Thursday, November 17, 2005

party of hope

I reckon Judith Brett’s Quarterly Essay is optimistic for Labor because it highlights, to me, how little substance there actually is to either party and therefore how easily Labor might reinvent itself. The parties have changed their images many times. In recent times, as an example, Howard has stolen ‘reform’ from Labor, the original ‘party of hope and reform’. Of course, he had to tweak it a little: the Liberals are now the party of fear and reform.
Recently Alan Ramsey wrote about how adman John Singleton has been complaining about the lack of difference between the major parties. I get the impression people assume this is Labor’s fault, but as Brett demonstrates, it’s actually Howard who has been busily blurring the boundaries since he took office; if Keating pushed the Liberals to the right, Howard has surely been pushing leftwards from his base camp in the middle. He has attempted to appear more progressive on a number of issues, for example indigenous issues and multiculturalism.
Howard's recent stance on multiculturalism is interesting. John Howard’s original dismissal of it always came across to me as a fear of difference. As a Whitlam-era import to Australia, I grew up innocently thinking multiculturalism itself was an important shared value in a young country made up of settlers, migrants and indigenous people. So I hada rude awakening when I found out that Howard couldn't comprehend that difference could be a central value, actually a critical part of the Australian identity, as much as being "laconic" or "self-reliant" or "unpretentious", or whatever.
Anyway, no wonder it’s hard for us to perceive a difference between the parties when so much depends on a given party leader. For example, Brett writes:

"It seems to me that it is not obvious, except in hindsight, that the new social movements should have attached themselves to the Labor Party. A Liberal Party led by Don Chipp would have offered them a congenial home."

And not only is it about the vagaries of personality and style of individual leaders, the parties are also always being repositioned in relation to each other and to the social context and the ‘changing electorate’. For instance, an anxious global climate perfectly suits Howards’ style of leadership. Brett is at pains to emphasise the continuity and traditional roots of John Howard’s behavior in the job, but in the end, you can’t help feeling that politics just boils down to who has the better marketing skills.
I wonder what Howard offers us that he regards as uniquely Liberal. Howard’s philosophy kind of boils down to something like, ‘You, your home, and your country’. So Howard wants to force Labor into its traditional negative position on those things, when there’s no reason Labor can’t equally own them. The real point of difference between the parties is in the Liberals’ denial of social contexts and the existence of groups or classes.
Howard sells the Liberals as being about the free individual. But none of us is really free; our lives are embedded in contexts. Brett explains how Howard’s view is that being Australian requires affiliation only to family and nation, nothing else. On the other hand, Labor accepts the existence of "large historical forces shaping national destiny" and the resulting "circumstances that limit the individual". The Liberals just seem to be in denial about this.
Class is an established point of difference between the parties. Historically the worker's party, Labor is damned by the Liberals as being the party of the part, the section, the group, the collective, the union. In contrast the Liberals reckon they govern for all of us. But the Libs have their class and eat it too, as Brett shows (I love the bit about Menzies’ second eye). It’s good to be reminded that the Liberal Party traditionally regarded the Labor Party as made up of "workers [who] were not fit to govern" because of their lack of education.
There are other differences between the parties that can be made salient again. As I said the other day I think Howard’s Industrial Relations reform is a boon to Labor. Suddenly we know what Labor stands for again. Post-Latham, running with Beazley, Labor's probably still up shit creek, but a least now they’ve got a paddle.
Incidentally, it seemed a limitation of Brett’s essay (though maybe she expands on it in her books, which I'd like to read one day) that the qualitatitve research included at the end didn't juxtapose four Liberal voters with four Labor voters. Maybe something could be learnt from hearing why people vote Labor, too. I can’t help thinking that the popularity of John Howard is blown out of proportion in the mainstream media. The difference between winning and losing government doesn’t come down to many votes. We don’t all love the guy.
I also would've liked to know more from Brett about why people vote differently at State and Federal level. There’s got to be lessons in that for Labor marketing.
Well, I’ll come back to Brett another time as I do have some other comments but the baby has just woken. The essay certainly gave me a lot of food for thought.