The Political Cringe


Two weeks ago I was having lunch in a bar in Barcelona with my sister who lives there, her friend Dimitri and Dimitri’s parents who were visiting from Greece.

Inevitably, the conversation steered to the Greek elections which had taken place recently and which saw a big increase in support for the Communists and the Left Coalition. Dimitri who had gone to Greece to vote, told us that he voted for the Left Coalition after years of voting for the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) because he didn’t trust that PASOK would do anything to address his major areas of concern: education, the environment and a better income for working people. His father, Kosta, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and New Democracy supporter replied that a vote for the Left Coalition is a wasted vote, since they are and always will be an opposition party.

A heated discussion ensued in Greek, observed keenly by the Spanish lunch time patrons, where my sister, Dimitri’s mother and Dimitri attacked New Democracy for its neo liberal economic agenda, for its failure to address dire problems in Greece and its dubious ‘fascist’ past.

In the end, Kosta defended himself by saying that he didn’t say that Communists were bad, as such. In his view, they had a valuable contribution to make and their voice was a necessary one in the Parliament.

I was taken aback. In Australia, it is not often that you would hear a Liberal voter saying that a Communist or Left voice was a necessary one in Parliament.

It got me thinking. Why is it that in Greece and other European countries, being on the Left or supportive of the Left is not met with ridicule, disdain or horror? Why is it that PASOK leader George Papandreou can say at the end of his election speech: ‘I ask all Greeks of democratic persuasion to vote against the Right’? And why didn’t every newspaper in the country attack him or laugh at him for saying it?

I cannot imagine Kevin Rudd asking Australians to vote against the Right, since he, like other recent Labor leaders, is keen to distance himself as far away from the Left as possible.

This is not to say that the ALP doesn’t have policies that differentiate them from the Liberal Party, but it’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone of status in the Labor party talk about the Left, what it means to have Left values and position themselves on the Left regarding economic issues.

Why does being a Leftie in Australia have such a bad name?

After all, the Left have fought for a more equal society, for better opportunities for the economically disadvantaged, for a welfare system that looks after the poor so they don’t beg in the streets, against war and fascism and many other things that most people consider the hallmarks of a civilised society.

Dr Nikos Papastergiadis, Associate Professor from the school of Cultural Studies and Media & Communications at the University of Melbourne says that the marginalising of the Left has occurred most effectively in countries that have enthusiastically adopted the neo liberal economic agenda.

Australia like the UK, New Zealand and the US has more or less accepted a conservative economic agenda and all political debate has to take place within that framework. If you speak outside of that, then you are sidelined. Your opinion has no legitimacy. There’s a fear of declaring yourself of the Left. It’s not a fear of being put in jail, but it’s a fear of being ridiculed.

National President of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, Julius Roe, agrees that the denigration of the Left is  more  promient  where Thatcherite policies have taken root.

It’s really an Anglo Saxon disease and Australia is one of the countries where in the mainstream of society, the Left has more or less been silenced or sidelined. In Europe, there are still journalists who openly oppose neo liberalism and they are published regularly in the mainstream press. In Australia, there is virtually no one taking a Left view on economic issues in the mainstream press.

Roe points out that social democratic parties in Europe have policies that are still far to the left of the Labour Party in Britain and the ALP in Australia.

Of course history has much to do with this. The Left has integrity in many European countries because they were the ones who engaged in the anti fascist struggle. In Australia we were not affected in the same way. War wasn’t actually on our doorstep.

According to Papastergiadis, the Left has also contributed to its own reputation.

Many Left parties get into power and they don’t behave differently from the Conservatives. They don’t adhere to the values that they claim to possess and as a result they lose their authority.

He’s right of course, but the Conservatives do it all the time and it seems they can get away with it. In Australia, the Howard Government has done a lot of things they said they wouldn’t do, even flouting international conventions to which we are signatories. But we have voted for them four times.

While in Greece, I saw a television ad by one of the Left parties. It featured scenes of war, environmental disasters, racism and poverty. It was an effective reminder of the capitalism system at its worse. In a week when we saw Kevin Rudd do the ‘me too’ in relation to the death penalty and the Tamar Valley Pulp Mill, it’s the kind of reminder we need.

And one that in Australia, at least, we’re not getting.

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