Still life: a response to Liam Byrne

In his article ‘Unity Is Death, Liam Byrne argues that ‘within the contemporary ALP, there exists no force capable of articulating a vision for Australia that fundamentally challenges the neoliberal orthodoxies that have dominated its recent thinking.’ I think that this claim is not strictly true.

Members of the party have been dissatisfied with decisions taken at federal and state levels around plans to privatise government assets, reductions in government spending to achieve budget surplus including welfare ‘efficiencies’ like the changes to the single mothers’ payment, and alterations to the size of the public sector, amongst other things. The Hawke and Keating suite of changes to deregulate and remove tariffs were not necessarily popular at the time, either. This article in Challenge magazine by Louise Tarrant, Wake up and get out of bed, clearly expresses frustration with the economic direction of the ALP, calling for action to deal with increased inequality and an increasingly insecure job market.

There is also evidence of alternative conceptions of economic strategy in the party. The ALP has shown promise in its plans to transition to an economic model that shows more concern for environmental issues through things like the Murray-Darling basin plan, the insulation program and the price on carbon emissions. There is also a transition that is oriented towards services and information necessitating intervention to develop markets, and a stronger focus on education (through the school buildings program, for example) and innovation to facilitate that transition. Healthcare was also a priority under the Rudd-Gillard governments, and the NDIS is arguably a key strategic reform in the disability sector. Party members have also articulated a need to increase social wages like the Newstart allowance, and to improve access to public housing and public transport.

As a fair number of post-mortems have argued, areas where the party fell over include the first attempt to introduce carbon pricing, an inability to sell its achievements (such that the Coalition successfully argued that programs suffered from poor implementation), and in that perception that all the elements within the party have bowed to the neoliberal conception of economy and no longer stand for the interests of the people or the workers. Public arguments that the ALP should loosen its ties to the union movement do not help, regardless of whatever problems unions are facing. If the ALP does not stand for the worker, then whom does it stand for? It’s not a tie that should be broken.

If arguments about direction are taking place in the party, if it still has some life in it, then the problem is more about attracting talented and interested people back into the party, particularly into the more left-leaning section of the party. It seems that old school worker politics no longer sells and that some people are intimidated by strident unionism. People who would otherwise support positions that strive for equality are frightened off or go and join other parties. Others, including Guy Rundle, are contemptuous of perceived weakness, and think that the Left is no longer able to win intra-party fights in order to set the policy direction.

It may be the case that the Left needs to tone down identity politics and present itself as more welcoming to attract people and win issue-based fights. Appearing as a closed off silo only suitable for people with certain views and methods doesn’t help the cause or deliver solutions to problems of insecurity.

We also need to think on a broader scale and incorporate geopolitics more openly into domestic policy ideas – if we confine arguments only to ‘foreign policy’ or ‘international affairs’ then we miss opportunities for policy transfer and we fail to acknowledge the international scale of some issues. In a globalised world, solutions to inequality and insecure labour markets cannot be developed as easily as they could during the post-war period and resentment of the super-rich and their financial practices is perceived by them as an attack on job-creators. There is an argument that globalisation has removed the need for a social consensus to improve the circumstances of people in a given state so that they have more disposable income for consumption of goods because companies are no longer bound by or to the nation state. Arguments to abandon globalisation and turn to localisation instead are unfeasible – that horse bolted a long time ago. But proponents of localisation often represent people disenfranchised by processes of globalisation and immigration, which shift work offshore and that can lower labour costs for some types of workers. So we have to start thinking about developing solutions to these problems at the international level.

Pulling people all over the world out of poverty, improving conditions and wages for them, and giving them the capacity to contribute to decision making processes will stabilise labour markets and increase human security for all of us. Environmental problems are also increasingly global – pollution, climate change, and resource competition are things we need to plan for as part of the international community. ALP policy would benefit from a focus on strengthening diplomatic capacity and doing more than just restoring aid to the previous levels from when Labor was in government. Reform must continue – initiatives that would open up the party and give members more capacity to influence decision making within the party cannot be jettisoned because of perceived threats to any given power base. Lastly, we cannot condone the kind of aimless public squabbling that tells the people that the ALP is not focused on the issues.

We must be united against self-interest, inequality and conditions that deliver human insecurity – or we will all be united in witnessing the death of the party. And that will be a very sad thing indeed.

Trishna Malhi

Trishna Malhi is a member of the Australian Labor Party.

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  1. Some backdated advice: forget party politics, the machinations within the machine, the specifics and statistics of corporate policy etc, and make the main area of concentration those excluded from party political representation (as well as those included), for, as much as I loathe beckoning toward a historical beacon, as Chifley put it in his ‘light on the hill’ speech, “the job of getting the things the people of the country want comes from the roots of the Labor movement – the people who support it”. So a step beyond Chifley is being inclusive also of those dispossessed by mainstream society, and so from party political representation.

  2. Thanks for the response to my article, it is a great contribution to this important debate. You rightly point out that “[m]embers of the party have been dissatisfied with decisions taken at federal and state levels around plans to privatise government assets, reductions in government spending to achieve budget surplus including welfare ‘efficiencies’ like the changes to the single mothers’ payment, and alterations to the size of the public sector, amongst other things.”
    In my article I was careful not to deny the existence of such oppositional sentiment within the party, the union movement, and amongst many traditional Labor supporters. It would be to grossly overstate the point to ignore the dissident voices that do exist. It is rare indeed, for instance, for a major rally in support of refugee rights to take place without the participation of Labor for Refugees.
    But this does not contradict my major point, that the history of the ALP has been defined by a contestation between significant moderate and socialist forces within the party, and that far from being purely destructive this contestation has often been creative. The lack of such contestation, a lack of disunity over crucial ideological questions, is a significant weakness in the contemporary party – a sign and cause of its ideological degeneration. In this context, unity in implementing a program of neoliberal reform is a major reason for the continued curdling of the Labor brand in its traditional heartlands, and the gradual erosion of party organisation.
    The reality of modern Labor is the voices of dissent do not reflect a grouping on the scale previously seen within the party machinery, union movement, and parliamentary parties which is capable of posing a challenge to the direction of the current leadership. This is particularly telling when considering the party’s left-wing faction(s) and its relationship to the Federal Parliamentary Party.
    Historically the Labor left has been a vibrant and determined presence in the party machinery and the union movement, pursuing a distinctive programme and vision in opposition to the right. Its coherence in these sections of the party have allowed it to exert pressure on factional MPs and to hold them to account, either on conference floor or in the grand tradition of labour politics – through the pre-selection process. Not all left-wing parliamentarians needed a short leash of course, famed leaders such as Jim Cairns provided a strong progressive presence within and without the parliamentary caucus.
    At its strongest the left was prepared to break the stifling uniformity of party unity to try and redirect the Federal Caucus in what they considered the correct direction, a process with varying levels of success, but one which was defining in party life. It did so in opposition to a right-wing faction which for all its faults, was usually comprised of a significant section with their own vision of governance and change for Australia. Together, the factions clearly co-operated within the party as they pursued governance and social change, but this tension underlined party life.
    Any attempt to grapple with precisely why the party organisation has ossified to the great extent it has would require and in-depth and lengthy examination stretching from at least the Whitlam years to today. But the fundamental trajectory I traced in my article illustrates the primary process through which the contestation within Federal Labor collapsed. It was primarily the acceptance of the neoliberal orthodoxy by party leaders on both the left and right as the only means through which to consider and articulate policy directions for government. This was a process rather than a singular event, and an uneven one at that. To state this is not to point a finger of blame at every individual member of these factions, there are many who are repulsed by Labor’s recent actions and actively oppose them. But the point remains that the left faction(s) has not, does not, and gives no indication of fighting for a coherent alternative vision of the party which repudiates this neoliberal orthodoxy on a major scale within the party.
    Particular policy failures of the Rudd and Gillard governments has to be considered in this broader context. The problem with these governments was not that they were unable to ‘sell’ their vision, or that they were unable to articulate it in a compelling narrative that could be easily understood by the electorate – as some of the commentators would have it. It was that their entire vision was an unimaginative and stultifying recapitulation of the same neoliberal orthodoxies that have eroded the traditional conception of the state and its role in society, and contributed to making life more difficult and more alienating for the majority of Australians.
    The unfortunate reality is, that for as long as Labor remains united around this conception of governance the party’s decline will continue, and no amount of enforced “unity” will arrest this development.
    This is by no means intended to disparage those who are taking an important stand within Labor and the broader movement, but to recognise and analyse the current state of affairs and balance of forces as I see them.
    Thanks again for your response, Liam.

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