Polar Shifts


And so our leaders have made their belated return to 2005 – and while we may have the same old familiar faces in Federal Parliament, politically, it’s a whole new ball game.

For the first time in decades the government has control of the Senate, providing the so-called Conservatives with a once in a lifetime chance to implement radical reform that will fundamentally change Australia.

At the heart of this process are changes that will turn the Australian workplace into an international experiment that will test the limits of the neo-conservative market ideology.

Overblown rhetoric? Think about it. John Howard is the leader of the international conservative movement – and now he has the means to put their dogma into place.

Remarkably little has been written about this element of the Howard leadership – yes, we know he is incredibly close to George Dubya; yes, he seemed to be the one taking on the EU at Davos; but where is the analysis of his role in this global neo-conservative movement?

In his upcoming book (to be released at the end of the year), David McKnight charts the philosophies underpinning this movement, tracing it back to Nobel Prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek who championed the free market as the end point of human evolution.

Included in his thesis was the contention that notions of family and community – based around altruistic ties – were throwbacks to more primitive forms of society.

While these ideas were used rhetorically to fight Communism, they have gained strength and momentum in the post cold war era – as the global market has moved to make its way into every crevasse of our lives.

Changes to industrial relations are at the pointy end of this philosophy because they are the point where the market and the family intersect – and the fundamental conflict between work, family and community is brought into stark relief.

Understanding where these ideas comes from, challenges us to place ourselves in this debate: if the Conservatives are the new Radicals, what of the response of those of us who have identified ourselves as progressives?

In embarking on this radical agenda, Howard must depart from his comfortable ground as the 1950s conservative – while he may attempt to maintain the trappings of the social conservative, his policies are too fundamental to hold the ground.

As McKnight argues, the challenge for the erstwhile progressives is to enter this centre ground – by understanding and recognising the value of true conservatism – based around a respect for institutions and a commitment to social justice, the agenda of the now extinct ‘Wets’ of the Liberal Party.

Such a position would ground itself on the values of family and community and link the weakening of these institutions with the ongoing deregulation in the labour market.

It would also demand a level of rigour on those advocating radical change, and hold those promoting the change for the damage they do these institutions.

Much of this research is already coming to light – falling birth rates, rising job insecurity, fewer parents with the time to commit to churches or sporting clubs, a family life that is more and more dictated by the demands of the labour market,

These trends will only accelerate as the remaining rules governing work are wound back, until Australian workers feel the full brunt of a labour market without limits.

The question is not whether the changes to industrial relations will be radical – the question is how radical. How we in the labour movement position ourselves will have a large bearing on how far John Howard is prepared to go.

The irony is that a truly Conservative response, as opposed to a militant or radical response, could well be the most effective in blunting the attack and in holding the government to account once these changes become law.

And it is in this sense, that the times may well be right for Kim Beazley, the most conservative ALP leader in memory.

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.