Monday, 29 April 2013
This is the core delusion of 21st-century democracy, that political parties can fragment and hollow out, yet still win the confidence of the people.
Mark Latham in Not Dead Yet
Latham starts his Quarterly Essay regretting he did not do enough during his fourteen months as Labor leader to develop new thinking in the party. As usual, Latham is too modest. By leading his party to one of its worst post-war defeats in 2004, Latham did more than his fair share in bringing Labor’s crisis and “new thinking” to the surface. By 2005 and 2006, Labor despondency reached such a depth that it sparked off an open condemnation of the party’s structure and factional system.
A flashpoint was the threatened deselection of Simon Crean by the Victorian Right in 2006, supposedly for flirting with the Left and attempting to dilute the influence of the unions during his period as leader. At the time, a certain “leadership aspirant” criticised the then leader, Kim Beazley, for not standing by Crean’s pre-selection, claiming that this was an example of why the factional system needed to be wound back.
Crean’s seeing off of the Right’s union candidate in March 2006 was perceived as a blow to Beazley and the factional system. It eventually led to said leadership aspirant from the left lining up with another from the right, who actually had the numbers, and deposing Beazley – and so the Rudd-Gillard partnership was born. The new leadership team immediately confirmed their position on the factions by leaving their own. Rudd broke tradition by formally taking the power to appoint his own frontbench from the factions, something Gillard has tried to hold on to.
The dialectic of history has rearranged the players like the ending of a bad Shakespearean RomCom, but the dynamic remains. The leadership oscillations between party reformers like Crean, Latham, and Rudd, and those representing the power bases, Beazley, and with Gillard on both sides, represent the party grappling with a dilemma of how to move away from a power structure that has lost its relevance, but nevertheless remains the party power structure. After having attacked the power brokers in his Diaries, Latham’s essay now attempts to resolve a dilemma that now has broken out into the open.
Latham’s diagnosis of Labor’s problem is simple. Labor is being run by union bosses who exercise their power over the party through a faction system that has left it an empty shell. Indeed the less influence unions have in society, the more they have looked to exercise it in the party.
Latham tells it like it is:
Unionisation in Australia has fallen to 18 per cent economy-wide, with private sector coverage at just 13 per cent. Whether the traditionalists like it or not, minority union membership is here to stay. In a highly skilled and competitive modern economy – dominated by small businesses, contractors and information workers – it is impossible to organise mass union membership. A majority of economic agents see no need for collective representation.
The union oligarchy is at odds with the new economy and:
… the rise of a new aspirational class: the free agents of the new economy (the start-up entrepreneurs, contractors and information-rich specialists) who resent the intervention of outsiders, whether in the form of excessive government regulation or trade union collectivism.
Explaining the decline of unions and Labor membership by the rise of this aspiring entrepreneurial workforce sounds terribly new thinking. Unfortunately, Latham gives no evidence for it.
That’s probably because there isn’t any. Indeed looking at what is actually happening shows a reality that is almost opposite to the picture painted by Latham, and others.
Far from there being some Golden Age of a homogenous labour force, Labor and the unions in Australia were formed in what was a relatively heterogeneous workforce for a developed economy. The Australian workforce had a higher level of self-employment than even what is regarded as a fairly heterogeneous US workforce. By 1960, still over 18% of the Australian work-force was self-employed compared to 16% in the US. It fell during the post war boom, especially with consolidation in farming, to around 12% by the early 1970s, but still well above the US’s 8% level.
However, as the first post-war downturn hit in the mid-1970s, this level started to rise again, flat-lined during the 1980s at around 15%, then began moving upwards as the economy soured again at the end of the decade.
It was during the early 1990s recession – as union membership began its terminal decline as self-employed numbers continued to rise – it became fashionable amongst political theorists to talk of a profound sea change in the workforce that meant collective bodies like unions and ALP membership were a thing of the past. It was favoured on the left to explain failure both on the industrial and political scene – but also on the right, as a justification for the inroads they were supposedly making with traditional Labor working class supporters. When the Liberals came to power in 1996, then Liberal party director Andrew Robb brought it into the political lexicon naming this new demographic of former-blue-collar-now-self-employed, the “Howard Battlers”.
Then something rather awkward happened. As the economy recovered in the mid-1990s, self-employed numbers began to fall. Rather than all those Howard Battlers running off to Penrith to start up their plumbing business, there was a drift back to working for the boss as the economy recovered and pay and conditions being offered by employers improved. It was a trend that continued through the Howard years and carried on when Labor came back to office in 2007, as the level began returning to the historic lows of the early 1970s.
So rather than the workforce becoming more entrepreneurial and reliant on self-employment over the last 50 years, it has actually become less.
But it wasn’t just the numbers that contradicts Latham’s scenario, so does their dynamic. Rather than all these entrepreneurs supposedly latching onto the heady opportunities unleashed by Labor’s deregulated economy, it was noticed that self-employed numbers tended to rise during a downturn, i.e. when the benefits of a deregulated economy would be least evident. It suggests that a turn to self-employment was less a grab at newly liberated flows of capital, as “new thinkers” like Latham like to suppose, but more a way of keeping the money coming in as conditions deteriorated in the workplace. When the good times returned, working for a boss might have seemed more attractive than chancing even a buoyant market with limited capital resources.
Needless to say, these workers who returned to being an employee over the last decade didn’t re-join a union. Union numbers continued to fall regardless of how many were self-employed. The idea that the workforce was turning away from unions because they were self-employed was a myth. If anything, it was likely to be the other way round. When times were tough, the increasing ineffectiveness of unions probably made going it alone, with all its risks, an increasingly viable option.
The decline of union membership (and Labor’s primary vote) was not due to some sociological “new economy” but as a response to the failure of Labor and the unions to maintain living standards and protect jobs during the 1980s and early 1990s. in fact the balance tipping towards employers led to what was a discernible and persistent trend in employment, its increasing casualization, which although rising modestly overall over the past 20 years, nevertheless disguises a major shift from part- to full-time casual employment within it.
It is necessary going into this in a bit of detail because this view of a new entrepreneurial workforce has become so entrenched in commentary, mainly because it so suits both sides of politics to believe it.
This raises an important question. Much of the way society is discussed is done through the prism of our political system. Distortions can occur even on something where statistics are readily available, let alone on things that are harder to measure. So what happens to that view of society when the political system starts to decay? Latham’s essay gives an unsettling answer.
But before looking at this, it is necessary to look at how Latham not only distorts what has been happening in the workforce but also Labor’s relationship to it.
Latham has an odd view of the history of the Labor party and its role in Australian society. For Latham the key dynamic is between the union/faction leaders and the party membership:
The formalisation of Labor’s factional system in the 1980s has coincided with a hollowing out of party membership. … When we think of Labor party splits, the parliamentary schisms of 1916, 1931 and 1955 come to mind – in each case, highlighted by the decision of a significant proportion of Labor MPs to leave the party. The current split is different and, in many respects, more serious. The union/factional wing has divorced itself from the rank-and-file. … The ALP’s original purpose, the mass participation of working men and women in parliamentary democracy, has dissolved.
But the key tension in Labor has never been between the membership and its leadership and is not now. Nor is it a case that it has lost its original purpose as “the mass participation of working men and women in parliamentary democracy”. It never had it. No party with a colour bar for half of its existence could ever claim that.
Labor’s significance has always rested on its role as a political vehicle for the trade union leadership, which in turn rested on its ties with the significant, organised section of the labour force. It was the social significance of the trade union organisations that gave Labor its significance. This relationship with organised labour became especially critical in government when managing opposition to any measures that went against the interests of the workforce.
It was this conflict between the Labor/union leadership and its base in organised labour that led to the splits of 1916 and 1931. The split within the parliamentary party itself merely reflected the dilemma Labor and the union leadership faced when unable to impose its program (conscription, austerity) on sections of the workforce on whose ties its case for government nevertheless ultimately relied.
From this angle there could be said to be one final such “split” between the party/union leadership and its social base: when the Parliamentary party and the union leadership unanimously came together to impose wage restraint in the 1980s Accord. Except this time, instead of union members opposing Labor’s program from within the union movement, they simply abandoned both.
Throughout, the membership of the ALP has had little do with it. Indeed the “faceless men” tag originally alluded to the subordinate role even the Parliamentary Party played relative to the union leadership, let alone its membership.
The membership’s main importance in the last few decades has been as a tool for the Parliamentary Party to push back against the power of the union leadership. This was a feature of Whitlam’s modernising of the ALP: to bring in a more middle class membership as a counter-point to union influence. This was especially the case on the left. In states like South Australia and New South Wales, the “new left” on social issues was used as a counter influence against the old left unions – which has its echo in the way that gay marriage is used as an internal political football in the party today.
Like his re-writing of changes in the workforce, Latham’s re-writing of Labor’s historical role is a convenient distortion, but even less convincing. To read Latham talk of Labor’s “grassroots” and being “community-based”, one wonders what party he is talking about. It gets close to parody when he talks of the success of Labor leaders coming from “perspectives and ideas gleaned from grassroots political participation”:
The party’s four great reformers, John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating, each followed this pattern: the young Curtin crusading for social justice with the Salvation Army … Chifley, a servant of the local community, not just a federal MP, treasurer and prime minister, but also as an Abercrombie Shire councillor; Whitlam raising a young family in Cabramatta in Sydney’s south-west, gathering ideas for education, health and urban policy from his electorate; and finally the young Keating, bruised by his father’s frustration in trying to raise bank finance for his family’s manufacturing business – personal catalyst for the deregulation of Australia’s financial system in the 1980s.
The idea of the patrician Whitlam as some community organiser is especially amusing. But the notion that these leaders rose because of grassroots activity and formed their programmes around it, rather than, say, through managing the complex tensions and power relations between business, organised labour, the broader electorate and international factors, is all wonderful nonsense.
The ALP is not the Australian Democrats. Or, at least it wasn’t.
Latham’s view on the labour force and Labor’s role has little basis in reality. Nevertheless it’s an important spin for party reformers. First it allows them to represent Labor’s problem as merely one of needing a new narrative to connect to this new aspirational workforce, and being a “victim of its own success” (rather than its opposite as far as its base is concerned). Secondly, it allows party reformers to flatter Labor by posing reform as returning Labor to past glories. Yet what Latham and other party reformers are proposing is something quite new from what Labor used to be.
Finally, it continues the practice over recent decades of using the party membership and the “community” as a stage army for the party power brokers, but in a way that has quite different implications for democracy. Latham is quite explicit on using the membership and the community to support existing power brokers. Indeed, as you would expect from someone with an insider’s distorted view of the world, when he turns his attention to Labor’s internal affairs, Latham suddenly becomes sharp as a tack.
Latham puts his finger on the central dilemma of party reform. Reformers (like Hawker?) might want to end the formal connection with the union movement that would turn Labor into a “social democratic party, unencumbered by direct/union factional influence”…
… but this not going to happen. Most obviously, union chiefs are not going to sacrifice their power, especially when they have already lost so much in terms of workforce coverage.
With the ALP-union link preserved, reformers need to pursue the next best option. Pragmatically, there is no alternative. The union/faction chiefs will not commit hari-kiri (by ending union affiliations) but some of them might, in certain circumstances, sponsor significant reform. … This occurs when a small but influential band of leaders decides that something dramatic needs to be done to avoid organisational collapse.
In other words, reform only comes from above when there is no other choice for staying in power. This is useful to remember as the sight of ALP factional chiefs standing up to tell us that factions have too much power is becoming as ritualistic (and meaningful) as an Acknowledgement to Country.
Having argued that reform can only come from above, it is no surprise then who Latham thinks should be leading this reform:
The key player for Labor, as ever, is the NSW Right. It is led by two young reform-minded officials, he NSW general secretary, Sam Dastyari, and Paul Howes from the AWU. … They understand the organisational task confronting them, with Dastyari declaring in December 2012, “The challenge facing us is, really, reform or die. The Labor Party has to change, it has to reform, it has to be prepared to embrace big ideas”.
It is a long time since ta NSW general secretary has spoken this way. Dastyari is the most significant advocate of reform in the party today: a senior powerbroker who accepts the necessity for change … Anyone who wants Labor to prosper will want him to succeed in his reform programme.
Latham sees the decline of the NSW Right as a major factor in the party’s current troubles. For Latham, the NSW Right is the glue that binds the party together and its unravelling over recent years has implications across the party. For Labor to revive, so must the NSW Right.
It has to be said that reviving the NSW Right might not be a political task that grips the imagination of the nation. It might not even especially thrill the centre-leftish readership of Quarterly Essay (it certainly doesn’t set this blogger alight). But in reducing Labor’s problem down to restoring the balance between the union leadership and the parliamentary party/membership, Latham is led to inevitably trying to revive the faction that was supposed to underpin it.
The problem with this is that it ignores why the NSW Right ran into problems in the first place. Latham sees the problems with the NSW Right stemming from the current NSW Labor leader, Robertson, siding with the left as head of the NSW Labor Council and then leading the unions to undermine the Parliamentary Party in NSW over privatisation and in Canberra over party reform.
But hollowed-out unions, as Latham would describe them, would only have influence over the Parliamentary Party because it was already in disarray. The NSW Right faces the same problem as the Coalition, it has nothing to be against. The ALP Right’s role as a bulwark against balancing the electoral demands of the Parliamentary Party with pressure from its base becomes irrelevant if there is no pressure. In fact, the ALP Right’s position has inverted. Rather than benefiting from balancing these demands, its position is now threatened by them.
The ALP Right is now torn between managing pressure from the union leadership, on which its influence relied, and party reformers who want to free the Parliamentary party from what they see as the union liability. In NSW, this led to them turning to a reformer like Rees, then dumping him, and in Canberra, to Rudd, then dumping him. In looking for the NSW Right to solve the party’s crisis, Latham has turned to the section of it that arguably demonstrates it the most.
This is not some subjective assessment of this blogger. The electorate delivered its verdict on the state of the NSW Right on 26 March 2011 when it gave Labor a worse result than when it split in half and ran against itself in the 1930s. For Latham, 2011 was less a verdict on the NSW Right but the union influence that eclipsed it. So putting this catastrophic result to one side, Latham sees the NSW Right, and the party, reviving itself through community activism.
According to Latham, Dastyari’s “big idea” is the introduction of primaries for Labor candidates. It has to be said, NSW Labor’s attempts so far can’t exactly be called a sparkling advance for democracy. Sussex St was reported to have directed their candidate on preferences in last year’s Sydney Mayoral election and abandoned its promise to run a candidate in the following Sydney by-election altogether. In both cases it looked suspiciously like classic Sussex St manoeuvring for electoral advantage than a grassroots revolution.
But then as Latham rather cynically notes, this is really about improving Labor’s “participatory credentials” more than anything. It comes from the impasse inside Labor of reforming a party while keeping its power brokers in place. As Latham says, given the impossibility of breaking the union nexus, the introduction of primary pre-selections is “Labor’s last hope”.
But Latham is trying to square the circle. Those power brokers are in their positions because they represent the historic nexus between the institutions of organised labour and the parliamentary party, a nexus that has had its day. From a starting point that has lost its social relevance, Latham is now forced to concoct a political program that has no real social basis, and the result is not pretty.
What platform should these new “community” candidates stand on? Naturally Latham doesn’t suggest that the community itself should decide, let’s not go berserk. Rather, Latham proposed new policies for a “post-left electorate” that have understandably raised the ire of what left exists, and the eyebrows of others as well.
One of the depressing things of the current government is to see the return of the miserabilist view of the Australian electorate as xenophobic and hip-pocket sensitive that characterised the last years of the Howard government. In Gillard’s case it has turned what was a smart, socially progressive politician into a Howard parody who thinks asylum seekers is a leading electorate concern, who would rather be at home watching kids read than at some fancy-pantsy NATO conference in Brussels, and who has what are, no doubt, deeply held personal views on the sanctity of marriage.
Yet Gillard’s re-run of the Howard years requires forgetting that awkward period in between, when from 2007 to 2009, Australia’s most popular political leader in living memory proved that this miserabilist view was not necessarily the case. It has been fashionable to put Labor’s only election victory in the last 20 years in 2007 down to the success of Rudd’s small target strategy. Certainly it was true in regards to what were the usual divisive issues of the economy and government spending. Rudd’s difference lay in what were more seen as “symbols” like signing Kyoto, ending the Pacific Solution, withdrawing from Iraq and apologising to the Stolen Generation.
But those “symbols” certainly weren’t regarded as such during Howard’s government but rather demonstrating his superior ability to tap into the electorate compared to the world-view of effete latté sipping inner-city elites. Yet all this was thrown overboard in the last months of Howard’s government when he was running like an effete inner-city type himself, promising an ETS and to give indigenous recognition in the Constitution. This miserabilist view was especially discredited a few months later when after that most limp-wristed of gestures, the Apology, not only did Rudd’s popularity soar to record levels, but also the refusal by Howard, and unfortunate acolytes such as Dutton, to attend was regarded as an embarrassment.
However, the Apology also touched on the problems for Labor of Rudd’s approach, despite its obvious electoral rationale. Labor bowed to Howard’s miserabilist view because as an explanation for their electoral losses, as being simply too good for a selfish racist electorate, it was more comforting than accepting their irrelevance. The problem is that it also made them look out of touch and elitist (and also rather insulting of the electorate) which Howard exploited ruthlessly with his attacks on the “elite’s black armband view of history”.
Rudd found a solution to that dilemma. His Apology speech differed from how the Sorry campaign had posed it under Howard, by not making it a collective guilt trip but to lay the blame squarely on the political class. It was a deft example of the anti-political tone of the Rudd period that lay behind his electoral appeal and that faded as he began bowing not only to international developments but also the machinations of the party’s surprisingly resilient power brokers.
Since such an anti-political approach is untenable for Latham’s project of reviving the fortunes of the power brokers, he comes back to the Howard-Gillard miserabilist approach – in spades.
Latham’s says it is necessary to appeal to a post-left (but not “post-right”) electorate that is aspirational and diverse, but apparently with some rather unaspirational and undiverse concerns over “feral” welfare scroungers and “ethnic street gangs”. According to Latham, Labor needs to drop the taboos and tap into this “earthy no-nonsense” approach to politics that is “evidenced-based” rather than reliant on outdated values of “liberal rights”.
Latham instead proposes something called “liberal solidarity”, which is supposed to allow liberal rights only being granted if that person exhibits “ethical behaviour”. What follows is a list of petty social engineering intrusiveness, such as making free public education conditional on parents improving the home learning environment and free public health care conditional on patients following doctor’s strictures on lifestyle.
For Latham, classical liberalism with its emphasis on individual freedoms belongs to a different era. He says:
Such a society is now passed. The free exercise of human rights, in tandem with the changing nature of work and communication technologies, has loosened the glue of social capital. This is the price of modernity: instead of being heavily inculcated in traditional social norms, our obligations to each other have become optional.
For someone arguing for a new “evidence-based” politics, Latham gives no evidence for this supposed breakdown in social behaviour. What we do know is that compared to fifty years ago, “classical liberalism” would surely more describe today than the past. Indigenous people can now enjoy a whole range of classical liberal rights that were once denied, non-whites can now enter the country and take up citizenship that was denied, single women, both indigenous and white, are free to bring up children without having them taken away.
Such a degree of social engineering was possible in the past because the state and other institutions such as the church had the authority to get away with it. These days they do not, and even the type of petty intrusiveness that Latham is proposing is likely to run into trouble. In the past, the basis for the state’s authority was that it was run by political parties that had some base in civil society. With that base now gone, how this authority can be recovered is a problem over which the political class frets. For now, talking up the decay of society does at least pose the need for intervention. But it doesn’t necessarily lay the ground for the consent of it.
Fortunately, for our political class there is one group in society that pretty well everyone is free to make up any crackpot sociological theories about and with a good chance that they can be tested out. After years of being ignored, indigenous communities have become everyone’s favourite guinea pigs for sociological theories, whether from feminists, the right or centre-left social engineers like Latham.
In his essay, Latham starts by proposing a novel solution to persistent poverty:
Poverty alleviation is not, in the first instance, about the quality of services. It is about breaking down the culture which makes the rational use of government services improbable. The starting point for a reform must be a policy of dispersal of moving disadvantaged people out of underclass suburbs. In public housing, where government has the power to move tenants around this is a straightforward task … governments need to lease back private dwellings for public tenants, integrating families into “normal” suburbs.
And the natural first candidate for this is, of course …
Relocation strategies are also need in the cause of aboriginal welfare. Forty years of land rights reform, encouraging Aboriginal people to remain in uneconomic locations, has been a failure. It has allowed the left to believe it has done something positive for these communities when, in reality, they are still living in abysmal conditions.
Latham’s ideas on poverty in general are just silly. To claim poverty is a product of living in a poor suburb rather than say, a suburb being poor because there are poor people in it, is to confuse cause and effect to the level of absurdity. Poverty is obviously a product of the inequalities and unevenness of the market system, Latham here is expressing the typical frustration of a failed left that believed it would be cured by public services.
When it gets to indigenous communities it becomes less amusing. Because of its geography, Australia has long been adept at sustaining uneconomic isolated communities to a first world level and there is no doubt that given the proper level for resources that could pave roads and provide social housing and amenities to the level they are in Coober Pedy or Hawker, they could do so in isolated indigenous communities as well.
However, the question of location has a different angle than that for poverty in general and that is the problem of land rights. The problem is not indigenous culture or the relationship to land, but the politics of land rights that uses culture and relationship to land as a cover for separate development. The phoney two nations approach, that has all the downside of separateness and, as was clear during the intervention, none of the advantages of self-determination, is a legacy of a compromise from similar segregation and apartheid arrangements in colonial areas around the world that persists in our political system and Constitution.
The intervention has allowed the land rights compromise to be challenged by such indigenous spokespeople such as Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson. But the basis of that challenge is acceptance of the premise of the intervention, the unproven widespread abuse of children, that would not have been believed but for the idea of separate cultural standards. In criticising land rights and separation these “new thinkers” have nevertheless accepted the premise of separate development in its most degraded form.
The result of this new degraded separatism is that now indigenous communities have become a free-for-all for “new thinkers” across the political spectrum as a practice ground for developing a new relationship to society before it is tried out elsewhere. We have already seen this with the current government’s use of rights based welfare being taken from NT indigenous communities and being rolled out in test centres around the country. From the right, Abbott has also been a frequent visitor to communities such as Aurukun in Queensland to look at more interventionist “responsibility-based” community measures. Latham is articulating a search for a new relationship of politics to society, based not on its representation, but on intervention on a degraded basis. You have been warned.
We are not there yet, and Latham spelling such ideas out has caused some discomfort. He is on more comfortable ground when he also calls for Labor to embrace the Keating legacy of a free, deregulated market. A call to return to the Keating legacy is at least more in keeping with similar calls currently from elsewhere in Labor, but forgets that the political appeal of a deregulated market died in 2008- 2009 when even the right had to embrace unprecedented government intervention. Globally, such intervention has shown no sign of easing, no matter how much the right dresses it up with austerity.
That the Keating legacy has ever had any sort of electoral appeal is a myth. Keating himself won only one election – and that was by running against a Coalition keen to take economic reform even further. After that, Howard presided over rising government expenditure and welfare hand-outs to the less feral middle class. Latham correctly noted Rudd’s unsuccessful attempt to make a moral high case against the market in 2008, but there is no evidence that there is an appetite for a deregulated market either, least of all from the business sector that has traditionally been its supporter.
The calls for return to Keating politics has little to do with electoral reality than the internal needs for some in Labor to call for a balance between the Parliamentary party and its traditional union power brokers. It has especially become a crie de coeur for those trying to reconcile the Gillard power brokers with the Rudd roots-and-all party reformers. It was an attempt to find a compromise that blew up so spectacularly last month, when Crean attempted to use Rudd to resolve the need for party brokers to reform while retaining control, but who couldn’t even get his own supporters to join him in the convoluted coup.
Since then, a blow-out in the Ministry and warning noises from those departed give all the signs of an argy-bargy coming that might not even have the grace to wait till opposition. In attempting to ingratiate himself with a party that turned its back on him, Latham has ignored the real dynamic between the ructions he is trying to reconcile. But tragically, Latham has also forgotten why it did turn its back on him after his short stint of the leadership. His call for new “values” to relate to voters is likely to be no more successful than they were in 2004, an electoral disaster of which he mentions not a word. For all his faux blokeishness and Western Sydney credentials, he had no more ability to understand the electorate than any insider Labor hack.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 29 April 2013.Filed under Key posts, State of the parties