Labor’s asking the wrong questions

April 16, 2013

The first member of my family to lose his job in the recession of the early 1990s was my father. After 27 years on the Holden assembly line in Dandenong, he walked straight out without even attending his farewell drinks. My mother followed soon after, terminated from the Heinz factory canteen only weeks before qualifying for an additional redundancy entitlement of $15,000 that was more important to her than the millions today’s CEOs blithely expect. Then it was the turn of my brother-in-law, a skilled welder, whose bitter memories of the years that followed include having to accept below-award jobs to support his wife and children.

These family histories came to mind when I heard recently resigned ministers urging the Labor Party to put aside “class warfare” and return to the greatness of the Hawke-Keating era. I recount them to make the obvious, but too often ignored, point that for Labor the Hawke-Keating economic legacy is a lot more problematic than many will admit.

Looking down from the boardroom and the condescending heights of history, the economic reforms and recessions of the 1980s and 1990s may appear necessary, even theoretically elegant. But down at street level they constituted a painful period that threw many natural Labor supporters onto the economic scrapheap. The young among them had time to make a go of the new world being created, but the older didn’t.

I believe that the economic historians will see those years not as ones of morally unquestionable progress, but as a period of historic rupture which has transformed our politics and social relationships in ways and to an extent perhaps not yet fully realised. Sadly, the political impact of all this change on Labor was worsened by the suspicion that, over time, the little people all but disappeared off the policymakers’ radar screens. Hence the electoral catastrophe of 1996 that Paul Keating’s supporters still won’t fully acknowledge.

What’s the answer for Labor?

Obviously it’s not to turn back time. We are indisputably wealthier now, although much of the rise in national income would have occurred regardless of who ruled, thanks to the development of Asia.

But turning back the hands of time is exactly what the former ministerial critics are urging Labor to do. Their argumentÂ, that Labor’s big task in 2013 is to complete the unfinished business of a government first elected in 1983, is little short of intellectually pathetic. One recent Labor leader suggests the only economic question the party needs to ask is: ‘What would Keating do?’ The world economy has undergone the greatest catastrophe since the Great Depression gave rise to fascism, and thinking is banned?

In the 17 years since 1996 the ALP has serially failed to address the most important question confronting it: what does social democracy mean today? This philosophical project, not that of three decades ago, must be Labor’s starting point for building a viable political future.

This doesn’t, however, mean Labor should forget its history. It means that Labor must stop being a slave to its past and become a master of it.

And it should begin by dropping the idea that its history began in 1983 and ended in 1996. Making that era the measure of all things has narrowed Labor’s purpose, appeal and style far too much. It has led to obsessions with statistical phantoms like productivity that ordinary human beings simply do not share and that even business leaders know are impossible to measure accurately. It has robbed Labor of its passion, but not its mongrel.

A truly progressive party knows that reform is about building a better society, not just a bigger economy. It knows that humans are complex beings who think not just in terms of economic statistics but families, communities, workplaces, traditions and so forth, and that all these rich human concerns must be addressed.

And it knows that, when it all comes down to it, the pursuit of justice sometimes means having to speak for the losers as well as the potential winners from economic change. “History to the defeated,” as Auden put it. Dismissing this task as “class warfare” as the Hawke-Keating urgers do, contradicts the entire moral purpose of the ALP and places in question its very reason for being.