Right “ Left “ what a disgrace: it might go straight up and fall flat on its face.’
‘Honeysuckle and Bindweed’, by Flanders and Swan.

The federal Parliamentary Labor Party chose its new leader by ensuring there was a single candidate and no debate, an odd choice for a party committed to participative decision-making. Mr Beazley promptly moved its policies to the ‘Right’, and betook himself East to Sydney, closer to his factional advisers, to the chagrin of the Sandgropers he represents.

There has been little sign of a credible Left voice within the Labor party for a while. Julia Gillard’s candidacy as a Labor leader was ‘impossible’: was she too inexperienced, too smart, too young? No, she was single, childless and ‘Left-wing’ and her own faction failed to back her.

It was a missed opportunity.

It is hard, these days, to know what ‘left-wing’ means: those who support varying degrees of social, political or economic change designed to promote the public welfare, according to one dictionary: another says it is ‘a dissenting clique or faction’ “ by definition a powerless class. One look at the sea of Republican red on the post-poll US electoral map shows how literally, geographically marginalised were those who preferred the Democrats’ presidential candidate, John Kerry. Yet it was the Democrats’ own choice of a safe, ‘soft’ candidate that lost the race. The people chose the real right-winger, not his anodyne counterpart. Even so, as Tom Frank, author of the post-election best-seller, What’s the Matter With Kansas, pointed out in a interview published on 21 January in the on line magazine In These Times, the ‘Left’ copped the blame. Similarly some seek to blame the ALP defeat on ‘feminists’ who sought to change its unrepresentative culture by making it find meritorious women candidates for winnable seats. This pathological self-hatred of the ‘Left’ and its women, and the apparent lurch to the right is a terrible, vote-losing strategy.

The Right – Left distinction is an historical oddity associated with the seating arrangements in the National Assembly after the French Revolution – the then radical ‘progressives’ sat to the left and the conservative or reactionaries to the right of its chair. The dichotomy has endured, though ‘Left’ or ‘radical’ issues are constantly redefined: universal suffrage was a ‘radical’ demand in the 1830s but a Right-wing imperative in occupied Iraq this year.

What is truly remarkable is how Right-wing popularism has co-opted and turned upon it the old Left rhetoric. Once it was the rich whom, in the nineteenth century, the ‘Left’ abused as an effete, parasitical and unrepresentative elite: now the progressive, educated, thoughtful advocates of social change are so vilified. This has worked well: there is such aversion to ‘Left radicalism’, even within the ALP, bordering on pathological self-loathing, that it seems the ALP will eschew Left values, even at the cost of its identity and grasp on future power. There must be another, credible voice about our society. We are told, and believe, that the typical Australian is partnered, has children, owns their own home, chooses and changes jobs at will and can service a manageable mortgage on an increasingly valuable home: the reality is that families need two jobs to stay afloat, at the cost of time, relationships and leisure. Unrestrained competition is not the workers’ friend; it does not nourish ‘community values’ or a traditional way of life: it is a source of damaging insecurity.

The trouble is that the ALP doesn’t want to make these arguments: it hasn’t argued them through, doesn’t think it can sell them, and is afraid that people might think it is ‘radical’. They want respectability. They want to look like the Liberals. After all, they won.

The stifling of discussion leads to bad decisions. Athenian democracy’s great virtue was that policies were freely debated and the consequences argued through before being put into action. Of course this has faults “ discussion is inefficient, takes time, and sometimes leads to bad, ‘populist’ decisions, such as sentencing Socrates to death because he made a (really) politically incorrect speech defending himself against the charge of corrupting Athenian youth. We have adopted democratic language and forms without necessarily sustaining and developing the traditions and expectations that make representative democracy functional: a genuine, shared commitment to consensual, rather than authoritarian or doctrinaire, rule. Democratic decision-making is a struggle for those communities without much experience of participation – they may be persuaded to resent the articulacy and poise of an educated, more philosophical and confident minority.

Democratic government is not viable in the absence of the rule of law: a society which does not hand power over to one place, where it cannot be used arbitrarily; in which all citizens and officials are subject to the same rules, and have the same basic rights and freedoms and equal access to redress if essential liberties such as the right not to be arbitrarily arrested or detained are infringed. Without these no society is stable, and the rules disintegrate under stress of social, financial or natural disasters.

We have even slipped up on this, thanks to ALP timidity.

Australia is a lucky country, economically stable; culturally diverse yet tolerant; anti-authoritarian yet socially conformist and secular but respectful of religious beliefs. Australians are politically apathetic, which, paradoxically, protects us from electing a Hitler. But it does not take much, really, to become accustomed and complicit in cruelty. As Sybille Steinbacher’s recent best-seller about Auschwitz points out, the ordinary German men and women who started out working there, just doing a job, ended up running a human abattoir as the great Nazi plans fell apart, as vast plans do. Solutions had to be found, and were often found by the improvisation of local bureaucrats and desensitised officials.

There are certain minimum conditions for decent human life that transcend borders and self-interest: someone has to stand up for them.

We have accepted draconian laws, such as those that deny any right to review the detention of asylum-seekers, or give enormous executive discretions to government officers. We have allowed US officials to abduct, detain and interrogate Australian citizens without charge or trial, the protection of the Geneva Conventions or humanitarian laws and the US Bill of Rights, without demur. Successive Australian Attorneys General decided to do nothing to protect their interests. We are partners with a nation whose nominated Attorney General advised its President that torture was acceptable provided the victim did not think they were about to die, and that suspected terrorists are protected by no laws. In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, St Thomas More remarks how dangerous it is, to ‘cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil… And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, and if you cut them down . . . do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.’

Kim Beazley’s and the Left’s caution on this is disgraceful.

There is no shame in expressing ‘Left-wing’ views: that society exists to nurture the human spirit and to realise the full potential of every human being, the operating principle being generosity not greed: that we should give every opportunity to advance the wellbeing of other people, without discrimination and with respect; and if it is Left-wing to believe that the ‘invisible hand’ that binds communities together is neither a free market nor intrusive government but a well-founded faith in the decency of our fellows and the protection and survival of all children, I am happily so.

I am bemused that at this critical time in Australian political history we are being invited to focus not on our shared humanity and global problems, but on a phoney ‘crisis’ about late-term, indeed all, abortion. The rights of children are critically important: that issue will not deal with the real issue about respect for life.

The great question, surely, is whether there is enough substance to ‘democracy’ “ Ukrainians and Iraqis hope so – to preserve its essential civilising function, when in our own domain our leaders have abandoned its underlying principles of respect for people, participation and equality. We have not even begun the conversation that matters: how well will humanity survive this century of catastrophic change?

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.