Shorten Is Right, The Left Must Start Again


In some ways it’s been an exciting time for those of us on the democratic left. Labor has given its members a 50 per cent say in the election of the new leader and there is a sniff of further reform with Bill Shorten saying he wants to modernise the relationship between Labor and the unions. He also indicated his desire, as many new leaders do, to “start again”.

A useful starting point might be some serious thinking about strategy – and that goes for the other half of the left, the Greens, as well. Indeed, it’s time for the left of Australian politics to exercise more judgment generally about where they fit and what they can do because the facts are clear: in the recent contest for government Labor was thrashed, as were the Greens in their quest to be more than just one influence among others.

It’s true that in September both Labor and the Greens didn’t run good campaigns compared to their opponents, but that can’t explain a wider problem: that the Coalition and others successfully framed them as ineffective and disposable.

To start with, Federal Labor needs to reflect more fully on the devastating impact of the politics of disunity and betrayal but it can’t just be left at that. Strategic positioning and practice — or the lack thereof — matters too.

Six years ago things looked very different. The Labor-Greens combined vote was nearly 52 per cent. Labor came to power with a mandate to restore balance to our economy and the environment it affects, to the labour market, to health and education services, to inter-governmental relations and to our role in global affairs.

Rather than work with Labor and moderate Liberals on their emissions trading system the Greens said no. Then, after being rebuffed by Parliament and Copenhagen, Labor pulled up stumps and left the field to the sceptics now in charge of the Coalition. Only after the 2010 election, when parliamentary realities demanded it, was Labor prepared to return to carbon.

That Labor, the Greens and moderate Liberals couldn’t lock in a trading system in that first term of the Labor government was a tragedy for the nation. It may be that the Senate will hold its ground when Parliament moves to abolish the system but that is unlikely, given the right-of-centre Senators-elect who will be filling the chamber next year.

It all comes down to strategy – that link between vision and day-to-day practice which involves working out what in the overall agenda for change is possible today, what is becoming more possible by the day but is not quite  there and what is not possible, at least for now.

Assessments like this have to be made by those serious about political power and putting it to good purpose. For their part the Greens have taken up a wide-ranging program of reform at the expense of their known strengths as advocates for the environment.

Many admire the Greens’ ultra-libertarian positions on asylum seeking and diplomatic exchanges, and ultra-interventionist economics, but this has locked them out of many suburbs and workplaces throughout the nation.

Labor’s problem is different. It’s not just a left-of-centre and social democratic party, it’s also a union-based and to some extent a Christian Democratic Party as well. The former constrains it when it comes to economic reform and action against climate change and the latter when it comes to social reform, same-sex marriage being a case study. Labor is a party of values and interests and the two often sit uncomfortably together in a way that is damaging to the party overall.

We might conclude that the Greens are environmentalists who have become too radical for their own good and Laborites are reformers who have become too conservative for their own good.

Of course we’ve been here before. The Socialist Left on the one side and the Democratic Labor Party on the other made it difficult for Labor to capture the centre ground, until Gough Whitlam found the right formula that offered hope to both sides of the labour movement.

Since then a type of contract has been entered into in which the right had their union-based participation in the party legitimised and the left had a bucketful of progressive policies to hang their hat on, except in respect of some social issues, for example abortion, stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where the right insisted on and won a conscience vote.

Over time this contract between left and right has forced Labor to compromise in ways seen as unacceptable to existing and potential members and supporters. Sometimes the bone of contention was a question of policy and sometimes a question of pre-selection.

As these members left or didn’t join Labor, the Greens were led to believe that their role was to outflank Labor on the left so that they could become the major party of the left. This takes us to the nub of the problem – Labor can’t be merely a right-wing, union-based party if it wants to progress, but nor can the Greens remain a left-wing radical party if they want to broaden their support base.

The problem is still wider than that and affects the prospects for the left more generally. Both parties need leaders willing to challenge elements of the world they have inherited if left-of-centre politics is to have a fighting chance.

For a Labor leader it means taking a stand for microeconomic reform, security at home and abroad, low carbon technologies, and for the integrity of our health and education systems as key supports for social equality. For the Greens leader it means fighting hard to return environmental and climate change politics to the centre of their business, with a dose of pragmatism — as Bob Brown showed, by working within the cross-party Climate Change Committee.

This is my judgment call as to what would be best for the left but we need to ask whether, given the composition of the two parties, it is possible. At Labor’s core are a few unions and a strong lobby for protectionism and traditional values. At the core of the Greens are community-based activists for whom a compromise for the sake of a “big picture” is seen as the problem, rather than the solution. Put simply: the Greens have become too used to saying no all the time and at the expense of their credibility.

History tells us that Labor has the best chance of offering over-arching leadership for the left. However, for that to happen, its leaders need to imagine themselves playing that role. They must be willing to take up the challenges outlined earlier: microeconomic reform, international and domestic security, a low carbon economy and health and education equality. 

For their part the Greens need to recognise the limits of their authority and focus on a narrower range of practical ideas for the environment and society. Indeed there is no reason why on some issues they may be closer to the centre of opinion as we have seen with euthanasia.

Right-wingers who want to hold up the march towards a freer, fairer and more sustainable Australia hold the whip hand at the moment. The left will need to be much smarter than they have been recently if they wish to win back that centre ground they occupied in 2007.

New Matilda national affairs correspondant Ben Eltham is on leave. NM has invited a range of former politicians and commentators to write in his absence.

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