Paul Howes a product of the Hawke-Keating system

March 25, 2014

By Dennis Glover

Even the inevitable sometimes arrives as a bombshell. An elderly monarch dies, a football coach is sacked, Paul Howes leaves the union movement for a job in the corporate sector. The inevitability has been apparent for some time, measured in the rapidly widening distance between his personal political beliefs and those of everyone around him.

How do we account for this?

One rumour I heard last week was that he was about to get the push, so this constitutes the jump. I guess we will know soon enough when the tongues start wagging.

Perhaps the answer is there in his resignation statement: “I have spent half my life as an official in the trade union movement. He’s 32.

In some ways it’s the opposite of what one would expect. Ge’em young, as the Jesuits say, and you have ’em for life. There’s a prejudice – which usually ends up ill-founded – that it’s the silky-tongued private-school barristers who suddenly start calling you “comrade” when they turn forty and develop an interest in Parliament whose loyalty your really have to doubt.

But look again at that age: 32. It suggests more than possible immaturity. Paul Howes was born in late August 1981. That makes him just 18 months old when the Hawke government was elected. In other words, unless he was a particularly perceptive baby, he will have no memory of the Labor Party before its great change of direction under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Even the late forty-somethings who now occupy much of the Labor frontbench had formative years when the ALP was still associated with things like Keynesianism, public ownership and social democracy.
Political amnesia

This makes Paul Howes the first substantial figure in the history of the Australian Labor Party not to know life before new Labor.

Even his youthful Trotskyism was probably aimed at the sort of “sell-outs” of the NSW Right he subsequently became. I’m guessing this is what accounts for the thrust of his recent and much-heralded National Press Club speech in which he called for a very grand-sounding grand compact between business, government and unions to pursue agreed goals – at a time when the first two of that threesome had just called a Royal Commission (to be presided over by a former contributor to Quadrant) into the third.

It’s not hard to see why union officials crouching in the trenches under the Abbott-business artillery barrage found it hard to take Howe’s offer in the conciliatory spirit in which it was intended.

“A bitter, all-out war between labour and capital will not end with productivity gains,” he said, so let’s work together in a spirit of harmony.

By saying this, Howes, it seems, has internalised the logic of the Hawke-Keating years, during which just about everything started to be measured according to one benchmark – productivity. Class-division, the distribution of wealth, equality, justice, history, even loyalty to the team – all trumped by a cold logic of hard-to-measure economic maths. Political ideology replaced by an economic ratio.

And yet, despite all this, it’s possible for even the hardest-headed Laborite to see some truth in what Howes has said: if the unions have to give ground, then so does the political right – by surrendering its dream of an Australia without unions. “A servile and cowed workforce,”Howes told the Press Club, “will not deliver economic success”
Importance of organised labour

There’s a gem of an important idea buried under this for Labor – the idea that there is indeed a role for organised labour representing ordinary people having a say in the future of the economy and the nation.

At base, that’s still what the Labor Party and the labour movement stand for. When you think about it, it’s the bedrock of the very ideal of social democracy.

Few in Labor will mourn Howes’s exit- that’s plain enough – but it’s my hope that he doesn’t do what another recent ex-Laborite has done and become some overpaid spruiker for the people he once fought.

Instead, it would be nice to think of him taking a few years out to do some reading, and to think about how he can take that basic social-democratic idea further. A grand compact for what?

You don’t get to go as far as Paul Howes has by the age of 32 without having obvious talent. But, he should remember, the moral measure of your talent is what you do with it.