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  Issue No 43 Official Organ of LaborNet 24 February 2000  

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Politics

True Deceivers

extract from 'Running on Empty' - by Dr Andrew Scott

In his controversial new book, Andrew Scott argues that Labor's rhetoric has outstripped its achievements.

 
 

Running on Empty

The Wilson and Callaghan governments culminated in deep disillusionment among Labour's erstwhile working-class supporters. However, the ALP managed - with a partial return to labourist policies and the considerable aid of a poor performance and extremist policies on the part of its opposition - to contain and reverse similar sentiments sufficiently to unexpectedly retain government at the 1993 election, before reaping the full furty of the accumulated anger felt by 'the battlers' in 1996 after it breached its previous election promises by reverting to some unpopular tax measures, and after the Coalition opposition finally presented a safe and moderate alternative.

Over the 13 years of Labor in office there were a number of distinct policy phases. The first phase, 1983-90, was marked by the pursuit of consistently economic 'rationalist' policies with Hawke and Keating working together at the helm. The next phase, following the formal onset of the recession in November 1990 until Hawke was toppled by Keating as prime minister in December 1991, was one of indecisiveness of policy direction exacerbated by the all-consuming leadership struggle between the two men. The final phase, with Keating as prime minister from 1992-96, was marked by the some important shifts in the Labor government's political direction.

The image of society which Paul Keating as prime minister worked with was essentially similar to Hawke's. His first major new policy initiative as prime minister in February 1992 was titled One Nation (in line with the oft-cited moderate 'One Nation' toryism in Britain) and was therefore continuous with Hawke's imagery of 'Bringing Australia Together'. From the moment he took the top job from Hawke in December 1991, however, Keating worked strenuously to transform himself from a free-market, modernising treasurer into a prime minister firmly in touch with Labor tradition. He was necessarily very anxious to convey the sense that there was now a substantial shift in political direction. As soon as he became leader he promised to introduce new policies. He later recalled that:

"We were fitted up with the policies and rhetoric of the 80s. We had to change that and change our position. Now that's what we succeeded in doing over the 15 months to the [1993] election [from December 1991]. Re-ordering the debate, saying that there was a role of government."

Senator Graham Richardson similarly asserted that:

"One Nation set a direction and Keating stamped on the place in February of 1992 that there was now a change in thinking: that the government that had cut and cut and cut was now prepared to spend money, not just to get Australia going again, but it was a recognition that infrastructure spending had fallen behind and we had to do it. And that was a major change. And everything we've done since then follows that direction."

The ALP issued a substantial new publication in 1992 (following the Coalition's adoption of Fightback) entitled Poles Apart, to emphasise the degree of policy difference that now existed between Labor and the Coalition parties. As Keating sought to restore some sense of ideological purpose to Labor in government after taking over the leadership in December 1991, he - and his speechwriter Don Watson - began increasingly to refer to Labor's 'true believers'.

The term 'true believer' had been earlier used by the anti-totalitarian United States author Eric Hoffer to describe political fanaticism. In Australia, the term 'true believers' came into political parlance from the title of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation television series first screened in 1988, which dramatised the political battles of the 1940s and 1950s. The suggestion of that series title was that, in contrast to the pragmatic present, the post World War Two political era was a time when the players in Australian (and Labor) politics really were motivated by sincere convictions. In this sense it was in line with Daniel Bell's famous thesis that the 1950s marked The End of Ideology in the politics of the advanced industrial nations.

Subsequently, however, in its usage by Keating and other Labor politicians the term 'true believers' was invoked in order to claim continuity between the grand principles of Labor's past and the practices of the incumbent federal government: to imply that far from being extinct, true belief was alive and well. Paul Keating declared on the night of Labor's against-the-odds 1993 election win that 'this is a victory for the true believers':and the process of life imitating and embellishing art continued when the stirring theme music of the television series was played at the ALPs subsequent official victory celebration. Merchandise was even produced for ALP supporters including a T-shirt declaring that "I am a True Believer': and a 'True Believers' pen.

Interestingly, the theme music used in the True Believers is in fact the very English composition 'Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity' from Gustav Holst's opus, "The Planets'. It also sounds very similar to the music composed by Hubert Parry for William Blake's poem 'To Build a New Jerusalem', which has long been sung by delegates at the end of annual conferences of the British Labour Party, and which calls up a powerful emotional identification and socialism's original objection to the pollution of England's 'green and pleasant land' by the 'dark satanic mills' of the industrial revolution. Holst's 'Jupiter', composed in 1916 and drawing on traditional English folk melodies, was put to words in 1918 in the very patriotic English hymn 'I vow to Thee My Country, all earthly things above'. It is somewhat ironic that such an English tune became regularly used and associated with the nationalistic, Australian republic-centred agenda espoused by Paul Keating in the early to mid-1990s. The scriptwiter of The True Believers, Bob Ellis, in later writings for ALP politicians, continued to draw upon a strong influence of British labour movement emotions and rhetoric. His input to the first budget addres-in-reply of the new Labor opposition leader, Kim Beazley, in 1996, responding to the new Howard conservative government's cuts to social programs, reprised a speech Neil Kinnock had made in 1983 warning British voters contemplating re-election of Thatcher 'not to be ordinary ... not to be young ... not to fall ill ... not to get old.

Through the use of these emotional devices, through new philosophical speeches and rhetoric about social democracy, and by picking up some of the previous marginalized Whitlamite themes and policies on constitutional reform, Aboriginal land rights and, later, urban and regional development and access to justice, Paul Keating succeeded in restoring some sense of idealism in Labor ranks in the 15 months to the 1993 election.

The process of rehabilitating party traditions continued on the eve of the launch of the 1994 white paper on employment, Working Nation, when Keating visited the same Melbourne factory where Chifley had, 46 years earlier, launched the first Holden car to be made in Australia. The symbolism of the location, and the more general attempt to claim a direct line of descent from the revered Chifley with this white paper, were obvious; as was the contrast with the early years of the Hawke government when there was comparatively little effort put into associating the present Labor government with past Labor governments. Hawke himself had often claimed a personal affinity with John Curtin, but the credibility of this had been severely dented by a sharp critique from 'Nugget' Coombs in 1984, who disputed Bob Hawke's claim that Curtin was a 'consensus' prime minister in the same way that Hawke himself was. Coombs contrasted Curtin's approach to that of Hawke and this then treasurer Keating's 'pursuit of consensus by the adoption of the policies of the Opposition', declaring that:

"Curtin had an acute sense of the limits of public opinion. But they were limits which he worked on indefatigably to mould to the purposes of the Labour Party. All his energy, his competence, his eloquence and dedication were directed to extending the range of consensus about those purposes ... And the consensus was to be on the government's terms. It was to yield no abandonment of basic principles."

The retreat by ALP leaders from the previously uncompromising themes of reform, change and modernisation from 1992 marked a recognition that these themes were no longer tenable among Labor Party members and in the party's electoral heartlands. There was a limit to how far the ALP and its supporters could be pushed. People increasingly realised that the kind of change being pursued in the name of modernisation meant in reality the embrace of alien philosophies and the imposition of job loss and uncertainty which clearly ran contrary to their own interests.

The British Labour Party's own reference point has recently shifted from nostalgia for 'that golden age - the Labour governments of 1945-51' which Gareth Stedman-Jones criticised in the early 1980s, to a rediscovery under Blair of the importance of the early liberal radicals and ethical socialists who pre-dated those with 'statist' pre-occupations who became prominent from the 1930s. This is being reflected in the emerging new histories of the party.


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*   Issue 43 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: Parting Gestures
Outgoing ACTU president Jennie George looks back on her time at the helm and charts some challenges for young women in the union movement.
*
*  Unions: While We Were Sleeping
It’s been a long hot summer for Australian workers - from the showdown in the Pilbara to the victorious National Textile workers. We look at the stories Workers Online missed while we were in the banana chair.
*
*  Media: Freudian Slips
The coverage of Jennie George’s final days as ACTU President were a case study in the art of psycho-tabloid.
*
*  Legal: Cookies’ Fortune
The breakaway union led by a man personally backed by the Prime Minister has been refused registration in a ruling that raises questions over the whole enterprise.
*
*  Politics: True Deceivers
In his controversial new book, Andrew Scott argues that Labor's rhetoric has outstripped its achievements.
*
*  Review: Rebel With a Cause
A new Michael Moore has emerged at the frontline of subversive television. His technique? Combining organising with silly suits.
*
*  Satire: Victorian ALP shock: "Apparently We're in Power!"
A recent survey conducted by the Victorian State ALP has revealed that the party is in government.
*
*  International: Right Hand Drive
The rise of the extreme Right in Austria carries some important lessons for our own society.
*

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