Whitlam takes on the neo-Liberals

Monday, 9 February 2009 

When Australian politicians start talking about philosophy and (relatively) ancient political history, you know they are avoiding the issue.

The Liberals tagging of Rudd’s stimulus package as ‘Whitlamesque’ may not mean much to anyone under 50, but is a rallying call to tribe from someone who needs to convince that he is part of it. And an important rallying call it is. It is the one the Liberals have used since the last time we had such a radical shake-up in the global political and economic agenda.

The 1970s marked the end of the post-cold war political and economic arrangements that had been underpinned by the US’s overwhelming dominance at the end of the Second World War. The collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971 and the oil crisis of 1974-5 were the global signs that the old economic arrangements were no longer working. Governments found the domestic levers at home were unable to prevent the onset of the worst downturn since the war.

Since it was largely the left that was identified with the post-war arrangements, the welfare state, the social contract with the unions, their dismantling generally meant a shift to the right. With the right not really able to come back under its own steam, it was usually done by discrediting the left often by pin-pointing a time of ‘national shame’ during the 1970s that was never to be allowed to be repeated. In the US the Reaganite right preferred Carter and the humiliation of the Tehran hostages (over Watergate and Vietnam) and in the UK Thatcher used Callaghan and the Winter of Discontent. In Australia, the Liberals used Whitlam.

Of course, even then the right in Australia still couldn’t get their act together. Their one serious attempt by the big tough guy of the right with his ineffective ‘razor gangs’ was so unsuccessful that it is no surprise he later decided to re-invent himself as Australia’s answer to Mother Teresa. It was left to Labor to do the business, but again if there is one thing that Hawke’s government knew when it began, it was not to be like Whitlam’s.

One feature of this Labor government is that the defensiveness over Whitlam has largely gone. It is not just a case of time dulling the memory. In fact there has also been a sort of a conscious rehabilitation of Whitlam by a Labor Prime Minster some would say is least like him.

The relationship between arguably one of Labor’s most radical Prime Minsters and arguably one of Labor’s most conservative is interesting. There are some similarities. Whitlam came to power when Labor ties with the unions had been weakened as part of Whitlam’s modernising drive, but not reformulated into the business-union model it became under Hawke and of which we are only seeing the death throes today. It meant when the downturn came, Whitlam didn’t really have anything to call on as Hawke did a decade later to deal with it. Under the current Labor government those union ties have pretty well disappeared. It is also why Whitlam made a big deal of education to fill the gap, which again has obvious similarities to today.

Yet although drawing similarities to Whitlam shows up the vulnerabilities of this government, Rudd can be fairly relaxed about it because the basis of the right’s demonising of Whitlam has also gone. This is what Rudd is getting at in his essay on the neo-liberals of the last thirty years. Christian Kerr in The Australian may be right that Rudd is attacking a straw man. But who set it up? Who has been touring the world’s neo-con lunch circuit making the outrageous claim that a True Conservative once ruled in Australia? It was someone who clearly fooled a few in the Liberal party to think it was a free market party. That pretence was exposed at the end of last year and the Liberals have been desperately trying to get it back.

However deliberate it was, Rudd has set up a delicious trap. It is not as though Rudd is really a social democrat. Anyone who can justify spending cuts from an inflation ‘crisis’ of 3.5% or tell a party that “this reckless spending must stop” is no more social democrat than the party that sat there and clapped while he said it. If there is one thing we have seen over the last two years since Rudd came to power is how unbound by any political principles Labor has become. However, it faces a party that has not made such a transition and is being forced to cling to the pretence of a political agenda to justify its existence. The goading from Rudd would have been too much for a party that was itching to go back to the debates of the past as an alternative to a future it cannot see.

Some in the media may think that a clear divide has now been drawn between the two parties over the economy but there hasn’t really. Neither party has a counter-crisis strategy. There is not even a real difference between how much money they are prepared to throw at the economy to avoid having to think of one.

There is only one real difference, between a technocratic party that can at least be flexible to what ever comes up, and Australia’s last political party that can’t resist dredging up dead political arguments in order to carry on. It means the Liberals have been left looking to be more against a fiscal stimulus than they really are. And as Bishop clumsily showed last Sunday, and Hockey not much less so the other night, to justify such a position, they have had to raise doubts that the downturn will be as bad as Rudd claims. The Liberals are lying on the track of an on-coming train, as everyone says. But it’s not voters heading for the money but what looks like the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 9 February 2009.

Filed under Key posts, Tactics

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9 responses to “Whitlam takes on the neo-Liberals”

  1. charles on 9th February 2009 8:03 am

    Rudd may have built a straw man, but it was Turnbull who fell for it.

  2. RalphC on 9th February 2009 9:34 am

    Another excellent piece, as always, Piping Shrike. You really step above the clouds to take a look at the macro picture. I think you are spot on to say that Labor has adapted really well to an environment where there is almost no ideology left at all. It allows them to follow the wind, whichever way it blows. It is interesting to see the liberals without any genuine alternative. Although, I think the unseemly haste to pass the stimulus package doesn’t reflect well on Rudd. To give Turnbull credit, though, it must be difficult to be an opposition at a time like that. I also think that Turnbull has got himself back in the game somewhat on the climate change front. It will be interesting to see what happens there. Surely Rudd doesn’t drop climate change altogether – you would think he’d lose a lot of credibility doing that.

    However, the Liberals still seem to be able to hurt Labor by accusing them of sinister trade union links. But I think that will be a problem for Labor as long as they continue to stack their front bench with union officials.

  3. John on 9th February 2009 11:09 am

    Honestly why does anyone think that the average punter is going to believe anything from the lips of the ex-merchant banker. Certainly no-one who was invested in HIH.

  4. Patrick Fogarty on 9th February 2009 11:29 am

    I reckon your contempt for the Liberal Party (and conservative politics in general) clouds the possibility for a reasoned analysis of the political situation.

    Your first problem is that given your Labor-centric view of national affairs you seem to think that the ALP has been the driving force behind any meaningful policy debate and shift over the last several decades. The Hawke-Keating years are the traditional refuge for commentators ascribing to this viewpoint (most struggle to find any other support for their thinking). Yet when it’s pointed out that they just implemented a Liberal-backed committee report the joke’s on them!

    Your next problem is that you (wrongly) believe in the end of ideology. According to your reasoning this somehow has rendered right wing politics redundant (but not left wing politics for some reason). The irony with this line of thinking is that the past 30 years are generally thought by most analysts to have been a vindication of classical liberal ideals and a repudiation of Keynsian, redistributionist thought.

    Had Turnbull backed Labor’s stimulus package (I’d also like to point out that you’ve spent no time in analysing the pros and cons of such a package and how the Opposition’s stance may actually make sense) I can just picture you ruminating over the fact that this represents the death throes of an antiquated political party desperate to maintain a semblance of relevance to current political discourse. It’s lose-lose for the Opposition.

    Throughout 2007 and well into 2008 you blogged over the Liberal Party’s impending doom because the previous epoch had given way to an international agenda dominantly focused on the global warming. See how quickly those concerns largely disappeared? Voters have either forgotten the hysteria of the past two-three years or it’s been factored into and become an indelible part of day to day life – comparable to terrorism perhaps. Environmental politics hardly rates a mention with a vast majority of the public anymore.

    Now it’s the economy, and it’s likely to be the economy for quite some time. You glossed over this substantial change in political discourse and tried to mould it into your blog’s hypothesis.

    The bottom line is that centre-left and centre right political parties are able to harness the dominant political and economic concerns of the time and utilise them for electoral gain. This happened with Howard / Bush in the years after 9/11. It happened to Blair / Clinton “third way” mantra after the conclusion of the Cold War with the redundancy of Thatcherism / Reaganism and voters’ need for a more maternal, “caring” government.

    Interestingly, Howard was also able to capitalise on this in the 90s with his nuanced strong armed, big government conservative approach that was well suited for the times, neutered the Labor Government (and subsequent Opposition) and was electorally successful. With the economic crises tightening its grip on Australia by the day, who knows where we’ll be in 12 months time, let alone the position of Australia’s main political parties?

  5. Patrick Fogarty on 9th February 2009 11:33 am

    John @ 11:09.

    I don’t know, perhaps the same people that take an unaccomplished life-long bureaucrat who rode on the coat-tails of his wife’s success at his word?

  6. The Piping Shrike on 9th February 2009 12:06 pm

    Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for the interesting points you raised.

    On the first point on the role of the ALP, I do think the history of Australian politics has shown that it has tended to be the ALP that has marked the changes in the political dynamic and the non-Labor parties (in their various guises) that have tended to accommodate to this fact. It is why it has tended to be the ALP that has been brought in at critical moments in Australian history (WWI, WWII, Depression, the modernising following Vietnam and the 1980s restructuring) with its links to the unions being critical. I think the right has always been too weak in Australia to carry much of its own agenda under its own terms, it has tended, as you imply, to do it through the ALP.

    On the end of ideology I think you missed the point I am making. I have definitely argued (as again in this post) that the traditional left agenda is exhausted, especially after Hawke/Keating, leaving the technocratic Labor party we have today. Following from the previous point, it has meant that the right has no Labor party to be against anymore, which is the source of its problems. I no more think the last 30 years have been a period of classical liberal thought than we are seeing the revival of Keynsianism now. I think the 20th century ideological battles have had their day and that Rudd’s strength is his ability to play on that.

    The point on the role of global warming v. the economic crisis is interesting. From the start of this blog I took the view that the Howard government was doomed, less for domestic reasons than for its inability to adapt to the change in the international political climate, starkly revealed by the election to the US Presidency of someone Howard called the preferred choice of terrorists. The shift from the War on Terror to global warming signalled that change and Rudd’s advantage was picking that up. The government does need an agenda to give it moral authority and climate change was used for that purpose. On the change to the GFC, I wrote in October that I thought it was destabilising for the government. The trouble with the GFC is that it is immediate and likely to show much more clearly the limited impact of government (anywhere in the world). I certainly don’t think either Rudd or Turnbull has a solution to it and I think Turnbull’s opposition to the stimulus package is more for show than real. That lack of control means that I join you in not at all knowing where we, or the major political parties, will be in 12 months time.

  7. Just Me on 9th February 2009 4:15 pm

    I also think that Turnbull has got himself back in the game somewhat on the climate change front.

    His comments on biochar are the most intelligent things he has said so far.

    And Patrick Fogarty. I don’t buy your specious strawman claim about Mr Piping Shrike being left biased. He dishes it out to the left as much as the right.

  8. RalphC on 10th February 2009 9:26 am

    Ditto, Just Me. I haven’t read the Piping Shrike as being particularly in favour of Labor or Liberal, left or right. To my reading, he is pointing out the underlying structure that Australian politics exists in at the moment. I think the general point he is making is that government is tending towards administration and away from ideology. It’s been that way in the states for a while and now it’s becoming that way federally.

    It’s almost as if people don’t care whether things are left or right, they just want things to work. Labor is no more for socialism than the Liberals are for absolute free marketeerism. And in that environment, I don’t think either party has a particularly strong claim to have the upper hand.

  9. Riccardo on 10th February 2009 6:14 pm

    Actually, Patrick thinks he’s being clever by pointing out a ‘heads you lose-tails you lose’ situation; but in fact that’s what Piping Shrike is saying. Effectively the ALP CAN have it both ways, as any ‘response’ to the crisis that looks decisive can have a positive effect.

    I’m sure if we were back in Scullin times with British banksters telling us to have a “Premiers Plan” involving slashing budgets, there would be pollies and spin-sters telling us why this would be a GOOD THING.

    If the ALP has gone technocrat, with the Chief technocrat at the helm, this is much more to the Libs disadvantage than the reverse ie the Libs in power. As TPS has pointed out, the Libs are not trusted by the bulk of the public service with service delivery. It’s not a bias thing, just reality.

    Sure, Rudd has worked them hard. This means he acknowledges their value. Uses them for what they do, which is policy preparation and implementation.

    Whereas if say Abbott was in and he rushed off to the IPA for his policy advice and ignored the public service, would he win praise from the Canberra grumblers for their easy work schedule? No, I don’t think so.

    Anyway, Patrick has missed the ‘own goal’ for the climate change deniers – I suspect just about every Victorian has written off the idea of multiple days above 40 degrees as ‘normal climatic variation’ and selling the denial message is going to be that much harder.

    The Victorians, at least, will expect a redoubling of efforts on government part to catch water and prevent carbon emissions. If Rudd gave $80b in free water tanks, I suspect he could just about do it.

    Finally, what is Patrick’s “Big government conservative”? Could he say it with a straight face? It suited the times? I don’t remember Bush in 2000 promising big government, and much of the big government was unrelated to the so-called war on terror. It was just pork.

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