Lost Labor – from 2003

I have been well ahead of the pack on a number of important issues, political leadership among them.

Here is the opening sentence from a comment by Don Watson on political leadership, from the current issue of The Monthly.

“It is now all but universally agreed that the Australian Labor party is a near-ruin, ruled body and soul by factional bosses and opinion pollsters.”

Below is a post from my old website www.geoffdavies.com, dated 7 June 1993.  You can also find more recent comments of mine here in the category “Political commentary”.

After two months abroad I find little has changed on the Australian political scene.  John Howard has finally confirmed he will stay on, the obsessively one-eyed Government is still attacking the ABC for alleged bias, and the Labor Party is still clueless.

Simon Crean as Labor Leader was never going to be more than Mr. Plod.  That the Party is threatening to replace him with the flat Beazley souffle is a measure of how devoid of inspiration it is, and how dominated by old power groupings.

Kim Beazley used to come across to me as a decent man, I just couldn’t understand why he was so invisible while he was the Labor leader.  However Mr. Beazley’s claim to decency evaporated when he went along with Mr. Howard’s attack on legal asylum seekers.  Nor did Mr. Beazley offer any alternative to the Thatcherite economic policies pursued alike by Paul Keating and John Howard.

Those two issues, asylum seekers and economic policies, reach to the core of the deep political malaise that currently afflicts Australia.  By pursuing them with vision, compassion and courage, Labor could reinstate itself as a progressive, socially liberal party of the common people.

Regardless of his feeble protestations, John Howard has been relentlessly playing the politics of fear and division.  It is the oldest and most cowardly recipe for power.

Early in 2001 Mr. Howard’s Prime Ministership was heading for catastrophe, his party at near-record levels of unpopularity.  He was under threat from Labor and under attack from the reactionary and racist Hansonites.  This was the context in which he chose to block the entry of the M.V. Tampa carrying its load of asylum seekers rescued from a sinking fishing boat.

There followed the farce of the proud and professional Australian navy being required to intercept leaky boatloads of legal asylum seekers and transport them to client island states of the region at enormous expense to the Autralian taxpayer. There followed the detention centers, razor wire, passive and active mistreatment of detainees and the international shaming of Australia.

There also followed the lies about children having been thrown overboard, the conspiracy, obvious even at the time, not to actually tell the truth to the Prime Minister, so he could continue his hollow protestations of ignorance, and a systematic policy of ignoring, changing or violating any law, convention or treaty that stood in the way of the Government’s desperate strategy.

The Howard strategy received an unexpected boost when some other desperate men flew some planes into tall buildings.  Like his American counterpart, Mr. Howard was quick to seize upon the terrorist attack to further his own agenda, which has only superficially to do with eliminating terrorists.  The policies of both Howard and U.S. President Bush in fact only aggravate the injustices and affronts that fed extremist resentment in the first place.

Howard and Bush are small men acting out of fear, and therefore they only propagate the cycle of fear and violence.  The pattern is so predictable:  an ugly lashing out at any convenient target, regardless of how flimsy its connection to the act of terrorism.  The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq patently had nothing to do with eliminating tyranny, which the U.S. has tolerated or promoted around the world for decades, with Austalian acquiesence.

To rise above the cycle of fear and violence requires real courage.  It requires that we attempt with compassion to view the world from other people’s shoes, to concede their right to determine their own destiny, and to recognise our own contributing faults.  Establishing the trust and mutual respect between peoples, societies and religions that will truly eliminate terrorism will be difficult and time consuming, but in the end there is no other way.  Violence is certainly not the way.

Domestically, the challenge is not quite so daunting, though still large.  The challenge is to eschew the politics of ignorance, fear and division.  The challenge is not only to speak out for decency, tolerance and a fair go, but to stand firmly in those values and act from them.  The major parties and the parliament have strayed very far from those values with their routinely sordid squabbling, but most Australians would welcome their revival.

If decent values are the starting point, an educated and informed citizenry is the next essential.  This will require the diversification of our highly centralised media ownership and a conscious fostering of autonomous education and independent opinion.

The other core polical issue of the day is economic policy.  Although Thatcherism has mesmerised and intimidated a generation of politicians, commentators and bureaucrats, there is a rising chorus of thinkers, from our own Lindy Edwards to the former World Bank’s Joseph Stiglitz, pointing out not only that it is a doctrine based on false premises, not only that it degrades our society, but that it doesn’t work!

Thatcherite economic rationalism enriches a minority and it causes certain misleading indicators to increase, but it has not improved the material status of most people at anything like the rate that occurred in the nineteen fifties and sixties, when governments routinely involved themselves in the economy.  If  as well we take account of non-monetary and non-material aspects of our quality of life, then most people are no better off, and many are worse off, than they were fifteen years ago.

On the other hand, Thatcherism has increased inequality, has held unemployment at high levels, has alienated a generation of our youth and has contributed to rising crime and many other social ills.  In the holy name of free trade, large segments of our sovereignty have already been surrendered, and much of the rest will soon follow if the Howard Government has its way.

Sovereignty is not a matter of simplistic jingoism.  At issue is whether we Australians can still determine the values around which we choose to build our society, or whether we are forced to live by the values of the financial markets, McDonalds Corporation and the paranoid extremists surrounding George Bush.  At issue also is whether we can attempt to preserve our fragile natural environment, regulate the dumping of toxins, ensure a quality education for our children and reasonable access to health care.

The Labor leadership appears to be oblivious to these issues.  Its spinelessness regarding asylum seekers caused many of its supporters to turn away in disgust.  Its obtuseness regarding America’s imperial ambitions disturbs many of Australians.  The thrall in which Thatcherism still holds it prevents the Labor Party from distinguishing itself from the Coalition.

At any time since Paul Keating lost the 1996 election Labor could have returned to its original values of decency and a fair go.  To do so would have required courage and some medium-term vision, but it could long since have romped into power on the basis of widespread disenchantment with the direction our society has taken over the past couple of decades.  Had it done so, it could have spared Australia perhaps the sorriest period of our short history.  It could still do so, but don’t hold your breath.

1 thought on “Lost Labor – from 2003

  1. Kevin Cox

    While ever the underlying mechanisms of our economic system remain dysfunctional fairness, tolerance and working with and for others will remain difficult. On possibility is to use credit instead of loans as the means to transfer assets.



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