JERRY ROBERTS Whither Labor?

Sep 14, 2018

Stan Grant in his interesting post of 10 September asks which kind of conservatism our Prime Minister will practise.  Since we are about to commence a decade of Labor in office in Canberra a more pertinent question is what type of Labor Government will it be?

One of the most popular of all the religious poems is The Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot, who wrote the poem quickly, soon after converting to the Church of England.  The poet returned from church on Sunday morning, opened a half bottle of gin and sat down to write.  By lunch time he had finished the gin and finished the poem.

After describing the difficult expedition through the mountains and a haunting interlude in the temperate valley the wise men seek information at a pub.

Then we came to a tavern with vine leaves over the lintel,

six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver

and feet kicking the empty wine skins.

If I were writing a ten-thousand-word dissertation on those three lines – and I dare say English literature students have done sillier things – I would advance among other interpretations the contrast between the ideal, harmonious society preached by Jesus and the reality of a licentious, drunken and corrupt people financed by the 30 pieces of silver Judas received for his betrayal.

I often have a laugh with Anne when comparing my interest in the ideology driving political policy with the reality of politics as practised on the ground.  A couple of years ago I was determined to enlighten political colleagues on the reasons things are as they are so I rocked up to the branch meeting with a heavy stack of books including Picketty’s recently published Capital in the 21st Century, The General Theory by Keynes, The Great Transformation by Polanyi and the bible of our times – The Road to Serfdom – by Hayek.

While the chairman looked at his watch I explained to the locals why our society has come under the thumb of ten million-dollar-a-year bank managers who could not organise a booze-up in a brewery.  They gave me a good hearing and some of the crowd appeared to enjoy the show but what people really wanted to talk about was car-parking in Wedge Street and juvenile crime in South Hedland.

Geoff Dow’s review of Geoff Mann’s book on the Keynesian revolution in the current edition of the Journal of Australian Political Economy begins with the author’s intriguing statement that “Keynes was by no means the first Keynesian.”

Dow explains: “What the author is invoking is the series of dilemmas known to those who tried to consolidate public policy (in the face of popular resistance) after the French Revolution, as well as to Hegel who understood that catastrophic situations could be transcended only by what we could call ‘humanity-affirming’ institutionalisations.”

“Keynesianism can be seen as a generic experience in all politics — a quest to maximise achievements when utopian ambitions are not achievable ……. Keynesianism recognises that politics is inevitable, that a radically different world is possible now, even when some problems remain beyond the reach of immediate pragmatism.”

The Geoff Mann thesis recalls the earlier debate – Social Reform or Revolution – conducted by the heroic Polish intellectual Rosa Luxemburg and Edward Bernstein.

The problem we have with social democratic political parties today — from the Australian Labor Party to the American Democrats – is that they have abandoned both projects.  They look neither to Keynes nor to Marx, neither to Luxemburg nor to Bernstein.  They don’t even dream about alternatives to capitalism.  Alarmingly, they have given up the idea of civilising capitalism, to borrow a favourite word from Nugget Coombs.

They have accepted the Austrian view of the world – that there are iron laws of economics that must be obeyed.  To paraphrase Richard Nixon, they are all good little neoliberals now.

Having blatantly declined to do their jobs and handed over the government of the country to a bunch of greedy, shonky and none-too-brilliant financiers, our politicians have busied themselves with what has become known as “identity politics.”

Bill Mitchell and Thomas Fazi in their book, “Reclaiming the State,’ make a neat summary of this shemozzle. “Over the last three decades the left focus on capitalism has given way to a focus on issues such as racism, gender, homophobia, multiculturism etc.  Marginality is no longer defined in terms of class but rather in terms of identity…. The struggle against the illegitimate hegemony of the capitalist class has given way to the struggles of a variety of (more or less) oppressed and marginalised groups and minorities – women, ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community etc.

“As a result, class struggle has ceased to be seen as the path to liberation, rather laws to overturn the various ‘glass ceilings’ …. We need to be cognisant of the way the establishment has used these to divide and conquer the working class and to divert our attention from the antagonistic class relations that lie at the heart of capitalism.”

After the passage of equal marriage legislation, I was hoping that our honourable members might take a breather and consider doing the jobs for which they are quite well paid but they are getting worse.  The girls are crying that they are bullied, poor dears.

The boys have such badly wounded egos that they may require hospitalisation. We can see the problems Peter Dutton has with eligibility.  We don’t need the former PM to phone in from New York.

A Four Corners interview with Steve Bannon illustrated where we have gone wrong.  It was an abominable interview because the interviewer would not shut up.  When you have the opportunity to interview such an interesting and significant figure you let him do the talking, just steering him to different subjects as time permits.  The audience can listen to ABC journalists any day of the week.

The subjects on which I wanted to hear more were Davos and Bannon’s contacts with the Bernie Sanders camp.  The only social democratic political leaders attempting to steer their parties back to social democracy are Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

A significant reason for the rise of the alt-Right is the abandonment of social democracy by the Left. The Centre-Left and the Centre-Right are diminished, even in Sweden, as political scientist Sheri Berman wrote in her Washington Post report of the 9 September Swedish general election. “Long viewed as an island of democratic stability, Sweden has finally succumbed to the electoral instability that’s been sweeping Europe.”

Will the ALP suffer from this erosion of the centre at our approaching federal election?  Probably not.  The Liberals are so determined on self-destruction that Labor can sit still and watch.

We can expect from Labor in Canberra a more disciplined and intelligent Ministry.  There are 34 members on the Party’s economics committee and I have written to all of them, and a few more, on the banking issue.  Bill Shorten is moving in the correct direction with his call to extend the terms of reference and duration of the Royal Commission.

Chris Bowen’s policies on capital gains last time round were heading in the right direction.  He has said a Labor Government will sign up on the Belt and Road Initiative.  I wouldn’t bet on that.  We can see the broad outline of the campaign.  The government will use scare tactics on trade union influence.  Labor will say to another Coalition term – you have to be joking!

Bill Shorten will be hoping for sustained good behaviour from the CFMEU and I’m wondering if he has shouted Sally McManus to a round the world trip.  We haven’t heard from her for a while but I hope she pops up again soon because she is the brains of the Left.

In Perth in the early 1970s the star industrial relations performer was Rob Cowles, State Secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU).  The story around the town before a State election was that Labor Leader John Tonkin had beseeched Rob to take a long holiday.

Nothing wins votes for the Liberals like a long transport strike during an election campaign.  Before one election they managed to dig up a bus driver in Perth who professed a religious objection to trade union membership.  No kidding.  I always suspected W.W. Mitchell of pulling that one off.  Bill was the leading West Australian Liberal ideologue of the era and we used to exchange fire on the letters page of the West Australian newspaper.

Rob Cowles did disappear from Perth and my Daily News colleague John Kelly bumped into him operating a fruit barrow at Covent Garden in London.

Jerry Roberts is a journalist by trade and a politician by nature.






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