I was examining the headlines on the front page of the Murdochised Australian Financial Review the other day – something about the unhappiness of casual workers being a fallacy, yeah, right, I can give you examples of unhappy casual workers if you want them – when it struck me once again just how far to the right the media has lurched in this country, what a crisis that entails, and how no-one seems to feel very urgent about it. (AFR is owned by Fairfax but its editor-in-chief is now Michael Stutchbury, a former economics editor of the Australian and to the right of Genghis Kahn.)
And I reiterated to myself that the lack of urgency assumption wasn't true, that plenty of progressives feel terrible about the state of Australia. It's just that we lack a focus for our fears and hopes, and a means of channelling them effectively.I thought about the lead-up to the 1972 federal election: the excitement that abounded at the prospect of change after 23 years of conservative government, and how much the arty class were involved in persuading the electorate to embrace the Australian Labor Party and its out-there leader, Gough Whitlam – singing the 'It's time' theme in an election advertisement were film and television celebrities like Jack Thompson.
At the time, for perhaps the only time in its life, the ALP strongly resembled the present day Greens in its degree of radicalism. Yet the policies the party implemented once in government are now mainstream: abolishing the death penalty; setting up legal aid; establishing a universal health care system; introducing a single parents pension; the principle of women obtaining equal pay for equal work; abolishing the White Australia Policy; outlawing racial discrimination and ushering in multiculturalism; increasing spending on Indigenous people and handing back native lands. Despite itself, Australia actually moved forward, conforming to the truism that humanity is always progressing.
And why was the ALP so progressive? Because it had been infiltrated by progressives! In the fifties and sixties the disaffected young of the middle classes joined the ALP in droves and changed its old-style union flavour forever – this is described in Jamie Button's Speechless: A Year in My Father's Business. It was easy for progressives to focus on one political party that wasn't captive to corporations and was proposing real change.
Nowadays, the ALP is full of people who want to stay in parliament – full stop. It should be called the STIPAC Party, short for Stay in Power at All Costs.(The great irony is that the more the ALP ditches its progressive tenets in a bid to please the 24-hour media cycle and the media moguls, the more ridiculous it looks. It can't win, because the Coalition is just naturally better at being the puppets of big business. But that's another story.)
The ALP's progressive past, compared with its present as the puppets of big corporations, is one of the main reasons why the progressive forces are so scattered. Progressives who can't give up on the ALP are like ghosts who haven't crossed over because they don't know they're dead. It's a good career strategy – they can keep on whinging about what the ALP should be doing but isn't while ensuring they stay relevant and on-message for the Murdochised mainstream media. The MSM loves these people because they can publish their columns and thereby appear to be giving the progressive side an airing while still maintaining the status quo; everyone knows the ALP wouldn't implement their progressive proposals in a pink fit.Yet the Australian electorate, believe it or not, are still fairly progressive – when asked questions devoid of party political connotations, that is. Polls suggest that they want more government action in the areas of health, education, public transport and bank regulation. They also want – wait for it – government support of the manufacturing industry. And a majority believes that corporations have benefited most from the economic reform program of the last 30 years, and oppose the privatisation of Telstra. The same goes for gay marriage – according to Galaxy, 64 per cent of Australians support marriage equality, but neither Labor nor the Coalition supports it as a binding party policy. Another survey showed that Australians would be willing to pay higher taxes for better aged care.
The only party willing to put these wishes of the electorate into effect is the Greens. But thanks to the Murdoch press's successful demonisation of the Greens, and the Fairfax press ignoring them (in effect a form of censorship) most people think they're either dangerous extremists or they have no policies to speak of – or both.Media concentration in general, and Murdochisation in particular – the domination of the Australian print media by one man, and its deleterious effect on other media – has resulted in the electorate voting for the parties with policies they do not support, and against the party whose policies they do support. Understanding this conundrum is essential to understanding Murdochisation. You can see similar results in the USA, where the Murdoch funded Tea Party is full of poverty-stricken social democrats who have been successfully marshalled into defending tax-dodging billionaires but would be quite happy with an interventionist government offering good services if they actually believed such a government could exist.
Getting people to vote against their best interests is quite a feat. This, I repeat, is Murdochisation at work.
Progressives united?To get the message out that the Greens are actually a mainstream progressive party that will improve quality of life for all Australians, make Australia more equal and safeguard our environment, we desperately need a united progressive coalition that encompasses and champions the Greens, just as Australian celebrities and the arty class in general once championed the ALP.
There are a number of reasons why this isn't happening. We need to identify these reasons if we want to move past them.One problem is that we cannot agree on what to call ourselves. In 2012 a book of essays was published titled Left Turn: Political Essays for the New Left. Why are we still calling ourselves the Left? Do we need to evoke Lenin every time we demand, say, a decent welfare net or support for workers cooperatives? Do we even have to associate the basic human need for fairness, and the basic human desire to help someone in need, with the ruthless Bolsheviks and their Red Terror, an assassination campaign targeting opponents that occurred less than 12 months after they gained power? Didn't people agitate for social change before the Industrial Workers of the World came into being?
I am not damning unions here, or denying their vital role in curbing the worst horrors of the industrial revolution and improving working conditions. I'm saying we need more imagination. There is no guarantee that Left is always synonymous with progressive – what is progressive about Paul Howes's Australian Workers Union, which called for mining in the Tarkine?The other problem is that there seems little talk about exactly what kind of society we want. Not that everyone needs to agree on that – far from it. But we should be talking about it, trying to capture the debate. If there's no growth, where do the jobs come from, and the money for reskilling? If we don't like corporations why don't we simply change the rules that govern them? And if someone calls themselves a socialist, that's fine, but let's ask them, in the twenty-first century, with the creeping security state, what that actually means.
And why aren't we repeating ad nauseum some pretty basic demands regarding the worst excesses brought in by Howard and continued by Labor – demands to increase the dole, get rid of the super rorts and negative gearing, stop overfunding private schools and subsiding private health, cut skilled migration and stop demonising asylum seekers.
And shouldn't we be trying to highlight the conflicts between the old style union hackery of Paul Howes and the environmentally friendly advocates of a new information economy that the Greens are? Why isn't this debate being had on community radio station 3CR – not as a fighting match but as a genuine attempt to solve the jobs versus environment conundrum? Why don't we hear more from the Greens on 3CR, for that matter? Why aren't articulate progressives getting shows on the station, and interviewing experts (this happens, but not enough)? The Greens seem to have the worst of both worlds when it comes to the media – at times too mainstream for 3CR, and too 'radical' for the Murdocracy.
The sad fact is too much of our commentariat are stymied and paralysed by the following:
· The Murdoch-corporate press – which has created oligarchy. Progressives fear that if their proposals are too 'radical' they will be dismissed and won't be heard.
· Their love of lifestyle. Progressives are often quiet peace-loving types who always want to engage with debate comfortably, tend their veggie gardens and put their families and lifestyles first. Let's inject some urgency into things. We're spending too much time carrying out sustainable renovations, refashioning clothes, setting up ebusinesses and going to foodie events, and not enough time protesting. Not that any of this stuff is bad, but it's not enough.
· Progressive ghettos. Living in the Democratic Republic of Moreland can give you a false sense of security about life, the universe and everything. I speak from experience – I live in Stonnington and my local member is the insufferable Kelly O'Dwyer, and I am anything but complacent.
· Their career focus. As I've said before, too many of our intelligentsia have their priorities wrong – career and book deals first, the public interest second. Part of the reason is the price of housing in this country – high house prices breed conservatism, as John Howard knew so well. Progressives often focus on publicising their books to get sales, so they try to keep in with the journos. Perhaps the saddest example of a former progressive gone bad is Julian Morrow, who gives new meaning to the word hypocrisy – on his drive-time show on Radio National he happily hobnobs with the likes of the IPA's John Roskam and Murdoch warrior Joe Hildebrand.
· ALP 'progressives' – there is a strong yet ineffective progressive rump within the ALP. The likes of Doug Cameron are actually doing the progressive cause harm, because they are giving voters the impression that at heart the ALP is a party of humanitarian progress. They provide window dressing that disguises the machinations of power and influence that now govern the party. Steeped in ALP culture and their own machinations, they no doubt have the illusion of effectiveness. The most effective thing they could do is join the Greens.
· Single-issue parties that confuse the progressive cause. Take note the Wikileaks Party, the Sex Party and anyone else who grabs hold of one issue and creates a party around it. Before you do that, check out the Greens policy on your pet issue – it's probably similar to what you're fighting for.
· Embittered ex-Democrats who jump at an opportunity to slag the Greens. Please realise that the public interest matters more than your sense of being upstaged by the Greens. The original purpose of the Democrats was not to be a progressive party anyway, but to take the middle ground and 'keep the bastards honest'. If Natasha Stott Despoja stopped appearing on Channel Ten, she could have a resurrected political life as a popular Greens senator or, if she understandably doesn't want to enter parliament again, in the policy area.
· Feminists sticking to work and family issues. Many feminists these days don't seem to see themselves as much as they might as part of the progressive project. A few champion Gillard simply because she's a woman, while many talk up feminism as a social movement that seems to have little to do with economics apart from the call to give women equal participation in work, and men equal participation on the domestic front. Who is going to give single parents a fair go? The Greens. Who is for better access to education and training so single mums don't get stuck in dead-end jobs? The Greens. Who has the best record for gender equality in pre-selection? The Greens. Who has the best childcare policies? The Greens. And so on. If more feminists championed the party that actually supports their stance, it would be very helpful.
· Politeness. It's time to name rent seeking and attacks on the poor for what they are. I'm not arguing for abuse. I'm arguing for honesty. The Murdoch press are scary and it's difficult to tell the truth about them, as Bob Brown discovered. But honesty about the media and the situation in general is our greatest ally.
· GetUp – their election get-togethers are a distraction, and are intent on changing the policies of the major parties. Stop putting your energy into trying to change the major parties and support the Greens. Simon Sheikh, the former head of GetUp who is now an ACT Senate candidate for the upcoming federal election, has seen the light.We need to unite. We need to storm the airwaves of the Murdochised ABC radio stations, we need to get on 3CR, we need to demand that the IPA is no longer allowed on the ABC. We need to demand an end to super rorts, and scare – legitimately scare – people about climate change. We need to talk more loudly than the timorous welfare lobby about the effects of low dole payments and the parlous state of aged care, and protest the outrageous money grab of private schools of the public purse. Who do you think was subsidising Rosa Storelli's outrageous $500,000 salary? Taxpayers.
And we need to point out how outrageous it is that fracking is going on as a ghastly environmental experiment.
Most of all, we need to stop de-politicising these issues and daring to name the only party willing to put them into practice: The Greens. To demand an end to the censorship and declare our hands.I'm proposing a broad progressive alliance. It latches onto the Greens for now, and any independents who have a progressive agenda and are upfront about that, but only because the Greens happen to coincide with its broad vision. When they cease doing that, such an alliance would drop the Greens like a hotcake.
The right are working together. Haven't you noticed their years-long campaign about the need to improve 'productivity' and their dire warnings about labour being too expensive here? Softening us all up for the next version of Workchoices. Progressives need to unite in the common cause of increasing the Greens vote. This will not only help the progressive voice in parliament, but it will send a message to the major parties.Progressiveness has to be a potent and positive force, not a reactive one, because capitalism as it now operates is so obviously stuffed. It has to be an open-ended project yes, but still a project. And it has to educate the public, and at least try to provide answers to middle Australia. Where would the jobs be in a progressive Australia? Where would the tax come from? If we don't want mining, what will take its place? We have to take these questions seriously, or no-one will take us seriously.
Let's get off our butts and do something – but most importantly, do it together. And let's admit that the Greens are our only hope, and actually name them, and support them, just as the baby boomers did with Whitlam.Many of the ideas here are the product of discussions I've had with Michael Wilbur-Ham, and I thank him for his input.
Michael has recently established a progressive discussion forum, Mindful Australian Politics – you're more than welcome to drop in and look around or start a conversation.