August 2013

Arts & Letters

Books on the future of the ALP

By John McTernan

Kim Carr at Mt Stromlo Observatory in 2011. © Allan Porritt / AAP

It’s time to read about the “true believers”

All national elections are, in the end, a choice about the future of the country.  The forthcoming federal election is no exception, with voters being given the chance to reverse most of the major reforms of the Labor government. But there is an additional, almost existential, element to this year’s contest – it appears also to be a choice about the future of the Labor party itself. Four significant party figures have launched substantial books in recent weeks. Andrew Leigh, one of the sharpest economic brains in parliament, has written a provocative and policy-rich polemic on inequality: Battlers and Billionaires (Black Inc; $19.99). Jim Chalmers, Wayne Swan’s former chief of staff, has produced Glory Daze (MUP; $29.99), part memoir, part meditation on why the ALP’s economic management, which saw Australia untouched by the biggest global downturn since the Great Depression, has not garnered electoral support. And two cabinet ministers who recently had stints on the backbench but have returned under Kevin Rudd, Kim Carr and Chris Bowen, used the time to write personal manifestos. Rudd’s changes to the election of the party leader – an equal power split between party members and caucus – are straight from Bowen’s Hearts & Minds (MUP; $24.99), and the return of the choice of the ministry to caucus is proposed in Carr’s A Letter to Generation Next (MUP; $24.99). Both books make interesting and sometimes opposing pitches – from the Right and Left factions respectively – to redefine Labor’s purpose. Bowen somewhat quixotically seeks to claim Labor as a liberal, or more precisely social-liberal, party. Carr, more traditionally, seeks to renovate the label of social democracy. The truly radical proposal is in Bowen’s book – a rewriting of the ALP’s socialist objective. Bowen has learnt from British Labour, citing the great Tony Crosland, and Roy Hattersley. More, he has learnt from the master, Tony Blair. If the ALP is to have an equivalent of Blair’s 1995 recasting of the goals of his party, Bowen has written the first draft.

Former Labor leader Mark Latham kicked off this latest spate of publications in March with his essay ‘Not Dead Yet’ (Quarterly Essay; $19.99) in which he mordantly observes that “the heavy volume of Labor books and essays marked the emergence of a new literary genre, much like vampire novels”. He condemned them as “mostly silent on the development of solutions”, adding that they are typically characterised by “a whinging repetitive obsession with what has gone wrong”. Latham sets a new test for future writers:

[T]here should be a new rigour applied to the writing of books and essays on the ALP: they do not qualify for publication unless they focus on answers – new constructive ideas for the future of social democracy, new positive attacks on entrenched privilege and social injustice.

In very different ways each of the new books meets that challenge, as does, in counterpoint, Nick Cater’s The Lucky Culture (HarperCollins; $29.99). A racy account from the other side of politics, by the opinion editor of the Australian, it is a joy to read, though often unintentionally hilarious in its confected outrage and tortured “evidence”. 

All the books have worthy policy prescriptions, but even a former wonk like myself finds drawbacks to reading about policy programs in a book. The prose style invariably sinks to bureaucratese, though to be fair Carr often leavens this with self-mocking humour – “Tax incentives for research. Try not to fall asleep” – and his writing has a granularity that reflects his ministerial experience in arguing the detail of government support for industry, innovation and manufacturing. Defending subsidies for the car industry, he writes:

[The Commonwealth] spends about $9 billion per annum in direct budgetary assistance. Grain, sheep and beef get more support than auto. Primary production gets more support than manufacturing. Even mining is very well supported.

Carr, Bowen and Chalmers wrote their books very quickly, and their policy sections are consequently light on new ideas. Or perhaps the best ideas have been saved for the election campaign. A bit more flash and verve would have helped. Australia’s ageing, fattening, increasingly diabetic society; superannuation; social mobility; innovation and productivity; a future beyond being a quarry with nice beaches – all are acknowledged as challenges, but more detailed solutions, however sketchy, might have catalysed longer and more productive conversations. Latham’s essay is a more readable example of articulation of policy. Leigh, too, smartly details how to tackle inequality. He’d like to see egalitarianism celebrated as a central part of Australia’s national story, starting with the Eureka stockade. This would annoy Cater, who tries valiantly to redefine egalitarianism as a liberal virtue, rendering it a matter of manners rather than material possessions – a right to fail rather than a right to a fair go. 

Three former leaders stand over Bowen, Carr and Chalmers. Two are Gough Whitlam and Keating. Oddly, Bob Hawke is absent from their ruminations. Perhaps he was too successful for his own good. He implemented sound reforms and won elections; there was no heroic failure, no need therefore to recuperate his reputation. Whitlam, on the other hand, is an unalloyed hero. The expansion of tertiary education, the funding of Catholic schools, the increase in matriculation rates – education, education, education was the emblematic Labor reform. Whitlam haunts Cater, too. He tries, in vain, to lay all of Labor’s current difficulties with voters at Whitlam’s door. The core of Cater’s charge is that Labor under Whitlam started to appeal to the fastest growing class in Australia – university-educated professionals – and aligned it with the party’s declining working-class base. Yet surely that is what successful political parties do. They evolve, or they die. Cater seems particularly incensed that this new class exists at all. Why can’t just 16% of our kids go on to be university educated, as Robert Menzies – the hero of The Lucky Culture – wanted? Well, the global growth of knowledge work, an information economy and the near-elimination of unskilled work aren’t exactly immaterial. When did you last see a milkman, or a bus conductor, or a street sweeper? Coming to you soon in Caterland, it would seem. 

If Whitlam’s triumph is complete, Keating’s is still contested. Bowen’s book has a glowing preface from Keating. Chalmers reflects on his own conversations with Keating, and those of his former boss, Wayne Swan. Latham’s essay explicitly calls on Labor to reclaim Keating, and the changed social landscape that the Hawke–Keating era created:

It should end Labor’s long-running agony over economic policy and accept the Keating Settlement. This is the only way in which the party can keep faith with the aspirational class it created in the 1980s and ’90s, presenting itself as pro-growth, pro-skills and pro-economic modernisation. If there is one thing worse than Labor forfeiting the Keating legacy it is the prospect of never reclaiming it.

As the connections between the various authors and Keating show, this is being addressed. The Hawke–Keating legacy underpins all Labor claims of good economic management, and Keating remains a shrewd and wise observer of politics and economics here and abroad. However, as Carr points out, one of the key assertions about the Keating-era economic reforms – that a new social class, the self-employed, was created – is false. The rate of self-employment was around 20% lower in 2010 than in 1990. The new class, as Cater spells out, is the “salariat” – the white-collar professionals. And Labor’s doing just fine with them, what with these people running the ABC, constructing the national discourse and making us all ashamed of Australian history. (Just kidding. But I thought you should get a taste of the world according to Nick Cater.)

Who, then, is the third man who looms over these books? It’s Mark Latham himself. Joe Strummer once said that a man should cast a long shadow, and for sure Latham’s is longer than most rock stars’. The former leader rose fast, fell hard and had a very messy breakup with the ALP, yet is the intellectual force against which Chalmers, Bowen and Carr define themselves. It’s no surprise: he thinks clearly and writes sharply, and I can personally attest to his generosity with his time and insights. In the end, Labor is a family, and you can’t ever really leave. Paul Howes, the secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union and a man in whom many Australian progressives put their hope, last year reached out to Latham in recognition of his talent and passion:

Maybe the time’s come to stop being so particular about particular leaders or former leaders, constantly spending so much air-time ripping into ourselves … I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. The time has come to be more tolerant of diversity, to bring back those lost members, those cousins who don’t come to Christmas anymore.

Latham’s essay is an explicit response to that invitation. Chalmers then met Latham through Howes, Bowen’s book responds directly to Latham’s essay and Carr’s impassioned first chapter, which makes a compelling case for politics as a force for good, as a noble profession and as a career for young people, is a reply to a provocative speech by Latham. I wanted more of this Kim Carr, who later resurfaces from the policy deeps to write movingly about the decency of his parents, and his early family life following his dad’s work as a journeyman welder. Real people are too often cyphers in political books, advanced to support a point and then rapidly dropped. 

Of course there are gaps and contradictions in and between these books. There is no theory of power. Which serious socialist has not had one? Australia is relatively classless, for sure. But educational attainment and social mobility remain strongly related to parental profession. Evidence shows that increasing investment in education rapidly lifts the results of those with low socioeconomic status, but it ele-vates the performance of middle-class students even faster. What might be done about this? Should anything be done? Here Latham is at his most provocative:

[T]he entrenchment of poverty comes primarily from social factors: disadvantaged people living in disadvantaged places, with an absence of effective role models and behavioural norms. [My emphasis]

Australia has a small, chaotic, disadvantaged underclass, which consumes massive resources. Above them is not just an undivided middle class, though. This is the point Leigh, Chalmers, Bowen and Carr all dance around. Latham gives voice to the respectable working class: We play by the rules and the underclass does not. So what do we get? Here’s Labor’s real alienation from battlers – they see the party as welfarists, helping the indigent, blind to character or behaviour. Latham calls for harsh judgement and generous action. It’s the hardest call to make – how might I change someone else’s behaviour? But it’s the next progressive frontier. As Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, said:

We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!

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