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Let them eat lentils

By Mark Latham - posted Saturday, 15 June 2002

Question: which Australian think tank recently declared that, "the issues of the Left today are not those of exploitation, poverty and discrimination?"

If you are thinking of the neo-liberal IPA or HR Nicholls Society, think again. These are the words of Clive Hamilton from the Australia Institute in a speech to Left-wing union officials in Canberra.

I cannot imagine Left-of-Centre politics in this country without a passionate commitment to the elimination of poverty and discrimination. Indeed, this should be a unifying theme on our side of politics. Unless we win the war against poverty our hopes for social justice will be just a pipedream.


The Hamilton thesis, in fact, reveals the poverty of Green Left thinking. His argument is riddled with confusion and contradictions.

Hamilton claims to be an opponent of Third Way politics, yet his paper mimics the chief concern of the Third Way – the disconnection between GDP growth and human happiness. This is the central paradox of modern capitalism. We live in a society with record levels of financial capital but declining levels of social capital.

Hamilton has identified an important issue but advocated the wrong solution. The deterioration in social capital should not be used as an excuse for giving up on the problems of social disadvantage. Far from it, these two goals are highly compatible. Only by creating stronger communities, where people trust in each other and work together cooperatively, can we hope to address the problems of poverty and discrimination.

Instead of repairing social capital at its core through community-building initiatives, Hamilton advocates an extreme, anti-materialist agenda. In his world, working families should be able to "step off the materialist treadmill, to discard the DVD player, the second house, the luxury car, the holidays abroad, the meaningless acquisitions."

If only this were true. In the real world, economic insecurity and poverty remain. The purpose of Left-wing politics must be to ensure that all Australians can access material goods – economic assets, decent incomes and the comforts of the consumer age.

This highlights the burning contradiction in Hamilton’s agenda. He wants working class people to hold middle class, environmental values without the benefits of middle class incomes and assets.


This is the ultimate betrayal of the Green Left: post-materialist basket weaving for gentrified inner-city types like Hamilton, while those of us in the suburbs should simply forget about the public housing estates nearby, with their 40 percent unemployment rates and 80 percent welfare dependency. "Let them eat lentils" is the Hamilton mantra.

In practice, the first challenge for Left-of-Centre politics is to re-engage the public in a dialogue about a good society. During a time of constant change and uncertainty, most people now glaze over at the thought of "big picture" politics. Their primary interests are at a neighbourhood level – the small nuggets of public policy that can improve local schools, clean up the streets and rebuild a sense of community and place.

In the era of globalisation, the politics of community matters more, not less. It is in this local realm that people first learn the habits of trust and cooperation. If this inner core of social capital is weak then people are unlikely to meet the broader challenges of social justice.

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About the Author

Mark Latham is the former Leader of the Opposition and former federal Labor Member for Werriwa (NSW).

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