A Progressive Manifesto, Part 2


Writing about the need for the renewal of social democratic politics and the revitalisation of ‘the Left’ was always going to prompt passion from New Matilda readers. But, even so, I was surprised at just how predictable the responses were to last week’s piece.

Both into the New Matilda discussion forum and my email inbox came comments split along generational lines. Younger ‘Leftists’ approved of my sentiments; while their elders found my position to be insulting, ill-informed and, in one delightful turn of phrase, ‘masturbatory rubbish.’

Very few of the criticisms engaged with my central premise that progressive politics must, by definition, continue to progress. We must re-invent our politics to grapple with current problems and societal change. I’m not slinging off’ at grandparents despite an irresistible allusion to the impending arrival of the first Howard grandchild. Age here is irrelevant it’s about attitude.

The attitudes of some old Leftists are now best described as conservative if not reactionary. Refusing to accept the realities of the last 30 years, they will brook no argument other than a return to an isolationist tariff-protected past. It’s obviously a huge source of frustration to them that the market has actually increased the average Australian’s standard of living. But it’s a fact, and you can’t unscramble an egg.

If a majority of working people in the West  are no longer living in relative poverty meaning that some policies that lifted them out of poverty are no longer relevant then isn’t that a cause for celebration? Why don’t we sign off on those successes and say, ‘Well done, what’s next?’

Instead many old Leftists want to take us backwards, to a time before progress consigned their most deeply cherished shibboleths to the dustbin. Many cite less developed societies as something to aspire to, rather than recognising that we’ve moved ahead. The fact is, those countries in which communitarian socialism is on the rise, such as parts of South America, are going through what the West went through half a century ago.

They are, after decades of corruption and internecine struggle, beginning to catch up to the great social reforms of the 20th century. As such, they’re not models to emulate but reminders of what we have achieved. And their struggles should reinforce our responsibility to continue the progressive advancement of the world.

This is not to say that certain ideals of the 20th century social revolutions should not be jealously guarded, and re-inforced. Core elements of a good society ideals such as equality, freedom of speech, free and universal education and health care, the protection of human rights must be constantly and vigorously defended. And the role of the public sphere and of democracy must be preserved in the face of economic fundamentalism, commonly known as ‘free-market economics.’

This is what the 1990s ‘third way’ movement  was all about tempering the forces of the free market with necessary controls of essential public services. That is now 10 years out of date and, in Australia at least, has failed to make a dent in the rampant free-market economics of the neo-cons who have run the country since 1996.

The rapid modernisation of the Australian economy under Paul Keating left many older Labor voters appalled, and delivered them into the hands of a deceitful Howard Government that pretended to be on their side. By abandoning Keating’s legacy, the ALP relegated itself to a decade in the political wilderness it had lost its traditional support base to Howard and had nothing to offer the new constituency that emerged from the ashes of the 1991-92 ‘recession we had to have.

Howard’s seduction of ‘the battlers’ was achieved by creating a series of false equations in the electorate’s mind. Firstly, Howard convinced them that, if he had been in office during the 1980s, he would not have pursued an even more ruthless program of economic reform with far less consideration to the impact on working people than was given by the ‘Accord’ Hawke and Keating established with the union movement.

Secondly, Howard convinced the battlers that the hardships encountered by our least skilled and most vulnerable working Australians were due to increased competition from immigrants, women and other ‘minorities,’ rather than being the unfortunate but inevitable result of economic reform. Howard’s promotion of the so-called ‘culture wars’ allowed Australia’s most committed economic fundamentalists to pretend that they would have maintained a pre-1980s Australian society in cultural terms, and excused them from answering the harder economic question: ‘What would you have done differently to protect my job?’

And, thirdly, Howard successfully argued that the ALP cannot be trusted to manage the economy despite the fact that our current economic boom was created by the progressive reforms that only Hawke and Keating were bold enough to undertake.

The result has been a decade of mean-spirited, unimaginative, regressive economic and social policy under the most self-serving and narrow Prime Minister this country has had since Stanley Bruce in the 1920s. Howard’s triumph has been assisted by those who still hate Keating and those who cannot stand the sight of Tony Blair.

According to these haters from the Left, Keating and Blair’s greatest crimes have been recognising when policies weren’t working and then setting about repairing or replacing them. Those who refer to Blair as ‘Margaret Thatcher with a smile’ display their ignorance of the true impact of the Iron Lady’s social policies and the way the Blair Government has remedied so many of them.

Complaints about the introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), for example, usually come from comfortable, middle-class people who have never lived in the working-class housing estates which were destroyed by unemployment during the Thatcher years. If Labour politics isn’t about making it safe for an old lady (like my grandmother) to leave her house to buy a loaf of bread, or about finding a job for a man who’s unemployed for a decade, then what is it about?

‘New Labour’ MP Sion Simon explained this in an essay last year for Prospect magazine, ‘New Labour Odyssey,’  in which he recalled the advice given to him as a young idealist:

If one old lady gets one hot dinner she wouldn’t otherwise have had under Labour, and that was the best we could do, then it was worth it. That’s real Labour politics.

Progressive politics has never been about clinging to shibboleths but about finding the best solutions to entrenched disadvantage, and adapting ideas to meet changed circumstances.

Here in Australia, we had a ‘third way’ leader before anyone coined the term.

Paul Keating knew as only an intelligent man raised in a working-class environment could that the means of gaining financial security for the majority of people was not through wage control, but by giving them access to capital and a control over their own financial destinies.

By enforcing saving in the form of superannuation, and by encouraging asset ownership, Keating dragged Australia kicking and screaming into a brave new (globalised) world.
By forcing us to compete in the international market, he encouraged innovation in industry and allowed Australians an unprecedented level of choice and control over their own working lives. This was the natural progression from the post-World War II social programs that encouraged home-ownership and a tariff-assisted investment in industry it was not a retreat from the ideals that underlined them.

But, while some can’t forgive Keating for this, among younger generations he is something of a hero. And, now that we’re finally gaining some influence in the public sphere, he is being recognised and rehabilitated.

Admiration for Keating and his policies crosses both age and traditional Left/Right divides. Witness the enormous success of Keating! The Musical, and his cult-like status in the blogosphere. His ‘Redfern Speech’ was the most highly placed Australian entry on the recent ABC Radio National ‘Unforgettable Speeches’ survey.  

Today, a politics is needed that combines progressive social policies support for reconciliation, a republic, increased immigration, universal education and health care with the recognition that the creation, as much as the distribution, of wealth underpins all public works and social investment.

Progressive thinkers regardless of age make up the ‘new Left’ constituency. They recognise the need for what Patrick Diamond Director of the think tank, Policy Network terms ‘permanent reformism’ which entails a willingness to junk old ideas and engage with new realities; to harness the power of the market for the greater good; to constantly challenge ourselves to find new and better ways, of doing things; to create policy that meets the needs of the people, rather than try to make people fit in with our established ideals.

Progressive politics recognises that each generation has both the right and the responsibility to set its own goals. And determine the best methods to achieve them.

That is progress.

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.