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.