[Published at Independent Australia, 2 Dec]
Progressive reformers are attempting to take control of the major parties of the nominal left in the United States and the United Kingdom, in the wake of losses in national elections and the rise of reactionary forces. Even if the rebels do not take full control there is some prospect that the parties will at least be substantially changed.
No such fate threatens the Australian Labor Party. There is no flicker of unorthodoxy from within. There is little prospect of the plebian hordes storming it from without. The ALP stands, inert and impregnable, occupying the political space where a progressive party ought to be, the greatest obstacle in Australia to the constructive reform we desperately need if we are to have a tolerable future.
US Congressman Keith Ellison has nominated to Chair the Democratic National Committee, the body that oversees the Democratic Party. Ellison is liberal, and in the US that means bleeding-heart lefty. He is black. He is Muslim. He is attracting endorsements from senior progressive Democrats.
The previous Chair of the DNC, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, stepped down after hacked emails revealed Party officials had conspired to undermine the campaign of Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic nominee for President.
Starting from almost nothing, Sanders’ primary campaign came remarkably close to success. Had Party officials not stacked the deck by creating “super-delegates”, who do the will of the Party machine, he would have had a serious chance of winning the nomination.
Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump ran against the powers within their parties. Trump was not even a politician. The US electoral system has many quirks and less-than-democratic features, but it does enable outsiders to run for senior public office, thus potentially allowing some check on the power of entrenched officials.
As well the US parties’ behaviour in Congress is far less regimented than in Australia, or even the UK. In that sense members of Congress could function more as representatives than as puppets of a party power structure. Unfortunately most members of both parties are owned by Wall Street, which of course is why the peasants are revolting.
The ALP may be the most rigidly regimented party in the nominally democratic world. If you vote against the Party line in Parliament you can expect to be expelled. In the old days of fighting the wealthy establishment that may have been defensible, if a little extreme, especially given the ALP’s history of disastrous brawls and splits. Nowadays such rigidity just ensures the party misses the main lessons from current events.
The ALP is also undemocratic at its core. That was evident from the Rudd-Gillard leadership battles and is confirmed in Peter Garrett’s recent memoir. He describes how everyone is for himself and you don’t boost, or even include or inform, someone else unless there is an obvious payoff for yourself. The ALP is not a cooperative body, it is a gang of politically homicidal rogues who form temporary alliances of convenience. It is run by faction bosses and union bosses.
The ALP’s primary pre-occupation is gaining and holding power. When it does get power it looks around blinking, wondering what to do. It sets up summits and inquiries.
Kevin Rudd, on his brief return to leadership in 2013, did push through a rule giving branch members a 50% say in leadership ballots. But the ALP bosses would never be so foolish as to let the membership alone decide, let alone to invite outsiders to vote in a leadership ballot. That’s what the UK Labour Party did after they lost to the Tories in 2015. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time to someone, but it backfired spectacularly.
Old and new branch members and many outsiders stormed in and voted (twice now) for Jeremy Corbyn, an old-time social democrat who never himself expected to win. People were jack of what used to be the party of the people promoting austerity, inequality and illegal invasions in the Middle East.
I gather the mainstream commentariat, including the BBC, is routinely contemptuous of Corbyn and his alleged incompetence and failure to lead. Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to them, or they don’t want to admit, that Corbyn might be playing a longer game, first to reclaim the Party for the people, then to make a serious run for power based on a worthwhile program.
In the US Bernie Sanders and others are working to maintain a strong progressive movement that will be active in future elections. Thus in the US and the UK there is at least a plausible prospect of a progressive counter-response to the reactionary and destructive Trump, Tory and Brexit votes.
Such constructive responses are essential if we are ever to restore open, liberal democracy and a fair go, let alone to address the existential threats of global warming, environmental degradation and rising international chaos.
In Australia the chances of the ALP seriously reforming, or of another progressive party gaining power, are close to zero. The Greens ought to be a prospect, but they either can’t or won’t step up to the main game, and their 2016 vote was static, even as reactionary protest parties surged.
The capitulation of the formerly progressive Oz, UK and US parties to right-wing agendas set us on an all-too predictable slide into paranoia. This has now reached the stage of outright delusion in the US. The Trump constituency has been innoculated against facts. They believe nothing and everything: nothing in the mainstream traditional media, and anything and everything that circulates on social media. This is the (un)reality behind the “fake news” that played a significant role in the US election.
There has in fact been a long-term regression from reality in the US, starting with heightened spin in the Reagan years, through the flagrantly biassed (Murdoch) Fox News and the overblown “swift boats” and false “birther” campaigns against Democratic candidates, to the 2004 boast of the George W. Bushies that they “create reality”.
The problem is not quite as extreme in Australia, but our politics is still dominated by myths and lies. The hysteria about boat people is based on a totally distorted perception of their numbers and nature. Likewise the alleged threat of Moslems imposing sharia law. Indefinitely imprisoned and abused asylum seekers are claimed merely to be “detained”. Global warming is either denied or minimised, so that currupt political support for coal mining can be continued. A claimed budget emergency is disavowed even by most mainstream economists.
The delusion that has now overtaken the US is just the full-blown expression of right-wing contempt for knowledge. Neoliberals don’t need to know much, because the market will automatically take care of everything. Reactionaries don’t want to know much, because their brittle world view might be threatened. Knowledge labels you as leftist.
Hence you have a war on climate science, and on science, expertise and informed commentary in general. You have a war on anyone who dissents from right-wing claims, which is why they are so desperate to remove minimal legal restraints on vilification.
The drift into delusion strikes not only at the heart of democracy. The rise of civilisation has at its core the aquisition and transmission of knowledge. The current fact-free delusion strikes also at the heart of civilisation.
Where has the ALP been while the forces of darkness have been gathering? Helping them along, misguidedly or otherwise.
A key turning point for the ALP was in 1983, when Paul Keating set about implementing the neoliberal agenda. That agenda, quite predictably, undermined almost everything the ALP was supposed to stand for. We also knew 20 years ago it was impeding the economy, not rejuvenating it.
One might conceed that Keating was sadly misguided, at least in part. No such concession can be given Kim Beazley and his successors. When John Howard tried to stop the Tampa from bringing refugees into Australia he not only mainstreamed Pauline Hanson’s racism, he wedged the ALP. Beazley capitulated. Thus when Howard turned to the dark side the ALP lamely followed along. With no remaining principle, the ALP has been morally adrift ever since.
Meanwhile the Liberal Party has been busy colonising the ABC, and thus removing a major bulwark against right-wing mania. We now have Murdoch and IPA stooges in key positions, avowed enemies of the ABC. The ALP had plenty of opportunity to reverse Howard’s interventions and Board stacking, and it could have picked up the Greens’ plan to place the ABC at arm’s length from politics. It’s failure to do this is mystifying, because it would just have been self-preservation. Or is the ALP so far right itself that it sees no problem?
Our modern politics is systemically corrupt, serving the wealthy and powerful against the clear will of voters. The modern ALP partakes fully in that corruption, pandering to coal miners and private banks and still being intent on signing away our sovereignty under the guise of so-called free trade deals.
Labor has acquiesced to the loss of ancient and fundamental civil and human rights, notably but not exclusively by approving secret imprisonment on suspicion, without even any conviction being necessary.
Arthur Calwell, for all his grating imperfection, had the guts in 1965 to make a stand against entering the Vietnam war. His action surely killed off whatever chance he still had of ever becoming Prime Minister (having come agonisingly close in 1961). Labor paid a price politically but it retained its spine and its soul, and no moral contortions were required when the time came in 1972 for Whitlam to extract Australia from the lethal mess.
Calwell’s speech to Parliament is well worth reading, for its intelligent, informed analysis as well as for its clear principle. Near the end, he warns supporters:
“I offer you the probability that you will be traduced, that your motives will be misrepresented, that your patriotism will be impugned, that your courage will be called into question. But I also offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated.”
Modern Labor’s response to the polical tsunami that has inundated other shores is in effect to trust that a few more life guards will hold back the tide. Labor is apparently devoid of anyone who remembers anything prior to 1983. It remains grid-locked by internal feuds and deals. Having jettisoned its spine and its soul, it has no reason for existence in its present form.
What hope is there of reforming the ALP? From inside, very little. No-one speaks out, no-one does more than quibble with details. No-one is interested in getting into good trouble.
From the outside then? It would take a campaign to flood the branches with new members, and the old guard would play every trick in its large repertoire to keep out those who threaten its power. But there is no such movement discernible anyway.
At a time when fair-go Australia is desperate for enlightened leadership, where is the ALP? Over in the school yard, brawling with the rich kids over a game of marbles.
Undemocratic at its core, consumed in collective narcissism, the ALP not only betrays its once-proud heritage, it neuters the democratic expression of much of the population. It brings closer the not-so-distant day when our democracy will be completely hollowed out, and we will be pawns in a paranoid and hysterical police state.