Last week, in news that elicited tears from Tony Abbott, a hearty good riddance from the Greens and another flurry of articles predicting doom for the Gillard Government, Martin Ferguson announced that he would not recontest his seat of Batman at September’s federal election.
Ferguson has been a member of Parliament since 1996; before this he was General Secretary of the Miscellaneous Workers' Union, president of the ACTU and a member of the governing body of the International Labour Organisation.
He was appointed Minister for Resources and Energy and Tourism in 2007 and retained these portfolios after the leadership change from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard in 2010. A Rudd supporter, Ferguson stepped down to the backbench in March in the aftermath of the disastrous leadership spill that wasn’t.
Ferguson’s time as resources minister coincided, of course, with considerable conflict between the federal government and the mining industry but Ferguson himself emerged largely unscathed. Together with Wayne Swan and Gillard, Ferguson nutted out a deal that changed the Resources Super Profits Tax to a more modest Minerals Resource Rent Tax and later described the MRRT as being “designed … to suit the needs of industry”.
The announcement of Ferguson’s resignation met with a chorus of regret from the resources sector. Teachers are rarely happy with education ministers and health ministers are not often popular among doctors and nurses, but figures such as departing BC Iron managing director Mike Young saw Ferguson as “a decent bloke who gets our industry”.
While Rudd described Ferguson as “one of the lions of the Australian labour movement”, current Resources and Energy Minister Gary Gray hailed him as a “giant” of the resources industry, demonstrating again that we are unlikely to witness significant changes to the ALP’s resources policy.
The industry’s tributes led to dark murmurings of regulatory capture, which were not new: following Ferguson’s resignation as Resources Minister in March, The Australia Institute’s Executive Director Richard Denniss considered it “pretty clear Martin Ferguson interpreted his job as representing the interests of those who profit from extracting our resources rather than the citizens who own those resources”.
It was not only the industry that bid sad farewells. In a teary speech, Abbott stated that the “member for Batman is Labor Party royalty” and ruminated, “Well may we shed a tear…for things which were, which should be, but which are not. And from this side of the political trench I salute an honourable opponent and a great Australian”.
On Radio National Breakfast, James Carleton mused that, “Labor culture today is not what it was, and the retirement of Martin Ferguson … must have struck a chord in Mr Abbott as emblematic of the passing of traditional Labor culture and of the party of old”.
This benevolent analysis merits some unpicking, and this is not the first time Abbott has displayed a sort of strange fondness for his opponents’ past. Recall that last May, in a clumsy attempt at identity-politics-by-proxy, Abbott lamented that “as someone whose grandparents were proud to be working class I can feel the embarrassment of decent Labor people at the failures of this government”.
Abbott’s nostalgia has political uses: it is a rhetorical device which allows him not only to attack the current administration, but to imply that by virtue of his respect for the ALP's mythical past, Abbott has a clearer understanding of proper “Labor values” than the modern party itself.
Ferguson himself has used selective elements of Labor’s past against its current leadership; in his resignation speech he paid tribute to the Hawke and Keating administrations and repeated that “creating opportunities by working with business is not the same thing as pointless class rhetoric … we need to grow the pie to share it”.
This was not the first time Ferguson had echoed the Coalition’s rhetoric on “class warfare”; following this year’s unsuccessful leadership spill, he called upon the ALP to “reclaim the mantra of the Hawke and Keating governments to govern for all Australians”, arguing the “class war that started with the mining dispute of 2010 must stop”.
Similar language was used by Simon Crean and Joel Fitzgibbon, and over at Crikey Bernard Keane noted drily that “anyone who remembers Keating enthusiastically dishing it out to his business critics might have difficulty with the idea that the 1980s were a nirvana of consensus politics”.
Ferguson was the kind of Labor minister with whom the right could find common cause. He is well-known for his dismissive remarks about environmentalists and his preparedness to use ASIO to spy on environmental groups who campaign against coal mining, and has “no truck with the Greens”, who apparently want to “sit under the tree and weave baskets with no jobs”.
Much of the media analysis of Ferguson’s resignation bears the marks of a public conversation in which free-market ideology is accepted as neutral fact. Thus Michelle Grattan, writing in The Conversation, stated that Ferguson, "with his strongly market-based approach, is highly respected in the business community; his decision not to recontest will be seen as another sign of a sinking Labor ship".
The Australian also emphasised that Ferguson was “highly-respected”, surely a rare assessment from the national newspaper as far as Labor ministers are concerned. For his part, Andrew Bolt lamented that it was “a pity … Ferguson never spoke out against global warming alarmism, although he quietly worked to moderate the damage it did”, and concluded “Ferguson quits, Swan stays. Wrong way around”.
Ferguson’s legacy is mixed. For many, he is not a noble exemplar of Labor values but a remnant of Australia’s pro-development ideology. Greens leader Christine Milne concluded for instance that it was “good the old-stagers of the fossil-fuel era, like Martin Ferguson, are gone … We need people in the parliament who see the future in terms of renewables and clean energy – he was never going to do that”.
Others, like historian Marilyn Lake, see him as no more than one of “the old men of politics” who need to bow out and “give the new team a go, relieved of the heavy burden of a patriarchal past”.
On a more abstract level, Ferguson can be credited for his contribution to the oversimplification of political debate: consider his defences of the resources sector against those who would “demonise” it.
In this respect, Ferguson echoed the Manichaean worldview which has permeated much of our political sphere – one in which we either celebrate the resources industry or disparage it, with no room for reasoned criticism or analysis. There are supporters of a robust economy, and there are environmental guerrillas in thrall to a green religion. There are jobs, and then there is basket-weaving. There are those who sensibly accept that we must “grow the pie to share it” and those who engage in class warfare and envy politics.
Such comfortable certainties do not reflect the realities of climate change, global inequality and the capriciousness of the market. Long after Ferguson’s departure from our political stage, they may yet die hard in an increasingly uncertain world.