Thursday, September 22, 2005

Reft, Light, Reft, Light

From the outset, I should say that I respect Lindsay Tanner. I think he's a good combination of intellect, political philosophy, media savvy and pragmatism. Although his factional alignment would most likely preclude him from the position, as it would with Julia Gillard, I would be not unhappy to see him as the next ALP PM (which I'm hanging out to see happen before I turn 83).
So I'm not quite sure what to make of his deconstruction of the Left/Right dichotomy. Indeed, Tanner argues it's not so much a dichotomy these days, in a world where "our leading left-wing intellectual is recent former Quadrant editor Robert Manne, and one of the most powerful proponents of left-wing causes is former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser".

Positioning or even pigeon-holing Tanner somewhere along the political spectrum is difficult. He's of the Left faction, but he's not a union attack dog like Anthony Albanese. In fact, this review of his book, "Open Australia", would seem to imply he's left his union associations firmly in the past to pursue the glorious New Labour/Third Way.

Initially, I thought he was selling out his faction in this article. I had to re-read a few times to see this isn't entirely the case - although there is the slightest hint of (majorly modified) Latham-esque disillusionment with the side of politics traditionally associated with social justice. To illustrate:

"...the Right has largely absorbed the extraordinary changes of recent decades and thereby transformed itself. The Left has essentially failed to do so."

Reads more like something Tell-Us-About-It Janet might write, doesn't it?


It could even be that the Left as it has been understood in post-war Western societies is in the process of disintegrating.

I disagree. I think that's a myth the right-leaning Murdoch media enjoys perpetrating. Certainly, Communism was a monumental failure and mostly non-existent by the end of the 20th century, but in practical operation, at least under Stalin, Mao and even Castro, it was not really genuine left-wing politics any more than Hitler was genuine right-wing politics. I don't claim to be an expert on international politics, but my understanding is that Canada and Scandinavian countries at least operate quite successfully under left/socialist governments (relative to the US, UK, Australia etc). They don't always have to end in psychotic megalomaniacs and collapsed economies, do they?

I also found this comment worthy of further analysis:

"...Many of the views and values attributed to The Left in The Australian don't really reflect mine. I don't really see myself as an elitist, pseudo-intellectual, self-hating, pretentious, protectionist, postmodernist."

In fact, I would attribute many of these characteristics to the Right.

Elitist: Our government is predicated on cultural elitism, prioritising white, middle class, heterosexual Anglo-Saxon Australians and condemning, mocking and even punishing all Australians outside this mould, particularly now Muslim Australians. How elitist is it to ban same-sex couples from marriage and claim this can only be an institution for a man and a woman? How elitist is it to price tertiary education out of the realm for more and more young Australians?

Self-hating: Professor David Flint, Christopher Pearson, Alan Jones and other extreme-right fags spring to mind here.

Protectionist: I seem to remember protectionism being a key platform of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party - the party that, years later, our federal government is echoing, at least in relation to the "evils" of multiculturalism.

The Nationals are always keen to protect their farmers, too; how else can the lunacy of irrigating rice and cotton fields in the middle of desert land to the detriment of our primary river system (and, indeed, many people's drinking water) be explained?

Pseudo-intellectual: It is sad how the Right has demonised "intellectualism" and made it seem a dirty word, as though learning and education should be feared and ridiculed instead of celebrated. I hope, nay expect, our politicians, if not to be intellectuals (ie have doctorates), to at least be tertiary-educated and well-read. We should get our money's worth out of them, after all.

I think Tanner underestimates himself here - like Latham, he is a good writer of intellectual and philosophical rigour. Unlike Latham, he can also speak in this style, without resorting to name-calling and temper tantrums (at least not on camera).

Tanner goes on to argue that "the emerging fault lines in Australian politics involve issues such as environmental sustainability, material progress eroding relationships, entrenched poverty reflecting family breakdown and drug abuse, ethical issues about the human body, and globalisation."

For selfish reasons I would have appreciated civil rights in this list - specifically, civil rights of queer people and same-sex couples. This to me is a very illustrative divide. Neither of the 2 mainstream federal parties go far enough to redress the unjustifiable inequalities between straight and queer couples, but Labor to its credit at least committed itself last year, while supporting the same-sex marriage ban, to a legislative audit designed to reform all discriminatory federal laws and ensure same-sex couples would be equal to de facto heterosexual couples. Given its subsequent crushing defeat at the 2004 election there's no guarantee this commitment will carry over to 2007 (particularly with the much less queer-friendly Kim Beazley at the helm), but Tanner at least has said publicly he'd be open-minded to the idea, following legislative reform, of the possibility of civil unions, probably similar to what's been established in Britain.

The Coalition on the other hand, at least under Howard, blanketly refuses to acknowledge any inequalities here, let alone discuss how they could be rectified. Howard apologists will immediately point to superannuation reform but, as I have argued, this is not a real solution. This government has worked so hard to court the Rancid Religious Right vote that it cannot be seen to yield at all on this issue. This to me is therefore a very clear fault line.

Some of Tanner's other fault lines, however, appear ambiguous, and certainly not indicative of clear divides between Labor and Liberal. Labor has many key advocates of globalisation (Tanner himself being one) and pro-lifers (such as the member for Lowe, John Murphy) just as the Liberals have their share of pro-choice advocates and, now, members representing electorates of high poverty, family breakdown and drug abuse (eg the member for Greenway, Louise Markus). I'm not sure either party can rightly claim a monopoly on the issues Tanner lists, and indeed he himself admits that "the traditional champions of the poor have fewer and fewer poor people among their numbers. Resolving this contradiction may be impossible."

But I guess that's the overall point of his article - the lines are blurred and Left/Right arenas are hazy in contemporary Australian politics. "The overall political landscape is deeply confused. The old simplicities have disappeared."

Does this mean, then, that the Left was set on a pre-determined course of failure in its purest form, whatever that may have been? That human beings are by definition far too selfish and individualistic for any sense of socialism or community to govern its citizens? Economically, this would seem to be the case. As with an ecological system, consumers are increasing exponentially, resources become more scarce and inevitably we have to compete more aggressively for them.

I still don't believe, however, that an increased focus on market forces and economic rationalism need be an impediment to social justice. Why can't an Australian government deregulate, promote free trade, combat the influence of trade unions, etc - none of which I'm necessarily supportive, they're just examples of what both governments have done in the last twenty years and what seem inevitable - but not infringe on a woman's right of choice, allow same-sex couples legal recognition, ratify the Kyoto protocol, apologise to Indigenous Australians, keep religious extremism firmly out of the legislature, avoid draconian civil laws as part of a mythical "war on terror", not demonise particular ethnic sub-cultures, not imprison "illegal" immigrants behind electrified fences in the middle of a desert, continue to invest fairly in public education, health and programming - all the things the current government has got so horribly wrong over the last 10 years? Is this indicative of what Tanner argues is the "Right (being) economically liberal and socially interventionist...the Left (being) economically interventionist and socially liberal ?

If so, the dichotomy for me still exists and those on the Left should not feel ashamed about it.

But we should also take note of Tanner's advice about what the Left needs to do to remain, or at least be perceived to be, relevant on the contemporary political playing field.

We might reject George W. Bush's violent crusade to spread democracy throughout the world, but what are we doing about it? What's our strategy? We may disdain Noel Pearson's blunt assessment of the need for change in indigenous communities, but what's our solution? More of the same? We're often critical of the family as a social institution, so why do we campaign for workers to be able to spend more time with their families?

This is lethargic of me I know, but I hope Tanner has formulated some answers to these questions. He is after all the elected representative, while I am but one of that awful breed of soft-left, latte/chardonnay/insert-cliche-here armchair critics.

So long as it is never forgotten that "the social nature of human beings is at the heart of Left values", there can always be a theoretical political alternative to the current anti-humanist government. I'm not sure Labor is the ideal practical alternative, but it's nice to see that some of its members haven't forgotten about the heart of the Left.


At 23/9/05 3:37 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From penguins to politics, you are one of the best Sam. JT


Post a Comment

<< Home