Labor picks relaxed and comfortable31 March 2005
What a manic-depressive way of governing we have in Australia. In most democratic nations the great historical achievements, the executive and legislative legwork, are split fairly evenly between the conservative and progressive parties. Not so in this country.
In Australia, we have a distinctive pattern. For most of the time, we lounge in a Liberal Party–induced period of political complacency. The scope of debate narrows. National questions go unanswered. Issues are sidelined and allowed to drift. This time, the Liberals have even given it a name: they call it ‘relaxed and comfortable’. Liberal PM’s spend the time between elections treading water.
This national dawdling comes to a grinding halt, however briefly, by the coming of Labor governments, who gallop maniacally into policy, systematically alienate the country demographic by demographic, but sustain themselves by a mixture of skill, luck and the general chaotic atmosphere, until eventually their mandate totally disintegrates, they impale themselves gloriously on the electorate at the polls, and then collapse, exhausted, in Opposition for a mammoth recuperative stint.
One thing that raised my spirits about Mark Latham (and not a huge amount did, really) was that now and then I thought I saw a familiar glint in his eye that was very much absent in Beazley and Crean. It was the trademark glint that reveals an ALP Prime Minister and all that goes with it: a mad brilliant passionate arrogant Hamlet sort, with an irresistible craving for drama which tends to result in their government going the proper Shakespearean way: violent, fiery death. Past Labor leaders have always manned their ship like they’re Russell Crowe in Master and Commander, perpetually battling stormy seas with a swashbuckling spirit and a sense of derring-do that only comes with an utter disregard for consequences. Man the sails! Nationalise the banks! Free education! Engage Asia! Take no prisoners! The Liberal ship of government, by contrast, navigates through the electorally calmest waters it can find, avoiding anything treacherous or challenging even if it means stopping completely or going backwards until eventually an utterly unavoidable undercurrent appears, and it immediately sinks.
The excitement of Latham’s coming was that, for all his obvious flaws, he represented the business side in the pattern. The disappointment of his going and replacement with Kim Beazley is that it seems that the pattern has been disrupted and Labor has missed a turn. This is regretful not because of any superiority in Labor’s ideology, not because of left-wing right-wing issues — at least not for me — but simply because Australians must rely on Labor to undertake any project of importance.
Virtually every significant post-war accomplishment an Australian government has been accomplished by Labor. Each Labor government has revolutionised a segment of Australian policy: foreign policy (Curtin), social policy (Whitlam), economic policy (Keating and Hawke). In all cases, they were direct responses to the preceding Liberal complacency. They were all changes Liberals had the opportunity (no, responsibility) to bring about, and shirked. It includes everything the Liberals now play as their strength (the US alliance, the present economy). The Liberals are caretakers. They sweep up the country in between frenzies of Labor reform.
Let us dissect those great Liberal heroes. One Robert Menzies, whose considerable reign was devoted to one foreign policy question: how do you manage to sniff Uncle Sam’s behind while simultaneously humping the Crown’s leg? Add on his profound and farsighted remarks about communism being evil and you have the Lib’s most revered statesman. As for Menzies’s electoral success, it may have had something to do with Australia being an effective one-party state after 1954, not that that was his fault: Labor was in the rock-bottom-locking-itself-in-a-grotty-bathroom-phase of its trademark Opposition misery. Then there was Fraser. Malcolm Fraser, to be fair, was responsible for one pivotal reform of Australian government, the idea that they could be toppled before an election. This cleared up, Fraser’s reformist energy was spent and he contentedly watched Australia’s problems build up for eight years. What a state of affairs that the showpiece reform of Liberal history is Johnny’s 10% goods and services tax.
Okay. But is it really so crushing that Labor has gone back to Beazley? Does the frontman matter so much? Yes, for a few reasons. First, Labor leaders are more heavily scrutinised. This is due to Liberal leaders having been so utterly and consistently absurd over such a long period that they have become immune to ridicule; the joke has gone stale. Any fossil, aristocrat, geek or Alexander Downer can make it with barely a guffaw in the opinion polls. Second, it is necessary the ALP has a dominant figure in charge to weld its complex identity together. Labor, then, has a separate creative challenge Liberals have never had to face (the Liberal Party has an accountant’s personality and those people rarely make trouble over identity). Most important, the Labor leader does tend to be a genuine litmus test of whether the ALP is ready for another rampage across the policy landscape. Just as distinctive as Labor PM’s are Labor Opposition Leaders: the Beazleys and Creans, the Calwells and Haydens, the ones with no drive, no flair, no glint in their eye, who all but tell the electorate outright that the party is still dishevelled from its last fall into the abyss.
While boldness should be encouraged in the ALP, the Eventual Next Serious Labor Leader should model their party more on Keating and Hawke than Whitlam. Between 1983 and 1995 Labor somehow made its swashbuckling madcap style coexist with a professionalism which allowed them to consistently outsmart and outclass the Liberal Party. The ALP’s reformist zeal was maintained whilst ironing out its tendencies to incompetence and long slumps. Its energy was focussed to relegating the Liberals to their proper place in the electoral cycle. Maybe the most important thing Keating and Hawke did was prove that dynamism could coexist with competence. The Eventual Next Serious Labor Leader must additionally understand that, this being an apathetic country, revolutionary plans must be approached surreptitiously. Hawke never announced economic deregulation in advance, just as Whitlam never gave anyone a heads-up over his policy that the economy was an annoying side-issue to the real business of state: buying up Jackson Pollock works.
But they must preserve that Labor energy. Enough national dawdling; it is time in our governing pattern for a government that gets things moving, turns conventions upside down, floats big ideas, generates controversy, challenges long-held assumptions. It is that time for government to be bold a decisive and imaginative, to reinvent our place in the world and our idea of ourselves, to man the nation’s sails. There should be exciting times, great times even, but not relaxed and comfortable/