A Progressive Manifesto, Part 1


First, a health warning: the following sentiments may lead to a dangerous rise in blood pressure for some readers, including Marxists and followers of Hayek, socialists and free-marketeers    in fact, anyone whose greatest allegiance is to an ‘ism’ of any description. If you believe that the greatest era in human history occurred some time in the 20th Century, whether it was the 1950s or the 1970s, then stop reading now. You won’t like what I have to say.

We’re over it ‘we’ being those of us who grew up in the electronic media age and ‘it’ being the old politics. We might best be called the ‘Ferris Bueller’ Generation because ‘isms, in [our]opinion, are not good.

We’ve not much time for shibboleths and absolutes, and appeals to our basic self-interest aren’t nearly as effective as they once were. We’re not easily frightened, or easily wooed. But, despite the constant hand wringing of our elders and betters, we’re not disengaged, vacuous or apolitical on the contrary, we’re probably the most politically savvy generation in history, which, if progress means learning from those that have gone before and striving to improve things, is only as it should be.

And progress is what’s at stake.

Progressiveness is the antithesis of Conservatism, and it’s the contest between these two approaches to governance and public policy that is at the centre of politics. David McKnight has pointed this out in his book Beyond Right and Left, surely destined to be regarded as a seminal work of Australian political science. What McKnight has recognised is that many of the old beliefs and causes of the ‘Left’ are no longer progressive at all, and despite the horror of many devout Leftists must be abandoned or updated to engage with present-day realities and, crucially, with ideas for the future.

The most infuriating kind of politics to folk of the ‘old Left’ are those of Britain’s New Labour. While the old-Labour, Bennite faithful bemoan the apparent abandonment of idealism, Blair’s Government has done more to lift people out of poverty in the UK than any since Clement Atlee’s post World War II administration. And despite the cries that Blair has abandoned the ‘true Left,’ or hijacked Labour with his trendy middle-class agenda, this reinvention fits squarely within the progressive tradition as former No 10 advisor Patrick Diamond has demonstrated.

Progressive politics has never been about clinging to shibboleths or policies whose time has passed. Progress is about making things better. It’s about providing opportunities, responding to changing needs, maximising prosperity in the pursuit of a better society.

And, after years of ‘small target’ uncertainty and aggressive, negative politics,  there’s finally some sign that Australia’s progressive Party, the ALP, is back in the business of progress. Kevin Rudd’s extraordinary honeymoon in the polls seems driven not by personality but by the fact that he and his revitalised team are finally releasing some policies that contain ideas for Australia’s future.

This is bad news for John Howard. The 67-year-old PM, who is soon to be a grandfather, has been floundering recently his much-lauded political nous apparently deserting him in the face of the ‘Ruddernaut’ that has seen him tumbling down the polls.

It’s becoming clear that Howard is last century’s man. This has nothing to do with his age, and everything to do with his thinking. Asked to nominate ‘three towering figures’ of the late 20th century, Howard nominated his heroes of the Cold War Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. Nothing better demonstrates the PM’s mind-set, and the cultural and political forces that formed his world-view.

While the Howard-lovers accuse anyone who expresses concern about the moral compromises excused by the ‘War on Terror’ as suffering from ‘September 10 Syndrome,’ their hero and chief cheerleader for the neo-con takeover of the world is apparently afflicted with the ‘Berlin Wall Disorder.’ Howard’s is an ‘us and them’ mentality a black and white world in which binary opposites rule the day. You’re either with us, or with the terrorists; you’re an unwashed, vegetarian greenie, or a wealth-creating capitalist with no interest but your own comfort.

Rather than devise policies to make things better, Howard harks back to a time when he and his contemporaries knew what side they were on. This is why the ‘War on Terror’ is so important to Howard he finds comfort in the old sense of conflict, and knows how to play it to his political advantage, just as his heroes Maggie and Ron did. To paraphrase Billy Bragg, he’s not trying to change the world he’s just looking for a new enemy!

Rather than invest in the future, Howard and Peter Costello would rather stash the results of our current prosperity away in the Orwellian-named ‘Future Fund,’ like an old woman who keeps her money under the mattress. It’s a timid, self-serving and visionless response to the most protracted boom in Australian economic history, and abandons entirely any sense of obligation to build a better world for future generations. Like Johnnie’s come-lately conversion to climate change, it demonstrates that Howard cares about the future only insofar as it affects him politically in the present.

For those of us likely to be still living in 50 years time, or those of us with children and grandchildren for whom we want to create a better world, it’s just not good enough. The status quo and the ‘we’ve got it right’ mentality of both our current conservative Federal Government, and some conservative Leftists, isn’t equipped to deal with the future.

Diversity is the hallmark of the 21st century. We no longer define ourselves primarily in terms of the nuclear family, monoracial lineage, singular nationality, strict gender roles and social mores. Young men increasingly want to stay at home or work part time to raise their young children; while young women often want to get back to work as soon as possible they don’t need to pretend that pregnancy is a wondrous and mysterious state, and the sole aim of a female life.

We’re more likely to relocate overseas to grab a career opportunity, while, conversely, we’re less willing to sacrifice proximity to our family and friends in order to chase a buck. We want to make a decent income and live in a comfortable home, but not at the expense of the planet. Economic growth and environmental responsibility are no longer mutually exclusive but, as Nicholas Stern has shown to devastating effect, actually co-dependent.

Moreover, we’re not easily scared. Having grown up in a time of unprecedented affluence and stability, younger generations in the West are, with the confidence that comes from always having been well fed and cared for, often more interested in the bigger picture than in their own personal interests.

We’re a global generation. With pictures of starving Ethiopian children on our TV screens for as long as we can remember, it’s hard to persuade us that we’re worse off in the bigger scheme of things. As the first generation for whom a job is likely to last around five years, rather than 50, and who have had to pay
for our own education at the same time as saving for our own retirements, we’re a lot more independent, and less vulnerable to the Chicken Little (‘the sky is falling!’) rhetoric that Howard and his cronies have relied on for so long.

In Australia, and around the world, we are witnessing the re-emergence of the politics of hope. Embodied in the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign, the rise of Barack Obama in the USA, the Blair Government’s focus on climate change and the elimination of Third-World poverty, a return to focus on policies for the future such as the ALP’s broadband initiative and climate change summit is the desire to reclaim our civic life from the scared conservatives and cynical Leftists who have dominated it for too long.

For how this might manifest itself, and what it means for traditional politics, stay tuned for next week’s piece.

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.