This article is an extract from Craig McGregor’s memoir, Left Hand Drive, which recounts his career as a journalist both in Australia and abroad, for the past five decades.
Barry Jones, one of the few intellectuals to become a Labor Party minister in recent times, observed that Australian politics is dominated by two Right-wing parties: the Liberal Party, which represented the hard Right, and the Labor Party, which represented the Right. A pessimistic assessment, but basically correct. It reminds me of a somewhat similarly pessimistic account of Australian politics by JMD Pringle, in his book Australian Accent, in which he wrote that ‘the old saying that a country gets the politicians it deserves cannot possibly be true of Australia. No country deserves politicians as bad as these.’
Pringle was an Englishman and a former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald; one wonders what he would make of the current members of federal parliament and the state of politics today.[ ]
It would be easy to dismiss the current leaderships of both the main political parties as lacking the perception of Australia, and its place in the world, that the nation badly needs. But that would ignore the reality of the state in which the political process found itself: one of the few virtual hung parliaments in federal history; the rise of a new third party, the Greens; the accompanying power of the Independents, however temporary; and the fracturing of the old political alignments which have shaped voting patterns in the past.
Behind this again is the globalisation of politics, the rapid-fire correlation of the world’s economies, and continuing world crises such as climate change, poverty and inequality, so that no nation can any longer regard itself as independent or in control of its own destiny. We live in an age when the tectonic plates of politics and economics are shifting even faster than the generations we hope might have surmounted them. As the Chinese curse says, we live in interesting times.
To start with national politics, despite the tendency of the commentariat to dismiss it as irrelevant: the chief features of the last few years have been the steady decline of the Labor Party, and the equally steady, though surprising, rise of the Greens. The Greens have obviously benefited from the disillusionment felt within the electorate of the major parties, especially the Labor Party, and the substantial increase in the number of voters concerned about the environment. The last few years have been little short of disastrous for the ALP. Its membership has declined to the point that in 2012, throughout Australia, only 38,000 people were members. Trade union membership has declined to roughly 18 per cent of the total workforce. It has lost power in most states, having suffered heavy election defeats in New South Wales and Queensland. Its national electoral standing is so low that, to use the pollsters’ favourite phrase, ‘if an election were held tomorrow’ the Labor government would lose power.
Perhaps most worrying of all is that many Labor voters have lost faith in the party, believing that it has so compromised itself by following the conservative line on such a wide spectrum of issues that there is not much point in voting for it in either state or federal parliaments; this is especially the case in the dominant Right faction, which has been so suborned by conservative ideology and pragmatism that it is hard to see what it stands for which is clearly different to the Liberal/National coalition. Of all people it was the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, who summarised it best of all: the Labor Party, he declared, has lost its soul.
Nevertheless those who consign the ALP to destruction are wrong. There are many people, both inside and outside of parliament, who still believe in the Labor Party’s historic mission of changing society for the common good. Despite the opinion polls, Labor (like capitalism) has shown an amazing capacity to survive and adapt to changing circumstances. Despite the irreversible decline of its working-class base, largely due to the decline in numbers of the working class itself, it still has a steadfast union base, the support of a third to a half of the electorate, and (sometimes) leaders like Rudd who are capable of defying the soothsayers and delivering a healthy majority to the ALP in federal parliament.
A parallel Coalition leader is Malcolm Turnbull, who consistently polls as the most desired leader in federal politics and was briefly Opposition leader until he was betrayed by the Hard Right of his party because he dared to support Rudd about the necessity to take action about climate change. He lost the leadership by one vote, in a political denouement worthy of Macbeth: unbridled ambition and arrogance brought him down.
At least for the moment.
Where We Have Been
To understand the malaise which clearly affects national politics it’s necessary to understand the role of leaders. Behind the incessant clamour of the media for ‘real leadership’ is the often unacknowledged reality that leaders are invariably beholden to the parties they lead; in a democracy, especially, they are created by the pressure of the structure of the parties themselves, the factions within them, and the power of their institutional supporters such as trade unions and business groups.
Leaders don’t usually last long in Australian politics. A self-described ‘conviction politician’ like John Howard – who was the longest serving prime minister after Sir Robert Menzies, and managed to drag the electorate along behind him (on gun control, the GST, the Iraq war) and win election after election – is a rarity. No political leader can be a surrogate for ourselves; the electorate has to bear some responsibility for the pressure which, like an imprint upon playdough, moulds the man to what he is.
After Hawke and Keating the Labor Party had trouble with its leaders…and its principles. Under Kim Beazley’s leadership it fell in with Howard’s appalling actions on Tampa, and the children overboard scandal, and asylum seeker policy. It watched, part helpless and part conniving, as Howard and his government undid decades of striving and achievement in arbitration, industrial awards, human rights and the independence of the public service. I had interviewed Beazley several times, and liked him, but he was incurably conservative. When I was writing a profile of him he told me: ‘I am comfortable with Australia, I am comfortable with our way of life.’ (This long before Howard had adopted his ‘relaxed and comfortable’ mantra.) I thought at the time: Is this really the stance we want from the leader of a reformist, and once radical, political party?
Beazley was replaced by Simon Crean after his misjudged ‘small target’ election campaign; was re-elected as leader after Mark Latham lost the 2004 election; then was replaced by Kevin Rudd in 2006.
I had got to know Rudd a bit when he was chief of staff for Wayne Goss, the then Labor premier of Queensland, and was one of the triumvirate (Goss, Rudd, and Mike Kaiser, then secretary of the Queensland ALP) who dominated the Labor government and its policies. I found that the government had alienated many of the groups which, crucially, had voted Labor into power after the Fitzgerald inquiry: the Greens, Aboriginals, welfare associations, civil libertarians, women’s groups; in fact many of the groups which represented the ‘new Queensland’ which had been emerging in the eighties and nineties. Among them Goss was regarded as ‘Do Nothing Goss’, because of his slow pace of reform, and Rudd was regarded as ‘Doctor Death’ because of his ruthless program of ‘rationalising’ the public service.
In the course of writing about Goss I had lunch with Rudd and was not impressed; he came across, at that stage, as arrogant, smug, and even a little bit fey. A few commentators could see the possible defeat of the Queensland Labor government coming up; not Rudd. ‘Who else can they vote for?’ was the response of some Labor apparatchiks. Rudd connived in the managerialist, don’t-scare-the-horses philosophy which permeated the Goss government and which ignored the constituency groups which were slowly changing Queensland. When the Goss government was defeated, a victim of its own immobility, for which Rudd was partly responsible, Rudd had transferred to Federal parliament.
His career was at first extraordinarily successful, culminating in winning the Labor leadership and then his triumphant accession to the prime ministership in November 2007. His newly formed government signed the Kyoto Protocol, said ‘sorry’ to the Aboriginal people, and started the process of withdrawing Australian troops from the immoral war in Iraq. When I described to my mate John Stubbs my reservations about Rudd and commented, magnanimously, that ‘maybe he has improved’ Stubbs replied ‘maybe you both have’.
But after two years Rudd and his government ran into serious trouble, partly because Rudd had shown himself to be risk-averse (shades of Goss) and partly because of Rudd’s peculiar personality problems: he was authoritarian, unable to delegate responsibility, centred all power on himself and his notorious Gang of Four, yet avoided making decisions and ran an absolutely chaotic office. As my brother Adrian observed fairly early in Rudd’s prime ministership: ‘In the press gallery he’s known as an egomaniac; when that leaks out to the electorate it will be a bitter time for Labor.’ Or as Mark Latham wrote earlier on, Rudd’s public standing was ‘among people who have never actually met him’.
It was the realisation by the electorate that, having professed himself to be a man of political and moral conviction, Rudd seemed to be nothing of the sort, which led to his spectacular downfall. He retreated from the climate change program which had helped him get elected and which was still supported by most Australians; his previous high ranking in the public opinion polls plummeted to the point where Labor MPs began to look for an alternative. Rudd’s high standing earlier on hadn’t been because he was personally popular but because of his policies and his approach. The new Labor government seemed to represent a clean break with the long and ultra- conservative years of the Howard government and an opportunity to tackle the major issues of the time: climate change, refugees, aboriginal welfare, an unpopular war, an ailing health system, the Murray–Darling problem…they all needed a new burst of energy and enthusiasm from the national government. Early in 2012 Rudd admitted that his walking away from climate change was ‘a mistake, a big mistake’. It wasn’t just that, it was fatal.
In mid 2010, Rudd was forced to hand over his office to his deputy Julia Gillard, and Australians woke up to find they had their first woman prime minister. She was backed by the Right-wing powerbrokers of the NSW Labor machine who had decided that Rudd had become ‘unelectable’. Gillard set out to rectify the most obvious mistakes of the Rudd government: the prospective mining tax, the carbon tax, and refugees. Then, in an act of mistaken political calculation, she plunged the nation into an early federal election – with unfortunate results for the Labor government, which virtually lost its electoral majority to a revitalised Liberal/National coalition led by a Howard-era reactionary, Tony Abbott.
At first it looked as though Australia would have its first federal hung parliament; in the end Gillard and the government managed to hold onto power with the support of a handful of Independents and the Greens. Yet again the Labor Party had underestimated the power of conservatism, reinforced by a conservative media and ultra-conservative business corporations, to shape the Australian polity.
As prime minister, Julia Gillard proved to be an enigma. After almost three years in office people still did not know who she really was and what she stood for. She was regarded as Cool Jule: intelligent, determined, uncommunicative; she betrayed little passion. In October 2012 she rounded on one of her chief tormentors, Tony Abbott, accusing him of misogyny and sexism in a speech which was widely reported around the world. Yet the opinion polls seem to be predicting a loss by the Labor government in 2013 and a return to a Howard-style government led by an ideologue who has sworn to repeal the carbon tax, the mining tax, and many of the other fragile achievements of the Labor government.
Where We Are Now
Standing back from the bitterness, the divisiveness and the personal enmity which has enveloped Australian politics, especially in the federal parliament, is difficult. As surveys have shown, many in the electorate are disillusioned with the political scene; what young woman or man, especially someone with idealism or passion, would want to join the ‘circus’, with its puerile grandstanding and its apparent dishonesty?
It wasn’t always so. Part of the reason for the malaise is the virtually hung parliament, which breeds all sorts of extremism – especially as Abbott adopted a strategy of trying to bring down the government at every opportunity, with constant censure motions in parliament and a torrent of vitriol in the public arena. Bruce Petty said some time ago that politicians have given up so much power to the corporations that it has reduced politics to a sideshow, and certainly the current arena seems to have many of the qualities of a sideshow: the phony rhetoric, the parliamentary antics, the frenetic display of image for the media. Governments all over the world, in their rush to privatise public assets and corporatise co-operative institutions, stripped themselves of the countervailing power which parliaments still had, and voluntarily handed over control of what had been public policy institutions to private interests: banks, hospitals, insurance companies, electricity and transport services, postage, telecommunications and much else. It reinforced the dominance of the private over the public.
Behind, therefore, the contemporary political process there is something much deeper going on: the corruption of democracy by corporations and private interests. This is a worldwide phenomenon and constitutes the major threat to democracies today – except, possibly, for the violence which has erupted in Europe and elsewhere because of the global financial crisis and its aftermath. Jim Hightower, the acerbic American political commentator, describes the United States as no longer a democracy but now a plutocracy: the rule of the nation by the wealthy.
That process is far more advanced in America than it is in Australia, though the rise of mining billionaires like Gina Rinehart (the wealthiest woman the world), Andrew Forrest, Clive Palmer and others, and their willingness to intervene directly in politics, suggests the same procedure is intensifying here. Rinehart, for instance, has tried to wrest control of the Fairfax Press from its more liberal-minded journalists and board not because it will increase her wealth but because she and her advisers realise that controlling some of the media, in this case an entire newspaper chain, will give her a much greater chance to influence public and political opinion.
In the United States the major corporations use their immense wealth not only to try to decide the outcome of presidential elections but also to affect the day-to-day deliberations of Congress; they can select which candidates they will support, which candidates they will attempt to demolish with attack ads, and, if their candidates are successful, can use their resources to make sure he or she votes for the corporate line on issues (there are 40,000 lobbyists in Washington alone). All this is legal. It is not simply wealth, but power, that the corporations seek.
Barack Obama, with his message of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ as he campaigned for his first term, was voted in to confront all this. Americans, says one observer, thought they were voting for an angry black man and got a black pussycat. It is wrong, however, to blame one man for what happened, or didn’t happen. Obama was confronted by the global financial crisis, two unwinnable wars, the hangover from the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, a rabidly Right-wing American media and, later on, a reactionary Republican Party which brought the political system to a state of gridlock.
Despite this, he won his second term as president, which may give him a chance to undertake the reform agenda which was denied to him before. However, the immense energy and idealism which Americans, especially younger people, displayed in the sixites and seventies in an attempt to change the system seems to be no match for a political order which has frozen up; as I argue in this book, the cultural revolution prevailed but the political revolution failed. As an American woman folk singer said, ‘I love the American people but hate the American government.’
In Australia the corporatisation of political power has not gone so far but the process is well under way. The power of the giant mining companies forced the Labor government to heavily modify its mining tax; the power of the hotels and clubs lobby forced it to modify its attempt to control poker machines; the power of corporations forced it to modify its carbon tax. Those who attack this process are demonised for introducing ‘class warfare’ into the debate. ‘The politics of envy’, ‘political correctness’, ‘the nanny state’ – all are slogans of the culture warriors of the Right and are disguised attacks upon reformers and the welfare state.
Plutocracy? The concept falls short of describing the other centres of power, besides wealth, which characterise the national politics of the world today. First and foremost, as I have stated, are the corporations which have annexed more and more power to themselves as globalisation enables them to virtually disregard national boundaries and, increasingly, national governments. Then there is the media which, as the global media empire of Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. has made clear, can make or break governments and have a decisive impact upon public policy. The military is another, not often acknowledged, focus of power, whether through its ability to wage wars (Iraq, Afghanistan) or its capacity to soak up a huge proportion of the national budget; as Eisenhower warned, not long before he left the presidency, the ‘military/industrial complex’ constituted a major threat to American democracy.
The education systems of many nations, including Australia, with their heavy focus on private schooling, underpin the dominance of the private. So do most religions, from Christian fundamentalism to Islam extremism, with their demands for personal loyalty as opposed to loyalty to the civic state. And overshadowing all this is the extraordinary reach of the financial institutions which precipitated the global financial crisis, and produced recessions in most of the advanced economies in the world, and have resisted all efforts to regulate or reform them. ‘Capitalism is dead!’ shouted placards waved by protestors in France at the height of the crisis. I like the emotional outburst of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, at the same time: ‘Le free market est finit!’ Well, Sarkozy is gone but the free market is still alive and well in the financial capitals of the world, and so are its proselytisers in the Chicago School.
Nobody believes in command economies any longer, but free market economies have proved themselves to be inherently unstable and open to manipulation, as the fate of Greece, Ireland and other European states have shown. In Australia ‘the market’, so called, has led to exploitative duopolies (Woolworths and Coles) and four-part monopolies (the Big Four banks). It has led to the immense concentration of power in the hands of a few media owners which the growth of social media, digital technology and internet resources such as Google undermines but has, as yet, failed to displace.
Faced with the hegemonic strength of this power bloc, which Gramsci might have called ‘the ruling class’ – it is not a single class as such any longer but an inter- related series of power groups which function to exercise ideological and cultural control over a society, so that brutal repression of the sort of Tiananmen Square is no longer necessary – national governments often seem to be able to do little except refine and sometimes reform the edges of the status quo. Yet democratic governments still have considerable power, should they choose to exert it.
They can choose to go to war or refuse to go to war. They can decide on a nuclear or non-nuclear future. They can continue to support, or even expand, the welfare state, social services, human rights, aid to poorer countries, and throw their weight behind international agencies like the United Nations, UNESCO and the World Court. Most still have responsibility for educating the young, for health services, for major infrastructure.
The army of lobbyists which exists in the United States, and Europe, and in Australia, exists because their sponsors realise that governments still make decisions. They create policies, sometimes of vital national importance, which are worth lobbying for or against. Governments could even, if they wished, use taxation to diminish the growing inequality between the rich and the poor, both within their own societies, and between their own societies and those of the developing world.
Governments hold out almost the only hope of rescuing the environment, indeed the planet, from the degradation which has occurred in the last century and a half in the name of ‘progress’.
The unanswerable reality of climate change has created world-wide movements for a sustainable future among young people, and scientists, and even some politicians. In Australia, probably the most fragile continent on earth, such counter-hegemonic movements, and the rise of parties like the Greens, are crucial. The late Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian, summarised some of the problems facing the Left and indeed anyone who is committed to radical change:
The socialists, the traditional brains-trust of labour, do not know any more than anyone else how to overcome the current crisis… True, some radical or left-wing thinking emerged during the fragmentation of the old ideologies of the left, but on a much more middle-class basis. Its preoccupations – eg the environment, or passionate hostility to the wars of the period – were not directly relevant to the activities of the labour movement… Whereas the labour movements envisaged social transformation, they represented protest rather than aspiration. It was easy to see what they were against – they were ‘anti-capitalist’, though without any clear idea of capitalism – but it was almost impossible to identify what they proposed to substitute for it… And yet something has changed for the better. We have rediscovered that capitalism is not the answer, but the question…Labour movements continue because the nation- state is not on the way to extinction. The state and other public authorities remain the only institutions capable of distributing the social product among its people in human terms, and to meet human needs that cannot be satisfied by the market. Politics therefore has remained and remains a necessary dimension of the struggle for social improvement.
So where does that leave Australia?
As usual, trundling along behind the nation-states which dominate the world stage and where the crucial decisions about the future are made. Some of these are democracies (United States); some of them are ‘guided’ democracies (Russia); some of them, like China, are not democracies at all. It is always salutary, when Australians go overseas, to learn that Australia is virtually never mentioned in the world’s media; it is regarded, rightly, as a small but fairly insignificant country in the wrong (bottom) half of the world which is largely dependent upon exports, especially minerals, to create an enviable standard of living for its citizens – something not to be disregarded, by any means – but whose influence upon the major powers is fairly restricted. This is the case despite the repeated claims made in parliament and the media that Australia is ‘punching above its weight’ on the world stage.
Nevertheless, as part of the globalised community, Australia faces many of the problems which face the rest of the world. To repeat, it has to face the dire results of global warming and try to protect the environment against what generations of farmers and developers have done to it. It has to find a solution to the problem of asylum seekers attempting to find a new life for themselves – and try to overcome the shameful incapacity of the political parties to reach a humane and long-term consensus about it. It has to prevent the suborning of democracy by corporate power, lobbyists and super-rich private interests. It has to work out how to narrow the gulf between the rich and the poor, the advantaged and the marginalised, in Australia itself and in the developing nations which are mired in poverty.
It has to take part in the international efforts to prevent a recurrence of the catastrophic financial crisis which struck capitalist economies in 2008 and which runs the risk of plunging them into another Great Depression. And Australia has to develop a national policy which confronts some of the problems facing the entire human race: the threat of a major war, overpopulation, the looming possibility of an oil crisis, the expansion of nuclear arms and nuclear power.
This nation, at present, has a prosperous economy which survived the global financial crisis reasonably well, a distinctive high and vernacular culture, and a political system which always fails to live up to the hopes and expectations of its citizenry. Faced with the inexorable rise of China and possibly India to world powers, and the possible long-term eclipse of the United States, Australia’s role in the Asian century is likely to be minimal.
On the other hand, small can be good: there is something to be said for a nation which has absorbed one of the largest mass migration programs of the postwar years, which used to be in the forefront of social experimentation (universal suffrage, the right of women to vote, one of the first Labour parties), which pioneered an egalitarian ethic which has since suffered grievously from affluence, which has largely succeeded in the great experiment of multiculturalism, and which is now a modern, 22 million-people pluralist state.
Donald Horne was right when he diagnosed there was a lot of luck involved in this process, but I have always thought he disregarded too much the unluck: if I look at my own family – fleeing from Scotland, pioneering the dense and forbidding terrain of the South Coast, building pole shacks with an adze and axe, suffering death and tragedy, fighting their way through two World Wars and the great Depression, creating homes despite poverty and grinding physical labour so that their children and grandchildren could go to university – where’s the bloody luck in that? One of my great-uncles died when he was speared through his body one black night by a collision with a sulky; what about those who, metaphorically, have had a spike driven through the heart by industrial society? Or Aboriginals in the desperate inequality given out to them by white society? Or the desperate asylum seekers detained for years by governments too shit-scared to confront the xenophobia of a self-satisfied electorate? Where’s the bloody luck in that?
Contemporary Australia has been made not by sheer luck but by the hard work and idealism of hundreds and thousands and now millions of Australians who have made it what it is. I don’t feel pessimistic about Australia’s future, I feel optimistic. I know enough brave, generous, commonplace women and men to believe that they deserve something better than this society currently delivers to them. In the end Australia has to face up, unreservedly, to its grievous faults, to its triumphs, to its dark history, to the international achievements of the best of them (from Dr Howard Florey to Germaine Greer), to its diversity and yet its divisiveness, to its class inequality, to its energetic but flawed democratic system – and, hopefully, the chance to turn this once brutal penal colony into something that deserves that corny national anthem: ‘for we are young and free.’