In this past week’s news two items stretched belief. The first was the purported finding of “big-foot’s body” and its storage in a freezer, the second was The Weekend Australian’s editorial "Political plot in need of a narrative" (August 16-17, 2008) proclaiming the freezing out of what it alternatively and pejoratively calls the “cultural Left”, the “academic Left” and at other times the “once-progressive Left”, which is now the “regressive Left” with “nothing left to say” except “nostalgia for the rights-based politics of the 1970s”.
This mythical beast, “the Left” could well argue, as did Mark Twain, that “these reports of my death are grossly exaggerated”.
But what is this beast, “the Left”, and why is there such an abominable and lascivious obsession with its demise? One might also ask when was the question of “human rights” an issue for “nostalgia” or anything other than an ever present matter of international concern for all humanity?
Since the Hawke-Keating economic reforms, the central point of difference in the national ideas debate has not been a clash of Left and Right in a traditional sense. To celebrate this as heralding the death of the Left is a gratuitous triumphalism which misses the fact that the point of difference - the clash - has reorientated itself along an alternative axis defined by the social more than the economic, and by conservative versus progressive imaginings of appropriate national identity.
It was this debate about national identity, the so-called “culture wars” as the conservative journalists like to term it with their insistence that reconciliation must be “practical”, that moved up-front and centre in the Howard years. This was a move away from Keating’s vision of an alternative practicality, of reconciliation making “good economic” and social sense, and of a progressive national identity.
But it was a move, nonetheless, that kept the nation’s focus on issues of identity and the social contract as a substantial part of the main game. This embedded a new fissure between Left and Right and precipitated a reinvigoration of each around social issues.
Howard took us back to some cardigan-and-pipe avuncular parochialism of quintessential 1950s Australia - a suburban quarter acre block dreaming that never was and never will be. Issues of national identity occupied as much of a role under Howard as they did under Keating, playing out as an ubiquitous three Rs of Australian politics for a decade or more - reconciliation, the republic and refugees.
Howard channelled Menzies in galvanising our fears and vulnerabilities, just substituting terrorism for communism and shades of brown and Islam for older “yellow perils”.
But the injustices and right wing parochialism of Howard’s vision were ultimately unsustainable and in 2007 a Rudd Labor Government was elected. Modelling himself on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rudd articulated a new national vision and a more progressive social agenda. He provided an alternative, and it was this more inclusive vision of Australia that people chose, not marginally but overwhelmingly, at the end of 2007.
It is a vision in which social justice is taken seriously. It is a vision captured in his speech to the Centre for Independent Studies this month where he spoke about what reforming Centre social democratic governments can do to “recognise where markets fail and then intervene on behalf of a compassionate society”.
In broad political spectrum terms, Rudd, like Obama in the US, articulates unashamedly what a modernised Centre Left democracy can mean. He argues that good governance of the economy and offsetting where it fails is part of the social contract we have with one another as human beings and between us and government as citizens.
Rudd talks of governments delivering decency, and we have seen a bold start on that delivery. We have witnessed an apology and a Cabinet roving through Indigenous communities. Detention is on the agenda, and a republic is not explicitly off. We have, in Mandarin, heard a re-engagement with our neighbours and our future rather than an exclusive and parochial obsession with our xenophobic past.
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