Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Policy Gap of the Left: A Problem the ALP Can No Longer Ignore

Following yesterday's post on the decline of transformative leadership, it is necessary to point out that the problems that the ALP face are not just confined to the top echolons of the party. The more pressing concerns for the party's long term future are policy based.

Over the last decade, egalitarian and social democratic parties of the 'Left' such as the ALP have experienced tensions between individual leadership concerns and ideological objectives. A clear example of this occurred in the British Labour Party (BLP) under the leadership of Tony Blair during the 1990s. When Blair assumed the leadership in 1994, it signalled a change in the way a British leader interacted within in the party evoking the term ‘New Labour', which signalled a break away from its traditional working class base. This was an attempt to move towards the political right and gain a larger cross section of voters to gain a larger majority of voters at election time. British psepologist Colin Hay explains that the term ‘New Labour’ was an exercise that went beyond branding and demonstrated the changing political climate that the BLP confronted:
In declaring itself “new”, Labour is… seeking to distance itself from associations with aspects of its more immediate period in opposition. Where it previously stood to suffer from its perceived associations with this period of “unbridled Leftism” and “socialist extremism” it can now, it appears only benefit from emphasising the paranoid protectionism, unguarded opportunism, and suicidal disregard for public opinion held to characterise this period.
This was achieved by using the ‘Third Way’ model of governance developed by sociologist Anthony Giddens, the Third Way aimed to control the centre of the ideological spectrum, to gain the maximum amount of swinging voters. As Giddens explains:
Government exists to provide means for the representation of diverse interests, offer a forum for reconciling the competing claims of these interests, create and protect an open public sphere in which unconstrained debate about policy issues can be carried on, provide a diversity of public goods including forms of collective security and welfare, regulate markets in the public interest and foster market competition when monopoly threatens, foster social peace through control of the means of violence and through the provision of policing, promote the active development of human capital through its core role in the education system, sustain an effective system of law, have a directly economic role as a prime employer in micro and macroeconomic intervention plus the provision of infrastructure, have a civilising aim, foster regional and transnational alliances and pursue global goals
Blair sought to carry out these objectives in order to move the BLP back to the political centre and redesign ‘social democracy’ to combine the legacy of socially inclusive policies that the party was built upon, and merge it with the economic rationalist policies of his Conservative predecessors. In a speech to the European Union in 1999, Blair outlined his method:
Social democracy has found new acceptance – but only because, while retaining its traditional values, it has begun in a credible way to renew its ideas and modernise its programmes. It has also found new acceptance because it stands not only for social justice but also for economic dynamism and the unleashing of creativity and innovation.
Critics of the Third Way claimed that such ideological fence sitting was in fact betraying traditional 'social democratic values' for the sake of winning a large voter base. In 1998, The Economist quoted a British Labour Party ‘…strategist and pollster, (who) summed it (The Third Way) up by writing an internal memorandum with the succinct title: "Winning the Trust of the Centre Without Betraying the Left". Another more lasting criticism of the Third Way by ideologues suggests that it is ultimately devoid of a philosophical touchstone, thus rendering the concepts of social democracy and the political spectrum extinct:
The Third Way has not been a new principle that can lead us to a dimension of the political cosmos that is beyond left and right. It is primarily a rationalization for political compromise between left and right, in which the left moves closer to the right. Political compromise is built into electoral democracy, but principled compromise starts with the principles, not the compromise.
This contradiction was both present within the party’s ideological outlook and its decision making structures. The BLP was caught between taking a more populist approach aimed at capturing the political centre, whilst still trying to identify with its traditional working class base. While this strategy proved electorally effective, it left the British Labour Party ideologically neutered:
Two stances can be discerned within the party’s public discourse… on one hand nearly all the leading figures in the party and the Cabinet have asserted at some point… asserted that there is nothing wrong with the core values of the labour tradition… yet something more ambitious has also been hinted at. At times, members of the inner circle present the political programme that they are carrying out as representing the transcendence of “labourism” and indeed of political traditions of Britain altogether, a claim that is yoked together with the belief that Labor has been repositioned as the natural custodian of the centre-ground of British politics. 
This criticism goes to the heart of modern political culture. Instead of ideological concerns, leaders have become much more pragmatic. This suggests the need to develop electorally palatable policies maintains primacy over the ideological needs of political parties. Such a change in objectives presented a challenge for parties of the ideological left. Built upon the traditions of supporting collectivists traditions, the BLP exemplifies the trend in party politics of showcasing its leader rather than all areas of the party structure equally. This has led to criticisms that leaders have abandoned consultative leadership styles which have characterised successful leaders of both the ALP and the BLP leaders in the past. Instead this individualised style of leadership has led to:
Critics claim[ing] (in 1998) that the Labor Party increasing became an autocracy under Blair. Strict control of the party all the way from Parliament to the local authorities and the local branches prevailed. Annual conferences were ruthlessly stage-managed. The policies announced by the leadership were ran counter to previous commitments, with little prior consultation
Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev noted this trend as well and has referred to the later part of the last decade as Europe’s ‘populist moment’, as many governments including Poland and Slovika, have spurned ideological concerns in favour of adopting a more leader based approach. Such a trend across Europe speaks to a broader pattern for political parties across the world as they attempt to own the political centre:
The outcome is politics where populists are becoming openly illiberal, while elites secretly harbour anti democratic resentments. This is the real danger of the populist moment. In the age of populism, the front does not lie between Left and Right, nor between reformers and conservatives.
In the months after Latham obtained the leadership in December 2003, he developed his own set of policies based that were a mixture of 'The Third Way' and the social welfare ideology of Whitlam that encouraged. These theories were based around  ‘opportunity’ for all citizens, the free market economic philosophies characteristic of Keating’s Prime Ministrship,  Latham’s ability to target the aspirational voter and provide a coherent political narrative that directly appealed to the ALP's traditional working class voter. Academic Carol Johnson noted at the time that ‘Latham has made a substantial effort to be less of a maverick individual and more of a unifying force that can pull disparate sections of the party together’. Unfortunately for Labor this judgement proved to be premature that echoed the criticisms of the BLP.

Below the surface, Latham's economic policies contained contradictions and lacked detail. He needed to negotiate with business groups to produce policies that would lure his ‘aspirational’ voters away from the Howard Government but he was unable to undertake effective negotiations with business groups. He failed to confront the Howard Government’s economic credentials and was forced to accept a coalition-driven agenda on the economy. He also failed to engage effectively on the issue of interest rates because his policies lacked suffiecent detail.

Much of Rudd's popularity in the beginniing of his Prime Ministership stemmed from the fact that he appeared to be the 'Anti Latham'. Rudd went out of his way to recast 'traditional social democraic values' in an attempt to add depth to Latham's initial policies, providing the ideological way forward to combat 'The Global Financial Crisis' (GFC). As I wrote in February 2009, in response to his essay on the GFC for The Monthly:
Whilst decrying free market fundamentalism Rudd uses its terminology to describe his new brand of social democracy. Passages such as ‘…harnessing the power of the market to increase innovation, investment and productivity growth - while combining this with an effective regulatory framework’ are used to describe the legacy of Labor Governments. This legacy is characterised with language that is laced with free market fundamentalism. In essence, social democrats have ceded valuable ground in the ideological argument without even noticing.
Labor had not created its own ideological vision, but rather adapted it from their opponents to make its 'values' a kinder, gentler version of free market ideology and then disguising it as 'social democracy'. This is a worldwide trend that parties of the 'Left' struggle to grasp. This is because the foundations of this ideology were built around government intervention in the economy, which can no can no longer be sustained within the current free market paradigm. Ashley Lavelle in particular argues quite resaonably that 'social democracy' as the ALP knows it no longer exists.
Social democracy is dead for many different reasons. From a Marxist perspective, it nominates as a chief cause of death the collapse of the post war economic boom. A return to low growth in the 1970s removed the economic base of social democracy, which relied on high revenues and incomes associated with the boom in order to fund social reforms. On top of the fiscal impact, the end of the boom rendered impossible the simultaneous pursuit of policies that reduced inequality and raised living standards and which did not undermine capital accumulation
Ideological differences have become tougher to distinguish and have ultimately become a casualty in parties of the Left, so they can win or maintain popular appeal. This has lead some to conclude the end to traditional ideological disputes that have dominated the last century. David McKnight argued in 2005 that: ‘The meaning of Right and Left has been destabilised over the last two decades by a growing number of issues which cannot be understood and analysed in traditional Right-Left terms.’

Combined with the leadership problems on display yesterday, the ALP is in very ill health like most of its counterparts internationally. Its failure to evolve significently over the past fifteen years has meant that the ALP has operated in a policy vaccum in a constant state of reaction rather than developing its own ideas. This problem will remain unressolved, and will likely render the party extinct unless drastic action is taken no matter who leads the party to the next Federal Election.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Back to the Future Part III: The End of the Transformative Leader

There’s a temptation to get caught up in the reportage of today’s Caucus vote, which declared Prime Minister Julia Gillard the winner over her predecessor Kevin Rudd for the ALP leadership 71 votes to 31. The victory is massive; the 40 vote margin is the largest in any leadership ballot in Australian political history. Rudd's 31 is the fewest votes by an ALP federal leadership contender since Whitlam defeated Hayden 32-30 in 1977 (in a much smaller caucus). Rudd’s hopes for leadership are gone and done. Perhaps Rudd is the Richard Nixon of Australian politics. Maybe, we won’t have Kevin to ‘kick around anymore'?. I didn’t see Rudd’s nor Gillard’s press conferences today. The lines in both conferences were bound to have been oft repeated before.  The race has already been won and lost. Instead, I have been trying to get my head around the bigger consequences all day.

The talking heads said all morning that this was the vote that justified the 2010 coup 18 months too late. Not that it matters anyway, but I would have put myself firmly in the Rudd camp on both occasions. Perhaps this explains why I am no longer in the party? Perhaps the ALP leaders that I am connected to and are interested in are no longer acceptable to the party? It is not a question of the ALP moving too far to the ‘Left’ or ‘Right’, but perhaps today is the day that the notion of ‘Reformist Leadership’ died in the ALP for good? During the last week, ministers constantly kept up the refrain that voting for Gillard is a triumph of policy over popularity. In fact the opposite is true. Sure, Rudd was more popular with the public, but certainly not in Caucus and that is why she won.

Gillard’s confirmation is a victory for the bureaucratic uninspired policies that she preaches but does not deliver, the methods of which I abhor. Over the course of my eight year tenure as an ALP member, five leaders assumed the highest office of the party. Despite what everyone else says, (and the subsequent results of the two leaders) I was drawn to were Latham and Rudd the most by far. The first is now consigned to the dustbin of history seen by friends and foes alike as an aberration. If it were not for his election victory in 2007, Rudd would have also be seen in this light. Perhaps the ALP revisionists will now paraphrase Hayden and say ‘a drovers dog could have won the 2007 election’? That is unfair. What attracted me to both men was that ideas were in their blood, they both wanted to change the country in broad brush strokes and demanded that the constituency follow them. They had values and opinions: Gillard has none.

It is perhaps no coincidence that both Latham and Rudd were and are egomaniacal control freaks. So are John Howard and Malcolm Fraser, I think you need to be if you truly want to be Prime Minister. I fault neither of these men, nor Gillard for behaving in this fashion. One of the greatest books ever to be published on political leadership in Australia is No Prime Minister written in 2007 by James Walter and Paul Strangio. They argue that:
…[the] domineering leadership model is being privileged in a climate when the currency placed on leadership has become so pronounced, and where leaders are looked upon as transformative agents of politics. 
The key element here is that this is a perception. Leaders are looked upon as transformative leaders, but rarely are. The last truly transformative policy to be enacted was WorkChoices in 2005, the policy widely acknowledged as the beginning of the end of the Howard Government. The current policy challenge that needs transformative thinking is climate change. Trying to promote a reform agenda in this area has already claimed 4 party leaders (Howard, Nelson, Turnbull, Rudd) with Gillard surely destined to be the fifth because both parties are too scared to make such drastic policy changes. The Australian polity likes to think it is built for a transformative leader who has the power to take on the big ideas, but the truth remains both major political parties hate the thought as much as the populace.

The problem for leaders who try to be transformative are that they are too smart for the general public. Therefore, they have to put on a thin veneer of fake behavior, lest they appear smart like Keating, who the public thought was an arrogant bastard. It does not pay in Australia to be the smartest guy in the room, the guy with the big idea, and the guy who can take charge. That characteristic spelt the end for Latham and Rudd too. Obama would never be elected in Australia. Australians would rather like a bloke or gal, rather than have them share an impressive idea.

After 5 months of wondering why I have actively grown to hate participatory politics so quickly, I have finally figured out why. I am unlike the public at large. I rejoice in the big ideas. I like when political leaders are bastards and think they know what is best. I adore politics with passion. I revel in the politics of the big picture and the long winding narrative. Today as Kevin Rudd’s career died so did the power of big ideas in politics, and the commitment to follow these ideas through.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Back to the Future Part II: The Fourth Split?

It has now been confirmed that Australia’s last two Prime Ministers will contest a leadership ballot on Monday to determine the leader of the ALP. Rarely has a political event carried more weight outside of a traditional electoral contest. Whether Gillard or Rudd emerges victorious, the wider implications for Australian democracy are indeed worrying.

The ALP has always been a volatile organization. Throughout its 121 year history the party has experienced three crippling splits. The first was during World War One over whether the party should have instituted conscription. The second was during the late 1920s and early 1930s when the power and influence of  New South Wales Premier Jack Lang tore the party asunder. Finally the party split in the 1950s was largely due to the party’s response to communism, this being the major factor in consigning the ALP to a 23 year period in Opposition between 1949 and 1972.

The question is whether the ALP can endure beyond the current crisis? If the unlikely occurs and Rudd wins the ballot, he will struggle to fill a talented and capable Cabinet, this is especially considering only 4 members of the current Cabinet supports Rudd’s bid. What would that mean for a possible Rudd Government mark II? The great majority of Labor’s most talented members will consign themselves to the backbench. We will have a government of 'also rans' and second choices.

However, the more likely outcome is that Gillard will retain her office, but at what cost? Despite the resolute support of the majority of her Ministry, the fact that Rudd can wound Gillard in such a bloody fashion, demonstrates her leadership and more importantly the ALP’s brand is trashed for several elections to come.

The parallels between the current climate and the three proceeding Labor splits are too hard to ignore. The ALP, like all political parties needs strong leadership to survive. The ALP is also a unique party in the fact that it is an conglomerate of various interest groups who need to work collaboratively to ensure its success. Currently the party lacks a sense of identity without widespread popular support, particularly while these interest groups have splintered interests. Parties of the 'Left' in particular struggle to grasp this problem. Often they have adopted social democratic principles in order to achieve electoral success, and as a compromise to ease the tensions between the organisational wing of the party and its membership. This has not worked since the Government was elected in 2007. Hence the ALP, like others has resorted to a Presidential style of politics that focuses upon style of leadership rather than policy acumen, resulting in the amplification of the current tensions. This may be a contest of personality but the central question for the party’s current troubles is one neither contender has been unable to answer.

What are the key differences between a Gillard and a Rudd Government?

If you were to ask the average person on the street, they would probably say there is none. The only differences that have been highlighted over the past four days are how each of them have, or will deal with the party’s internal processes. The ALP in its current form is a policy free zone, as I have argued previously.

The current machinations within the ALP represents one of Australian democracy's greatest test. The only thing that is clear is that the ALP have consigned themselves to several years of irrelevance. As the Liberal Party assume the mantle of government eventually, the ALP’s ability to prosecute any future governments to account will be greatly weakened as a result of the damage the ALP have done to its own reputation over this past week. All done without a single word from the Opposition.

In 2007, the ALP thought they could change the political culture for the good. Less than 5 years later, the party leaves it in a bloody ruin.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Back To the Future Part I: The Implosion

Kevin Rudd just resigned as Foreign Minister. The ALP is a joke. Its Caucus members are even worse. The Prime Minister has no leadership credibility. Tony Abbott can call his interior decorator to start planning colour schemes for The Lodge. This is what we know.

As Annabel Crabb stated on Twitter Rudd’s words were not ‘…a press conference, but a victim impact statement. Although he was careful to make no firm commitments, the subtext was clear for any political commentators who know how to read between the lines.

I will consider my options, I'm not sure I have the numbers, I have to check this weekend. If I do, It is on, and I'll have the courage to be honest about it, unlike you were last time.

How do I know? Well I don’t really, but it is my best guess. The heart of my PhD thesis revolves around ALP leadership challenges. Rudd is using the same tactic he used to vanquish Beazley in 2006. It is also the same as tactic Crean used to promote Latham to the leadership in 2003. It is quite a coincidence that I happen to be researching both of these for my PhD thesis at this exact time.

The wider consequences for the ALP are brutal, whatever the outcome. Challenge or no, a former Prime Minister will be gone for good by Tuesday. Although it is of course easy to say and much harder to do, if both Gillard and Rudd worked together on policy and not undermined each other and worked cohesively just as they had promised in 2006, the ALP could have been staring down numerous election victories, a decade plus in power, and two bloody good Prime Ministers. What we have instead is a bitch fight on a national scale.

Australia’s oldest political party took a huge dose of Viagra in June 2010, got just enough enhancement to win that year’s Federal Election, and now the side effects have kicked in. The ALP will have a heart attack and may drop dead.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Good, The Bad, and the Stale

Last night’s True Believers' dinner at the Brisbane Convention Centre to unofficially launch the Queensland State Election for the ALP, represented both the best and the worst aspects of the party that I joined, and now the one I have left behind. The guest of honour was Former Prime Minister Paul Keating, whose appearance marked the only reason for my attendance. As with much of the 1600 attendees, he remains my political role model, even if the party he belongs to no longer does.

As with many functions of this kind, the dinner served to energise the rank and file (who could afford a $55 a head ticket, a contradiction in itself, really for a supposed 'working class party') ahead of the largely hopeless campaign ahead. So, it was rather fitting that for an event designed to ensure the ALP’s future standing, most of the night was spent harking back to past successes. Members of the Goss, Beattie and Bligh governments were honoured guests, with the achievements of each highlighted at every opportunity: but what of the future? It was a damning indictment that a man who has not been in Parliament for 16 years, nor one who even lives in Queensland was the only one with a clear vision last night.

The first speaker Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan demonstrated that far from being a ‘home brand Keating’, that he is an inferior product in every sense. Noting that he and Keating were the only Australian Treasurers to win ‘Treasurer of the Year’ he invited such unwelcome comparisons. He spent most of his laborious, poorly delivered speech noting that both the Federal and State Oppositions did not have an alternative economic plan, but as his custom failed to articulate one himself. As he outlined the achievements of the Gillard Government, the big screen would occasionally show Kevin Rudd’s stony face fake smiling looking like he wished he was playing with his dog at home instead.

The Queensland Premier then strode out to standing ovation (notable for who didn’t stand up, rather than those that did) again highlighting past achievements. Given that she was a mere 36 hours from visiting Government House to officially commence the State campaign proper, it was interesting to note that she spent more time attacking the LNP than testing out campaign themes, again trying to tie her record to her impressive predecessors and falling far short of their standards.

It was then left to Keating to salvage the wreckage. Although the reportage will no doubt be dominated by parroting his trademark one liners, Keating did more to state the economic credentials of Queensland than Swan, Bligh or State Treasurer Andrew Fraser have done in 3 years. Deftly navigating through economic statistics with a thorough examination of the political climate, Keating told the story of how Queensland had ‘transformed under two decades of Labor’ whilst warning of the dangers of allowing ‘the Little Man’ (Newman) and ‘the Hayseeds’ (The National Party) from taking power at the March 24 poll.

Keating’s speech was one of big ideas, which could have been examined by voters whether they agreed with him or not. Increasingly this type of speech seems to be a relic of Labor’s past, just like the Governments that the True Believers’ dinner sought to celebrate. That was the party I loved. As with the speeches of Swan and Bligh, the ALP just seems now to be the party of stale Machiavellian ideas. These True Believers’ have turned into robots, sadly bereft of ideas and vision.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Best Picture

During the course of researching my next article for RampUp I was once again reminded of the film that I believe gives the most accurate representation of what it is like to be confined to a wheelchair. Coming Home is not a film you hear too much about these days, which is quite extraordinary given that it won 3 of the big 6 Oscars in 1978. Released in the period of Vietnam War revisionism that dominated the era, it often takes a back seat to the more widely regarded The Deer Hunter, which covers similar ground. However, Coming Home is the one film I would recommend to anyone who wants to gain first hand knowledge of the experiences of having a physical disability. 

The plot is thus:
Sally Bender (Jane Fonda) is the wife of a Captain in the United States Marine Corps (Bruce Dern). He is sent over to Vietnam, and Sally is alone. With nothing else to do, she decides to volunteer at a local veteran's hospital, where she meets Luke (Jon Voight), who went to high school with Sally. Luke was wounded and is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. When Sally begins to fall in love with Luke, she has to make a crucial decision about her life.
Given that Luke lost his mobility during the conflict, his experience is obviously different to my own, but I identify and relate to it so much. There is the undeniable anger that Luke feels when he realises he is unable to perform the most basic tasks. The scenes with Luke in the hospital expressing his frustration at the inability of the nurses to take care of him are harrowing, because they are real. Too fucking real. I have been in that exact place emotionally. During the entire first act Luke is a vulgar and harsh character, rude to everyone he encounters.

The crucial scene in the movie is the sex scene between Luke and Sally. At first Sally is timid, doubting that Luke is ready or willing to satisfy her. Then passion takes over and both of them are completely naked in both the physical and metaphorical senses. Despite being married, Sally experiences her first ever orgasm as Luke goes down on her. The camera lingers on Sally's face at just the exact moment where you can see the relief, excitement, joy, wonder and shock of those few seconds. From that shot onwards both characters are liberated in every single way.

Voight and Fonda both won acting Oscars for their portrayals. Both performances are brave, risky and uncompromising in a way that never occurs anymore. When was the last time you saw a person with a disability having sex in a mainstream movie? As respected critic Roger Ebert notes, the development of both characters in the film is astonishing.
Coming Home is uncompromising in its treatment of Luke and his fellow paraplegics, and if that weren't so the opening sequences of the film wouldn't affect us so deeply. Luke literally runs into Sally on their first meeting, and his urine bag spills on the floor between them. That's the sort of embarrassment he has to learn to live with -- and she too, if she is serious about being a volunteer.

She is, she finds. Luke in the early days is a raging troublemaker, and the hospital staff often finds it simpler just to tranquilize him with medication. Zombies are hardly any bother at all. Sally tries to talk to Luke, gets to know him, invites him for dinner. He begins to focus his anger away from himself and toward the war; he grows calmer, regains maturity. One day, softly, he tells her: "You know there's not an hour goes by that I don't think of making love with you."

They do eventually make love, confronting his handicap in a scene of great tenderness, beauty, and tact. It is the first time Sally has been unfaithful. But it isn't really an affair; she remains loyal to her husband, and both she and Luke know their relationship will have to end when her husband returns home. He does, too soon, having accidentally wounded himself, and discovers from Army Intelligence what his wife has been up to.... Coming Home is great filmmaking and great acting.

And it is also greatly daring, since it confronts the relationship between Fonda and Voight with unusual frankness -- and with emotional tenderness and subtlety that is, if anything, even harder to portray.
The frankness, tenderness and subtlety that Ebert speaks of is unheard of when portraying characters with a disability on screen. Luke is neither a victim nor a 'supercrip'. He is a deeply flawed human being, capable of being an interloper that breaks down a marriage, an angry soul embittered by what the world has done to him, and yet capable of giving and receiving the purest forms of love: because he craves affection as we all do.

Most people will tell you that Coming Home is an anti war film. It is so much more. It is the best 'pro crip' film there is. This crip is not flawless or helpless, he is real in every sense. That is the reason you must see Coming Home

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The 14th

To those who say 'love' is a sham
Why do you chase after it?
Why are you happy when it is found?
Devastated when it is lost?

To those that have rejected my advances
Shame on you
And your inability to see me clearly
You have missed out on a lot

To those who I have unrequited passion for
Curse my timidity
Spurned by decades of rejection
The pain might never extinguish

To those who have found ‘love’
How I envy you
Cherish your luck
It never lasts forever

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Turning 'Right' Off Of A Cliff

Speculation is rife that Kevin Rudd will attempt to retake the Prime Ministership from Julia Gillard in the foreseeable future. There is both a simple answer, and a complicated answer as to why this is high profile news. The ALP have not produced any policies and pushed forward anything of substance in the past two to three months. In the absence of anything substantial to report the media have had to full the vacuum with political news. In the absence of anything pressing, leadership contests are the easiest stories to create, whether they are real or imagined. The real story is not the lack of political leadership on offer in the government, but the wider ideological crisis that the ALP has been consumed with in the post Keating era.

Out of political necessity one of the political objectives of the Hawke-Keating era was to move the ALP further to the ‘political right’. This was done in order to move the Liberal Party opposition off the sensible ideological map, by forcing them to adopt ideological extremist positions that were unpalatable to electorate. No doubt this worked in both the short to medium terms, as it helped the ALP secure five successive election victories. However, it came at a significant long term cost.

Since Keating lost the 1996 Federal election the ALP has constantly waged an internal battle in order to determine its ideological identity. Despite impressive polling numbers throughout Beazley’s first term as leader, and winning the popular vote at the following election two years later, both Beazley’s first term as Opposition Leader and Crean's short tenure were characterised by a massive amount of discussion surrounding the party’s long term direction, with little substantive action behind the rhetoric. Given that trade union membership continued to experience a steady decline between 1996 and 2001, the ALP struggled to formulate a solid coalition that would see it return to government. Consequently much of the discussion concerned broadening its ‘working class’ electoral support, a significant number of which had withdrawn their support from the ALP in favour of the Liberal Party.

The most intellectually engaging analysis about the state of the ALP during the early stages of the 21st century came from former Hawke Government Minister, John Button. In 2002, Button published a Quarterly Essay titled Beyond Belief in which he argued that the ALP must undertake significant reform to guarantee its longevity. His most striking point was that previous attempts to achieve reform during other periods of Opposition had failed due to the lack of willingness from the party’s to break free from the ALP’s structure, which ensured their tight grip on power.
Some Labor leaders talk of “revitalising the relationship with the affiliated unions” or “conducting new membership campaigns”. These things have been suggested before and nothing has happened. Others look back and consider the circumstances in which Labor has won government from opposition in the last fifty years. This has happened only twice, under Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke. So it might be said the ALP has to wait for the right leader, to wait for its own Godot. But a political party that waits for the unlikely to happen is betraying its membership, its supporters and those who hope for a more democratic and fair society. The ALP can’t afford to wait. Waiting lets too many people down.
Much of the enduring party reform and electoral success has taken place only when the party leader has been charismatic enough to withstand both external and internal opposition.

The need to develop coherent economic policy rooted in free market ideology whilst being seen to appease its traditional working supporter base has also been a problem. The ALP made the conscious decision to jettison the legacy of the Hawke-Keating era as the party who led the push towards Australia’s economic deregulation. As a consequence, the ALP had no ideological narrative, which it could sell to both its blue collar constituency and to the swinging voters that were crucial to obtaining government. The Howard Government filled this void, therefore depriving the ALP of any distinctive identity. This in turn left both academics and voters alike whether there was any ideological difference between Australia’s two major parties.  This period also provided examples of the ALP operating under great extremes, because the needs of the party were often in direct conflict with the objectives being pursued by Beazley, Crean, Latham, Rudd and most recently Gillard.

Button emphasised the lack of ideological identity within the party and the problems it did create ten years ago, and little has changed since.
The ALP is seen as a pale alternative to the Coalition. It is incapable of embracing and speaking for the divergent progressive groups in the community. It has been unable to respond effectively to new aspirations. It no longer represents contemporary Australia. It may not even represent its members any more: its national body has become an offshore island adrift from the rest of the party, inaccessible to its rank and file, a barren and rocky outcrop untouched by new ideas.
The ALP is terminally stuck in the position it had created for itself over 25 years earlier Hawke and Keating had made a conscious decision to target new groups of voters who had never voted for the party before. But with their departures this process remained incomplete. When Beazley inherited the leadership from Keating, he lacked both the political capital and the vision to complete this transformation. The ALP remained paralysed during the middle of crucial institutional change, which would inhibit the party for a generation, and it still continues to this day.

Monday, 6 February 2012

You're My Best Friend?

I have noted with some of my trademark scepticism that the term ‘best friend’ has been bandied about recently, not by children as you would expect, but by adults. It is like ranking friends constitutes some form of importance. I realised upon closer inspection although I’ve called certain people ‘best friends’ in the past I am actually beginning to wonder what the term really means.

On my dating misadventures a common thread for girls is that they are looking for a partner ‘…who is also my best friend’. This leaves me genuinally confused as to what they mean. Does a night of passionate sex, followed by a coherent conversation automatically qualify for ‘best friend’ status? What if your ‘best friend’ is not a member of the sex you are attracted to? Is it the ability to share and keep secrets? The ability for your 'best friend' to know what to say when words fail you? Is the burden of shared knowledge a pre-requisite to achieve this sort after status?

Perhaps the thing that perplexes me the most about such concepts is why people feel the need to rank such an intrinsic thing. Surely if a person was to rank a ‘best friend’ there has to be a ‘worst friend’ too? And some others who would most certainly fall in between? In my situation I find it difficult to rank such emotional qualities.

Just last week there was a point where I was in turmoil and I knew the person who I wanted to call straight away. I also wanted to discuss feelings, emotions and thoughts with another because their insight is often useful. And if you asked who was the person I felt closest to, the answer would be the person who lives the most distance away.

Perhaps the most troubling of all are the people who I once considered my ‘best friend’. They ultimately did not live up to that standard. If the person who owns the title keeps changing then I wonder what the point of the title actually is? If it is that flexible it would seem the term ‘best friend’ loses all of its meaning.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Are People With Disabilities Really Getting A 'Fighting Chance' For Employment?

Last week I was commissioned by ABC RampUp to write the following piece. Unfortunately due to Tony Abbott's entirely welcome and sensible decision to backflip on the NDIS, and RampUp's desire to cover this issue with its own take, my piece has now been decommissioned due to its lack of currency (and not issues with the quality of the piece). I have obtained permission from ABC RampUp  to publish it here instead.  

How would you feel if your job description was a maker of ‘shoe bags’?

That was the question I asked my as I read the transcript for the ABC radio program The World Today last week. The report conducted by Barbara Miller discussing the work of employment agency Fighting Chance was no doubt intended as a feel good story to warm the cockles of people’s hearts. Fighting Chance, according to its website, is an organisation ‘specifically designed to employ people with disabilities.’ According to its website, Fighting Chance provides  ‘age-appropriate, choice-driven services to young Australian adults with a physical disability.’ After reading the ABC report though, I was left to wonder if making ‘shoe bags’ is really an acceptable form of employment for an organisation that suggests that correctly suggests that employment should provide meaningful stimulation for people with disabilities.

Along with Fighting Chance, there are similar employment agencies such as Steps Employment in my home state of Queensland. These two agencies and others like it face some difficult challenges when placing the right person with a disability to the right employment opportunity. This is why the report on The World Today saddened me a great deal. The examples given made Fighting Chance sound like a glorified respite service designed to keep people with disabilities occupied during the day while their carers took a much needed reprieve or went to their own jobs.

The Managing Director of Fighting Chance, Laura O’Reilly says she drew inspiration from her late brother Shane, who was intellectually bright, was physically unable to participate in an ‘average’ occupation, but wanted to make an important contribution to society.  However, the ABC Report failed to address some important questions into whether organisations such as Fighting Chance help people with disabilities achieve meaningful employment in every sense of the word.

Are these people with disabilities (and others like them) being paid at least the minimum award wage?

Does the cost of their personal care get taken out of their wage? Or is it a service provided for by the organisation and/or the employer (as it should be)?

After all, a sizable take home wage is how society measures success in the workplace.

One would have thought that while the ABC was warming listeners’ hearts they could address issues of basic human rights, but then again that its not exactly a warm and fuzzy topic.

Last week the Federal Government and the State Government of New South Wales announced nearly $48 million dollars worth of extra funding for school leavers as they transition into employment. As welcome as this funding is, it is important to recognise that people with disabilities don’t want to leave school and find employment just to waste time during the day, or to perform menial tasks (such as the making ‘shoe bags’), no matter their disability. They are also entitled to be fully compensated for their work, no matter what extra support is needed to ensure they can be productive. 

Stories of successful employment that balance the needs of the employee, the employer and the organisations who provide services to support both parties are there if the ABC was willing to dig a little deeper. Unfortunately, the example they provided is not one of them.

Perhaps they could consult one of the many people with disabilities who have found meaningful, productive and rewarding jobs in any number of sectors. Not all of us want to make ‘shoe bags’ after all.

Dating Profile of 'Genericgirl27'

Hi there, I'm just trying this out because online dating seems to work for my friends.

I am strong and independently minded, but not so independently minded that I don’t desire a real man, someone who is nice to his mother and knows how to treat a woman. If you don’t know how to do this but look good with your shirt off, I’ll let you ask me out anyway.

I LOVE to travel I’ve been to (insert name of 5 European cities) in the last year and I loved it. But I want someone to share the experience of getting drunk and having unprotected sex on a Contiki tour across South America with.  If online dating fails, I’ll do this anyway with the Spanish guy at the back of the bus.

I am so OVER Clubbing despite the fact that my profile picture has me looking drunk, under four layers of makeup, and in the shortest skirt I own. I would much prefer a quiet drink with friends, because I think that this is what you want to read. I adore my friends and family, they mean the world to me. So much so that the previous sentence contained no originality whatsoever.

In my spare time I like water sports, none of which I haven't been bothered to try, but this is a sure fire way to weed out the computer geeks who stay at home and play with their ‘joysticks.’ But I am equally happy cuddling up on the couch with a DVD. Currently I am reading ‘insert name of a Jodi Piccoult or Stig Larsen book’ but I like reading biographies too, because they inspire me in some way, but not enough as to be specific about any of them.

Feel free to contact me if you want to know anything else. Except if I think you’re ugly or boring then I’ll dismiss you in a second, without thinking twice. I can’t wait to get to know you!!!!  

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Captain Bligh or the Tin of Soup, Which is Worse?

I should be writing more about the Queensland State Election… wait I should be campaigning as part of the election. But why bother?

There is no ALP candidate endorsed in my seat of Buderim. In the seat next closest to that, the ALP candidate is a complete waste of space. Further, and perhaps most importantly of all, the ALP has a leader who has achieved the wonderful double of being uninspired, whilst still managing to betray all the basic principles of her party.

Only problem with this is the LNP is even worse (if that is possible): committing the worst mistake that an Opposition Leader can make: promising generalities and neglecting specifics. The Bligh ‘Government’ should be easy target practice, they have more broken promises than a security guard at Neverland. It’s not that the LNP haven’t had time to orchestrate some policies, they have been in Opposition for 20 of the past 22 years. The most damning feature of all, is that the most credible Opposition Leader they have had during this period has not even been elected to Parliament yet. 

Queensland is the only State in Australia that hasn’t had a upper house for more than 30 years. One of the more indirect features of such a system is that Oppositions rarely win elections, with only two achieving this in the past forty years. So the choice Queensland faces is either an inept government well past its prime, or an Opposition so devoid of intellectual talent they make Sir Joh sound like Plato.

And so on March 24th, all Queenslanders are doomed to failure either way.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012


Regular readers will know that this is the 4th draft of one blog post and the proceeding three have been deleted. In the others I have sounded either pissy, or whiney and depressed: that really is not me at this point in time. I used to be, but I am manically happy right now compared to the lowest point in my depression this time last year. What I really strive to do as a memoirist is to portray emotion without sounding like a deranged arsehole from a Jeff Buckley song. Sometimes that is a hard balance.

The past few weeks have been an interesting experience. This ‘dating’ business is hard shit, especially when people fuck you around mentally (and not in the best sense of the phrase) and communication gets difficult. This is when my inexperience in emotional conversations really shines through. I can’t comprehend people who don’t say what they mean, and mean what they say. Accordingly a four week detour that I took led to a dead end. For a time I was angry, pissy, and miserable because what I now call a ‘detour’ really did mean something at the time. Now I have had to turn around, go back and find my path again.

The whole point of this ‘dating’ process is that I’m sick of life passing me by, doing nothing and having lots of regrets about it. In truth I should have started this process ten years ago, meeting new people, getting butterflies, learning what does and doesn’t work, getting electrical charges when that HOT girl touches me for the first time. At 28, I am having the slightly irrational feelings that I’ll be too old for this very soon, so I have to work double time to catch up on the experiences I should have had. Friends have said ‘You don’t need a relationship to be happy’. This of course is true. Rather the case is ‘I WANT a relationship so I can be my version of happy’. In this regard I answer to no one but me, even if others disagree with me.

Unfortunately, due to my particular brand of determination to find this strain of happiness, I’ve had to return to reading inane online dating profiles. The computer reliably informs me that I have viewed 204 in just under 72 hours. Half of them say ‘My family and friends mean the world to me.’ to which I reply ‘If you’re so fulfilled socially, then why are you here?’ A quarter of those are dumb arses that say they are trying online dating to ‘meat’ people. I wonder if they have a particular fetish for butchers? Most of all though, a great majority fail to grab me with the necessary wit, charisma and intelligence to capture my imagination and my loins: except six.

At this point who knows if any of these six will be anywhere near decent. I hope so. I’d like to be entirely satisfied with myself for more than four weeks at a time.