preferences.  It survives because of compulsory preferential voting, the arbitrary rule that you must number all boxes or your vote won’t be counted.  So we mark Faux-Labor as the lesser of two evils and the carcass twitches for a while longer.

Labor is dead!  Let it be said, loud and often.  Jolt its followers, dislodge those not rusted-on.  They are deluded.  Stop giving Faux-Labor your preference.  If the informal vote count goes up to ten or fifteen percent as a result, there will be upheaval.  A new political era will become possible.

5 thoughts on “The Australian Labor Party is Dead

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