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It begins

And so to an election on 21 August. It’s not an inspiring prospect: a contest between two candidates, each of whom could plausibly be described as the most conservative leader their respective parties have ever fielded.

About Tony Abbott, nothing need really be said. He is precisely what he seems, an amalgam of John Howard and Torquemada.

As for Julia Gillard, the speech with which she launched the campaign epitomised both modern Labor and its new leader. The slogan ‘Moving Forward’ is, in its own way, a minor masterpiece, a distillation of contemporary Laborism into the purity of a Zen koan. For what does it mean, this phrase that Gillard repeated an astonishing thirty-five times in a single press conference? In some respects, that’s the wrong question, since the power of the slogan lies self-evidently in its emptiness. ‘Moving forward’ simultaneously implies that the government is building on its achievements (‘moving forward’ as ‘getting on with the job’) and that it’s entirely disowning them (‘moving forward’ as ‘leaving the Rudd era behind’); it suggests a break from the Howard years without implying any differentiation from Howard policies (for, as Tony Wright points out today, if one is moving forward, one neatly ducks the issue of whether one is lurching to the right). Indeed, the obvious comparison is with Newspeak, a lexicon that Orwell explains in terms that every ALP candidate would understand perfectly. ‘For the purposes of everyday life,’ he writes, ‘it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgement should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets’.

Where do I stand? I’m for moving forward!

Indeed, in some respects the vocabulary of contemporary Laborism is actually more empty than its Newspeak equivalent. Orwell was, of course, documenting the grammar of Ingsoc or English Socialism, a tradition in which the idea of historical progress was central. That’s the point of 1984: it’s a satire of the totalitarian goal to which Ingsoc is striving. In that context, ‘Moving Forward’ would actually have had some kind of meaning (albeit a sinister one).

Labor today, however, possesses no real notion of historical progress, at least not in the sense of which Orwell’s generation would have understood it. There’s no end-point, no particular goal, merely the brute immediacy of the news cycle and the opinion survey. Labor moves forward in the same way that a shark does: not to get anywhere but because if it doesn’t it dies — or, at least, it dips in the polls, which today is more or less the same thing.

So what to make of this election? One presumes Gillard is still the favourite, though her performance over the last weeks — explicitly validating Tory talking points about Labor’s performance, whether on the mining tax or refugees  — makes an Abbott government much more likely.

But whoever wins, it will be on the basis of a policy shift to the Right. That means that, as ever, the real question for the Left in the wake of the election will be the extent to which we can mobilise social movements in what looks like the quite nasty era to come.

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. Pingback: Tweets that mention it begins « Overland literary journal -- Topsy.com

  2. Initially, though I felt booting Rudd out the way the Labor party did was incredibly awful on both a professional and personal level, I didn’t feel too bad about the idea of having Julia Gillard as PM. Clearly that was uncritical thinking on my part. it didn’t take much reflection to come to the conclusion that as someone who is actually left and wants to see progressive policies in Australia I am now more or less disenfranchised. I’ve never voted for Labor, and have always felt that both parties are too similar to offer any real choice to Australian citizens. But this upcoming election, as you point out, has brought the two parties so close together it’s frightening. I feel as if they’re both saying ‘I’m not Howard – but I am’ in a bid to convince both sides of the “divide” that they are conservative, but not THAT conservative. Tony Abbott has pretty much failed at that already. I think with his various media fumbles to most of the public he looks a bit risky at best. I think you’re right in saying that Gillard is still the favourite, but unlike the 2007 election, I feel a Labor win would be a pretty hollow victory.

  3. I saw a posting about this blog on Facebook and as I like Overland as a long-standing non mainstream outlet, I paid a visit. I was a little shocked that noone here was talking Green. Fair enough if you don’t support them, but surely you need ( which 13% of population is polled as supportive and given that a more progressive voice in the Senate has made a difference) to explain why not?
    I am genuinely bewildered. I thought we had got past that old thing of you’ve got to vote labor to stop the Coalition. It seems to have led us to a rather grim place. So many people are not convinced anymore that a vote for the more progressive Greens is even predicting results in the lower house. You’ve got to change if you want change.

    Wendy Bacon

    • I totally agree that the Greens are the way to go. I’ve supported them in previous elections and will support them now. But unfortunately this probably wont have much effect this election. I think in all likelihood, even if support for the Greens does rise, we will still end up with a Gillard-Labor government.

      • But never underestimate the positive influence of the Greens should they gain balance of power in this election.

  4. Hi Wendy,
    I agree that the possibility of the Greens taking some lower house seats is a potential bright spot in a grim election. The post above wasn’t supposed to be a policy statement, more just a very quick response to the initial statements by the main parties.

  5. Hi Jeff,
    Yes, of course you are quite right. I think I may have overstated my point. A positive development is that more news media now mention the Greens, so they have broken through a barrier. Although I just heard the ABC news, Labor and Coalition neck and neck according to the Galaxy Poll. They did not mention the 12 or so % that were giving Greens first preference. So I guess that is where I was coming from. I’ve decided to just keep mentioning the alternative positions.
    Great to see the Overland Blog,
    Wendy

  6. I just took ‘Moving Forward’ as management speak. Vaguely comforting, but still sinister and, of course, devoid of content. I thought the Gillard coup was a lurch rightward from the first – so I haven’t been so much disappointed as depressingly confirmed in my opinion. I will be giving the Greens my first vote in the senate, but unfortunately a vote for the Greens in the lower house seat in which I live will just amount to a vote for the ALP. They have made it abundantly clear that they do not want my vote – so guess I will go informal there.

  7. The image of the shark ‘moving forward’ resonates for me, not for any reason other than the necessity for sharks to keep swimming or they’ll drown. Politics in Australia, in fact, probably around the western world, seems so based on remaining in power at the cost of sensibleness or good governance, that I despair.

    I did hear the minister for ‘population sustainability’ speaking this morning on tellie and was somewhat heartening. But yes, I will be interested in what ‘moving forward’ actually entails.

  8. It will be interesting to see how the major parties treat the Greens vote. Will they just read it as a protest vote that they don’t need to address (particularly Labor because they figure preferences will return to them anyway)?

    And how will the Greens treat the vote? Will they read it as a vote for social justice or a vote for the environment (if not both – and will that be then formalised into policy)?

  9. Hi Jacinta, a vote for the Greens is absolutely a vote for social justice, for environmental sustainability, for democracy, for peace and non-violence. Or, in Guy Pearse’s formulation, “The Greens now look more liberal than the Liberals, more labour than Labor and – unsurprisingly – far greener than both.” In terms of formulating that as policy, you’ll see all our policies at http://greens.org.au/policies – we’ve had policies on all these issues for many years.

    Thanks Wendy for raising the role of Greens voters in this election, and Jeff for such an interesting reflection on ‘moving forward’.

    Kathleen Maltzahn
    (Greens candidate for the state seat of Richmond)

    • Would be great if the Green Asylum-seeker p.o.v. was considered important by the media – unless one goes seeking, it’s kind of a non-entity.

      Thanks for the link, it’s useful.

  10. I was reading Orwell just this morning – his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’.

    Curious to hear the word ‘Tory’ in an Australian context – does it mean the Liberal Party, or conservatives generally?

  11. frustration!!!! i turn 18 in October, this means i miss out on voting by a little more than a month! this is so incredibly excruciating, especially watching all of my conservative school friends who are eligible, voting for Labor/Liberal. Gillard and her early election! f…ing self righteous politicians, screwing with the people so that they can gain power!

    sorry, just needed to vent.

  12. Assuming the Greens do win the BoP in the Senate, we can expect an organised backlash from the major parties, especially the Coalition. No surprises there. In a sense, winning the BoP will be the easy bit. Far more difficult will be the task of fighting for substantive change during the Senate cycle whilst fending off attacks from all sides, including from within.

    This is, in many ways, a turning point in Australian political history. The Greens may well have the opportunity to set the political agenda and at the same time prove that the party can cope with the pressure power brings. This will be a real challenge because although they are relatively strong at the federal level and in some pockets of state politics, they tend to fall down, in my opinion, in the political sector most vital to their long term survival and growth: local government.I realise this is a contentious point and one that may appear at first to be contradictory of the ‘grass roots’, consensus-based political philosophy of the Greens, but I won’t go into that now.

    To be a contender over the long term the Greens need to demonstrate that they can work effectively from their policy platform which is, as Kathleen points out, broad based and comprehensive. For example, they are the only ‘major’ political party with an economic policy based around the appealing notion of sustainable prosperity.

    Their second challenge will be to work towards leadership succession over the next decade whilst building on the success (hopefully) of this election to broaden the base of the party membership with the aim of gearing up for a House of Reps tilt at the next federal election.

    • sustainable prosperity
      sustainable prosperity
      sustainable prosperity

      nothing to add really … it just sounded so good

  13. PS
    I am aware that the Greens are running Reps candidates this time around but their position could be greatly strengthened by a credible performance in the next Senate term.

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