Category Archives: Politics

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.

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. 

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

Why we need Comment is Free Australia to be better

I’ve been a fan of Guardian Australia since it launched in 2013 and think it has shifted the tone of public conversation in Australia. Its coverage of federal politics and investigative journalism has been great in the short time it has existed and has improved as time as passed. It may not be as well resourced as News or Fairfax but it has punched above its weight and it was why I decided to start paying for it. One thing I have noticed though is that I am far less enamoured that I used to be with Comment is Free Australia.

When it first launched, I really enjoyed Comment is Free Australia because it provided an outlet for a range of voices that weren’t heard that were both articulate and interesting. It still does that and provides some great perspectives, for example, voices like Van Badham, Jason Wilson and Jeff Sparrow. It was refreshing to see voices to the left of social liberalism and other very different perspectives in the mainstream media but it feels far less common than it once was.

Maybe it was the different focus of the previous Comment Is Free editor or a decision by Guardian Australia to focus on a set cohort of regular writers or maybe it is just a reflection of op-eds more generally devolving into a kind of clickbait to get more hits, I’m not sure as to why but more often than not it feels like it now plays to the same old audience. Whereas the op-eds used to be more thought provoking and challenging, it feels like I have heard it all before.

This is not meant to be an ultra critical post, I have no doubt that the Guardian Australia gets inundated with lots of pitches for op-eds and has limited resources but I miss the diversity of voices that were thought provoking and whose impact lasted more than 24 hours.

I know things can’t stay the same but with the disappearance of The Drum and the increasing number of op-eds that are obviously click-bait that you read published by News and Fairfax (even in hard copy papers), it makes it even more important for there to be quality op-eds from a diversity of contributors. You can set up blogs or online magazines but they don’t have that same reach that the Guardian Australia has.

Op-eds are important because they can set the agenda and shape public debate but if there’s only a similar cohort that get that opportunity, it means our public conversation will continue to be narrow and shallow. Comment might be free but its role in public debate is sacred.

 

Peter Dutton throws a “dead cat”

This morning I awoke to furore about comments that Immigration Minister Peter Dutton made on Sky News last night. He claimed that if Australia’s refugee intake was dramatically increased (as proposed by Labor and the Greens), “illiterate” refugees would come to Australia, take jobs and drive up unemployment.

Social media was ablaze with people attacking Dutton for making such a suggestion, accusing him of racism and rebutting his claims about refugees with facts. Some even suggested it was a gaffe. It was not. It was intentional.

What Dutton did was “throw a dead cat on the table.”  It is a signature election manoeuvre by Lynton Crosby, used to regain control of public debate. Media attention switches as everyone reacts to whatever outrageous and offensive statement is made. Everyone will be talking about what you want them to talk about (in this case, refugees). Julie Bishop’s tacit agreement with Dutton affirms that this is no gaffe, it is an intentional strategy. It is aimed at distracting everyone and keeping the focus on refugees. It is a tactic that is succeeding.

The Tories used the “dead cat” to great effect in the last British election and locally George Christensen and Cory Bernardi are particularly adept at this tactic. People dismiss them as idiots because of the views they espouse publicly but they know exactly what they are doing. Their incendiary statements are about grabbing maximum public attention and trying to force a response on their issues.

Those who oppose the Coalition need to stop taking the bait. The Coalition does not want the election to be focused on education, Medicare or housing affordability which are far more important issues to voters and Labor’s strengths. Instead it wants it to be focused on refugees and national security because they see them as electorate winners. Labor does not win votes talking about either. They either lose votes to the Coalition or the Greens.

It won’t be the last time that the Coalition tries this tactic during this election but progressives need to far get better at responding and shifting the focus away whenever a “dead cat” is thrown.

Cross-posted to AusVotes2016

A deal on asylum seekers would show the limits of the Greens

Discussion about the relationship between Labor and the Greens has continued into a second week with suggestions in The Australian that the Greens are open to changing their refugee policy to do a deal with Labor. Richard Di Natale responded to these reports saying the Greens won’t compromise on their policy to close offshore detention centres.

Reading between the lines, as Labor’s unlikely to change its policy, it seems to rule out a deal where the Greens alter their policy. My guess is the Greens hoped to win improvements without being locked into supporting Labor’s policies. The model they want is likely to be the one used by ALP-led governments in SA, TAS and the ACT that allowed non-Labor Ministers to “opt-out” of Cabinet solidarity. Given recent rancour between the two parties and Labor’s defensiveness about being outflanked on the left, I doubt Labor would accept such an arrangement.

While most of the focus on the politics of refugee policy tends to be about Labor tearing itself apart, attempting to negotiate improved refugee policies raises some big questions that most Green supporters appear not to have not grappled with. In particular, it highlights limits of what the Greens can achieve on their own and raises questions about what they are willing to trade off. Richard Di Natale has spoken about using a hung parliament to push for changes to refugee policy but he has not outlined what changes and what are acceptable trade-offs.

A genuine question yet to be debated is whether such a deal would be acceptable if Greens can vote against the current asylum seeker policies even though the outcome would be the same and offshore detention and turnbacks remain? It may be aimed at preserving the idea the Greens have not sold out but wouldn’t that just show the Greens are just as hungry for ministerial positions as the other parties? It would make the Greens the inner-city version of the Nationals, raising a fuss every so often to differentiate but getting rolled most of the time.

Personally I don’t support the ALP’s policy and have massive issues with turnbacks and offshore detention centres. The problem is that unless either the ALP or the Liberals change their policy, it doesn’t matter what the Greens’ position is. Unless one shifts, activists will spend the rest of their lives being angry about an issue with no possible resolution.

Support for the Greens may help drag the Overton window to the left on refugees but you can’t just create the space, you need to push the majority of the public in its direction to make the change permanent. Recent Essential polling showed that despite a plurality (39%) thinking conditions at Manus Island were poor, almost half (48%) opposed bringing asylum seekers to Australia even though respondents were told it was ruled to be illegal. Immigration may be less of an issue currently but it is still rated as one of the three most important issues in Australia today. It will not go away as a political issue.

The fact is if the Greens compromise on refugee policy, it will destroy them. They framed refugee policy as a black or white moral issue, far more so than climate change. The complexities of climate change allowed a fudge, there is no such room on refugees. Labor may budge on aspects of its refugee policy but it won’t adopt anything like the Greens’ position unless public opinion changes significantly. The experience of coalition government in Tasmania caused a lot of internal dissatisfaction during its term and even splits afterwards. Refugee policy is just as contentious federally as forestry was at a state level and one can imagine something similar occurring if the Greens compromise.

Luckily for the Greens there is no other viable party that opposes the offshore detention of asylum seekers but there is no guarantee of that into the future if a viable social liberal party emerges. Furthermore, compromising will challenge the belief that the Greens are not like every other party but unless it does so, any improvements are unlikely. It can be brushed over while the Greens’ influence is limited but if they participate in government it is far harder to avoid.

For all the talk of an ALP-Green government by Richard Di Natale and Adam Bandt, it seems the Greens doubt it will happen, which is why the conditions of a change in asylum seeker policy they set is most likely unachievable. If any arrangement does occur after the election, it would probably be a supply and confidence arrangement or abstaining on forming government. It will kick the can further down the road but the limitations of their strategy is an issue the Greens will eventually have to grapple with if they are serious about exercising power and ever forming government.

Cross-posted to AusVotes2016