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Labor and the 'empty ideology' of modernisation

By Tristan Ewins - posted Thursday, 5 April 2007

The headlines of The Australian for March 27, 2007 proclaimed boldly: “Rudd set for brawl with Left”. According to Steve Lewis, the journalist behind the booming headline, the sources of the looming showdown were many. Apparently Kevin Rudd has developed a set of proposals for the ALP Platform, including denunciation of “passive welfare”, support for Public Private Partnerships in the provision of national infrastructure, and the dropping of reservations concerning the casualisation of the workforce.

This last item is trumpeted by Lewis as involving the alienation of “left-wing unions such as the ACTU”. That the ACTU is a conglomeration of both Left and Right unions goes unnoticed in the writer’s rush to set the scene for a conflict between the fresh “modernising” leader and an apparently stale and pre-historic Left.

In casting the ACTU in the role, however, the author does suggest that the ACTU itself - and most likely its recommendations for industrial relations reform - is “part of the problem” and not part of the solution.


From Rudd’s draft platform, Lewis also supposes that the “showdown” will encompass an agenda of free-trade and free markets, as against attempts by the Left to limit such sweeping agendas, and to adopt a more interventionist industry policy.

The author, despite providing no evidence, sees moves for a free trade agenda as essential to “[lock] in the high levels of public support for Labor seen in opinion polls”. The so-called “heavy hand of government intervention” is decried as electoral suicide: a stain upon the “neo-liberal” credentials of a would-be Labor government.

Perhaps Lewis simply supposes that the support of The Australian, conditional on the adoption of a Conservative and neo-liberal agenda, is essential in maintaining Labor’s standing.

Such attempts to set a supposedly “modernising” ALP Right against a “prehistoric” Left are really nothing new. Since the days of Hawke and Keating, columnists for Australia’s national broadsheet have championed successive rounds of privatisation, labour market deregulation, far-reaching tax cuts resulting in the reduction of the Federal Government’s revenue base, and attempts to introduce punitive welfare provisions and push for the extension of the “user pays” principle into just about every sphere of life.

Those of us broadly identifying with the Left of the Australian political spectrum could not exactly claim to be in a position to dictate the terms of debate in The Australian but we ought to be mobilising our resources to help shape debate in the broader public sphere.

Here, the identification of “the Left” need not simply be restricted to the ALP Left faction, or to minor parties to the Left of Labor. Ideally, Independents and many MPs towards the relative Right of the ALP ought to, in the broader sense, still identify as being part of “the Left”.


But conservative commentators and columnists have long portrayed a conflict between a pragmatic, “modernising” Right, and a redundant Left, lost in the past, and unable to adapt to a changed world.

So what is “modernisation” and does it necessary involve capitulation to the neo-liberal ideology, and the abandonment of social-democratic goals? Such goals might be seen to include progressive taxation, social wage expansion, a mixed economy with a strategic role for the public sector, labour market regulation, and industry policy aimed at securing high wage jobs while driving export and import-replacement industries.

Overwhelmingly, “modernisation-traditional” binary oppositions comprise a tired cliché, trotted out regularly to ascribe a positive essence to those adapting their policies and priorities to reflect the dominant neo-liberal paradigm, and to those abandoning the roots of social democracy, as well as the roots of labourism in the trade union movement.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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