Liberating Labor


Back in the late eighties, when Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were excising the Labor Party of all principles, I harbored a perverse relish for the spectacle of an ALP conference. Perhaps it was because we lefties needed somewhere to validate our sense of victimhood.

My favourite moment of the conference was when someone “ usually with a beard “ would leap up to the microphone, wave around his ALP membership card, and recite the ‘socialist objective’ printed on the back.

‘The Labor Party is a democratic socialist party,’ he would rage, ‘committed to the socialization of industry, distribution, production and exchange to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.’

In response, we would all clap madly and stamp our feet. If you were really keen, you’d jump up, jab the air with your finger and bark vitriol at the head office apparatchiki opposite. As the debate reached its crescendo, the guy with the beard, to protest the party’s sacrifice of socialism, would set his membership card on fire, which I always thought was a bad idea, if only because you missed out on the discount that the Chinese restaurant around the corner was offering delegates and partisans who showed their credentials.

But the point is, that, however futile, we all felt compelled and excited “ albeit in a masochistic way “ to defend what we saw as the party’s historic mission.

I haven’t been to a Labor conference in almost a decade, although I’m reliably informed that no one burns their tickets these days, perhaps because they’re made of plastic or, more likely, because no one really cares about the future of socialism anymore. And, I’ve concluded, why would they?

I’m actually an optimist who believes the re-election of John Howard and George Bush represents the last gasp of conservatism. But, as an effective alternative, socialism just sounds anachronistic; like Beatrice Webb’s sensible shoes in an age of Carrie Bradshaw’s Manolo Blahniks.

Then there’s the historical stigma. Yes, I know, it’s only slick revisionists like Bob Carr who conveniently fail to distinguish between the nation-building socialism of Ben Chifley, Clement Atlee or even Franklin Roosevelt, and the socialism of the gulag. But why try to press the case? As Golda Meir once said about politics, ‘Once you start explaining, you’ve already lost.’ And these days, democratic socialism requires a lot of explaining.

So instead, I suggest we adopt and adapt one of America’s finest traditions – progressive populism.

It bears none of socialism’s burdens, such as its blindness to the failures of collective farming or the brief pre-WWII dalliance with eugenics which occurred in some Scandinavian countries. But nor does progressive populism forsake all that was best about the Chifley-Atlee-Roosevelt project. In fact, it expresses the most important value with a powerful simplicity, asking, ‘Whose side are you on?’

It imposes on its adherents only one condition: that you always support the underdog against the powerful institution, which these days is almost always a multinational firm. For a modern Labor party, it also provides enough wiggle room to adjust to political circumstances.

A progressive populist Labor Party would define itself as the party of fairness, responsibility, security, optimism and, above all, community, while its opponents “ as is manifestly the case right now “ are the party of fear, big money and special interests.

Let’s give some meaning to these words.

The progressive populist embraces a market economy and competition but only if everyone plays by the same rules. So making money, even building a fortune, is acceptable so long as you don’t hurt the little guy in the process and you contribute fairly to the nation’s treasury. Even in the heart of ‘aspirational’ Australia, on the fringes of the big cities, where governments are supposedly made and unmade, I defy you to find an apologist for the billionaires who pay a smaller percentage of their income in tax than their cleaners do. Nor would you find too many defenders of modern corporate chieftains “ average salary six million dollars, average total remuneration package about three times that “ and the companies they preside over, such as, well, James Hardie.

The progressive populist doesn’t um and err and promise to set up an enquiry into James Hardie for its years of corporate negligence in marketing asbestos products, or appeal meekly to the shareholders to exercise some responsibility. He thunders that he will pass the necessary laws to TAKE THE MONEY AWAY FROM THEM AND GIVE IT TO THE VICTIMS. And what’s the bet that out there in the suburbs everybody cheers.

The progressive populist argues that economic security is just as important as national security for its citizens. It’s great to be on track to owning your home “ your piece of the nation “ but only if you can afford to service the mortgage. The conservatives’ fantasy of making it easier for your boss to fire you does precisely the opposite.

The progressive populist demands the same responsible citizenship from polluting corporations as it does from reckless or hedonistic individuals. We protect our environment just as we police our streets, for the greater good of the citizenry who cannot afford to lock themselves in gated, guarded enclaves but rely on the common spaces in which to live much of their lives.

Finally, progressive populism reclaims from conservatives one vitally important value “ patriotism. In the age of globalization, it is the corporation that relocates to a foreign tax haven, that exports middle class jobs to low wage ghettoes and that owes allegiance to no flag. Progressive populism knows that patriotism is about more than banners and anthems; it is about responsible, and reciprocal, citizenship for individuals and institutions.

Progressive populism remains true to the essential values of Labor but liberates it from history’s burden. Fifteen years ago, Hawke and Keating were wrong to have ripped the heart from the corpus of Labor but they got away with it because their opponents offered little alternative. But times have changed. Whose side are you on?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.