The Rich Heritage of Progressive Values

Dr Tim Soutphommasane

It wasn’t all that long ago that many on the Labor side of politics entertained the idea of a reforming golden age, a renewal of Australian social democracy. Such high expectations weren’t confined to idealistic true believers. Consider these words of The Australian’s political editor Dennis Shanahan, upon the election of a Rudd Government in 2007:

Kevin Rudd is now in a position to be one of Australia’s great prime ministers and establish a decade of unprecedented Labor power in Australia …


Using a prosperous economy, a China-led mining boom … a thumping mandate … he can truly set a new course for the nation.

Much ink has been split explaining just how it all went wrong. Some believe the story can be reduced to Rudd’s failings as a leader: the micro-managing personality, the inability to craft a narrative, the lack of conviction when it came to climate change.

Others, such as George Megalogenis, go further in arguing that the last three years reveal “an ailing body politic” and “a system-wide crisis”. We are seeing the breaking down of the reform model of government. Beholden to relentless news and media cycles, leaders no longer have the wherewithal to pursue difficult reform. Politics, Megalogenis suggests with some gloom, has degenerated into a spectacle of trivial pursuit.

For Labor supporters, any feeling of crisis has been hard to shake off. The recent disaster of the NSW election has illustrated the excesses of machine politics. The rise of the Greens, meanwhile, has prompted many to ponder whether Labor has a clear political mission.

Much of this reflects a growing belief that Labor social democracy is an exhausted project. The problems of material deprivation and economic injustice have been largely met; or so the argument goes. According to the likes of Clive Hamilton, progressives should embrace a “new politics of wellbeing”. In similar vein, political theorist John Keane suggests that if social democracy does survive it will be mashed beyond all recognition into a greenish puree.

While social democracy faces a formidable challenge from the Greens, it’d be premature to herald the death of the centre-left as we know it.

It will be a tough task, of course, for Labor to deliver on the promise of reform. The party does, however, have one thing working in its favour. Historically, it has always, if not sometimes always promptly, adapted to challenges. Practice rather than fixed doctrine has always been Labor’s way.

Reflecting this, Australian social democracy is something of a left-liberal mutation. This partly liberal pedigree is all the more salient now that the Liberal Party of Australia is more conservative than it is anything else. Indeed, you might say that social democracy is a hybrid vigour of progressive liberalism and democratic socialism. This explains why successive Labor governments under Hawke and Keating were the ones that reformed Australia for a globalised age. Why so many of Whitlam’s most significant legacies were in the liberalisation of Australian society.

The rich pluralism of social democracy has, alas, been forgotten. Too many progressives have been cowed into thinking they must turn to Green prophets for fresh moral guidance – not least on matters concerning wellbeing and sustainability. But there is much within social democracy’s left-liberal lineage that can still inspire.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was William Morris and his romantic socialists of the late 19th century who were the antecedents of modern environmentalism. RH Tawney in the 1920s and John Kenneth Galbraith in the 1950s were already writing about the acquisitive society and consumerist abundance. Anthony Crosland was already reflecting upon quality of life in his 1956 classic The Future of Socialism.

All this was long before Clive Hamilton began writing his latter-day pamphlets about a Green politics of wellbeing.

Such points need to be made today with some measure of urgency. Many within Labor appear to have forgotten not only that ideas matter but that the source of ideas matters as well. When benighted machine men snigger at ideas, or believe politics can be conducted without a philosophy, the Labor movement as a whole loses touch with the intellectual tradition of which it is part.

Needless to say, politics isn’t about just ideas, it’s about action. Any renaissance of left-liberal ideas would be meaningless without political leadership. Those who lead Labor need to explain and persuade, to educate and inspire, to be willing to stand their ground. They need to engage people’s values as well as interests.

These aren’t heroic expectations, though we often make the mistake of believing that courageous leaders must be selfless in their nobility. I prefer the definition of courage as given by John F. Kennedy. The courageous, he believed, don’t act the way they do because they love the public better than themselves. On the contrary, they do so because their regard for themselves is so high. Because their own self-respect demands they show courage.

Whether Labor’s leaders have such pride will determine whether the party can rediscover its soul as the enlargers in our national life.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist and philosopher. His books include Reclaiming Patriotism: Nation-Building for Australian Progressives (2009) and All That’s Left: What Labor Should For (2010). He is a research fellow at Monash University’s National Centre for Australian Studies, a senior project leader at Per Capita, a fellow of the St James Ethics Centre, and a columnist with The Weekend Australian.


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