If you think Labor’s ‘too progressive’, you couldn’t be more wrong
Question: How many progressive Labor MPs does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: No idea – first we need to find one willing to stand up and be counted.
There has been a fair bit of talk since the election that the ALP has to rediscover the centre, and stop trying to appeal to progressives. Mostly it involves imitating the Australian’s Paul Kelly about needing to connect with quiet Australians and let go of fashionable causes.
It all sounds very sensible – or would, if there was any real evidence that the ALP was actually progressive in any meaningful sense.
The ALP mostly indulges in progressive cosplay. It dabbles but the commitment is not there – it will get pushed over by the barest mention of national security or talk of traditional values, and voters know it.
In reality, most in the party are glued to the centre.
This week the former US president Barack Obama suggested to college students that “this idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re politically woke, and all that stuff – you should get over that quickly.”
His words were unsurprisingly greeted with joy by those for whom centrism is the great security blanket, and by conservatives who could rejoice that Obama was calling out the “cancel culture” of the left.
His words echoed those of Labor MP Clare O’Neil, who in a speech this week to the John Curtin Research Centre, said “there is a culture developing in the progressive movement where membership is granted with a box of ideas. And if you don’t accept one of the ideas in the box, you do not merely have a different opinion, you are obviously wrong, probably stupid and possibly subhuman.”
But the problem with criticism of the “cancel culture” is it ignores that the ones doing most of the cancelling are conservatives.
Conservatives in this country have cancelled progressive taxation, have tried for 40 years to cancel public health and education, have cancelled any attempts to increase Newstart, been doing their best to cancel the NBN and have cancelled a price on carbon, any effective action on climate change, and tried in vain to cancel moves to allow gender equality.
Most recently we had conservatives in New South Wales trying with all their might to cancel legal abortion.
And of course the most egregious example of cancel culture in Australia was by the Australian newspaper, which used a short Facebook post by Yassmin Abdel-Magied as an excuse to hound her out of work and in the end the country.
On the other side, progressives get annoyed when Alan Jones uses the N word, Sky News and the ABC interview Nazis or far-right extremists, and political parties continue to mouth platitudes about climate change and then seek to foster growth in the coal industry.
And then we have the ALP’s deputy, Richard Marles, stating that they are open to supporting new laws to outlaw the type of protest engaged by organisations such as Extinction Rebellion.
A labour party not willing to stand up for the right to protest is one so utterly bereft of soul it has cancelled its own history.
If you think the ALP has become beholden to leftwing university radicals, you probably think leftwing university radicals are still sitting around listening to U2.
The ALP is devoid of the one thing that stamps out all progressive parties around the world – inspiration.
In her speech, O’Neil suggested the way to bring people together is by “defining and nourishing not who we are against but what we have in common” and that “Jacinda Ardern’s irrepressible likability and her vivid, genuine commitment to her country” was a prime example.
The problem, of course, is that there is no room for anyone like Ardern in the ALP leadership group.
Were she in the ALP she’d be told to wait her turn – such as occurred with O’Neil, who is the same age as the 39-year-old Ardern but who dropped out of running for the deputy ALP position this year to clear the way for Marles.
Rather than suggest Ardern is a way forward, maybe ALP types should ponder why Ardern exists in the NZLP and not the ALP. Ponder where, for example, is an Australian Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – because it sure as heck is not in the ALP.
O’Neil suggested her purpose is “to seek out people in the community who don’t share my views, listen to them and treat them with respect. Then I might be given the opportunity to have a real dialogue about Labor’s perspective”.
But what is that perspective?
She noted that “some people say political correctness has gone too far, as cheap cover for racism and bigotry” but then argues that “not every social change is inarguably a good one”.
OK, fine. Which are the bad ones?
Much like political correctness going mad, it is easy to keep to generalities.
O’Neil referenced the time journalist Chris Uhlmann tweeted a photo of gender-neutral toilets at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
She suggested that the “prime minister, who cannot find time to develop a coherent economic or energy policy, springs immediately into action. The crowd on Twitter fire up on their issue of the day. The toilet signage is changed. And the caravan moves on.”
Well yes, but the caravan didn’t move on for those who are transgender.
For them, all they saw was a conservative journalist and the prime minister band together to pick on them for reasons of spite while notionally progressive politicians thought the best response was to mock it as being a trivial issue not worthy of fighting.
Cripes, show some spine.
By contrast Paul Keating in 2007 said of John Howard celebrating that he had overturned political correctness, that “in other words what he thought was really good was to be politically incorrect, you know, to be able to sling off at someone’s colour or their religion, you know. And in a country of immigrants, this is poison for this society, poison for us.”
O’Neil suggested this week that “politics is about offering a compelling story about our country: who we are, where we are going. Then we talk about how we are going to get there.”
And yet, most voters would have no idea what the story being offered by the ALP is.
Keating also noted that “the Labor party, in the end, it is an altruistic show. It always wants to do good. Now sometimes it does good better than other times but fundamentally it wants to do good, where the other show is poisoned by ideology and preference and special interests. This is not true of labour parties.”
That is a good place to start – but it needs to be supported by Labor MPs willing to stand up for altruism, be willing as Keating was to call out racism and defend those whom conservatives seek to marginalise and belittle.
It needs progressives.
• Greg Jericho writes on economics for Guardian Australia