Friday, 23 July 2010

Soulless or Stuck?

Does the Australian Labor Party have a soul? This question was posed at a Queensland Fabian Society Forum I attended on Monday night. To me this is an interesting question, because it assumes a positive outlook, that it does (or did) indeed have a ‘soul.' Given this discussion though, this was a very wrong assumption. Ian McLean, a former Queensland State Party President and the current one, Andrew Dettmer acted as the forum’s main speakers. Whilst they provided commentary, they both used words like ‘class’ and ‘socialism’. Winning is everything to the Labor Party they said, dominated by party machine men primarily concerned with obtaining, or staying in goverment and not much else. Excuse me while I say bullshit.

Class as a political tool has long past its used by date. People who comprise the ‘lower class' refuse to think in such terms these days. Instead, they aspire to reach the ‘middle class’ while the people who occupy this category now believe themselves to be 'upper middle class'. Consequently, the political debate has shifted. As Clive Hamilton points out in his 2006 essay What’s Left: The Death of Social Democracy: ‘The shift in the 1960s from a politics of inequality to a politics of identity involved a new focus on the cultural and social domain, rather than on underlying economic forces.’ It was clear based on each speaker’s content that they both failed to grasp these concepts, and in doing so clearly misunderstand the current political climate.

Its true that the Labor Party has a well thought out clearly defined set of values that make it distinct from any other political party in Australia. However we no longer live with the looming ideological threat of the Cold War and terms such as ‘democratic socialism’ remain vague abstract notions to many young people. They see ideological terms as a way that academics can look sophisticated, or as a debating tool for the well educated. It’d be interesting to see the reaction of Andrew Dettmer as he walked around the CafĂ© J at the University of the Sunshine Coast and asked students how they would define ‘democratic socialism’. He would get plenty of quizzical stares.

But if he asked what each student stood for politically I dare say he would get many different and articulate answers. Should the government invest more or less in services? Should the government provide services so the socially disadvantaged can gain access to equitable treatment? How much influence should the government have in controlling the economy? These three questions are where the political battle is fought in the 21st century.

So how does the Labor Party (or any other political party for that matter) respond to this changing political climate? The answers are simple. Create a political narrative and make it personally identifiable. I had to laugh at this forum because one of the audience members said: ‘Your Rights At Work (A political campaign against WorkChoices, an industrial relations reform package) was successful because the Labor Party and the unions returned to class based politics’. In fact the opposite proved to be true. Your Rights At Work was an excellent grass roots campaign that tapped into the personal priorities of working Australians. They could care less that the power of the unions was being eroded. Instead they knew that WorkChoices meant that their overtime was being cut, and sick pay benefits were being slashed (amongst many things). They knew that this meant they might no longer be able to afford their repayments on their house, or they could not spend more time with their kids. Your Rights At Work was personal, not communal.

‘Politics is Personal’ is the political maxim for the 21 century. It is why ‘Moving Forward’ has replaced ‘Bringing Australia Together’ as the dominant campaign line of the modern era. As voters across all generations gain more and more access to information on political content, the opinion makers that McLean and Dettmar dismissed continually out of hand are vitally important: they provide people with information that allows them to connect with issues on a personal basis. Blogging achieves just that but was criticised as ‘a political fad’ on Monday night, when it is in fact a great political weapon. This page is just one example of the ability to put forward a cogent argument uninterrupted whilst allowing audience members (or indeed voters) to provide real time feedback, a wonderful asset for any politician. A failure to comprehend this highlights an enormous generational disconnect in the Labor Party.

I attended this forum with my colleagues, branch members and friends Carl and Rachael, the tripartite force of Generation Y Labor on the Sunshine Coast. We were not surprised that we were the only members of the forum who did not yearn for ‘…the good old days of Labor politics where we used to protest about protesting…' The Labor Party for the past week has been all about moving forward and yet it seems the greater portion of Labor’s members remain stuck in the past still fighting battles that no longer exists. The question should not be ‘Has The Labor Party Lost its Soul?’, but rather ‘Can the Labor Party Truly Represent Modern Australia?’

Note: Readers who live in South East Queensland that are interested in attending Fabian Society forums should contact Joff at


  1. PS Could a party that I totally agreed with win a federal election? If it did then the conservative military coup would already be well on the way to being organised! But seriously, this goes to the question of where power in society lies...

  2. Appreciate the opportunity to debate politics here and its welcomed whoever the participants.

    I actually used the last paragraph of Scott's book in my Honours thesis on Mark Latham and I think its probably its the most relevant point in the entire book:

    The path to ALP renewal proceeds from a recognition that the malaise of its small volatile membership and shrinking electoral support will ultimately be cured not by vague of superficial attempts to regain support from"‘the community" in general, but rather by a genuine attempt to put power into those... [That] have been alienated from any democratic role.

    Essentially this quote asks the question about what the ALP will (or even has) become without the power of the unions. Given the lack of membership in political parties these days, any political party despite its ideological predilections can be considered elite. Your point about Kelly is entirely valid, but I would argue that political parties have always been elite organs, even in their infancy. This trend is just amplified as the interest in traditional political activity has waned.

    In the book authored by Ashley Lavelle (one of my PhD supervisors) called The End of Social Democracy he argues that 'Social democrats must appeal beyond it (the working class) in order to win elections…also related…is the notion of electoral dealignment which suggests that voters are less and less attached to parties.'

    Again this returns to the point that while the ALP's traditional membership may wish to shift further Left, the greater population wishes Labor (and the Liberal Party) to stay as close to the Centre as possible. Given current trends there will likely be no union membership in another generation. If this is the case, what is the future of the ALP as a party given these two dilemmas?

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  4. 'The Hawke-Keating neoliberal turn was never about trying to “stay as close to the Centre as possible”. It was about implementing a project directly opposed to the economic interests of most Australians in favour of restoring capitalist profitability.'

    I disagree here. Sure the Hawke/Keating governments major policy objectives were about achieving major economic and industrial reform, but I think the major political objective for the move to the Right is that they saw fertile ground in the political Centre. The Hawke Government in particular saw the traditional models of Labor politics as outmoded (best encapsulated by Whitlam's lack of economic literacy in government) and knew the key to electoral success was a radical shift in ideology.

    The primary objective is and will always be winning elections. Both Keating and Hawke saw economic rationalism as the path to electoral victory, both to capture the middle ground and to push their opponents further to the Right. They were correct.

    You make good points about the impact of social movements, but again I can't see how Labor as it currently stands will survive in the next generation using such means. The issues associated with the ABCC you would think would be a prime issue for 'Labour themed social movements' (i.e. the unions) however I don't see this getting traction in the mainstream. Why? Because I believe that unlike WorkChoices it hasn't got the widespread support of the Party because it doesn't suit them politically. Without the party these social movements are impotent.

    I predicted before the Rudd leadership that in 30 years the Greens and the ALP would merge (An interesting book waiting is to be written on that one) as the ALP would need the Greens activist style politics when the unions eventually die out and the Greens would need the ALP's political machinery in order to stay relevant.. interesting to see how that will play out.

    PS: I will send Ashley your best wishes
    PPS: Thanks Shinxy for the GIGA Punch! :)