I don’t know about others, but a lot of Labor folk I know felt surprisingly good on Saturday night, and for a little while after the election dust had settled. It was refreshing to see Labor members finally appearing to “get it” – correctly attributing the party’s performance to disunity, division and constant infighting magnified through the media. On Q&A on Monday night, Tanya Plibersek gave the ALP governments 9/10 for policy and 0/10 for politics.
Sadly the way the common front shattered suggested that – as I think we already knew – the problems go deeper than self-interest, media tart-ism and struggles over personalities and power. (Though all those are problems). Whether it was “beloved party elder” Bob Hawke saying Plibersek shouldn’t be leader because she has a 3 year old kid (and whether or not he knows that Bill Shorten does too is unclear), Peter Beattie’s inability to be a candidate without also being a commentator, or Craig Emerson’s distraction from his future career in karaoke … well, you know the rest.
(Incidentally, Emerson has now joined Graham Richardson in being a “former” who shops his commentary wares to The Australian. They just serve to make Mark Latham look better, and join the ranks of “formers” who haunt shows like The Drum if they can’t parlay their party history into gigs with mining companies or lobbying firms. Max Weber’s distinction between those who live for politics and those who live off politics comes to mind.)
Then we’ve got a couple of MPs, of whom it’s fair to say that few will have heard, spruiking the wonders of accepting Tony Abbott’s “mandate” on the carbon price, reciting braindead Labourist claims that the workers don’t like Greens and don’t like markets. It’s of a piece with now very former ALPster Warren Mundine’s claim that Western Sydney-ites didn’t vote for the ALP because of its cultural elitism. Or something. Well, many did, and seats were won as well as lost, and it’s not as though cultural sophistication (!) was a sudden artefact of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years. You could maybe argue the toss in the other direction, remembering that Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating represented Western Sydney seats.
They weren’t “ute men”. Or whatever. (There never seem to be “ute women” in these narratives.)
What is going on here? Are these jokers getting all their positions out early, on the grounds that no one is paying much attention at the moment, before some grand fusion, to march boldly forward in lockstep? Are they determined to position themselves factionally, with the carbon tax thing a simple proxy move in that? Or has something else happened? Has the ALP, a party founded on collectivist notions of politics, now become incapable of collective action?
Certainly seems that way. The party that was once so committed to collective action, that a prime minister might not be admitted to national executive decisions on policy, now seems incapable of committing to the most basic party processes.
Yes, it does. Two words: Stephen Conroy.
Perhaps something else is going on, too. Labor is now all but entirely composed of life-long professional politicians, schooled in the micro-factions, lawyers from bitterly divided Labor firms and union “officials” who never did any of the collective labour of the people they “represented”. Have such people lost the ability to act collectively because they never had it in the first place? Time was the Liberal Party was the party of individualists. They manage to keep things in line by sticking close to power and interests, and not getting all fancy-pants (and, to be fair, their splits are now at the party level, with the Bob Katter and Clive Palmer parties and perhaps more to come).
Your correspondent noted earlier this week that things aren’t as bad for Labor as they’re painted, given the nature of two-party preferred politics. Many in the core of Labor believe that too, knowing that they can afford the luxury of fighting for their intra-party turf out in the open. But there’s refusal to panic, there’s confidence, and there’s delusion. If Labor imagines it can fight this all out in the open, like some endless episode of political Big Brother, then maybe they don’t have what it takes to regroup as an opposition.
From where I sit, it starts to seem like an open question. It’s as if the party membership, perhaps because they’re largely grounded in the day to day realities of work, family, friendship, communities (not to romanticise those lifeworlds), rather than existing in the politico-media bubble where West Wing is reality, or should attain the condition of reality, is far more capable of adult behaviour than many of its parliamentary representatives.
There are some funny disconnects around the idea of truth too. Emerson, and the whole cast of characters who want to vote Kevin out of the House (never mind the electors of Griffith, or what a by-election might do), assert over and over again that the Prime Minister (he’s still there, perhaps because Tony Abbott has allowed Labor space to air its filthy laundry) was “undermining”. Well, really?
Yes, I know there’s a Book by a Journalist that asserts this, and no doubt for my sins, I’ve now looked at it enough to satisfy myself of the author’s pre-judgement and methodology. But it is actually a “diary” (is it reportage?) and it seems to know nothing of basic journalistic canons of yesterday like having two sources for an assertion, and to be able to read people’s minds. At least Bob Woodward bothered to claim that he reconstructed Hillary and Bill’s bed talk from … well, I don’t know, but he reckoned that he knew.
Nobody seems to stop to think that someone else might write The Trashing of Kevin Rudd from an equally prejudiced perspective. Well, perhaps that’s something for Emmo to do when he’s not at the Karaoke joint in his retirement. No doubt Louise Adler has been on the blower.
Where’s the basic understanding of evidentiary worth? Where’s the grasp of moral philosophy? Or the everyday world of interacting as a social being?
If a stack of colleagues of any one of us started to defame us in public, we’d probably be quick to suggest there’s another side to the story. And there would be. We might even go to Fair Work, or to law, to try to establish the truth. And never mind (apparently) the fact that the Tony Burkes of this world tell us Mr Rudd was perfectly easy to deal with this time round. No, that just gets sifted out by confirmation bias, if it’s even perceived.
Then, even if Emmo is telling The Truth, there’s a basic question around what is and is not prudent. Immanuel Kant’s universalist ethics posed this in its starkest form – Kant asserted that if someone comes to your door and tells you they are looking for X, who you know to be in your house, and tells you their intention is to murder x, you need to fess up and say X is down the hall. That’s a limit case. But a moment’s reflection suggests that – again back to the quotidian – if you think your co-worker is slacking off, you have a duty to confront them and also extend a charitable interpretation to your perception. This isn’t difficult. It’s not to say you don’t whistle blow if need be, but you have a duty to your fellow humans, and you have a duty to truth before you start mouthing off.
The actuality is that we don’t know whether Dr Emerson is telling the truth. We do know that he is evacuating his spleen. We’re actually not in the realm of unambiguous truth and the duty to speak. But Emerson is talking. To what purpose? The collective advancement of the Labor Party? The progressive cause of the people? Give me a break.
To sharpen the point, when discerning truth, every day adults look to motivation when self-interest is obvious and look for evidence to substantiate assertions. Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously in our assessment of persons and statements. It’s being adult.
It’s time that “Labor elders” and “Labor leaders” grew up a little.
As I said at Sed Probate Spiritus earlier in the week:
It should not be forgotten, either – as Party President Jenny McAllister observed – that a little remarked feature of the campaign was the intense involvement of numerous volunteers, the surge in party membership and the establishment of independent supporter pages on Facebook. This form of activity empowers Labor voters and activists, and should work to disempower the dead hand of “factional warlords” and the ossified power structures of the party.
Some of the ‘issues based’ online and volunteer activism began under Julia Gillard (notably around Gonski and DisabilityCare) but it was ‘top down’ to a large extent. The bottom up activity began either with Kevin Rudd’s return to the leadership or sought to express the view that Kevin should return. Everyone involved with an actual Labor campaign knows this.
Similarly, I know that many of those same members and supporters will not just be deeply grieved by attempts at a right wing stitch up to thwart the new leadership rules, but will also actively resist it, and the so-called ‘power brokers’ will find they need to take this into account.
They seem to be, a little, because they’re being pushed to do so. But some just don’t seem to understand the meaning of solidarity. If there’s a greater core Labor value than that one, I’m not sure what it is.
Not happy, comrades!
All the more reason for the membership to take back their party.
(And you can get a good read of what party members and supporters think about this week’s events from the reasons for signing on our petition on Change.org.)
Related: Anna’s post.
Footnote: The title, of course, is an allusion to one V.I. Lenin (note that quoting Lenin does not make one a commie). It’s not an attempt to psychologise, far from it. Claims that cunning armies of secret psychiatrists, or whatever, won the victory for Tony Abbott by remotely diagnosing Kevin Rudd should be treated with the contempt they deserve. The American Psychological Association had a useful technique for rooting this nonsense out – when a farrago of shrinks wrote all sorts of nonsense about Barry Goldwater’s mental state in 1964, they told them they’d be deregistered. Anyone who’s worked in medical and scientific environments knows the difficulty of arriving at a psychiatric diagnosis, the necessity for close and repeated personal observation, and the scientific worthlessness of the diagnosis of public figures. It’s just slander, really.
NB: Just to repeat, I’m sorry that I may not be able to engage in comments as much as I’d like. I do want to write at the moment, but the reality of working life in the world of the sessional academy, of short term consultancies, gigs and contracts is 50-60 hours work a week. Same goes for most of my colleagues. It’s just the reality, the lifeworld, of many workers right now. It, sadly, doesn’t give us as much chance to engage in public discourse as we’d otherwise like.