Inside Story

The continuing story of “our” party

Books | An outsider’s view of the Labor Party’s problems calls for “a paradoxical politics”

Frank Bongiorno 10 November 2019 2191 words

Less Mill and more Burke? Opposition leader Anthony Albanese prepares to speak about Labor’s election review at the National Press Club on Friday. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Story of Our Country: Labor’s Vision for Australia
By Adrian Pabst | The Kapunda Press | $32.95 | 217 pages

Among the many problems identified in Labor’s review of this year’s federal campaign is the besieging of the party before the election by various organisations that “banked the win.” These progressive groups sought to influence a Labor Party they assumed would win government but did little to get it elected, leaving the party with a wider-than-healthy range of policies. The result was a “cluttered policy agenda” that was a major reason for Labor’s defeat.

I strongly suspect that Adrian Pabst’s Story of Our Country started life as a banking of the win, with the aim of influencing an incoming Shorten government, but ended up as an attempt to explain what Labor did wrong and what it needs to do right if it’s to win again. In his assessment of the reasons for Labor’s defeat, Pabst — somewhat like the party’s formal review — points to the lack of “an overarching narrative capable of winning back its working-class base while also convincing the middle class.” Labor, he believes, did well in drawing attention to low wages but did too little to deal with the anxieties and aspirations of voters in the suburbs and regions, the party’s “traditional base” (a point to which I’ll return).

Researched before the election and published after it, the book is a strange beast in a number of ways, even leaving aside the cover endorsement from that well-known Labor stalwart Gerard Henderson (alongside shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers and former finance minister Lindsay Tanner). Pabst is a British political scientist and he talks much more about class than usual in Australian political commentary — no bad thing at all, although the analysis is sometimes a bit on the intuitive side. He also thinks that the Labor Party has “so far largely escaped the social-democratic decline” seen globally — a questionable judgement, and one that ignores how Australia’s preferential voting systems and public electoral funding regimes prop up the vote of the major parties, and especially Labor.

The book, published by an imprint of the conservative Connor Court, is a product of a visiting fellowship awarded by the PM Glynn Institute, established by Australian Catholic University “to provide the Catholic community with a standing capacity to analyse public policy issues of concern not only to the Catholic Church and its services, but to the wider Australian community as well.” Its director is a former George Pell staffer, Michael Casey, and its principal policy adviser, Damien Freeman, is the author of Abbott’s Right: The Conservative Tradition from Menzies to Abbott.

Still, the institute is clearly interested in what the Labor Party is up to — and a Catholic preoccupation with such matters is far from unprecedented in Australia, to put it mildly, as Pabst himself reminds us in the book’s historical survey. Indeed, one of his purposes is to persuade the Labor Party that it would do well to return to the traditions associated with Catholic social teaching, with its emphasis on the dignity of the human person, the common good and the rights of labour, the tradition epitomised by Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum of 1891. Looking beyond the Catholics, Pabst hopes that “the social justice tradition of the churches” more generally can be reintegrated into Labor’s way of looking at the world.

More broadly, he argues, Labor needs to recover its ethical purpose, its vision of “the good life.” It can do this best by recognising its own roots in the religious beliefs (or, at least, religious sensibilities) of those who made the party’s history, from the 1890s through to… Well, Kevin Rudd, conspicuously Christian, probably best matches the kind of Labor leader that Pabst would like. Labor, he believes, has become too secular, too technocratic, too managerial, too preoccupied with the “progressive” causes dear to the hearts of cosmopolitan elites, which leave others cold.

In other words, the party needs to get back in touch with ideas from its own history that have become submerged by less wholesome tendencies. Pabst believes that there is a Burkean strain in Labor’s history, with its emphasis on tradition and its desire to conserve as well as to reform, or what Pabst calls its “small c conservatism.” Here, and in his emphasis on “family, friends, work, community, and country,” Pabst draws on the Blue Labour ideas associated with Maurice Glasman in Britain and advocated in Australia most conspicuously by Nick Dyrenfurth of the John Curtin Institute. (I first drew attention to Glasman and Blue Labour in Inside Story in 2011.)

A large part of Labor’s problem, says Pabst, is that it has abandoned its “working-class base of industrial blue-collar and white-collar workers living precarious lives.” These people don’t see their interests or values reflected in Labor’s secular, liberal and cosmopolitan leanings, or in its embrace of globalisation and equating of change with progress. They rather yearn for a sense of connectedness to place and to one another, and are disillusioned with a party — indeed, with a political process — that takes too little account of what they truly value.

Pabst arrives at these conclusions from an unusual perspective: as an outsider who is also writing from within Labor tradition and mythology. The title comes from a remark by Paul Keating: that Labor is “part of the big story, which is also the story of our country.” Pabst accepts Labor luminaries’ estimation of their party’s place in Australian history, quoting speechwriter Graham Freudenberg’s view that “more than any other political party in the world, the Australian Labor Party reflects and represents the character of the nation which produced it” and Keating’s view that “we are the people who make Australian history… our party sets the ethos of Australia.”

It’s all very self-flattering, but this is also a party that has governed for much less than a third of the time since Federation. Still, in a bad year in the old days — such as 1955 — it managed almost 45 per cent of the primary vote. This year it mustered just a third. There are complex reasons for this decline that Pabst never really grapples with, beyond suggesting that Labor has abandoned its traditional base and needs to draw on its best traditions to recover it.

Labor’s fundamental problem is that the class on which its power and prestige rested for generations — and which it, in turn, helped to organise — is now barely recognisable. That class’s collective institutions have been broken by structural transformation, social change and state coercion. The manufacturing industry — almost 30 per cent of the economy at the beginning of the 1960s — is a shadow of its former self. Mining is capital- rather than labour-intensive; far from generating the kind of tight-knit communities that once voted Labor without fail, it is dominated by fly-in fly-out workers, often ununionised. Shearers are mainly found on the walls of art galleries rather than in trade unions.

Indeed, unions represent a sliver of the Australian workforce — predominantly public sector workers — and, as a result of their small numbers and uneven coverage, and some of the most blatantly anti-union laws in the Western world, they exercise little power. The Labor Party itself has been complicit in this decline, through an Accord process in the 1980s that tamed the unions. It then did almost nothing to promote union membership.

The Catholic Church, once a pillar of the party, has also been discredited by continuing revelations of child sexual abuse. More generally, trust in institutions — including trust in politics — has collapsed: a massive problem for social democracy, given that its aspirations inevitably depend on people retaining a modicum of faith in government’s ability to make their lives better.

Pabst does discuss some of these matters, although they are not well integrated into an argument that rests largely on a belief in the power of ideas and a faith that there is a “traditional base” out there waiting for Labor to reconnect. It is a largely cognitive approach to politics: so long as the party can “reintegrate exiled traditions,” and formulate good policy that reflects them, Labor can again become its best self.

I do wish that this were so. But politics is shaped by the structures in which it is embedded and the institutions through which it is practised. Demography, markets, the environment, interest groups, media, party politics and electoral systems all condition its potentialities, imposing restraints and roadblocks, and on occasion offering opportunities to reformers who have the ideas, courage and skill to seize them.

The limitations of focusing on ideas at the expense of structures are revealed in Pabst’s treatment of Edmund Burke. Pabst may well be right that we can identify aspects of the Labor Party’s philosophy that have “an implicit Burkean dimension.” But there has also been a rather explicit anti-Burkean aspect to Labor Party thought and practice, expressed in the party’s approach to democracy and probably first theorised by Vere Gordon Childe in How Labour Governs (1923). Parliamentarians were understood as delegates of a movement, and thereby the representatives of a class. For Labor, a member of parliament was not a trustee whose first duty was to his judgement, as Burke told the electors of Bristol. Rather, the member’s primary responsibility was to the labour movement, through the democratic institutions of a party seen as the authentic expression of the working class and the political wing of the union movement.

Labor’s anti-Burkeanism helps to explain some of the key dynamics of the party’s history since its foundation. It also helps to explain the mess in which Labor finds itself today.

When Pabst turns to what Labor policies might look like, these sometimes have a rather frayed appearance. He suggests a return to a family wage, abolished in 1974 in the context of moving from a male-breadwinner system towards equal pay for men and women; and he would allow couples “to share their tax-free allowances,” recalling the policy of “income-splitting,” long popular among conservatives, which has been criticised by feminists for its impact on gender equity and more generally for undermining the revenue base. Like other Blue Labour–influenced advocates, Pabst admires German co-determination and vocationalism. And consistent with Catholic ideas supporting distributism and subsidiarity, he is keen on the use of cooperatives as an intermediate layer between government and state that would spread economic ownership and power, and temper the dominance of big business and the big state.

His proposal to create a vast scheme with the quixotic title, in an Australian labour movement context, of the National Civic Service — effectively a form of conscription for social rather than military purposes — seems far-fetched. One hopes, for instance, that it would not include sending Australia’s youth into anyone’s roof to install pink batts. Any government that tried to impose it would likely find that the ordinary folk who Pabst believes value community and patriotism over “free choice” and “individualism” are rather more complex in their desires than your average proponent of civic virtue will recognise. Pabst wants “less Mill and more Burke” in the modern Labor Party, but Mill arguably better reflects the country’s political culture and its people’s outlook.

Pabst’s book is a passionate restatement of a particular vision for the Labor Party that has been a presence since the 1890s, if not perhaps quite as powerful a presence as he suggests. He has read widely and intelligently, although not always critically, in Australian politics. I spotted few factual errors.

A couple of generations ago, Pabst’s book would have slotted neatly into the Labor Right box and been summarily dismissed by everyone else. Not so today: across the party, there is a recognition that it needs to come to some kind of terms with people of faith, with workers who feel anxious and insecure, and with voters who value well-policed borders over cosmopolitan openness. And it needs to do all of this without losing the necessary support of secular-minded middle-class “progressives.”

Pabst calls for “a paradoxical politics — at once progressive and conservative, romantic and rational, secular and religious, patriotic and internationalist.” But can all of these strands — and the diverse constituencies that go with them — be knitted into a “credible story about national renewal” of the kind Pabst correctly sees as a precondition for Labor success?

The party’s formal review of the 2019 result worries over this problem: “The Labor Party has been increasingly mobilised to address the political grievances of a vast and disparate constituency.” Labor was traditionally “a proud social democratic party with roots in organised labour” but it has greatly broadened its political constituency, reflecting the gender, sexual and ethnic diversity of society. How can Labor balance these newer constituencies with the old, especially as the old feels increasingly anxious about its future? “The dilemma is not easy to resolve,” the review frankly admits. “It cannot be resolved simply by choosing one constituency over another.”

Pabst hasn’t solved the problem either. But his book is measured, thoughtful, generous and civil. In an age of authoritarian populism, the medium is almost as important as the message. •