Three gaps on the broader Australian Left

I have been thinking a lot about organisational gaps on the progressive side of politics in Australia recently. It was inspired by this piece by Aaron Bastani from a few years ago where he wrote about what would help strengthen left-wing movements. It is not a new discussion but it is one that usually happens privately.

In Australia, there has been significant investment in campaigning, in particular leadership, digital skill building, messaging, strategies and tactics. The Centre for Australian Progress has been a facilitator of skilling up the progressive movement and there have also been a range of other organisations established that provide this. Unions have also built up their campaigning capacity, environmental organisations are investing in community organising and GetUp! has expanded significantly, into electoral campaigning, organising volunteers and targeted media buys, with reports that it received $10m in revenue in 2016.

For a long time, another obsession on the broader Australian Left was the lack of thinktanks. While there are no thinktanks funded as well as or have the reach of the Institute for Public Affairs or the Centre for Independent Studies, there are a plethora of funded thinktanks now. The Australia Institute is taking a much larger role and is expanding. There is also Per Capita, Centre for Policy Development and McKell Institute with full time staff. Below them is a tier of smaller organisations attached to universities such as the John Cain Foundation, Evatt Foundation, Whitlam Institute and Don Dunstan Foundation. There are also more party aligned ones such as the Chifley Research Centre, TJ Ryan Foundation, John Curtin Research Centre and Green Institute. While it is unlikely we will have the same thinktank culture as the United Kingdom or the United States and they could do with more staff, resources and push the boundaries of what is politically acceptable, it is not as pressing an issue as it once was.

Reflecting on Bastani’s piece, there seem to be three big organisational gaps on the Left in Australia. They relate to media platforms, spaces to meet and funding sources.

Media platforms

A big focus is often on the lack of a left-wing media in Australia. The Murdoch papers are clearly conservative and Fairfax is highly critical of much of the agenda of the Left. The Guardian is a potential voice but Comment Is Free has scaled back to set pieces by established writers. There are a few explicitly left-wing columnists in the media like Van Badham, Jeff Sparrow, Jason Wilson and Paul Syvret but they are an obvious minority. I have, however, come to a view that the extent of the focus on the day-to-day media is a distraction.

While the day to day news is important to help shape the mood, the bigger gap is platforms that set the agenda and let you know what is going on elsewhere. There aren’t really any agenda setting left-wing magazines like the New Statesman or the Nation or a journal like Dissent or Renewal. The Monthly, while progressive, is cosmopolitan left-liberal and does not set the key political debates within influential left-wing circles. Overland is primarily a literary journal while other magazines like Arena and Australian Options have little to no influence. New Matilda is more prolific but does not really shape any broader debates. Sites like AIMN, Independent Australia or Wixxyleaks seem to have some readership but they won’t be key influencers.

However much I might not like their ideological positioning, there is nothing of similar stature to Spectator Australia or Quadrant on the right. Online magazines and sites could play a role, if there could be a paid editor, but it is not the same as having a regular, agenda setting, hard copy publication.

Spaces to meet

The fragmentation of the Left across multiple political parties and the declining membership of traditional institutions that brought people together such as trade unions mean alternative spaces for people to meet, network and interact are needed. These spaces need to exist to help strengthen weak ties that might be formed online or through one off interactions.

There aren’t really spaces for this to occur currently. The closest equivalent model in Australia would be Politics in the Pub, however, it is a very decentralised, siloed model rather than an institutional space that is structured to facilitate engagement by those new to politics and build relationships across social movements and in geographical localities.

In an ideal world, SEARCH Foundation would be best placed but it is not in a state to do it on a large scale. An organisation like GetUp! could help facilitate this but it would be best done by a separate organisation whose sole purpose is to provide a social space and strengthen ties to avoid likely conflicts over control.

I would also add that in additional to a social space, the lack of broad left conferences where like-minded individuals can meet, network and talk about ideas is a big gap that needs to be addressed.

Funding sources

Traditionally unions have been a big incubator of funds. They provided seed funding to the Centre for Australian Progress and also provided support for thinktanks like McKell Institute and the Australia Institute. Unions, however, have limited resources and cannot be relied upon to be the sole institutional funder of progressive causes. They are constantly the target of conservatives and resources are increasingly scarce given union density is not growing.

We do not have foundations in the same way as the United Kingdom which fund a raft of organisations that promote progressive causes. Progressive individuals may fund projects but it can be hard to know what to fund that serves a good ideological purpose.

Given the attacks on institutions associated with the progressive movement such as trying to strangle unions with bureaucratic processes and attempting to remove tax deductability from environmental organisations, creating avenues for individuals to know what causes and projects to directly support would be worthwhile.

Addressing these three organisational gaps I have highlighted won’t ensure that progressives always win but it would help to strengthen the broader Australian Left.

Understanding Labor beyond Sydney and Melbourne

A few years ago, the NSW Socialist Left celebrated its 60th anniversary and got historian Frank Bongiorno contributing a short history of the faction. I re-read the short history a few days ago and it got me thinking about the origins of the Left faction in other states.

While there is often much talk about rumblings within the Left faction, as I have previously written, the reality is that it is a loose coalition of state-based groupings. They are shaped by local factors and histories which mean they often disagree (as shown at the recent ALP National Conference) and even have their own sub-groupings. The state-based nature of the ALP also meant that the various factions did not all form at the same time and are very much creations of certain circumstances and local party cultures, something that is not well understood or analysed.

The NSW Combined Unions and Branches Steering Committee (as the Socialist Left was originally known as) was formed in 1954-55 to fight the Groupers, however, the Victorian Socialist Left was only formed after federal intervention in 1970. Elsewhere around the country, formalised Left factions were formed at later dates. For example, in Queensland, a formalised Socialist Left only established itself in 1978-79 around then Senator George Georges. In Tasmania, party reform in 1976 resulted in dominance by the ‘Broad Left’ from the mid-1970s onwards which became a formal faction in 1983. The ACT Left Caucus was not formed until the early 1980s. In each of these cases, a Left faction was instigated by local circumstances and those local factors meant that they were often ideologically and operationally quite different.

The experience of South Australia and Western Australia is different, in part because factionalism was imported from the other states. Until the 1980s, much of the rest of the party outside the East Coast was not factionalised. Two factors changed this. Firstly, in 1981, ALP National Conference approved the introduction of proportional representation for the remaining state branches. As Clem Lloyd and Wayne Swan pointed out in their 1987 Australian Journal of Political Science article ‘National Factions and the ALP‘:

Because the state machines could no longer control the composition of National Conference and National Executive delegations, a premium was placed on factional representation which transcended state limits.

Prior to then, the Labor Right did not organise beyond the state level and the Left only had a rudimentary national structure at best. Whoever already controlled the branch had complete control and there was limited incentive because it required complete control.

Secondly, it was the formation of proper national factions, instigated ironically by the creation of the National Centre Left in Adelaide on 19 February 1984, that led to factionalisation in states like Western Australia and South Australia. The Centre Left established itself in opposition to the factionalism of Left and Right factions. Lloyd and Swan explained that:

Lacking any prospect for winning power bases in NSW and Victoria, where existing factions honeycombed the ALP structure, the National Centre Left focussed its aspirations on the outer states which were largely unfactionalised.

Reflecting on all this, it becomes clear that whenever Labor’s past is discussed, it only really focuses on either Sydney or Melbourne or the going ons in the Commonwealth Parliament. It overlooks the importance of local factors in shaping distinct party cultures that do have an impact on national decisions. Labor still is a federation of state branches with alliances across state lines. The Labor Party is more than what happens in Sydney, Melbourne and the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. There should be more knowledge and discussion about these local histories such as the origins of local factions and political clashes to understand how and why things are the way they are.

The Real Story Behind Harmony Day: How John Howard Depoliticised Anti-Racism

Tomorrow is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, but you probably haven’t heard it called that before.

The day commemorates the Sharpesville Massacre. On March 21 1960, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid laws in Sharpeville, South Africa. In proclaiming the day in 1966, the United Nations General Assembly called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.

Yet few people in Australia would be aware of the origins of this day since it was re-named as ‪‎Harmony Day. The Racial Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews were among the few public figures who mentioned the origins of the day last year on its 50th anniversary.

 

From Anti-Racism To “Harmony”

You might wonder why this matters. Surely a celebration of cultural diversity fits in with opposition to racism? But calling it Harmony Day drains the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of its real meaning. Rather than focusing on tackling racism and the structural barriers that continue to exist, it is instead a self-congratulatory day about how “harmonious” we apparently are.

The nature of Harmony Day is unsurprising since it was originally an invention of the Howard Government. It was created 1998 in response to research conducted by Eureka Research for the federal government about the causes of racism and issues of national identity that were prominent at the time.

Rather than addressing Australia’s deep-seated issues and acknowledging there was racism, the project latched onto the idea of celebrating already existing harmony in the community, based on the second phase of research. Celebrating and protecting this harmony would be the focus, avoiding any uncomfortable conversations about racism. It didn’t threaten the status quo, which John Howard was all too happy with.

Nearly two decades on, the day manifests itself by encouraging people to wear orange, for no clear reason, and eating ‘ethnic food’. At best, Harmony Day is cosmo-multiculturalism — a multiculturalism that makes people feel classy and sophisticated, where ‘ethnic’ products are a form of exoticisms for consumption, detached from history and culture.

 

Racism Exists in Australia

Yes, nowhere is perfect and Australia does better than some other places in the world, but an absence of outright racially discriminatory laws does not mean racism does not exist. It remains in structural barriers, casual racism and instances of abuse throughout the country. Ask any non-white person or anyone visibly from a minority racial group and they can tell you about it.

You see it in the lack of diverse representation in our institutions. Soutphommasane, for example, has spoken about a “bamboo ceiling” preventing Asian Australians from taking their share of leadership positions. You see it in outright hostile depictions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our broadsheets. You see it in our politicians’ rhetoric about who we decide to let into this country and the circumstances in which they come.

We also seem to do far worse than other comparable countries in terms of general parliamentary representation. In Canada, for example, people from minorities have served as premier, governor-general and make up 14 percent of the Canadian parliament. In Australia, less than 10 percent of our federal parliamentarians are from non-English speaking backgrounds, even though nearly one in four Australians are.

The image of Australia projects of itself is predominantly still Anglo-Australian, both overseas and even at home. Race becomes the defining feature of anyone who is not an Anglo-Australian and any proper representation of a culturally diverse Australia in the media seems to be siphoned off to SBS. Then there are the more subtle forms of racism such as media reporting about Arab Australians and Asian Australians. The endless articles about “the Chinese” buying up property immediately come to mind.

As long as we continue to call it Harmony Day, we are legitimising this widespread denial about racism in Australia. One day can’t fix racism, but we can start by calling it what it actually is, and staying true to its real message: the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Published in Junkee on 20 March 2017

What would a successful Australian left-populism look like?

I have previously written how I think the desire of some in the Australian Labor Party for an Australian Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn is likely to unlikely occur within the current institutional set-up. That desire for an Australian equivalent is not limited to Labor members though.

There are some on the Left outside the major parties who think they could be the beneficiaries of this current populist mood. For example, Senator Lee Rhiannon has been arguing that the Greens should tap into this populist moment by becoming more radical and anti-establishment.

Personally I don’t think the Greens can pull off a populist reinvention, left-populism will only come through a new political vehicle. The Greens aren’t seen as anti-establishment by those disillusioned with democracy and generally disinterested in politics as usual. They aren’t seen as representatives of the people or of the working class. They are more a vehicle of civic responsibility, the exact opposite of radical left-populism.

Furthermore, the belief that the Greens can change some policies to reinvent itself ignores that successful populist vehicles are very much centred around charismatic individuals who people believe are genuine outsiders. I don’t think many would see any elected Greens MP in that way. I would also add that much of the jargon and many of the actions (of not just those in the Greens but also the broader Left) are not what people do, use or talk about, it has no real mass populist appeal.

So what would a successful new left-populist vehicle look like and what would their platform be? I have a few thoughts.

Firstly, it requires some charismatic leaders who people believe are genuine insurgents (even if they are flawed). Successful populist parties are a personification of the leader. The leader would be dominant but the party would need to be seen as very democratic. Primaries would seem to be the obvious method of doing it, riding on the coattails of the leader.

For a platform, I wouldn’t talk about socialism or capitalism or left or right or the political centre. It is irrelevant jargon to most people. If it was me, I would talk about the need to break-up the cartels that control our country and how you don’t really have a voice. Everyone knows what you mean. In most major industries, you can count the main providers on your fingers. Virgin or Qantas, Woolworths or Coles, the big four banks. The rhetoric would be “the cartels have rigged the system and it’s time to give power back to the people.”

Policies could be using the state to take on the cartels that screw over Australia such as by setting up a people’s bank to challenge the big four and building a high speed train line to give people a choice when travelling.

A left-populist would go after people and corporations who avoid tax very hard. The line would be that tax avoidance is theft because every dollar in tax they don’t pay means one less dollar for pensions, one less dollar for Medicare, one less dollar for kid’s education, one less dollar for disability services. Subsidies and tax breaks for corporations that avoid taxes would be cut and CEOs would be jailed for defrauding the public and avoiding tax.

The anti-system stance would emphasise how the classes that control Australia all went to the same universities and they have a different life, detached from everyday people, and they have all know each other for years. If something is wrong for the connected, they can pay people off with favours. Them and “the cartel” need to be cleared out by banning lobbyists, requiring MPs to be accountable for every public dollar they spend, slashing public funding for political parties and restricting political expenditure.

The framing narrative would be Australia can be better than what we have now. It was once a place where you could get a good job, a house with a block of land, you could relax on weekends. It was possible once to have a good life and we can make it that way again but “the cartels” and self-interested political class are stopping it. We need to do the right thing by other Australians because we haven’t been, those in charge have just been doing what is convenient for them.*

That vision would be tied in to rebuilding Australia because those in charge have given up on parts of the country. Rather than focusing on a post-work agenda, there would be a job guarantee so whoever wants to be employed will be and contributing to the community.

The structure, platform and narrative I outlined have their problems but broadly I think it would be necessary for a left-populist party to be successful enough in Australia to get parliamentary representation. Kickstarting it is another question though. The environment currently is conducive to anti-establishment politics but there is no spark (as yet) to set it off and then someone who take advantage of the momentum. It would require some kind of movement to really get off the ground and we have not seen anything like that as yet.

* (This framing narrative is problematic because of the oppression and dispossession of Indigenous Australians but a variant of it is needed).

UPDATE: Reinforcing my point that the Greens are not seen as the vehicle for left-populism, Essential polling shows Greens voters are even less likely than Labor supporters to believe the system needs fundamental change. 

Who are the ALP Left candidates for the National Policy Forum?

Voting is now open for Labor’s National Policy Forum (NPF). Modelled off British Labour’s Policy Forum, the NPF meets regularly to discuss policy, hear from a range of speakers and to help draft Labor’s National Platform in between the triennial National Conference.

The National Policy Forum has twenty rank-and-file representatives who are directly elected. Other voting members include the Federal Parliamentary Party Leader and the National President (who are co-chairs), two Deputy Chairs and a Secretary elected by National Conference, the National and Assistant National Secretaries, the National President of Young Labor, twenty affiliated union representatives and twenty federal MPs.

If you have been a member for at least a year prior to the calling of NPF nominations, you should have received an email today to cast your vote. Unlike the President or party leader elections, it is a digital by default ballot but you can request a postal vote. Voting for the NPF closes on 2 December so there is still some time.

There is often a dearth of information about who is who when these larger direct election ballots occur as not everyone has a large profile. To make things a bit clearer, the following is a list of known ALP Left candidates running for rank-and-file National Policy Forum spots in each state and territory.

 

NSW

Sinead Simpkins

Cameron Murphy

Verity Firth

Nuatali Nelmes

 

ACT

Ella Factor

 

VIC

Onagh Bishop

Mark Kettle

Jamie Gardiner

Damien Kingsbury

Max Costello

Steve Brown

Oliver Squires

 

SA

David Pearson

 

NT

Pat Honan

 

QLD

Nick Thompson

Laura Fraser-Hardy

 

TAS

Adam Clarke

 

WA

Dominic Rose

Tom Palmer

 

If I have made any mistakes or inadvertently left a candidate off this list, please let me know and I will amend the list.

 

UPDATE: The list of elected National Policy Forum members can be found here.

Why isn’t there a regular broad Left Conference?

A few months ago, the annual ALS Freidman Conference was held in Sydney. It is a get together of hundreds of classical liberals and libertarians regardless of their party affiliation. It got me thinking that though the Left often has conferences, there is no equivalent centrepiece event.

While there are left-wing conferences, there is often a focus on techniques rather than ideas. The largest frequent conferences, organised by Australian Progress, tend to be more about campaigning strategies and tactics rather than ideology. There have been other conferences more focused on ideas but they have been one-offs or party-centric such as Labor’s Progressive Australia, the Greens Reboot or SEARCH’s Left Renewal Conference.

It seems odd that there seems to be a lack of an ideological conference culture on the Left in Australia. Where events about ideas and policy do occur, they seem to be either academic or exclusive and small rather than seeking involvement and a mass audience. Maybe it is because the yardstick for comparison is somewhere like the United Kingdom where the Fabian Society and other organisations host regular conferences and are not held back by geographic distances. Maybe it once existed locally but disappeared as the institutional Left started to shrink.

I do, however, think there is appetite for a regular, pluralist Left conference about future we want that is not bogged down by partisan or factional squabbles or be stuck in the past. Ideas, policy and ideology matter because what is the point of strategy and tactics if we don’t have end goals?

There are a range of topics that need to be debated whether it is the challenge of generational politics, whether we can rebuild solidarity, organising around housing affordability, tackling inequality in all its forms, fighting climate changing, how to get a treaty, aiming for a six hour work week and universal basic income.

Any conference should seek to push boundaries and build better relationships amongst the broader Left. It should also be fun, forward looking and more like a festival, incorporating art, music and culture. Something exciting like The World Transformed rather than the usual talkfests where we hear from the same people who already have a platform. It also needs to be engaged beyond the traditional Left and avoid just having the same older set of speakers we hear all the time.

Organising a big festival-like conference is easier said than done and it will probably be better to start small and scale up but a regular event should be on the agenda for the Left so there can be a proper organised space for debating and exchanging ideas that cuts across the silos that do exist.

Battling the Pauline Hanson battler myth

The big surprise of the recent federal election was the success of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Not only was Hanson elected but three other One Nation Senators were as well. Their election has led to much soul searching about Hanson’s ongoing appeal, and public discussion about how to respond.

A recent SBS Insight episode suggested that those who voted for Hanson predominantly were disillusioned with the major parties and believed Hanson had a passion and authenticity that the others lack. Hanson benefitted from the perception that she is a political outsider who speaks for ‘ordinary Australians’.

This affirmed polling by Essential Research that found 62 per cent thought she speaks for a lot of ordinary Australians and 65 per cent thought she spoke about issues politicians are too scared to tackle.

It is ironic that Hanson thrives on the perception that she is an authentic outsider against ‘the system’ when in fact she is part of that system. Think about how she is constantly given paid platforms by television networks.

She hasn’t been silenced by ‘the system’, her voice is heard and has been amplified. She is also no amateur, she is a professional and knows exactly what she is doing. She is not some ‘battler’ being picked on, and that needs to be emphasised.

The resonance of Hanson’s message goes beyond being seen as an outsider. Part of it also comes from her portrayal of her views as ‘common sense’. Her perspective is never complicated or sophisticated; it is matter of fact, and based on practical intuition. Think back to her maiden speech and her comparison of immigration to being allowed to choose who she invites into her home.

A good recent example of how Hanson uses ‘common sense’ was her comments about squat toilets in the Tax Office. Her simple message was that if you cannot figure out how to use something as simple as a toilet, how can you know how to run something complex like a tax system?

Her messages are not based on facts, so fact checking is pointless, as are overtures to diversity or that it does not matter. They are simple ‘common sense’ messages, so they cut through.

That ‘common sense’ approach thrives in the current media landscape and explains why it favours populists. Simple messages cut through the noise and grab media attention, in an era where resources for serious journalism are limited. It is a vicious cycle where the media and populists have an almost parasitic relationship.

While Hanson is not the only One Nation senator, the party’s success has always been reliant on her. There has been increasing scrutiny of some of the other One Nation senators but it seems unlikely to damage the party. One Nation, like other similar parties, is reliant on a charismatic figure. As Ben Moffitt points out, populist parties tend towards extreme personalisation where party leaders ‘speak for, represent and embody the hopes, desires and voice of ‘the people’. The re-branding of the party as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is a case in point. So long as One Nation and Pauline Hanson are seen as synonymous, the other senators might cause some embarrassment but will not undercut the party’s base level of support.

Given all of this, how should those who want to challenge Hanson respond? Firstly, Hanson and One Nation should not be indulged, but the broader concerns of her voters should be acknowledged. Acknowledging is not the same as agreeing.

The myth that she is an authentic outsider also needs to be challenged. She is not some poor downtrodden member of society, but very much a part of the system and a beneficiary of it.

The attempts to correct her using facts or talking up the benefits of what she opposes should stop. When responding to Hanson, don’t fact check; point out how her view’s lack ‘common sense’ and respond to them on that basis.

Finally, try to avoid giving attention that aids her. Every time she says something and we feed the frenzy, she gets more attention from the media, which ultimately aids her. Nuanced replies on her terrain do not win.

All of this is easier said than done, but relying on reasoning or facts will not undercut Hanson’s appeal.

Published in Eureka Street on 16 September 2016