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Rundle responds

This is less a point-by-point reply to Jeff’s posting below, than it is a companion piece – the debate moved to this venue principally to argue it out at more length, and not test Crikey readers’ patience.

But it also gives an opportunity to talk more explicitly about left strategy in an issue that has clearly restarted and moved to the centre of public debate.

In the past forty-eight hours, everything suggests to me that my argument about a double-strategy of the Rudd government – one oriented both ethically and practically – has been strengthened, and the argument that the government will snap back into a more punitive mode weakened.

Tonight, both the PM – on the 7.30 Report – and Craig Emerson on Q and A, repeated what has become the  central image they are spruiking: that the Howard government put children behind barbed wire. Wilson Tuckey’s comment that terrorists might be aboard the boats and some further mad stuff about race, was met not with a mere assertion of Labor’s stronger procedures, but of a denunciation of the very nature of Tuckey’s intervention, and a re-assertion of the common humanity of refugees.

The actual wellsprings of this are unimportant: the clear point is that if you were even thinking of snapping back into a uniformly hardline policy, the last thing you would do is summon up the very visceral concrete image of children behind barbed-wire.

Labor has decided that there is no upside in trying to outbastard the Libs. It could have decided otherwise. Mark Latham, for example, pursued an explicitly ‘anti-elite’ strategy, in which a distinctively Labor version of unlimited mandatory detention could be spruiked – emphasising the right of a community to set standards, even if they were cruel ones, over any universal application of rights.

Rudd early on took a different path – because he wanted to reframe politics, and re-emphasise abstract ethical concerns. The number of people who read Rudd’s Monthly essays doesn’t matter – explicitly and allusively the conception has been bubbled through the mass media. Actually the degree to which Bonhoeffer has become someone to quote back at Rudd has been remarkable.

That predisposed Labor to a certain approach. They could still have done a switchback to bastardry. Their tub-thumping on security and ethics has made it virtually certain they won’t. Their key selling point, both in image and reality, is unity of purpose and discipline. If Rudd is talking tough and Stephen Smith – the no.3 in government – is talking soft, you can be certain they’ve co-ordinated that.

To suddenly turn around, and go in real hard would make them look a rabble – which is exactly how they want to portray the opposition. There’s be no upside from the shock-jocks – they’d skewer Labor as indecisive.

Maybe it would work in the way that Jeff suggests – by the simple goldfish process of forgetting every three seconds on the part of a section of the public – but it wouldn’t work for the groups that can raise hell, to varying degrees. Which are:

SL ministers in cabinet. Yeah I know, I know, but nothing like the full Howard court press would be possible before people started to arc up. And that raises the spectre of the appearance of disunity.

select branches. I didn’t suggest that labor for refugees would raise hell – i was arguing that they should do so.

multicultural peak bodies. If Michael Danby is now taking the line that ‘no-one is illegal’ you can bet that Jewish community peak bodies are lighting a fire under his arse about it, in memory of the ‘illegal’ Jewish refugees of the 30s. And the same across the board.

churches, etc. You can’t position yourself as an ethical leader and be denounced from the pulpits and whatever it is Uniting Church Ministers speak from. Rudd’s whole pitch has been that he is an ethical representative of common people against a ‘brutopian’ ideology. Once again, it doesn’t matter how many people explicitly understand or know that pitch. It’s being used semi-subliminally. To double back against it would just leave Rudd with no clear pitch.

residual ethical spirit in the GP. Whatever people feel about strong borders, there has been deep shame and guilt about the methods employed – hence the harping on what such methods involved. It would be unwise to underestimate the complexity of peoples’ feelings about the Howard-era policies

Jeff argues that there’s no organisational response to this, and that Rudd would have no difficulty turning around. I don’t believe that for a second. It is now nearly a decade since the Tampa. We have moved one click on in terms of atomisation, and the provisionality of groups. Looking for boots-on-the-ground sustained over time is looking in the wrong place.

In that respect it seems equally wrong to see any groundswell for nativist organisations etc, in the response to fluff like the Hey hey blackface incident. It’s precisely because that sort of incidental media flotsam is what calls out a response that suggests that no possibility of such organisation is there. It’s further away than it was during the rise of Hansonism in the 90s. The truth is no sustaining political organisation of right or left can get traction at the moment.

I’m not going to get all zippy-ken-warkish about it, but the process of organisational reconstitution and dissolution is more fluid than it was even a decade ago. I don’t doubt that a hard right turn on the part of the government would call forth a new network of groups – a revived RAC, and others. But it wouldn’t look like 2001, and still less like earlier periods.

For me, the judgement that the government has decided on a strategy emphasising both ‘tough’ border controls and the humanity of refugees makes a lot of stuff about use of the term ‘illegal’ and growling about people smugglers marginal. What’s needed now is not to focus on questions of Rudd’s morality, motives or soundbites, but to focus on the next demands that pushes the debate leftwards – the politically and morally shaky nature of the Indonesian solution, and the increasingly absurd fetishisation of mainland landfall.

In that respect, to continue to anticipate a Labor switchback is a strategic error. It’s not impossible  – but the more that Labor raises the spectre of kids behind barbed wire over the coming days, the less likely it will be.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. Good morning Jeff and Guy. I posted a personal response to the current media hype at MQPhil. I believe it offers some clarity and also offers us all a choice. A choice to work on ways of including people rather than on ways of excluding. Looking forward to seeing your thoughts. If new and attractive choices are made available to our government, that will certainly impact on their future responses.

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