15 Jan 2013

Why Progressives Should Be Smiling

By Damian Spruce
Are we drifting slowly and inexorably to the dark side of conservatism? No, says Damian Spruce. There are plenty of reasons for optimism about political life in the US and Australia in 2013

The convincing victory of Barack Obama last year was more than just good news for Democrats. At one level it demonstrated that billionaires can't simply buy electoral victory. But at another it showed that demographic trends in the USA are flowing strongly to the progressive side.

Hispanic Americans, rejecting the Republican Party they had engaged with under George W. Bush, came back strongly to the Democrats. African Americans rejected Mitt Romney with an unprecedented zero per cent of them choosing him over Obama in an NBC/WSJ poll. Working class white men, many of whom the Democrats had lost in the Reagan era, supported a President who had fought to save their jobs. The Republican Party started to look like the wealthy, Anglo, extremist elite that critics had claimed it always was.

And there are few indications that the political decline of American conservatism will stop.

Urban populations tend to vote progressive and the people of the United States continue to move from rural areas to cities, and will do so for decades to come. The Democrats are fostering a new generation of Latino leaders to ensure that they can properly represent this important constituency. The Castro twins in Texas are remarkable not just because they are a sign of the future of American politics, but because they are a sign of Democrat ambitions: to create a progressive stronghold in the 2016 elections in what has been the heart of the Deep South and the seat of the American Right for generations with a view to winning the state from the Republicans in 2020.

Such a tectonic change in the politics of the US raises questions about whether the long-held view of the country as inherently conservative can be maintained. And, with such transformations in the nation which has been at the centre of the global order since the Second World War, it is doubtful that world politics will continue unchanged.

It is worth considering whether Australia, a nation that has also been judged as inherently conservative, can continue to be viewed in this way. The major realignment of the ALP on the question of Palestine, for instance, has been linked by some commentators to the recognition that the issue was of concern to many Arab-Australian voters.

Barry O'Farrell's front page Sun Herald anti-discrimination story on the weekend also indicates an attempt to engage with ethnic communities for whom racial vilification is an important issue. For a conservative Liberal politician to specifically target an area which might antagonise media allies like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt signifies a shift in the electoral playing field.

Certainly the record of the Gillard Government points to a political environment in which fundamentally conservative forces no longer determine national decisions. Despite the precariousness of a hung parliament, reliant on the support of country independents, Labor has succeeded in implementing one of the most controversial and far-reaching environmental initiatives in Australian history — as well as winning victories against Big Tobacco and initiating a national disability insurance scheme.

The inability of the conservative forces across the country to bring the government down, aided by a campaigning national media network in the Murdoch press, or at least stop it from introducing reform — is telling, aided as they were by a campaigning national media network in the Murdoch press.

As well as progressive reforms, however, the Gillard Government has also restarted the Howard government's Pacific Solution. When it reopened the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, following the Expert Panel recommendations, it may have thought that a damaging political issue was neutralised. But in the lead up to the election the real possibility of a further High Court challenge to the policy hangs over the Minister for Immigration. Chief Justice French's Court has already displayed its willingness to take a stand against actions of the Executive in this area and it would not be surprising if it were to do so once again.

Dilan Thampapilai has identified the vulnerability of the policy to being found to be unconstitutional on the basis of the Government's aim of keeping migrants detained offshore for up to five years as part of its "no advantage" measures. And even if a challenge to the Commonwealth's policy does not succeed, there is also the possibility of actions in the Nauruan or Papua New Guinean courts against their governments for allowing the detention of asylum seekers. Indeed the PNG Opposition Leader has indicated his intention to commence proceedings. The success of any of these is good news for those who oppose the inhumanity of the current asylum seeker regime.

In the long term, what is even more worrying for the conservatives is Rupert Murdoch's mortality.

For the many years of Murdoch's domination over the nation's news and political reporting, government policies allowing overconcentration of media ownership seemed like a good idea to the right. But as Rupert's life nears its end they are realising their error in failing to build a more durable and widely distributed group of media power players.

The next generation of Murdochs lack their father's conservative ideological commitment. Indeed some of them have come out specifically against Murdoch Senior's political initiatives, like Fox News. Without Rupert to steer the News Limited ship, the days of conservative dominance in the Australian political sphere may be limited.

But as well as these long term signs of movement towards a more left wing mainstream, progressives in Australia have more immediate reasons to be cheerful in 2013.

The prospect of the defeat of Tony Abbott in the upcoming election is looking more likely. His levels of approval have sunk dramatically, and although Newspoll has been used to argue that the Coalition will still win, unanswered questions remain about how the significant levels of support for Katter's Australia Party will influence the outcome. Whatever the results, it is certainly clear that Abbott has been forced back onto the defensive for the first time in years. And that is something to celebrate.

Log in or register to post comments

Discuss this article

To control your subscriptions to discussions you participate in go to your Account Settings preferences and click the Subscriptions tab.

Enter your comments here

Posted Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - 12:44

Oh gods, Matilda, seriously what is with this Democrats (ALP) = Good; Republicans (Co-alition)=bad rubbish. This is a treatise to the tune of "The Emperor's New Clothes"

"Bush disappeared and tortured those the US disliked, while the Obama administration simply "murders them" Noam Chomsky of the dark hole that is the US President's & Democrat party's morality.
(Salon May 15, 2012)

Shall we go on - Guantanamo still open? Shall we look at the rort that is the Afghani invasion?

I can't give this article any more time than it has already wasted. A Laborite writing about the fabulous direction his people will eventually take us - great journalism!

Posted Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - 14:43

Oh PUH-LEASE! I would love to be able to buy into this, but I live in reality.

Posted Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - 14:50

At best this article could be consider naively optimistic but at worst self-deluding.

Yes, demographic trends suggest the Republican Party will need to make major changes or risk losing ground to the Democrats by default. But in what way has Obama advanced the progressive cause? Affordable Care Act, never mind it wasn't the single payer scheme he promised nor what America needs. Gitmo closed? Nope. Significant reform and regulation to the financial sector? Nope.

Obama could not even make good on his own election promise to increase taxes from $250k per year earners when he had all of the leverage in a deal that saw even more pay outs to business and saw the tax burden on the middle class rise.

I suppose Obama has also wound back on the use of drones? Nope, massively expanded including executions of US citizens abroad without due process. Not to mentioned 'signature strikes' and repeat hits for first responders.

Then of course we could compare and contrast the Obama administration's approach to leaking of information when it is themselves and when it's Manning and Assange.

Then we can look at how aggressively the Obama Administration pursued state legal medical marijuana dispensaries (much more aggressively than under Bush).

Oh but I forgot, he said gay people should be allowed to marry in some lip service he was forced in to because Biden spoke his mind.

Real progressive.

What about the ALP? Well we are seeing the exclusion of religious bodies from being required to show everyone the basic dignity of not invading their privacy and denying people employment if their religious sensibilities are offended (if you're gay, a single parent, unmarried, etc).

The policy regarding asylum seekers who arrive by boat has swung further right than the Howard government's.

Oh and for the sake of a political accounting approach they cut welfare benefits for people most in need.

So I am not really sure how you can say:
"Certainly the record of the Gillard Government points to a political environment in which fundamentally conservative forces no longer determine national decisions."

If you think the Greens will be able to drag the ALP to the left again after the next election then you are dreaming. especially when the NDIS is in uncertain territory for funding and is a long way from the comprehensive scheme the nation requires and a Coalition who still insists on winding back the Carbon tax and subsequent ETS (whether they really can is another question).

Telling people to be satisfied with the progressive advancements made under the modern centre-right ALP is to delude them of what progressivism looks like.


p mahone
Posted Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - 15:12

This is beyond awful, a privileged, middle-class take on what might be "progressive".

It's central problem is that it ignores the importance of economics. if it didn't it might understand that the ALP's sellout to big mining on the MRRT and its failure to challenge the destructive growth-at-all-costs mentality are inherently conservative positions. That, so too, are its refusal to challenge the dogma of low taxation and its odd contention that cutting expenditure is inherently more important to budget outcomes than generating income.

Further, that these sorts of positions are central to how this government chooses to do business and who, primarily, it does it on behalf of.

But that is just one issue, another is the constant drawing of similarities with the US and the assumption that the ALP and the American Democrats are inherently 'progressive'.

I would argue that, while still retaining progressive elements, both those organisations have become predominantly mainstream, conservative, business, or rather, big-business as usual operations.

While the ALP, trade unions and the commentariat operate from the premise that the the only viable options for economic and social organisation are 'Made in the USA' they needlessly, and drastically, limit our options.

Not only is this silly but it is wilfully ignorant because one of the traditions it dismisses is our own.

Posted Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - 16:10

Thanks Damian. Optimism looks unfashionable among the commentators, apparently, but it has its virtues.

That said, I think the only way this analysis stacks up is with a rather conservative assumption about the centre of political gravity: the polity is breaking left because political institutions have swung to the right, and now the parties are (belatedly) following the general mood of pendulum-correction.

This may well be right, but it puts a powerful brake on aspirations to genuinely transformative politics: progressives cannot really hope to achieve more than redress Tory overreach (e.g. Workchoices).

And so the 'optimism' is really a kind of cynicism – more plausible than some of the howls in response to your article, but still profoundly circumscribed. It is the soft cynicism Labor, the USA Democrats, and others have used to corral social-democratic voters into two-party systems for over a century. I am increasingly cynical about it because it means we the voters serve the party leaders, not vice versa. That way corruption lies, as NSW Labor intimately knows.

Tom Clark
Victoria University (Melbourne)

Posted Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - 16:19

Damian Spruce
I was going to say a nice optimistic view, but I read the letters and I must agree with them. I can't see our 2 horse race where both horses are owned by the same stable as progressive.

The Neo Cons have been at it for a while and they got a while to go, before the sheep wake up and realize their in a Truck heading for the slaughter house.

Posted Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - 17:08

Well I think it is high time someone pointed out a few positives. If we get too depressed about the state of affairs we will never get moved to action. Isn't that another conservative ploy? Bad news all round keeps the plebs in their place.

However your elder Murdoch view does seem a tad optimist, given that Rupert's Mum has only just departed this life at the age of 103.

Posted Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - 17:36

Man, this author lives in Cloud Cuckoo Land. I do not think I have read another article in NM that sounds more as if it came from a Right Wing Think Tank. Maybe it did.
Total absolute garbage!

Posted Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - 18:23

Sorry Damien,

your article failed to give me reason to smile.

We are looking at two governments that are so right of their usual stations, the 'right designated' parties have to field candidates like Abbott and Romney just to stand out.

Your cherry picked examples do nothing to consider the possibility that the 'progressive' parties might be gaining support not because the population is changing, but because the parties more resemble moderate conservatives.

The increasing Greens vote is certainly indicative that. Also that the Greens have toned down their rhetoric indicates that they no longer have to try so hard to distinguish themselves from Labor.

Dr Dog
Posted Wednesday, January 16, 2013 - 08:20

Damien I am sympathetic to many of your ideas, and have a soft spot for Labor, but for you to describe them as a progressive party at this point is a bridge too far. Mend your own house, remove the NSW right, convince the party to develop some actually progressive policies and maybe we can talk.

Posted Wednesday, January 16, 2013 - 10:36

I think it's the first time I have seen someone actually put it to News Ltd:
"The inability of the conservative forces across the country to bring the government down, aided by a campaigning national media network in the Murdoch press, or at least stop it from introducing reform — is telling, aided as they were by a campaigning national media network in the Murdoch press."
Even if he did repeat himself.
The point bears repeating: If Australia gets a wretched coalition government this year the blame to a large extent can be laid at Murdoch's door.
The question is: does the 4th estate really have the right to bring down an elected government by a campaign of lies and misinformation?

Posted Wednesday, January 16, 2013 - 13:36

well they did in 1975!

Posted Wednesday, January 16, 2013 - 16:00

I am sorry that this bit passes as analyisis/opinion. This piece probably says alot about the state of the media these days which relies on "personalities" rather than going out and finding the truth and report the facts, all of the facts.

I don't know whether the media has ever done this but I would hope that independent media, and I assume that New Matilda claims to be that, would do so but, from what I have seen not just of New Matilda but of other independent news sites, there seems little to inspire me.

I watched the Colbert Report last night and was sad to see the example of a fine investigative journalist Kaj Larsen, ex navy seal, being fired by CNN and then the justification for it by a "talking head" on the basis that this form of journalism is "not a profit centre".

I am not sure where to begin in terms of showing that the fact that the population is more "left" the the political parties does not actually mean anything in terms of the will of the people actually being reflected in policy making and so we "progressives" are not having our agenda progressed so we are not smiling that Obama has been re-elected.

"Obamacare" is the prefect example though, the people wanted a single payer system, didn't get it. The US Government can not negotiate over drug pricing.

Obama has bailed out Wall Street and hung Main Street out to dry, he implemented a second rate review system run by the banks who hired the reviewers and then provided the reviewers with the information to make their decisions on. No one got prosecuted, soft settlements occur that are effectively paid for by the taxpayer already thanks to the Fed Reserve window loaning out money at .25%.

Now there is the concept of the "qualified" mortage which will shield banks from making bad loans as they can not be sued anymore and loses are guaranteed by the US Government.

So, yeah, not much for progressives to be happy with there.

Looking at the Australia system not much to be happy about, the new paradigm is a bust, one corrupt NSW government has been replaced by another, in Victoria we had the Premier and Deputy Premier both resign on the same day with the media happily accepting the person reasons catch all, Julia has given the resources companies a free pass on MRRT, Campbell "Slasher" Newman seems determined to get rid of the public service with such services no doubt being supplied by the private sector who will have something new to apply their rent seeking skills to.

So while the so called progressive parties might be better than the conservative parties it is not by alot and the differences are at the margin at best.

Posted Wednesday, January 16, 2013 - 16:18

Anyeta, right on the button!
If 'our' Government signs the latest American designed Free Trade Agreement, negotiated in secret, we are not allowed to know what is going on, we also will have no say in the price we pay for drugs. We will not have a say in anything, any Yankee or World Company that feels badly done by by any Australian Government action can sue them for everything. Why any Government would willingly hand over Sovereignty to MultiNational Corporations is quite beyond me, unless one can say that 'our' governments have been 'bought'. Or 'told' what to do by the Obama Administration, which is 'owned' by Big Business and their friends.
How about some FAIR TRADE, ANYONE! That is the last thing that MultiNationals want.
The Banks now own Europe. The Banks (and the filthy rich) own America. Can we say that we are far from where they are? I think not.
Hey, did someone mention 'democracy'? Stop rolling in the aisles, everyone. It sure as Hell is NO JOKE!

Posted Wednesday, January 16, 2013 - 17:10

Yep, the Malaysian one was passed mid last year (have not read it yet but I will) in secret. As you rightly point out there is the new "Fair Trade" agreement being nutted out and we won't know what is in that until it gets signed.

Now we have Mali and our Foreign Minister is approving unilateral action by France in clear breach of UN resolution 2085 (which does not authorise such action), who was the former "ruler" of that country, in support of a military dictatorship (although that fact has hardly made the media), that has killed journalists and their own citizens and employing children as conbatants but all that is highlighted is the rebel excesses (and they are just as bad I agree so I am not saying that one side is better than the other, I am saying that coverage is, again, in the service of the government/big business) and even suggesting that we might supply money and arms!

Have we let our temporary seat on the UN Security Council go to our heads and we now are looking to become a mini USA and feel that we have a right to influence internal disputes so that we can get outcomes that we favour?

Posted Thursday, January 17, 2013 - 11:40

I don't really get how this article relates to Labor - aren't 'progressives' against Thatcherite policies and market capitalism? I'm struggling with the progressive aspect of lick-boot militarism as well. I get the abuse of refugees as part of the Labor tradition - although it does take jumping back quite a few years to really connect with Labor's racist past. I guess unashamedly embracing one's history is cathartic and, through that, slightly progressive.

Posted Sunday, January 20, 2013 - 14:01

I think Bob Katter represents the re emergence of one nation and they will potentially effect the primary vote numbers. If he starts talking about stabilising the population and sides with farmers who aren't into CSG he could threaten Abbott.

Some progressive things are becoming part of the fabric - legalisation of recreational marijuana in two states in the US. The end to white monopoly of power but while all this is happening the NWO is rolling along in top gear, the surveillance state revealing itself more and more with little dicussion, Africa as the new imperial chessboard, the neo liberal era/ the shock doctrine is the future.

Dr Dog
Posted Monday, January 21, 2013 - 13:42

Yeah but Xeroxcliche these things are happening in America.

Come on Australians, we had the first women voters, we absorbed the labour movement into our national politics with minimal bloodshed, we briefly legislated for appropriate medical euthanasia and now we can't even keep up with Washington State on marijuana reform.

Let's face it, we just aren't cool anymore.

Posted Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 17:31

I would like to believe in the tooth fairy too but the Australian Labor Party is an Alternative Liberal Party, Another Liberal Party, an American Lackey Party, an Apartheid Israel-supporting Party, an Anti-equity Labor Party, an Anti-environment Labor Party and an Australian Lying Party.

The sentences "It is worth considering whether Australia, a nation that has also been judged as inherently conservative, can continue to be viewed in this way. The major realignment of the ALP on the question of Palestine, for instance, has been linked by some commentators to the recognition that the issue was of concern to many Arab-Australian voters" put undue gloss on a contemptibly racist, human rights-abusing, extreme right wing and Labor values-violating Labor Party .

Thus the "revolt" in the Federal Labor Caucus against the salivating pro-Zionists resolutely committed in their support for genocidally racist, nuclear terrorist, Australia-violating Apartheid Israel only resulted in a cowardly and unprincipled "abstain" vote at the UN for Palestinian statehood.

This is the Palestine reality that the racist , neoliberal Labor Party and its Coalition mirror image ignore:

1. In 1880 the Palestine population comprised about 500,000 Arab Palestinians plus 25,000 Jews (50% being Jewish immigrants). By 1944 when pro-Zionist Churchill got the War Cabinet to agree to post-war Partition of Palestine, 2/3 of the inhabitants were Indigenous Palestinians. Today 90% of the land of Palestine has been ethnically cleansed by genocidal, anti-Arab anti-Semitic racist Zionists.

2. Since 1936, Palestinian deaths from violence (0.1 million) and violently-imposed deprivation (1.9 million) have totalled 2.0 million. Currently Apartheid Israel deliberately passively murders 3,000 under-5 year old Occupied Palestinian infants and over 4,000 Occupied Palestinians in general each year through imposed deprivation (UNICEF data).

3. 800,000 Indigenous Palestinian were violently expelled from Palestine in 1948 under threat of mass murder. More were expelled after the racist Zionists took over all of Palestine in 1967. There are now over 7 million Palestinian refugees, about 1/3 of the over 20 million Muslim refugees fleeing Zionist or US Alliance violence.

4. Of about 12 million Palestinians, 6 million are forbidden to even step foot in their own country, 1.6 million are Palestinian Israelis (Third Class citizens under obscene race laws), 1.7 million Occupied Palestinians (half children and of these 10% stunted from Israeli blockade) are highly abusively confined to what the Catholic Church has described as the Gaza Concentration Camp, and 2.5 million Occupied Palestinians are highly abusively confined to West Bank Bantustans without human rights under military rule, and only 6.7% (the adults of 1.6 million Palestinian Israelis) are permitted by democracy-by-genocide Apartheid Israel to vote for the government illegally ruling all of Palestine plus a slab of Syria.

Australians who vote Liberal-National Coalition or Labor (Lib-Labs, Liberal-Laborals) are complicit in the Palestinian Genocide and horrendous, ongoing, genocidal child abuse conducted by democracy-by-genocide Apartheid Israel.

Decent, anti-racist Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Christian, theist and atheist Australians cannot in conscience vote for a pro-war, pro-Zionist, anti-Arab anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish anti-Semitic, genocide-complicit Labor Party (see "Australian Labor's new anti-semitism", MWC News: http://www.aljazeera-news.net/focus/politics/17530-new-anti-semitism.html ) - they might just as well vote for the neofascist "real thing" in the Coalition. Indeed they should vote 1 Green and put Labor last (the Coalition are just as bad but at least have not betrayed Labor voters).

NT Indigenous Australians have shown the way by punishing Labor for its betrayal of Indigenous Australians by kicking them out at the recent NT elections.

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.