What’s the point of Labor?

Feb 17, 2021

As the Labor Opposition jettisons policies on negative gearing, capital gains taxes, franking credits and climate change policies that don’t embrace coal you have to ask – what’s the point of Labor?

A simple answer could be that at least it’s not the Morrison Government. Given the Morrison track record it’s a compelling positioning that may appeal to many but probably not quite compelling enough to get over the line in an election.

The question – and some of the answers – comes to mind when reading Barry Jones’ new book What is to be Done.

The book starts with a recap of some of the themes in his 1982 work Sleepers Wake and evaluates what was prescient, relevant or wrong in the book. The key omission he now says was that while he had addressed climate change back in 1967, he didn’t address it in Sleepers Wake.

Succeeding chapters look at democracy’s existential crisis in this post-truth era; the rejection of Enlightenment values across society; the impact of the digital revolution; Trump; the science and politics of climate change; the way retail politics focuses on the toxic, the trivial and promotes disengagement; the loss of language and memory; Covid; the environment; climate change and the political engagement required to tackle it; and, the curse of Australian’s belief in national exceptionalism combined with appalling ignorance of our history.

In the chapter on loss of memory and language he cites our record on Indigenous issues and the PM’s odd belief that Cook circumnavigated Australia and mentions that Morrison has one thing in common with Cook – the regret of visiting Hawaii.

The chapters on climate change science and politics are among the best available short summaries of the issues involved in both.

Jones contrasts the failure of contemporary politicians on climate change with the Hawke approach in the 1980s to the future of tobacco, automotive and clothing workers of  confronting the problem, being honest about short-term problems and longer-term gains. A similar approach is needed with the 37,000 Australian coal miners – 0.3% of the labour work force.

In looking at the politics of climate change, he discusses the work of Frank Luntz who, in his 2007 book Words that Work, created the formula ‘the science is not settled’, which was and is still widely peddled. However, Luntz had a road to Damascus moment with the 2017 Californian bushfires and is now passionate about combating climate change.

George Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, is the best book yet written on framing. If you want to know how we got ‘death taxes’ and other similar phrases, read it. Framing is a much more effective device than dog whistling or the subliminal marketing popular in the 1950s and 60s. If you want to know how it works get some friends in a room, ask them to close their eyes, relax and clear their minds. Then repeat a number of times: “I want you to just relax, but don’t think of an elephant. Whatever you do – don’t think of an elephant.”

But good framing – just like Get Up petitions and feel good symbolism and gestures – is no substitute for the widespread political engagement around progressive policies Jones recommends.

In the case of policies Jones suggests a list which, if it were not for the dire state of the major and minor parties, would seem no-brainers:

  • Renovating the Constitution.
  • Having an Australian head of state.
  • Adopting a Bill of Rights.
  • Creating an Independent Commission against Corruption.
  • Practising open government and rejecting all the prevailing secrecy.
  • Appropriate funding for the ABC, CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology and ABS.
  • Investing in soft diplomacy in our region.
  • Recognising the value of the humanities and the arts and providing adequate funding for them.
  • Giving high priority to science.
  • Re-establishing the moral basis of progressive taxation and recognising the increase in social inequality and the role of taxation and school funding as contributing factors.
  • Being open-minded and sceptical about involvement in foreign policy and wars and supercharged spending on submarines and defence big boy toys.
  • Taking creative approaches to multiculturalism and rejecting the notion of education, health and the arts as ‘industries’.
  • Adopting compassionate, rational and statistically based policies on refugees and asylum seekers arriving by sea.

The policy priorities reflect some of the thinking behind the discussions Jones and Malcolm Fraser had about how a new political party might be formed and what it could stand for. The last, about refugees and asylum seekers, is also a reminder of why a number of Vietnamese stood silently outside Scots Church during Fraser’s funeral.

Jones says, however: “I would like the ALP to be this new party.” But he warns: “Parties sometimes go through the motions of attempting to reform internal processes – but a paint job will not suffice.”

There have been a couple of quite churlish reviews of the Jones’ book. One scoffed a lot, complained that Jones’ Sleepers Wake had not woken people up, and accused him of repeating things he has said before. Another worried that he cites too many white males, overlooks reforms like citizen’s assemblies and ignores emotional appeals on climate change – despite the section on Luntz.

They prompt one to think of Jones’ beloved Montaigne who wrote: “Since we cannot attain it, let us take our revenge by speaking ill of it. (The Collected Works, On the disadvantages of greatness, Book III Chapter 7).

But Jones could, but wouldn’t, quote the rest of Montaigne’s thoughts on the reviews: “Yet it is not absolutely speaking ill of something to find some defects in it; there are some in all things, however beautiful and desirable that may be.”

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