Friday, 17 May 2019    

There used to be a joke going around shortly after Bob Hawke became Prime Minister in 1983 and was polling stratospheric approval levels of 85%, that the remaining 15% were Labor party members. If that seems shocking today, it is only because of the wave of national amnesia which has swept over the Hawke government that makes Anzac Day practically seem like a day of remembrance.

There was some distrust and resentment within the ALP of Hawke’s hasty ascension to the leadership on the day Malcolm Fraser called the 1983 election. There was suspicion from the left over his close ties to business leaders like Sir Peter Abeles, and broader resentment at the way he had snatched the leadership, and probably the Prime Ministership, from Bill Hayden who was seen as having done much to revive the party from the electoral disasters of 1975 and 1977.

Labor was already leading the polls ahead of an election that out-going Hayden claimed a “drover’s dog” could win – but not a certainty, and an unexceptional showing in the Flinders by-election a few months before (largely due to local factors) was used to add doubts to Hayden’s leadership (some things don’t change).

Labor wasn’t taking any chances. If the history of the Hawke government has been rewritten it is nothing to what has been done to the Fraser government that preceded it. That nice Mr Fraser was seen as part of the New Right that had brought Thatcher and Reagan to office and were setting about taking on the unions directly and excluding them from power. Even Socialist governments, like the newly installed French President Francois Mitterrand did not seem immune to this turn against the post-war consensus. The fear in Labor was that the re-election of the Fraser government would see a more direct assault on the post-war settlement that he, and his new right-wing Treasurer, John Howard, had already tried in the previous term.

Labor had taken careful lessons from the Whitlam government of 1972-5. Whitlam’s modernisation of Labor, with the side-lining of the left (especially in Victoria) and reducing the influence of the unions over policy, had broadened Labor’s appeal. However, it had meant that Labor’s ability to call on the unions to constrain the wages push in 1973-4 when the economy soured had been limited. It was not until the 1975 Terrigal conference when the Labor government had reached an agreement with the unions, led by Hawke as head of the ACTU, that Labor could start to restrain wages and government spending (quite how much Hawke had encouraged the 1974 wages push for his own position in the party has always been contentious). The new austerity was set out later in Hayden’s 1975 Budget but by then it was too late.

The Hayden years were about reforging that relationship between the parliamentary party and the union leadership. The justification for Hawke taking over was not only based on his electoral popularity but that he had gained that popularity as head of the ACTU and so could sell that union relationship to the public. The 1983 campaign slogan of Hawke Bringing Australia Together and the Accord with the unions made that tie-up central to his election.

Labor’s relationship with the unions is core to its case for governance, as it had been for Curtin/Chifley, Scullin and Fisher/Hughes, and the Hawke Labor government was a classic Labor government – and remained so. When that relationship was no longer central to government, Hawke’s popularity fell away to Abbottesque levels and he was dumped. Yet if the Hawke government was a classic Labor government and Hawke himself arguably Labor’s last classic Labor Prime Minister, somehow sections of the right and left deny that he was. Abbott’s claim yesterday that Hawke has a “Liberal head” would find resonance on the left side of politics that accuses him of “neoliberalism” and a betrayal of Labor values.

The crux of this rewriting of the history of the Hawke government centres around the word “reform”. For a government that was supposed to be known as a reforming government, reform was something of a dirty word when Hawke came to power. The rationalisation of what went wrong with the Whitlam government was that it had failed because it had tried “too much too soon”. This is historically inaccurate since much of the reforms of the Whitlam government had happened between 1972 and the 1974 election that made Whitlam the first Labor leader to ever win two consecutive elections (while a hazy mist of idealism has since descended over Whitlam, most of what he did was about winning elections, which he did).

However, when Labor returned in 1983, it wanted to distance from its only other period in office in 33 years and present itself as a stable and cautious government that could be proved to be enduring. It followed it through. Whitlam’s Medibank was restored but in a watered-down form. The move towards Land Rights accelerated under Whitlam and Fraser largely came to a halt. University fees, removed by Whitlam and kept out by Fraser, were reintroduced. The shift to regionalism after Vietnam was replaced with a decisive shift back to be in line with US foreign policy, especially in response to New Zealand’s suspension from the ANZUS alliance. But again, none of this makes it unexceptional as an Australian Labor government.

Probably the best way to understand how a classic if rather cautious Labor government could be seen as such a reforming one that to many was closer to a Liberal government is by looking at what is cited as one of the major “reforms“ of the Hawke years, the floating of the Australian dollar just eight months after coming into office.

The collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971 and Nixon’s detaching the US dollar from gold had destabilised the global financial system and forced the world’s major currencies to float. The result was far more volatile flows of capital globally that caused particular problems for mid-sized economies like Australia’s. The Coalition had considered floating the dollar when it was recommended in the Campbell report in the last years of government but there was considerable resistance. First from the Country Party on behalf of its rural backers, but also nervousness about the greater economic instability that could come as had been seen in countries like the UK. It was partly to manage this possible instability that Fraser sought some control over wages.

In line with its general caution, the Hawke government was initially also cautious about any immediate action. In fact, a major reason of the cautious noises coming from the Hawke government in the early days was to reassure nervous capital markets that nevertheless forced a devaluation within a few days of Hawke coming to power. The caution towards floating the dollar was echoed by many in the union leadership that saw it taking wages power out of the government that it was now expecting to influence.

But this could not last. As nicely set out in the excellent Labor in Power, recorded in the last years of the Labor government and before the myths about it were written, within eight months of the election the Australian markets were once again facing significant capital market pressure on the fixed Australian exchange rate. Just as Parliament was dossing off for the Christmas break the capital markets struck again and in an emergency meeting, the government decided that floating the dollar and lifting exchange controls was its only option. As Hawke said, for a small country like Australia to oppose massive global capital flows was an “exercise of futility”.

The immediate political reaction was predictable. Despite having its hand forced, the government was keen to place it as all part of a bold strategy over which it had control. One of the joys of Labor in Power is watching Hawke, Keating and Treasury Secretary John Stone fight for credit over a policy none of them wanted to bring about until forced to do so. The second reaction was to renegotiate the terms of the Accord to tougher terms and here the Hawke government’s ability to wring concession from the unions put it an advantage compared to the Fraser and Whitlam governments. This ability to manage wage and spending restraint in response to economic shocks was central to the success of the Hawke government.

It was not just the Labor government that was keen to rewrite what had happened to be part of a bold strategy. The Liberal right were also starting to use it to distance themselves from their failures during the Fraser years with the emerging theme that Fraser had lacked the political courage that they had now discovered in opposition. This boldness of the right, vicariously lived through the responses of the Hawke/Keating government, was to continue until they returned to power and all that boldness disappeared into the ether from which it never left.

The left were also keen to overplay the political intent of the Hawke government’s response. For an Australian left that could rarely survive apart from Labor, let alone the union leadership, the Accord between the two, and the concessions that came from it, posed a profound dilemma. Naturally it evaded the problem and looked elsewhere. Uranium mining was a big deal as was Australia’s close relationship to Reagan’s America, especially during the MX missile crisis. Avoiding the core question central to the left’s survival that has always been posed by Labor’s relationship with the union leadership, was never going to be good for its health and the traditional left began to fade away – eventually replaced by the Greens that proved it could survive outside Labor and unattached to the union leadership. Among the remaining left, the usual way that dilemma posed by the Hawke government is avoided these days is by talking up its agenda and pretending it was not really Labor at all but “neoliberal”.

The government’s pattern of responding to events outside its control was to continue through the 1980s. When commodity prices collapsed in 1986, Keating raised the panic level, said Australia was in danger of becoming a banana republic and used the panic to again renegotiate tougher terms with the Accord. The Treasurer, most politically exposed to not seeming in control of economic events, which he was not, became a master of talking up his strategic boldness from which insights he still graces us with today. This was to reach absurd levels near the end of the Hawke government with Keating turning the recession nobody wanted, and the government did not expect, into the one we had to have.

Yet however much the reforming zeal of the Hawke government may have been talked up, it was still mostly to happen later. At the time there was a clearer sense it was merely responding to events and, combined with caution in other areas, there were even complaints about the drift and lack of vision in the government. Indeed, the government survived what were awidely acknowledged decline in real wages and living standards at the time precisely because they were seen as due to events outside its control.

Nevertheless, along with union membership, Labor’s primary vote declined from that it received in the 1983 election from which it has never regained again. The declining significance of the unions means that Labor’s historical case for governance has gone. It is why the only other electoral victory Labor has had since the Hawke/Keating years, in 2007, was on a primary vote comparable to the 1975/7 disasters it worked so hard to escape from. Even more remarkable, it is quite possible on current polling that Labor will be returned to power on the lowest primary since the Lang split election of 1934 because the plight of the Coalition will be even worse. It is no wonder there is so much political dreaming about a government that was not only the last real Labor government, but the last government that could at least pull off the pretence that it was carrying out an agenda over which, ultimately, it had no control.

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After them, the swamp

Monday, 29 April 2019    


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Vanity project

Monday, 22 April 2019    


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Friday, 12 April 2019    


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The week the Liberal party died

Monday, 27 August 2018    

David Rowe, AFR

What on earth just happened last week? Here was a government just two points behind the opposition a year away from an election, with the most popular leader they had (OK, not saying much, but certainly preferred over his opponent) – now replaced by someone much less popular, no real change in direction, a by-election that could end their majority, and now being hit by one of the worst Newspolls since they began. Read more …


The delusions of the Australian right

Tuesday, 21 August 2018    

David Rowe AFR

Finally, we can stop the pretence. The veneer of electoral rationale that has covered the leadership turmoil of the last decade finally fell away yesterday. Read more …


Sinking expectations

Monday, 30 July 2018    

Bill Shorten had what was for him a stunning Saturday night, managing to do what every federal opposition leader has done without fail for a century – hold on to seats in a by-election. Even if regular readers of this blog will recognise this as damnation of faint praise, the same thing repeated all across the media shows how expectations are sinking, fast. Read more …


Book review: Katharine Murphy’s On Disruption

Monday, 9 July 2018    

Katharine Murphy’s short, well-written book On Disruption succinctly puts many of the themes that are appearing elsewhere from journalists and ex-politicians and raises some interesting points while it does so.

The first takeaway from the book is how desperately journalists need a union, or some organisation to defend their interests. Like other occupations, journalism has faced technological upheavals from a position of bargaining weakness. Job losses and longer, more stressful, working hours are not confined to journalism. Murphy writes approvingly of the Guardian’s distribution of readership metrics from the digital site to its journalists, but from a weak negotiating position such things can just as easily be management productivity tools.

This is a problem, of course, that goes deeper than just the problems faced by journalists – a case in point being the upheavals faced by car workers mentioned in her book. For years we have been told by unions that they can’t protect interests because we are all terribly middle class and individuated graphic designers. Yet here we had a traditional working-class occupation facing closure where unions were able to do little more than send their leaders to cry outside the factory gates as workers walked out for the last time.

But like most professions, journalism has its particular problems that go beyond merely the sphere of industrial relations. Here the record of Australian journalists in defending their interests in recent years has not been sparkling, often struggling to get over the News Corp/Fairfax/ABC divide.

Freedom of speech may be an empty libertarian abstraction most of the time but for journalists is an operational necessity. It is not just the more blatant examples where it has fallen down, such as the craven response by New Corp journalists (and the Turnbull government) to the ban placed on the ABC by the Nauru government.

Too often there has been a selective attitude by journalists to freedom of speech issues, based on left and right political priorities, more suitable for politicians than the interests of journalists as a profession. This leads to the main point of Murphy’s book, and the one of most interest to this blogger, the relationship between journalists and politics in this period of change.

The uncovering of the Watergate scandal – or the rewriting of it – hangs over political journalism and not always to its benefit. The problem with the Hollywood All the Presidents Men version is that making Redford’s Woodward and Hoffman’s Bernstein into heroes required removing the context in which it was happening. It is taking nothing away from the heroism of Woodward or Bernstein, nor the fortitude of their employers, Katharine Graham and the Washington Post, but the missing player in this is the disarray in the political and government establishment at the time.

Much of that disarray was down to the US losing the war in Indochina that was reverberating back home not just in anti-Vietnam demonstrations but the militancy of the civil rights movements. It forced a red-baiter like Nixon to have to seek entente with Moscow and Beijing to help contain Vietnam, winning him no friends with his traditional backers. It was this establishment in disarray that was leaking to its very core, not just over Watergate but had already given the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times a few years before. The lack of this context leaves the impression that journalism at its best holds power to account and brings down governments.

But in a democracy it is the public that holds power to account, not journalists. Journalists may inform the public to help, but usually such public accountability comes from daily experiences that are readily apparent rather than what journalists can uncover. Indeed, Watergate itself showed the limits to such political journalism. It took Nixon’s resignation for the establishment to start to close ranks, with Nixon’s pardoning within a few months. The Republicans narrowly lost the next election and then came roaring back in a landslide in 1980 with Reagan reviving Nixon’s racial southern strategy from the start with his notorious speech at the Neshoba County Fair, starting a second Cold War and intervening further in the third world, especially Central America.

It is not just that political activism by journalists has a limited effect. Because it is happening usually in the political sphere, and so on politicians’ own terms, it is not good for the health of journalism either.

In Australia, the problems between politicians and journalists really stem from what is supposed to be the Golden Age of this relationship when Hawke and Keating were “educating” journalists, who in turn were “educating” the public on the need for economic reform. This was needed not least because after years of suppression of wages by Labor and the unions, for which employees were rewarded with the Recession We Had to Have at the end of it, Labor’s primary vote and union membership were beginning the terminal decline from which neither have yet to recover. This increasing reliance on the media to mediate the message became a political necessity as the party institutions and their social bases that would have played that role fell away.

Under Howard this relationship turned sour as the government “educated” the media that refugees who risked their lives for a better future for their children would then chuck them in the ocean as a negotiating strategy, while a country that had been bankrupted and starved by decade long sanctions would have at the same time developed weapons that could threaten the world.

This relationship between politicians and journalism was to reach its apogee under Rudd, when a government detached from its own political party, let alone any social base, became reliant on the media to not only communicate policy but also develop it (a role that the media performed with gusto and has had trouble letting go of since). Suitably, that government ended on the night of 23 June 2010 with a media orchestrated dumping that presented a largely stunned and oblivious Caucus with a fait accompli.

Since then there has been malaise and, after a final failure of media hopeful Turnbull, combined with political disruption overseas, questions are now being raised across the profession about that relationship of the type raised in Murphy’s book.

But the response has usually been a call for more political activism from journalists, rather than a rethinking of it, let alone stepping back. If Watergate showed the limitations of political activist journalism, then a look at the US again under the Trump administration suggests its dangers.

At one level the open antagonism between the current US administration and large sections of the media is to be welcomed, not least if it means the exposing of deportation and treatment of immigrant children unreported during the cosy Obama years.

But as would be expected with Trump, he has picked a fight with an opponent he thinks he has a good chance of beating. It is not just that the media is in a weak position and even less popular than Trump, nor even that it is unaware of how weak its position is, but its reaction to Trump’s attacks is to make it even worse.

First, because political activism in journalism naturally focuses on uncovering conspiracies as journalists vie to become the next Woodward/Bernstein/Hersh, such as the Russian conspiracy that so far has produced little result, and may even have led the Democrats down a blind alley. Such conspiracy journalism can even only bolster Trump’s standing with his own supporters, much as Watergate did for Nixon, against the “liberal media” and “Fake News”.

“Fake News” was a term that originally came from the media to describe pro-Trump stories abounding on social media before the election, as an explanation for a win they didn’t see coming. It has rebounded against the media because their reputation, already low, is being further damaged not just with Republicans but even Democrats who think the media deliberately makes stuff up.

What hasn’t helped have been the mistakes made by the media, especially its more authoritative sections, in their battle against Trump. The problem was best summed up by the photograph of a child crying that was put on the front of Time, supposedly being taken from his parents by immigration authorities but which later turned out not to be the case. The problem was not so much the mistake itself, nor even Time’s follow up reporting to the photo that also wasn’t true, anyone can make a mistake, but the reaction by Time to the error, namely that it was secondary to highlighting the issue itself.

This is the political disease. In normal society mistakes matter, and those in a profession or any job are accountable for them – it is the only way things can get done. Dismissing it in the interests of “the bigger picture” is a luxury in the ether of politics, not for anyone doing an actual job.

In Australia, for better or worse, the relationship between press and politicians is more benign. The discussion is more about how the demands of 24 hour digital media are impacting the quality of policy debate within our political parties.

However, seeing the decline in political life as a problem of lack of the grasp of policy has unfortunate resonance right now in the US and UK where arguments have been emerging over the problem of lack of education in political life – presumably not because education standards are declining but because of recent voting results the authors did not like. It is especially prevalent in Britain where the Brexit vote was blamed on voters failing to grasp the complexity of the decision they were making, and ironic this year, being the centenary of granting the vote to women and working class men previously denied on precisely such arguments.

The political problem is one of interests not education. The lack of coherence in political parties’ programs these days is caused by the declining influence of those interests that formed those parties and gave them their programs. Journalists should be far more concerned about their own interests and the impact of the 24 hour news cycle on the declining quality of their own work-life.

That someone like Trump can be President is a product of a hollowed out Republican party that couldn’t stop him and an equally defunct Democrat party that couldn’t defeat him – and looks no closer still. Similarly, the current malaise in Australia is a result of political parties that have had their day but with nothing to replace them. This is up for the public to sort out. It is not up to journalists to step in and fill in the gap left by a failing political profession – even if they could. As Murphy’s book shows, they have their own problems to deal with.


Leadership instability over nothing

Saturday, 30 June 2018    

Here’s a question: what program will Labor run to the next election on? If the answer it that it’s too early to tell, they’ll reveal their hand closer to the time, don’t want to make themselves a target etc. etc. etc then here’s another: what program did they run on at the last one? If the answer is as elusive as the name of the current Nationals leader, then it should be noted that this is not usual. Read more …


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