On March 27 I cancelled my membership of the Australian Labor Party. After seventeen years it didn’t seem an easy thing to do, literally letting go of something you believed in. Seventeen years is not a small portion of anyone’s life so I hope I at least demonstrated a capacity to hold on. I’d known for a long time it was no longer the party I joined at the start of 1995. It was either a matter of getting in the middle of it and being responsible for change – becoming active again and influencing the agenda and the platform, or waiting for it to get back on course and once again become the institution that had inspired me to be part of it. In recent times I realised neither of these things were ever going to happen. Surprisingly once I’d done it quitting turned out to be a natural and very easy thing to do. A great weight was suddenly lifted from my shoulders, a new sense of freedom I hadn’t anticipated.
Most Australians have diverse backgrounds so it is not unusual that I should come both from a line of uncompromising arch-conservatives of the countrified variety and from a line of died-in-the-wool ‘Light on the Hill’ types for whom Labor is as fundamental as the blood in your veins. I began to develop a political consciousness from my teens onward, a time when the Hawke Government was leading Australians toward a more inclusive, multicultural society where no-one was left behind, when Howard and other conservatives were still preaching a racially based nationalism and fighting against things like the Mabo Decision in the High Court, which was nothing more than the recognition that the indigenous people who lived on this continent before European settlement were human beings after all, and not part of the fauna. That’s all it said, and yet the conservatives hated it. They stood for placing commerce above all other priorities and not incidentally what all conservatives, politicians and their constituents, had in common was hatred toward some sector of the community or another. The only difference between the conservative politician and the conservative voter was that those who voted conservative liked to express their hatred, whereas the politician for reasons of pragmatism had to be more subtle. That’s why during the Howard era the concept of ‘political correctness’ was so attacked. To all who liked to denegrate and marginalise their fellow Australians, whether that be single mothers, the unemployed (dole bludgers), coons, wogs, refos, poofters, slope-heads, unions – the conservatives were their party.
By my mid-twenties I’d scraped through university full of optimism for the future. Oh yes, like many young people I believed I was going to really make a mark on the world. The reality in the mid-90s was somewhat different however. There was a recession and unemployment was bobbing around above 10% – 11.7% for males I recall at one time (unemployment rate for males was consistently 1% higher than for females). Around me family members were losing homes and businesses. Job hunting was an extended period of trauma. Those years have left me fundamentally altered – not as dramatic but sort of like the Great Depression or WWII had left my grandparents altered. After two years out of university I stopped counting at over 200 job applications, 3 dozen job interviews and 8 jobs (the uncertainty went on for another year but I was too numb to care). Some of those jobs suited me fine but were only temporary roles, or only part-time. The jobs I held longest were as a brickie’s labourer and as part time (15 hrs per week) mailboy at the University of Newcastle Central Coast Campus – jobs I was proud of but simply not long term prospects. It was this period in general and two jobs I had in particular that drove me to join the ALP.
My first permanent full-time job after university (I’d been in the workforce three years before enrolling at uni) came after about a year and a half of job hunting. I had high hopes for it – an office job in a medium-sized growing Sydney company with an international affiliation and a young and vibrant team. Their business was correspondence courses but to say they were providing distance education would have been stretching a very long bow as it turned out. My job was customer service which I soon learned consisted of a number of scripted responses to deflect and perpetuate the duping of disgruntled customers, of which there were many thousands. It was all about the small-print. They more or less exclusively advertised through TV Week and Take 5 magazine because, in hindsight I realise, they knew the demographic they were after. Though there were several courses, probably their most popular product was a “Child Care Diploma”, and this one illustrates the company’s approach as good as any. The Child Care Diploma as I recall cost $399 (in 1995 so I guess in the vicinity of $1000 in 2012 terms). People would either post in a form from the magazine or telephone the company and be sent some paperwork including an ‘enrolment form’. This particular course and the manner in which it was delivered attracted mostly young unemployed women, a great proportion of them stay-at-home mothers without the freedom or confidence to get along to TAFE, and all of them hoping a job in the growing Child Care industry would help get them out of a rut. Sooner or later though they generally worked out that the company’s “Child Care Diploma” wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. Sure, they were sent some courseware – some written exercises and multiple choice questions, but for good reason in order to actually work in Child Care a person needs to be certified. This course provided them a fine looking “Child Care Diploma” but no certification nor training or experience relevant to certification, referred to by the authorities and the industry as the remarkably similar sounding “Child Care Certificate”! My job was to field their calls and letters, and the calls and letters from their parents, lawyers, local Members and police, refer them to the fineprint on the back of the form they’d signed, advise them there were no refunds and continue the charade that they were committed even if they were still paying a course off in instalments. Many very sad duped people continued to pay their piddling instalments for months or years after they’d given up on their meaningless courses. Day after day the heartbreak and anger was palpable – one after the other. It was clear this was the company’s business model, they were out to dupe people.
Here I was seeing it first hand, in the middle of greed above any thought for treating your fellow human being with the minimum level of decency. Not incidentally, with their blue suits and designer dresses, their expensive jewelery and expensive cars, their North Shore location and a monthly thank you from the parent company for all the money we’d funnelled back to the UK – these people were the conservative heartland who John Howard stood for first and foremost before any of his ‘battlers’ got a look in. The battlers were being duped, exploited and heartlessly pilfered by them with the same indifference you might expect from the lowliest petty-thieving jailbird trash. The true urban conservative constituency.
The following year, my demoralisation having deepened through a relationship break-up in no small part due to my employment prospects, I stumbled into a job in a telephone sales call centre. It was like a call centre battery (as in battery hen) with a long corridor lined by little room after little room with a dozen telephone cubicles running along the walls of the room. Each room was a different “company”, most of them selling a different set of products but some of them selling the same products as a “different company” down the hall. I was handed the Gold Coast edition of the Yellow Pages – my “territory”, and began calling all of the businesses who my products were relevant to. I quickly learned it was no coincidence my book was very dog-eared, and many potential customers remembered ‘me’ from before. I copped many doses of abuse from customers who learned from bitter experience that my sub-standard products were not fit for the professional purposes they had been purchased.
The origins of the Liberal Party of Australia are, as the name suggests, reactionary. In literal terms in order to be ‘liberal’ one must be ‘liberated’ from some constraint. Though in some countries the political term ‘liberal’ indicates the liberation from social constraints of a moralistic nature or of tradition, in Australian political history (as in Japan coincidentally) it was applied to the liberation of business, commerce and private endeavour. Thus we sometimes hear reference to the small “l” liberal as opposed to the large “L” Liberal. The Labor Governments of Curtin and Chifley steered Australia through WWII and the post-war reconstruction, a time when fiscal and social order were necessarily subject to a great deal of institutionalised control and austerity. This culminated in ’49 with Chifley threatening to Nationalise the banks, who were seen by some as profiteering with no regard to social responsibility (interesting in the current context, Smokin’ Ben might almost get away with it today). The Liberal Party’s rise came out of the Australian peoples’ desire to be free of this – enough with all the austerity and the controls please! The Liberal Party and in particular their founder Bob Menzies were seen as the great liberators of Australian commerce and enterprise and that informs conservative politics in this country to this day. But there’s a middle ground to be struck. Business should not be liberated to the point of being able to exploit and do harm to the vulnerable.
I joined the Australian Labor Party because in those days they stood for inclusivity, for all Australians, for accepting and embracing the diversity that is humanity. Their inclusivity extended not just to our country but they were outward looking, seeing our place in a world that included all of the world, not just an English speaking world, a British Commonwealth, an Anglo-Saxon world or a world populated by people of Western European roots. The contrast with the conservatives was definitive. The conservative parties stood for a narrow idea of Australia from the past based on a racially homogenised society only acheived through the notion of “assimilation” or acceptance of others’ origins only on the grounds that they give them away and adopt our perceived origins as their own. The ALP were the party for people who not only recognised the diversity in the world but treasured it, held it up as an ideal. This empathy for all people was also consistent with Labor origins, though I do recognise that protectionism on racial and nationalistic grounds was part of the small ‘l’ labour movement for a good portion of its first century. That said, to exploit and do harm to others in the name of material self interest had always been what the ALP fought against. They also therefore held the middle ground when it came to the place of business and commerce in society. This last point enabled the ALP to be more open-minded and receptive as a growing awareness of the vulnerability of the natural environment began to gain momentum and this was also a fundamental reason I joined the Party. When the environment was a dirty word for the conservatives, and ‘greeny’ was just another term in the long list the conservatives used to be derogatory about their fellow Australians, Labor was taking leadership on the environment.
It was Gough Whitlam who recognised that Labor’s place in Australia was to take its base in standing up for workers against exploitative commercial self-interest and extend that to all those who would otherwise be powerless or marginalised, not just workers in relation to their bosses but women in relation to men, minorities of sexuality, racial and religious minorities, the less wealthy. It extended Labor’s franchise and it informed the ideal of governing for all people which remained genuine through the Hawke and Keating eras and was applied not at the exclusion of those in positions of power but by engaging with them, being from within them, and it resulted in many years of Government for the ALP.
During that period Labor continued its evolution into a slick professional political fighting machine. A big part of that was the application of some science to politics. This consisted of commissioning increasingly more sophisticated polling and commercial market research techniques and employing commercial marketing theory. Labor were not alone. One of my casual jobs during that sketchy period of employment was as a door-to-door interviewer for Roy Morgan Research. Howard, Downer and Costello were being mooted as alternative leaders in the years before the ’96 election.
In those days this application of methodology still appeared to only supplement the process of politicing and actual political leadership informed by the moral conviction of the leader still trumpted it. By the time of Beazley though at the turn of the millennium it was all about getting a handle on public opinion and engaging consultants to tell you how to push the right buttons with the Australian public. When the commentators talk about the ‘Labor machine’ nowadays they don’t even realise themselves what they’re referring to is a virtual gaggle of psychologists, both amateur and professional. Thus you get a term like ‘working families’ repeated ad-nauseum until the general public is literally mentally sick from hearing it. Yet the ‘professionals’ stick dogedly to their theory impervious to the distress they’re in fact causing the community, completely and utterly out of touch. People see straight through this as ‘method’ and they only vote for you because you’re the least detestable option at the time. The only ones who are deluded by the ‘keyword ad-nauseum’ theory are the Parliamentary ALP themselves (and possibly, though not necessarily, the consultants they engaged who told them to repeat it beyond sanity). This is what we have in the place of statesmanship and community leadership from the ALP and on this front the Libs have it all over them. As miopic, unfair and un-inclusive as much of the Conservative platform can be at least it comes from conviction. They are able to effectively lead public opinion instead of trying to second-guess it, to follow it, because they’re not afraid to reveal themselves.
The hegemony of methodology in place of a soul at the head of ALP provided the genesis of the Latham implosion. Latham tried to take the reins of the Party believing it was his right and in fact his obligation as leader. However the psychological approach to politics by that time so firmly entrenched in the Party seeks to place the party leader in a straightjacket. Latham reacted the same way many people would, by going mad.
You’ve got to wonder to what extent this same tension between political leadership and methodological politics also contributed to Rudd’s falling out with his Parliamentary colleagues despite his popularity with the public.
The net result is soullessness, a party that may get some political results but without legitimacy, a party not reaching the potential it otherwise would. More specifically, and something I take personally, it’s resulted in a party that did not take its natural place in neutering the dark side of the Howard era of politics but instead perpetuates the inate racism arising out of such things as the ongoing demonisation of asylum seekers. After more than a decade of waiting for a Labor leader to lead in the direction that Whitlam, Hawke or Keating would have I belatedly have to accept that this is not a party that I want to be seen to be associated with.