Not so very long ago, I wrote that Abbott’s ascension to the Liberal leadership rendered the Coalition unelectable for the foreseeable future. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
In my defense, the shift in mainstream politics over the last few years has been quite extraordinary, especially considering how shattered the Liberals were after their defeat.
In the context of an emboldened conservative movement running rampant, there’s a temptation for the Left to become purely reactive, so much so that leftism becomes exclusively a matter of defending every cause that the Tories menace. But with the Liberals pushing the agenda to the Right, an exclusively defensive politics inevitably tails that rightward drift, with the Left digging in behind not-very-good-positions for fear of the even-worse policies to come.
The recently-launched Women For Gillard campaign poses these issues in a very sharp fashion.
If you look at the hashtags #womenforJulia and #womenforGillard, they’ve been hijacked by the vilest misogynists. The stream of anti-Gillard tweets, and now the grotesque menu apparently featured at some Liberal Party dinner, proves the obvious point that the Australian political landscape remains thoroughly sexist and any woman in public life will be subjected to horrendous gender-based smears.
Obviously, anyone who claims to belong to the Left needs to speak up against this kind of sexism, to call it out whenever it occurs. This is not an optional extra. A Left that doesn’t oppose sexism has no future – and doesn’t deserve one.
Yet that’s not to say that we have to engage with the argument in the way that the Labor leaders pose it. Quite obviously, it’s entirely possible to oppose sexist attacks on Gillard without endorsing Gillard’s policies.
Indeed, there’s a real danger in allowing the recent, exciting revival of anti-sexist energy to be corralled into an identification with the ALP right at the moment when the ALP’s heading for a catastrophic loss.
It’s not simply that we can all reel off a list of atrocious attacks on women over which Labor’s presided: the prime minister who delivered the stirring attack on Abbott’s misogyny is, of course, the prime minister responsible for keeping who seek asylum in indefinite detention without charges or trial on the basis of security assessments they can’t see.
No, there’s a more fundamental problem: namely, Labor’s not able to mobilise sufficient women (or men) for Gillard because the neoliberal politics upon which ALP now rests are incapable of inspiring widespread support.
That’s the secret of Abbott’s success. The Coalition might be leading in all the polls but Abbott’s own popularity remains at dire levels. Voters aren’t flocking to the Liberals so much as they are turning against Labor.
Think back to the state in which the Liberals were left after the public overwhelmingly rejected John Howard in 2007. How did they get from where they were then to where they are now? Despite a brief and largely rhetorical repudiation of neoliberalism in various Monthly essays, the ALP fostered the conservative revival by ALP implementing policies that were a continuation of Howardism rather than a repudiation of it. Think, for instance, of Gillard excising the Australian continent from the migration zone, a plan that Howard contemplated – and then abandoned after a backbench revolt.
Obviously, with the election looming, the Labor Party itself has an incentive to foster lesser evilism, in a manner recalling the famous passage from Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Surely, comrades,” cried Squealer almost pleadingly, skipping from side to side and whisking his tail, “surely there is no one among you who wants to see Jones come back?” Now if there was one thing that the animals were completely certain of, it was that they did not want Jones back. When it was put to them in this light, they had no more to say.
Orwell’s point is that, once you internalise the logic of the lesser evil – that permanent fear of Farmer Jones – there’s almost nothing that you won’t swallow, simply because it’s always possible to scare yourself back into line by imagining an even worse outcome.
At this moment, it’s crucial to think differently.
If it’s true that, as the polls suggest, Labor’s electoral defeat is now almost certain, then separating the Left’s fortunes from those of this particular administration becomes all the more urgent. Even if we were previously content simply to defend the bad against the worse, that project’s increasingly seeming unfeasible – and so it’s well past time we started talking about what we actually want and what we actually need.
That’s not to say that an Abbott government won’t be nasty. It’s rather to point out that the best way to get ready for what’s coming is to start fighting against rightwing ideas in the here and now, rather than accepting them on the basis that the future will be worse.
More than anything, the Left needs some clarity. Actually, after the election, a great deal of what we’ll be facing will already be familiar. Yes, Abbott and Morrison will probably unleash a fresh campaign against refugees. But we’ve seen anti-refugee campaigns from both parties now for more than a decade, and so the solution’s not to contrast Labor’s xenophobia –light with Abbott’s more full-flavoured version but rather to articulate a program of our own.
We need, in other words, a return to first principles. If we’re to start winning again, we need our own agenda rather than fighting on the terrain of the Right.