Class war dreaming

Thursday, 24 May 2012 

The Australian’s portrayal of Labor’s class war. They wish.

All of my life I’ve taken those values with me and their values with me and there has never been a moment in my adult life where I’ve doubted their wisdom or their morality. Those Labor values, my values, your values, they are the values that have guided the Labor Government I lead.

Gillard addressing the ACTU conference

Obviously the attempts by both parties to turn the Budget into a point of political principle were a farce. Labor cared so much about making sure working families were given a “fair go” with the school payments, that it only gave them the money after it was blocked from giving it to business.

The Coalition was hardly much better. Originally their line was that a Budget that was supposed to be tough but, like all of these government’s Budgets, wasn’t, was “confusing”. Within 24 hours, after The Australian ran with a Class War headline and cartoon out of nowhere, the Coalition was duly following – surely making the Oz’s Bill Leak one of the most influential cartoonists in Australian political history.

But even if the class war antics around the Budget were laughable, there does seem to be a notch up in government rhetoric about the ”rich”, “North Shore” and Labor values, especially from the Prime Minister and, a little less convincingly, from a Treasurer now all geared up to take on Clive Palmer. This is all supposed to be about getting back to base, asserting Labor values and addressing what journalists say the PM is very sensitive about – what Labor stands for.

The first thing to say is that this going back to base is pretty well the exact opposite direction Labor has taken for the last forty years. Since Whitlam, Labor has been more interested in broadening the appeal of what was essentially a party for the unions, especially through the use of state spending to cohere middle class support.

It especially seems an odd time to start going back to base now. For a government that desperately needs to build support, narrowing it even further seems a funny way of going about it. Let’s face it, the only ones supporting Labor now are precisely the core Labor voters that they are supposed to be trying to reach out to.

Nevertheless the view that the government’s problem stems from not standing for anything is widely accepted by the media. In reality, it is what the government is standing for that is the problem.

It seems to have been forgotten in the collective amnesia that has descended on both the political class, and commentary, that four years ago there was a highly popular government that didn’t “stand” for very much at all. Indeed it would be hard to find a government that made such a song and dance about not standing for anything as did the Rudd government of 2007 – 2010.

It was not just that, from the word go, nearly every decision was referred to experts in the public service “on their merits”. In fact, the government held a widely publicised jamboree, the 2020 Summit, to ask celebs, journos and anyone else who likes mouthing off, what they should do. There could hardly be a clearer sign of a government’s empty agenda than that Summit, but it did it no harm at all.

Indeed it was the lack of standing for anything in particular that was an important part of the government’s popularity. Posing as merely a pragmatic response to whatever came up was far more appealing to a public more interested in what Cate Blanchett had to say about the future than the political organisation that was under the impression it had been elected to determine it – the Australian Labor Party.

Even on the one issue that Rudd claimed was a moral imperative, climate change, the government’s stance was posed more a response to a scientific fact, in contrast to the “political games” of the Coalition. This pragmatic pose gave the Rudd government enormous flexibility, such as its ability to go from a slasher of public spending when it came in, to the very opposite when the GFC hit and then back again without any concern over what it “stood for” on the issue.

The problem came when that pragmatism to the issue of the day became replaced by that other pragmatism, whatever was politically expedient and, after delaying the ETS, the government was seen as tricky as the previous one – a mistake later compounded by the ultimate ‘tricky’ manoeuvre, the dumping of a Prime Minister. What we saw was the party increasingly reassert itself. But for months after the dumping, while Rudd remained in the Cabinet, the position was unresolved.

However, since Rudd’s departure from Cabinet and his excoriation after his challenge in February, the government appears now clearly set on its course. So we have the fretting over its values and what it stands for that has little electoral rationale. With the party having thoroughly re-taken power, it now needs a social base for having done so – but like a floundering swimmer trying to touch the bottom, it can’t find it.

How pointless this task is was summed up by the ACTU conference last week. When you see Hawke singing “Solidarity Forever” you know something is wrong. It was a state of delusional fantasy encapsulated by the reaction to the HSU with Paul Howes claiming it could “wipe unions off the map” – as though with only 18% of the workforce, far below bargaining weight, it wasn’t already (note to ABC graphics department: 18% of men plus 18% of women adds up to 36% of nothing).

The bizarre highlight was a special appearance by those who oversaw the unions’ decline, Kelty and Keating. Like Gillard, Kelty made a hokey appeal to his childhood and the past and getting three volumes of Das Kapital for his 14th birthday (in German? A bit of an ask). But his appeal for a new basis of support for Labor is hollow as it will never mean as much as it did for their last fling when, as Keating explained, unions gave up silly things like growth in nominal wages and those awful wages explosions under Whitlam, preferring instead real wages responsibly going down as they did under Hawke/Keating.

Labor is now locked in, looking for a base that died under Keating and Kelty. It is now turning its back on the electorate and going “back to base” just like NSW Labor did after their historic defeat. It would seem, as Hartcher argues, that Federal Labor is heading in the same direction – if not for one thing. Labor is not the only major party having turned its back on the electorate to find itself.

We have been here before. Two and a half years ago, Australia’s most successful post-war political machine did what it has never done before, it forfeited the next election in order to save itself. The Liberals deliberately chose an unpopular leader on what was an unpopular policy to protect its “brand”.

What has confused things is that since then the Liberals’ and Abbott’s unelectability has been obscured by Labor’s decline. As a result it is possible, if you are especially deluded, to think what we are seeing a victory of the right rather than a decline of the left, and the right.

The confusion can currently be seen in two ways. Firstly right wing cultural bores like Miranda Devine still can’t get their heads over the most unpopular opposition leader since polling records began. Look at her trying to justify her outrage at Windsor’s trashing of Abbott as she claims:

Newspoll shows his popularity increasing in the preferred prime minister stakes as the Coalition’s figures head into the stratosphere.

Well, yes, Abbott is preferred to Gillard (just) and the Coalition even more so, but of course Miranda ignores satisfaction levels showing what we all know, that Abbott is highly unpopular, precisely for the type of views that those like Devine love him for.

The second sign of the extent of delusion in the Coalition is that Abbott’s rival in a party of jostling prima donnas, Joe Hockey, is positioning himself to the right of Abbott, no doubt to appeal to those éminence grises of the party that are annoyed with Abbott’s adaptation to electoral reality. Yet even on a position that the mainstream of the Liberal party would have felt totally comfortable on a few years ago, gay marriage, Hockey ends up looking distinctly uncomfortable when forced to match his mouthing off in the abstract against the family of the Senator sitting opposite him.

Both parties, and their fan base, are now locked into a trajectory that is taking them away from the electorate and into themselves and based on a left-right divide that has lost its meaning. At the moment the focus is on Labor because their crack-up is instructive. But if the last election was bad enough, the delusion of both sides of the political spectrum suggests we are building up to a full-blown political crisis yet to come.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 24 May 2012.

Filed under State of the parties

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33 responses to “Class war dreaming”

  1. F on 24th May 2012 11:17 am

    Hard to see where the political crisis is coming from on the current trajectory. Looks like we are going to have NSW writ large with the Coalition romping home to a gigantic victory, and then sitting on their hands not doing much (other than killing a couple of taxes, and given that the MRRT will raise no revenue anyway, only one of those taxes is actually of any consequence).

    Even if China collapses or the resource boom implodes or China and Europe gang up on carbon and force emissions trading on the rest of the world, the political outcome would presumably just another swing back to Labour as a disaffected and politically fickle electorate swing back the other way. Difficult to see it resulting in a crisis of centre politics (as we see in Greece and other parts of Europe) on the basis of the Australian electoral system.

    It is lots of fun to predict a political criss, but in fact what we may get is a whole lot of not much going on in the political sphere which may result in lots of other crises, but the two party system will stumble on, step left, step right.

  2. kymbos on 24th May 2012 2:58 pm

    Didn’t Howard appeal to his ‘base’ to increase support, rather than reaching out?

    For example, the bait and switch he pulled on Latham in regard to Tassie old growth forests – pretend you’re going to match Latham’s protection of forests, but then release a package to ensure forestry jobs.

    Also, didn’t Labor’s polling improve (from a dire base, yes) after the budget?

    Seems to me a lot of voters are looking for a reason to consider voting for Labor – looking after less wealthy Australians seems like a good enough reason to many.

  3. KEVIN-ONE-SEVEN on 24th May 2012 4:50 pm

    Piping – correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be saying that because union membership in this country has declined substantially there is no division between capital and labor and there are no pluses for labor in appealing to its traditional base. Well, if that’s true, why did the Work Choices campaign resonate so widely in the electorate. Rudd certainly stood for one thing and that was NO work choices. That went down a treat in the electorate.
    Indeed, there is a huge slice of the electorate out there who feel even more vulnerable because they know they don’t even have the protection of a union. Labor should be appealing to those voters and generating a bit of class envy. Attack the banks, attack the Boganaires, get stuck into the mining companies. Hit the envy button in middle and working class Australia and watch the voters come back. Voters like it when politicians have convictions, even when they don’t necessarily agree with them.
    The only way that Gillard can pull herself back from the abyss is to find some big enemies and go in hard. However, unfortunately, the retail politicians and pragmatism rule in this government.

  4. Craig Lawton on 24th May 2012 5:13 pm

    I agree with F. We’ll get a coaltion government that does nothing much because it doesn’t have a vision or agenda.

    They could blink on NBN because of the Nationals and it won’t repeal the mining or carbon tax because it will find a “black hole” as all new governments do. It will implement a few public service suggestions.

    Rudd had a story about infrastructure and not wasting the boom, but then got lost in GFC and poll-driven madness.

    Abbott, as stated repeatedly in his budget reply, is a return to the good ol’ Howard days which people ultimately rejected. Because Howard was about people feeling comfortable.

    Hopefully out of the European crisis and the US recovery we may start to see a semblence of Western political direction which either of our visionless lackies can borrow and adapt. But pretty much won’t matter who’s there.

    But that is a hope…

  5. The Piping Shrike on 24th May 2012 5:59 pm

    Australian electoral history is littered with the political carcasses of “conviction” politicians. Keating was a conviction politician who won one election when he back-tracked on his zeal for economic reform against another “conviction” politician Hewson – but then went down heavily in the next election against Howard who stood for not very much at all. Howard was chock full of convictions when Rudd came in; Workchoices, immigration, national security, Kyoto, no apology – and he still lost.

    Electoral success has usually gone to those parties who can bring a pragmatic response to the issue of the day. The problem is that neither party has any pragmatic response to bring, so over the last decade we have had this myth that they need to be “conviction” politicians instead to fill the gap. But it has nothing to do with the politician’s character, but who they represent.

    That’s why Rudd was/is so popular, he is the first politician to have successfully adapted to the fact that neither parties represent anything much in society. It obviously had nothing to do with Workchoices, a campaign he toned down as soon as he took over from Beazley.

    Abbott is unpopular precisely because beneath all the twisting and turning people suspect he has “convictions” that he is itching to bring out. I would have said six months ago that we were more likely heading towards a NSW result because the Liberals would normalise by dumping Abbott. I’m now less convinced, I think Labor’s shenanigans have encouraged the Liberals “to firm up” based on the mis-guided belief that there is appetite for a right-wing agenda. That’s why I suspect more chaos is to come.

  6. Dr_Tad on 25th May 2012 11:47 am

    I think that’s right, TPS, the Liberals will see this as their “chance” and try to unleash the dogs of war. They misread the ALP’s crisis as being a sign that their own crisis has been resolved, which it hasn’t.

    The problem for the Rudd-style option is that it rests on an inherently unstable configuration also, and so has a limited lifespan. There simply is no easy way to rebuild anything like a stable political order. If economic crisis hits hard at some point things may turn out even more spectacular than the meltdown in Greece.

  7. Dr_Tad on 25th May 2012 11:50 am

    Luckily, of course, we have everyone from Possum to John Birmingham telling the soft Left that when ordinary voters give the political class an even bigger kicking that it’s because they are soft, pampered, entitled whingers, and that we should pine for the days that Kelty really knew how to feed them the harsh medicine they deserved.

  8. Riccardo on 25th May 2012 4:49 pm

    Luckily you have me to remind you how little Australia matters in the scheme of things.

    These parties grew up in response to Australian realities, but also in response to Australian fantasies. White Australia. Australia with a large population, autarkic with its own manufacturing and consumption base. Australia as a ‘middle power’. Australia as part of a European diaspora.

    All were fantasies. If you want all this stuff, you need a labour party. If you want to continue as a colony, a centre right party like the Liberal-National coalition is ideal.

    PJK was the Chirac who turned up to find this wasn’t France. Rudd was the Lee Kuan Yew who turned up to find this wasn’t Singapore.

    We don’t have ‘real issues’ in this country hence no need for real politics – we get the sideshow instead. Send in the clowns!

  9. Riccardo on 25th May 2012 5:07 pm

    My view, for what it’s worth:

    -small country
    -not a middle power, but very much a client state
    -not European
    -not able to do much but sell extracted resources
    -not forming human capital base
    -no tap root of cultural or social authority to draw on, symbols of authority look crass and cheap.

  10. KEVIN-ONE-SEVEN on 25th May 2012 5:41 pm

    Piping – If Workchoices was such a small issue, why are the liberals still so terrified that it might come back to haunt them. And if Rudd was popular because he stood for nothing, why did he get totally belted for abandoning his Climate Change Commitment. And if having convictions means nothing, why did Julia get in trouble for engaging in such a “tricky” leadership coup.
    I’m not saying for a moment that just having “convictions” is enough. They have to be the right convictions. You’re right that Abbott’s natural convictions don’t chime with great swaths of the community. However, there are convictions which do resonate in the community – a fair go, looking after the battler etc etc. However, the labor mob in Canberra are too terrified of vested interests to fight for them.

  11. Mr Denmore on 25th May 2012 5:52 pm

    Piping Shrike is right. A full-blown political crisis is on the way. The Murdoch-led reactionaries have deluded themselves that the ALP’s self-destruction somehow represents a defeat of progressive politics in this country and a re-embrace of Howard’s ‘relaxed and comfortable’ Anglo-Anzac little Australia. The Liberal Party is just as ideologically empty as Labor and serves merely as a vehicle for a ragtag bunch of Catholic fascists, cellar dwelling racists, white shoe property developers and forelock tugging monarchists.

    Abbott is a hated,divisive figure, economically ignorant and socially destructive. The obstructionist, totally negative politics which have helped him in opposition will destroy him in government. And I cannot wait to see him go down

  12. dedalus on 25th May 2012 8:05 pm

    There are many easily repeated cliches going around masking themselves as ‘truisms’. One of the worst is that ‘noone should underestimate the intelligence of the voter’.

    I sometimes hit google for instances of conservative politicians misplacing ‘overestimate’ inside that old chestnut.

    The truth is more likely to be that the electorate is extremely malleable – gullible, even stupid if you’re inclined to overcook the point. You only have to look at history to see how entire populaces have followed leaders down warp holes of destruction.

    In short, what do the public know? Fuck all.

    No, the ALP is NOT destroying itself. That’s another gross exaggeration, and one to be dismissed on that score alone. The electorate is doing that piece of work very nicely, than you, at the behest of those who wield the puppeteers’ strings.

    And anyway, who should care who sits in the grand poo-bah’s chair – she or he. In the end of the six or nine year cycle it will all come down to policy outcomes. It’s those – the NBN, the NDIS, carbon pricing – that will matter. The rest will be, as Paul Howes so well puts it, confetti.

  13. The Piping Shrike on 26th May 2012 8:54 am

    K21, for me Workchoices is a perfect example of the phoney class war by the parties I talk of here and had a negative edge for both sides. For the Coalition it showed that their IR agenda had no purpose, business had little need for it which was why AWAs remained a minor part of the IR scene even after a decade of Howard flogging them. It was unnecessary “vindictive bitchiness” to an already emasculated unions as PJK said.

    Beazley Labor had a reasonable run on it before it came in, but when it did, Labor’s support started to sink again partly because people saw it did not reshape the landscape as the unions claimed.

    For Labor there was also a double edge, as while it made the Liberals look ideological, there was also a danger that the campaign against it made Labor look too close to the unions. That’s why the first thing that Rudd did when taking over was to tone down the campaign, and to stay a mile away from the Rights to Work campaign during the 2007 election.

    Some Liberals would no doubt like to think that was why they lost the 2007 election, rather than the more damning reason that after the War on Terror faded they had nothing to bring to the table. But some are still itching for at least some toughening up on IR, so they can’t be that terrified of it.

    Dr T, I don’t know how unstable the Rudd option is outside the obvious tension between him and the party he thinks is redundant. This could wash through to being a reasonably stable technocrat solution where economic “reality” is presented as merely “facts” (such as now being presented to the voting public in Europe) all assisted by graphs provided by the new policy wonk left, under the blessing of their patron PJK. The current instability here (and in Europe) might just be the thrashing around of a dying political order. Dunno.

  14. dedalus on 26th May 2012 12:31 pm

    Slight tone of doubt in your last sentence, Pipe. The one word one. Unless you mean that the political order is dying but the thrashing around is not necessarily a part of it.

    I generally agree with your main theme in this blog, that the political “paradigm” (this has to be in quotes because it’s such a Bronwynism) is changing. You usually use a different verb there, but no matter.

    It’s at some of the side-arguments I balk. You state that the unions are ’emasculated’. As far as that goes, you’re probably correct. Their influence and effectiveness are clearly less than they once were. Trouble is, using a charged word like ’emasculated’ connotes all sorts of other less defendable propositions.

    So the unions are in decline. Let’s take this idea to its extreme.

    I’d invite you to imagine unions suddenly vanishing altogether, which is to say all types of organised labour structures. An absurd hypothesis you’ll say. But, for the sake of imagination, mightn’t we then be on a swift slide into an industrial landscape you would not want to see? And what would be that landscape when we got there?

    Here’s the irony. We’d be in a situation where unions would be a desirable, necessary thing once again. Where they’d be reformed and start to pick up members quickly. Where they’d achieve outcomes and soon, hey presto!, they’d no longer be ’emasculated’.

    They’d be part of Bronwyn’s new paradigm.

    Short synopsis of the preceding: Decline is the result of success.

  15. David Jackmanson on 26th May 2012 7:58 pm

    As if the current personnel clogging up today’s unions could lead a successful struggle for pay and conditions! Unions would in some sense reform if things got much worse here, but the movement wouldn’t be led by today’s hacks.

    Mostly, unions aren’t successful, they’re just irrelevant. At my current job I am very generously treated in pay and conditions; in my last job I was appallingly mistreated in both. Unions are not visible or relevant at either workplace.

  16. Dr_Tad on 26th May 2012 8:42 pm

    TPS, I don’t agree that a stable technocrat solution is a likely outcome unless it can be built on some kind of renewed economic growth model more robust than what we’ve had since the early 1990s.

    The political aspect of capitalist social relations doesn’t just exist at the level of the state (or parliamentary politics). Even social relations at the level of the workplace have a political aspect, and while atomism seems dominant in the realms of consumption or personal relations these days, it remains the case the capitalist production requires the bringing together of large collectives to do the work cooperatively, whether or not there is union organisation present. Collective politics of some type eventually emerge out of the struggles at that point, even if they are not as fully formed as the ossified two-party Left-Right arrangement that dominated Australian politics for so long, and which is approaching its nadir.

    It seems more likely to me that when there is a rise in social resistance, I’d guess in response to some austerity measure or other, the ability of a Rudd-like character to present people with technical facts will be undermined by the playing out of actual struggle. I think where your analysis is spot on is that you point to the growing inability of old political institutions to represent and channel social interests in the kinds of (rigid) ways they did in the past, but I don’t think that a technocratic model of rule can easily do that either, precisely because it will be even more one-sided in its concentration of capitalist social relations.

    I think you too quickly write off the re-emergence of struggle in recent years because it has much less shape than the more obvious Left-Right politics of the post-WWII or earlier eras, but wherever it rises significantly (propelled by changing social relations that are driven whether or not the political class has authority) that amorphous quality starts to change into something more recognisable. So in the case of Greece, where technocratic rule is the order of the day, there are very rapid shifts, but they have only occurred thanks to repeated cycles of mass protest in response to austerity, most especially 17 general strikes since the 1999 election.

    SYRIZA reflects this in a distorted and incomplete fashion in the field of electoral politics, but that is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is happening on the ground. Interestingly, it is the exhausted union officialdom of Greece, not so long ago holding back resistance in favour of PASOK governance of austerity, that has been forced to act differently by pressures well distant from the niceties of Athens’ parliamentary chamber. Whether an alternative politics from below, coherent and able to mobilise real social forces in a directed way, can emerge from that is the test of those adhering to anti-capitalist politics. But it’s early days, and we have much more crisis to come.

  17. The Piping Shrike on 28th May 2012 7:40 am

    I’m keeping an open mind, because what is happening is so unprecedented and so there is a danger of obscuring it by slapping on the past.

    I am making here a clear distinction (and one that is getting clearer) between what happens in society and what happens in politics. Of course class exists in society and whether someone needs to work for a living or not changes the way society is seen and related to. But it doesn’t have a political expression anymore, nor even with the dwindling of the trade unions, an organisational one. As I argue here, any “class” basis to the political parties is more about them trying to define themselves, than coming from society.

    I actually have higher expectations than most on what will happen socially. For example, I think it’s perfectly possible to make new bargaining organisation without having to go through the dross of “re-building” the clapped out unions. The HSU doesn’t need reform; it needs to be shut down. Building something new entirely would seem a far more useful (and realistic) way for health workers to spend their time than getting caught up in the Jackson/Williamson/Brown circus.

    But it is a different thing entirely politically. The trajectory in Europe, as in Australia, is still the diminishing of the left and right, not their revitalisation. It’s not the “dictatorial powers” of some bureaucrats in Brussels, but the weakening of the political classes in Europe that we are continuing to see. To me, SYRIZIA seems caught in the same EU straight-jacket as the other parties with the only difference being its willingness to turn what is happening in the streets into a bargaining chip for better bail-out terms from Brussels. Because the political response is so wholly inadequate to the social one, I doubt that SYRIZIA will endure on its current course. But it doesn’t rule out a social response by any means.

  18. James on 28th May 2012 5:18 pm

    We need more scrutiny of what an Abbott Government would do.

  19. Godfrey on 28th May 2012 9:12 pm

    I think your analysis of a crisis of the major parties is incredibly perceptive. However, while a lot of your criticism of unions both monolithic and ahistorical.

    For a start unions have gone through a number of periods of growth, stagnation and decline since the early 1800s. I’d argue that the present union crisis is little compared with that which prompted the founding of Labor in the 1890s. Usually the crisis follows a reordering of capitalist relations and takes a while for workers to reorganise.

    Also, your analysis suggests unions are largely all the same and forever unchanging. Taken from a global perspective the last 10 years have seen growing worker power and creativity within the movement.

  20. Godfrey on 28th May 2012 9:14 pm

    I hate it when one accidentally submits a comment sans proof read. It has the unfortunate outcome of making one look like an idiot.

  21. Dr_Tad on 28th May 2012 11:13 pm

    Godfrey, my criticism of TPS’ position on the unions is that I think he sees them somewhat instrumentally; as a tool workers have used in the past to further their social interests but which now are not fit for that purpose.

    Unlike the ALP, I think that unions are much more contradictory than this, and that they will almost certainly be important vehicles for class aspirations again, despite the decrepit nature of much the officialdom (no offence!). That’s not to say that I think they can ever be unambiguously revolutionary organs, nor that seeing the building of unions as an end in itself is the key (or that it can even do what it sets out to do; i.e. build unions!).

    I do think that any new radical politics from below does have to account for the grand act of suicide the unions committed in response to the crises of the 1970s and 80s. The fact that most union leaders see the Accord era as a positive one — or at least have no systematic critique of or alternative to the politics implicit in that — speaks very clearly to the fact that any revival of the unions will not be driven from the leadership, but very often in tension with it (or opposition to it) from below.

  22. Dr_Tad on 28th May 2012 11:27 pm

    TPS, I think we disagree on this society-politics distinction. I see capitalist social relations as having a political (as well as economic and ideological) aspects, and not just in direct relation to the state; although this is where they are concentrated because class rule requires it. Therefore social resistance from below and official politics are not an identity, but they are connected and overlapping.

    Isn’t the problem for all social resistance (which emerges from civil society) that its political aspect immediately comes up against the politics that is the product of the social relations concentrated in the state, and so gets pulled towards being incorporated into those relations of class domination? If the lower classes are to organise a response that can actually challenge the state’s rule then it will have to be political too, but not a politics that replays the problems we see in the existing institutionalised & incorporated (but also exhausted) set-up.

    So Greek social resistance would be best served by uniting around a program honestly based on breaking the Euro as the only logical way out of austerity. Joining SYRIZA or conceding to its program is certainly not the starting point, and on that we are in full agreement.

  23. The Piping Shrike on 29th May 2012 10:49 am

    I’m not sure politics is anything but confusion when it comes to issues of civil society. With the unions, I think the issue is that they have not been instrumental enough, and too tied up in the party that they formed. That relationship has become even closer and clingy as they lose their social base.

    So why bother tackling all the baggage like the Accord etc and stuff that happened 30 or 40 years ago and trying to break unions from a political party and outlook that is in their DNA? And that besides, over 80% of the current workforce doesn’t support anyway? Why not just start something new?

  24. Riccardo on 29th May 2012 1:59 pm

    Rudd could be the vehicle for a new beginning.

    People complain about populism as if you didn’t want someone to represent you who says they will do what you want them to do. You are better represented, so the logic goes, through vicarious indirect means, and best settle for what muddling through produces.

    Rudd’s problem was not that he was too popular. He wasn’t popular enough. He really hadn’t won enough of the Liberal voting core to completely discredit his opponents first; and his own side second.

    He moved as if he had that popularity given when it really wasn’t there. No union movement nor any reactionary movement could have stood in the way of a man with not just an electoral mandate but the Mandate of Heaven.

    I’ll never know what delusions old Kev had but one of them might have been that he was ready to completely destroy the ALP structure. Some bits of the structure turned out to be mirages but some turned out to be toughened glass and stronger than they looked.

    Per Jennifer Maley in Fairfax:******

    Earlier in the day, across town, the former prime minister Kevin Rudd attended the National Indigenous Youth Parliament.

    As is customary these days, he was mobbed. The students even formed a sort of young-indigenous-parliamentarian-human-shield to shepherd him past the press huddle and into his waiting car. Rudd grinned and waved like a faith healer at a stadium gig. He didn’t answer journalists’ questions. He didn’t need to.

    He is becoming an idea, he doesn’t even need to speak any more. Building ‘inevitability’.

  25. Graeme on 30th May 2012 10:23 pm

    Shrike. It’s your blog, but that’s no excuse for making stuff up. 80% don’t support unions? You mean don’t join up? Support as measured in polls is 50-60%. People free ride on awards and collective bargaining (1.2m on award safety net, another third plus of workforce on collective agreements). That’s because the law in Australia long ago said union efforts must benefit all relevant employees equally.

    That was when the law supported unions. Such institutional support was long since withdrawn. But unions are left in a bind – ask for union member only conditions and they get a temporary membership bounce at the much greater expense of guaranteed loss of and discrimination against members’ jobs.

    For an otherwise perceptive writer to exclaim ‘there must be some new way, I just haven’t a clue what it is’ gives the game away that your critique is purely negative. Having a broad thesis about political parties, their social bases in the abstract and the general relevance of international relations for Australian politics is one thing. Purporting to understand labour relations with a stroke of the keyboard is another.

  26. The Piping Shrike on 31st May 2012 11:40 am

    In what way do 50-60% “support” unions? By telling an opinion pollster? I mean actually support, finance, pay dues, be a member of, join in activities of – not tell someone on the doorstep that they are a nice idea.

    The decline of the unions didn’t come from a lack of institutional support; they began during the Hawke period when institutional support was arguably at its height. It was because of the consequences of what that “support” actually meant for real wages, that went down – with the agreement of the unions – that their decline began.

    The idea that employees don’t join because they sit on the sideline and just watch the benefits come in without having to do anything about it, is a nice tick off of the 80%+ of Australian employees who aren’t in a union, but isn’t the case in reality. If anyone saw that union bargaining achieved something obviously they would do what generations of Australian employees did before – join a union to increase that bargaining weight.

    With there being no bargaining in the real sense of the word, being in a union means little more than a dock off of pay, so not being in one is understandable and, I think, realistic. Certainly 80%+ of Australian employees have a more realistic understanding of what these institutions are about today than what I hear from much of the left.

    I really think there is an air of fantasy about the unions both from the leadership and their supporters – both to the extent of the decline and the reasons for it. Clutching at opinion poll support that sometimes come from those who are quite comfortable with unions as sympathy cases, but would have a very different attitude if they actually threw their weight around, is delusional. There also seems to be a discernible tendency to be more willing to blame Australian employees rather than the union leadership for their decline. It’s abstract, I know, cos I don’t know the entire Australian workforce personally, but I am pretty sure where the blame lies.

  27. Godfrey on 31st May 2012 7:16 pm

    TPS, Dr Tad. If you want the beginnings of a critique of where “unions” went wrong, and what something new would look like go here: it’s the first part of what is currently a 6 part series.

  28. KEVIN-ONE-SEVEN on 1st June 2012 8:24 am

    I think Julia standing up and telling the mining companies that they don’t, in fact, own the wealth in the ground is a very significant step in the politics of this country. Too bad labor didn’t do this BEFORE the last election. Labor had to almost demolish itself as a party before it worked out that sucking up to vested interests might help them get jobs after politics but it won’t help them win elections. Nothing more powerful than a politician saying there are hostile forces out there to get you (namely the mining companies) but don’t worry, I’ll look after you. Over to you, Tony: what are you doing to protect the average Australian voter?
    Keep it up Julia. I know you’re heart’s not in it, but it is excellent politics.

  29. KEVIN-ONE-SEVEN on 1st June 2012 8:28 am

    Oh, and piping, I think you are wrong about union free-riders. I know several nurses for instance who obviously receive award conditions. But I ask them if they’re in the union, and they say “no”. I ask why not, and they say there is no need. It’s a no-brainer for them: why spend $600 a year in dues when they will basically get the same conditions as union members. $600 is a hell of a lot of money for them.

  30. DM on 2nd June 2012 10:27 pm

    “I think Julia standing up and telling the mining companies that they don’t, in fact, own the wealth in the ground is a very significant step in the politics of this country.”

    And I think this is the most overexaggerated comment of the year. The problem is no one believes her, and why should they?

  31. The Piping Shrike on 4th June 2012 3:42 pm

    Especially as she came in to water the mining tax down.

    K17, union membership wasn’t about dues, but increasing bargaining weight in industrial action to get what the members want. With unions no longer using their bargaining weight, there’s no point being in a union. So response of your nurse friends seems sensible to me.

  32. KEVIN-ONE-SEVEN on 5th June 2012 2:49 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with the previous two comments. Julia is more conservative than John Howard. But if someone as ideologically vacuous as her is starting to “get it” then maybe the rest of the clones in the labor party might too. I live in hope.

  33. Riccardo on 11th June 2012 11:53 pm

    Been reading Sartor Fog on the Hill on the death if the ALP. Same sort of tone as cavalier and tanner and so on.

    What they dont get is what this blog has been saying, why the ALP died. The focus groups, the developer donations, the micro management, the career ladder, they are the symptoms, not the cause.

    Frank does not reflect deeply enough on how he got the comfy chair ahead of some salt of the earth local branch member standing for preselection the old way.

    But this blog could go further. It is not enough to look at the discredited political class and system. How can a country end up in that situation? Nothing to replace a bankrupt adversarial system based on splitting the national pie. No technocracy. No consensus.

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