Michael Cooney
Saturday, 27 September 2014

In the shadow of giants: the paradox of modernisation in the second generation || Henry Boote Address


London, Friday 26 September 2014

Thank you my old mate Patrick [DIAMOND].

I know many of you here are familiar with Patrick’s thought leadership in progressive politics in the UK and across Europe.  You should also know that he has a respected voice down under – he’s a much-valued friend to the movement at home.  Few Englishmen are so present to us and at the same time so positive, and I’m so pleased to be introduced to speak by Patrick again – it’s more than seven years since we first shared a platform, launching Per Capita alongside David Hetherington in Melbourne back in 2007.

Thanks Patrick, thank you everyone at Policy Network for your support and friendship in launching the Henry Boote Address here in London tonight, and thanks to you all for joining us.


While Henry Ernest Boote is well-known in academic and historical circles in Australia, he has a small presence in modern Australian Labor’s imagination, and smaller still in the country of his birth.  I am indebted to my colleague Nick Dyrenfurth for introducing me to Boote’s life.

Born in 1865 in Liverpool, Boote emigrated in 1889 and rose through Labor journalism over a decade and a half to become the editor of the Australian Worker, the official organ of the Australian Workers Union; there he served the union and movement for just on thirty years, from 1914-1943.

Boote is enormously relevant to us today.

Boote was an internationalist.  One of his earliest regular features was the Survey of World Progress, appearing weekly for years, bringing news to Australian readers of developments in what he would have called the working-class struggle all over the world.  He also remained an advocate of collective security during periods when isolationism grew in strength.

This is why we have chosen his name for this new series of Chifley Research Centre addresses considering Australian politics in a global context.

Boote was a democrat who knew the reality of this in politics. At home, he was just as alert as was Ben Chifley to front groups, entryist factions, and the demagoguery of Lang.  The deliberate will of the whole of the people ought to have a deep moral authority over progressive politics and it does have that authority over our work at Chifley.  We don’t waste research trying to prove the people wrong.

Boote was a Labor voice outside Parliament who sought to win arguments against conservatives; a polemicist for Labor, rather than a polemicist in Labor; in turn, a trusted counsel who knew and advised generations of Labor leaders – Frank Farrell’s entry for him in the Australian Dictionary of Biography identifies Theodore and Scullin, Fisher and Curtin among them. Curtin wrote of Boote that he was a

Rock of Ages – immovable, undying, unswerving.

He could disagree; but as Harry Knowles records:

Boote was the only man in the AWU who could contradict [General Secretary] Fallon on a question without being branded a Communist.

And unlike say his younger contemporary Vere Gordon Childe, that stinging critic of how Labor governed (and of the AWU), Boote’s was a voice of inspiration, not disillusion or despair.

I imagine Boote would be content to be less well known than Childe today in return for having made a greater difference in his own time.

Let me give you an example of Boote’s writing.  In one of his earliest features for the Worker, even before he took the editorship, Boote wrote of unionism and Laborism:

It has invaded all the Parliaments of the world.   It has impressed its aims and ideals upon the statute books of all the civilised nations.

Slowly but surely it is marching to the conquest of political authority, intent upon utilising the power of the State to bring about a complete change in social conditions.  It is anxious to do this along the lines of a gradual realisation of its objective.

The Labor Movement, while revolutionary in its purpose, is evolutionary in its spirit. It wants to achieve progress by the methods of development and growth. It is opposed to violent alterations in the prevailing social system, imposed by the drastic use of majorities, or by force of arms.

It believes in the constitutional and not-too-sudden way of doing things.

I haven’t read a better description of the classical (Australian) Laborite approach than this. Use elections to win Parliament; use Parliament to win the State; use the State to win better social conditions; respecting not only majority will but limited Government and the rule of law.

So Boote was a great theorist of pragmatism.  We read:

His regular editorials, signed ‘H.E.B.’, were closely followed by serious students of labour affairs.

Often he tried to reconcile socialist idealism with the practical day-to-day realities of Australian politics, and to produce a guiding philosophy — radical but gradualist and Fabian in style — to which all members of the labour movement could subscribe.

In many ways, this is the vital task of a Party think tank today: both to explain the ideas we already have and to find new ones we can all share.

Finally, Boote knew these were tasks we could not leave to others.

His example should lead us to consider afresh, to understand for ourselves, all the big issues.  In particular, what I think of as “the paradox of modernization in the second generation” – one of the most complex contemporary questions for Labor in Australia and the UK:

Once modernization works, how do you modernise twice?

How do you “make it new” again without looking back?

What does it mean to walk in the shadow of giants who strove above all else to escape the shadow of the giants who walked before them?

It is obvious to all, and long has been I believe, that we can’t build a genuine policy platform for the future, or a winning political campaign in our countries, on an appeal to “the spirit of ‘45”, or the enthusiasms of 1972.  In modern Labor politics, any serious, functioning “nostalgia for the old” is essentially, and rightly, gone.

But there is another nostalgia and it is proving much harder to shake. This is the “nostalgia for the new”.

A surprising number of activists inside and around Labor parties and progressive politics genuinely seem convinced that the way forward for our parties is to go back seventeen years, to recapture the “new day” which dawned in London in 1997; or even more implausibly, to go back thirty one years, to restore the so-called “reform era” which began in Canberra in 1983.

This is an enormously influential internal view in Australia and one non-Labor and ex-Labor voices endlessly amplify.

It is urgent business for Labor thinkers to shake the grip of this “nostalgia for the new”.

Parties which are homesick for the past, no matter how recent, and movements which long to debate the issues of fifteen or thirty years ago, can never effectively comprehend the real issues of our contemporary life.

Instead they fall into the trap of interpreting their own actions according to an ‘internal’ frame of reference dominated by their own organisation’s experience of politics, rather than making their guide empathy for the people they are trying to serve and knowledge of the contemporary challenges of the nation they seek to lead.

Just as individuals who neurotically find validation by emulating their elders and finding increasingly remote and implausible analogies between their own approaches and those of very different predecessors in very different times can never expect to be taken seriously.

If you don’t ultimately trust yourself, how can you win the trust of anyone else.

What’s more, if we continue to understand our own internal policy debates through the lens of the past generation’s personal and intellectual rivalries we are almost certain to make the wrong decisions.

Consider the debate over Australia’s capability to build and maintain submarines.  I think Bill Shorten is absolutely right to criticize the Abbott Government’s decision to award the contract to an overseas bidder, even a close security partner like Japan.

With that said, it’s a judgment call; you don’t have to be a useful idiot or out of your depth in strategic policy to support the Government’s alternative approach.  (Though it may save time.)  So, while I don’t agree with the Prime Minister’s approach, there are defensible arguments for it.

But some mad need endlessly to reject “the twin principles of racism and protectionism that marched together as part of the old Australian Federation settlement” is not among them.  Talk like that is not policy debate; it’s barely even bullshit, it’s just duckspeak.

Or take the Caucus deliberations over the Australia-Korea Free Trade Agreement.  Of course Labor was right to sign up this week, and we ideally would have done so sooner.  But because of the jobs of the future, not because of a government of the past.  Even the objections to free trade are new – hands up who remembers conference debates about investor state dispute settlement in 1984?  Or anxiety about competitiveness and a persistent strong dollar in 1986?

Labor endorses this free trade agreement and others because of what the Shorten Government wants to be, not because of what the Keating Government thinks it was.

More than thirty years after the Hawke Government was elected, and more than fifteen years after the Keating Government was beaten, it’s amazing that our relationship to that period remains a key question for the present generation of Australian Labor.  And yet it does.

You will recognise the warning here for UK Labour.

Australia can lay a fair claim to have led the first generation modernizing turn towards competitive markets in the 1980s that set the pattern for Blair – and indeed Clinton – in the 1990s.  You were right to emulate elements of our approach then.

I worry that we have also set a pattern for raking the coals in the second generation.

As leader, Ed Miliband has done a good job of creating unity in today’s British Labour party and avoiding a descent into this kind of introspection.  That might help to explain why he has a genuine possibility of winning government after one term in opposition.  But such unity can only work if it is focused on tackling the problems of today and tomorrow.

Don’t repeat our mistake.

Not the mistake of “walking away from our legacy”, which is not so much a false as a meaningless critique, whether of your first term in opposition now, or of our first term out of office after 1996, as anyone who tried to make the case for capital gains tax changes in the 1998 campaign should recall.

Rather the mistake of “talking ourselves out of the legacy”, with revisionist inside tacticians battling mythologizing outside strategists for years to come.

Well, this generation has to accept that it is our responsibility to turn this around.

Frankly, if we really believe we are just Bob and Paul’s dumb-arse step-kids, we should pack up and go home and give the next generation a go – or actually hand the conch back to the generation before us.

Of course, we don’t believe that – yet often we speak as if we do.  This has to change.

I firmly believe we can’t be taken seriously as a party of progress if we talk like 1983 was “year zero” or the year 2016 is really “year thirty-three”.

There’s two critical qualifications to this argument.

The first.  My point isn’t at all that, for instance, the “Blairites” are wrong (or right) or the alternative right (or wrong) about any given issue.  My point is that it’s ridiculous to understand the second-generation discussion over contemporary issues in those first-generation terms.

Second.  If we decide, as we should, that the future doesn’t lie in a lurch back thirty years, we must also see that it doesn’t lie in a lurch to the left either.   The future of our politics lies in the centre – but in a new centre, grounded in the social and political realities of this time.  It won’t be Kennedy’s vital centre and it won’t be Blair’s radical centre.  It’ll be new ground.

Happily, mine isn’t an isolated view.

I am encouraged that a growing number of second-generation modernising thinkers – people whose political service has been firmly marked by the struggle over this nostalgia for the new – have expressed similar views.

Tom Bentley, a senior adviser to the Rudd and Gillard Governments, and known to many here, has written about the impact of this on policy thinking:

Mythologising and endlessly recycling the economic achievements of the 1980s and early 1990s keeps us addicted to micro-economic reform techniques that have lost their potency.

The constant assumption of policy and media discussion is that, somehow, the next “wave of productivity” will come from re-hashing a mix of trade liberalisation, domestic competition, and cutting back regulation.

The cardinal sin of economic policy is still supposed to be picking winners but even in national economies, lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place.

Dr Lindy Edwards at UNSW has written extensively in the media, the academy and through her books about the distortion of Australia’s pre-1983 economic and political history which is linked to this debate.

Lindy and I would differ on some key policy points, but her work has done much to draw together the confutations and complications of the myth that an “Australian Settlement” persisted essentially unchanged from 1901 to 1983, driving a long decline in living standards, broken only by “reform” from 1983 onwards.

In her words

An ‘Australian Settlement’ is an artificial intellectual construct that obscures and veils important features of Australian political history. It casts a simplifying glaze over how the institutions of Australian egalitarianism came into being and the evolution of Australian public policy …

I thought particularly of this work in my own recent commentary on Andrew Charlton’s Quarterly Essay on China, “Dragon’s Tail”, which in part repeated the claim of a “bad twentieth century” for Australia.  I wrote

… many of us, including Andrew, are trapped in a myth about what went on in the politics of Australia before 1983 and what the real economic problem was before Hawke and Keating. … that idea of a bad twentieth century has a parent – and it’s not Andrew Charlton, and it’s not Paul Keating either, it’s [The Australian newspaper’s editor-at-large] Paul Kelly.

And Paul Kelly is wrong.  And that matters.

It matters because if you accept the big myth of the “bad century” (the long decline from Harvester onwards), the trifecta favoured by Andrew … and by so many in Ross Garnaut’s “independent centre” – of micro-flexibility, revenue stability and productivity growth – isn’t enough. You end up deciding that we have to chuck out the whole progressive Australian model of a stable economy and moderate social protections, and you end up convinced that we have to start with industrial relations.

But we don’t want to, we don’t need to, and in fact to do so would make us all worse off.

Labor historian Nick Dyrenfurth’s 2013 essay “Back to the future: 1983 and all that” sharply exposed the future implications of nostalgia for the new.  He wrote

… the Hawke (and Keating) era is an increasingly repressive force upon Labor, weighing like a nightmare on the brain of the living … the best place to begin the soul-searching is not 2013 but 1983.

None of this is to argue that these governments did not change Australia for the better – we are wealthier, more open and dynamic because of them.

Rather, long-dead governments cannot write Labor’s 2016 election policy manifesto – the mobile-phone and internet-free world of 1983 is no longer a useful guide to our globalised world.

And this really is the vital point for today – we have to reject any attempt to “do reform again” and instead we must approach the conditions of our day as if they are new – because they are new.

Our leader Bill Shorten went to the Melbourne Institute/Australian newspaper’s Economic and Social Outlook Conference in July – in many ways the headquarters of the “reform club” – and put it very well:

My leadership and this Labor generation have different dragons to slay. 

Friends, we have to recognise that the politics of progressive change isn’t like using shampoo – you don’t close your eyes, “rinse and repeat” – no, you open your eyes and confront genuinely new challenges.

The clean energy revolution.  An Asian century.  Two retired generations.  An end to Australia’s mining boom any day, and we pray a global recovery in the making as well.

And then you implement actual new solutions.

Not solutions which seemed new when Bill Shorten was sixteen and Ed Miliband was fourteen and I was eleven years old.

Once we forget the old new, and open our eyes to a new new world, I believe this not only opens our thinking to the genuinely changed conditions of our own time.

It also opens our eyes to a wider range of thinking about the possibilities of Labor politics than is allowed by nostalgia for the new.

And it allows us to guide our own thought.

Here, finally, Henry Boote has one more lesson for us.

Internationalist and democrat, extra-parliamentary voice and friend of the Caucus, theorist and pragmatist.  A reviser, who didn’t stop updating just because we’d won.

And one more great attribute: he was a Scouser.

So we know, if he were alive today, he’d never buy the Sun.

This is a serious point, about our understanding of ourselves, and our ability to own our own minds.  We have always faced opposition from conservative media outlets, and always had to balance persuasion, appeasement, contest and co-option in our approach to this.

One of the novel paradoxes of the second generation of modernization is that it opens up a new tactic for the conservative side – and in particular the papers owned by News Limited – the pretense not that we have betrayed our ancient church, but that we have betrayed its reformation.

In Australia, since at least 1916 they have said that we aren’t the proper old Labor party of our founding.  I imagine they have been saying the same thing here for just as long.

Now they say we aren’t the proper new Labor party either!

How do conservatives get away with this?

By endlessly shapeshifting the conservative account of what went on in that generation.

Lem Dobbs had Peter Fonda’s character say in Stephen Soderbergh’s film The Limey in 1999:

Did you ever dream about a place you never really recall being to before? A place that maybe only exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew your way around. That was the sixties. …

Then after a pause, he said …

No. It wasn’t that either. It was just ’66 and early ’67. That’s all there was.

He might have been speaking for Paul Kelly.

The Australian newspaper’s former editor wrote a complicated, if overstated, book about the 1980s a long time ago; but in polishing the yarn for the quarter of a century since, has made the story less complicated and more overstated with every shine.

The way they tell it now, it was just 84 and early 85.  That’s all there was.

No car plans, no HECS.  No de facto marriage, no AIDS campaigns.  No Cambodian peace plan, no stopping the Franklin Dam.   No Medicare, no Medicare Levy.  No MX missiles, no Coombe-Ivanov affair, no timed telephone calls.  No “despivving the economy”, no attacks on “sclerotic” banks.  Certainly no 1991 recession.

Just the dollar float and tariff cuts.

Over, and over, and over again.

The explicit version of the conservative history of an entire decade of Australian life can now be summed up in two and a half words: micro-economic reform.

In the hands of the Australian newspaper, the implicit version can be summarized in three: not Labor today.

Whether “Labor today” is compromising or obdurate, pushing unpopular reforms or getting business around the table, too nationalistic or fretting about identity, populist or elitist, for or against any given form of migration, winning Euromoney Finance Minister of the Year or passing a levy to fund a big safety net project, the 1980s is always there as a free-floating reproof.

Interestingly, the same flattening, distorting, narrowing and twisting of our progressive achievements applies to the received history of the 90s in the United States.

As candidate, Governor Clinton had a very different message than the mock-Halberstams of conservative conventional wisdom remember.

What was James Carville’s motto for Clinton?  It’s the economy, stupid.

Except it wasn’t.  It was: Change not more of the same.  It’s the economy stupid.  Don’t forget healthcare.

How funny is it that people forget “don’t forget healthcare” – and how stupid is it to insist on “more of the same” on the economy.

So what do we do? How do the second-generation modernisers, the Generation X Labor leaders, fix it?

First, we put that bloody newspaper down and think for ourselves.  After all, twenty three million Australians make the same decision every day.

If that front page is screaming at us that we are saying the wrong thing – and even more so if that op-ed page is screaming at us – I genuinely believe we must conclude we are making progress, not making a mistake.

We must have our own habits of mind – “strange thing! What cannot habit accomplish”, Herman Melville wrote – we must not let others govern our analysis of our own task.

This generation of Labor modernisers must not internalise a critique that is shaped by vested and hostile interests and voiced by openly partisan conservatives who simply oppose us.

The last editor of that op-ed page was just appointed head of the Liberal Party’s think tank.  Think about that.

Second, I think we do need to use this moment for a brief period of iconoclasm and revision.

We do need to strip some altars and ruin some choirs and make it clear that we are not planning to govern in the future as we have done in any period of the romanticized past, no matter how recent or electorally successful.

Third, once we’ve reminded ourselves it wasn’t perfect even in 85, we do have to move on.

For mine, the point isn’t really to win a battle over the 1980s, it’s to bypass that battle and continue our advance.  And be clear.  We’re not going to convince the former ministers of the 1980s and 1990s – much less the PMs, the advisers, the econocrats or (almost especially) the journalists who were young and found it “very heaven” – that they weren’t right about everything all the time.

They’re the RSL of reform.  It’s an argument we can’t win.

These old guys can literally stack on a public blue about who sat where nude and who was more impressive in the position, as both Keating and Hayden have done to Hawke through the years and right up to the past month, and still get a “wow, why don’t they make them like that anymore” performance review.

That’s the cool thing about being retired.  So our job isn’t to convince them, it’s to convince each other, and that starts with convincing ourselves.

Then fourth, we have genuinely to begin the task anew.

Even the soundtrack needs to change. We can’t walk on stage to “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” at every election launch for twenty-five years.  By definition.

Interestingly though, this generation can actually retrieve some modernizing spirit from the first generation’s CD collection.  Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours – the very album of the 92 campaign – has some crackers for this generation.

Forget “Don’t Stop”.  What if we walked on to: “Never going back again”.

Or even better: “Go your own way”.  That’s the key.

Because in the end, all that experience is just an arch.

Australian Labor’s next platform, and the next Australian Labor Government, can’t be a restoration of anyone or anything; neither can your next Government here.

Clean energy.  As much as I wish it could be otherwise, the solution we take to the 2016 election or implement in the years beyond won’t be simply restoring a carbon price scheme exactly the way Julia Gillard “got it done”.

Asia.  No part of the world changes faster.  Ageing.  A whole new social and economic world opens.

The future of growth and of work.  How do we lift living standards, what will jobs be like?

From childcare to the Barrier Reef, mental health to teaching science, the commodification of childhood to the place of race or nation in our constitutions and laws, distribution of choice and control in the services of the state and the politics of the nation, there’s so much more to talk about than the dollar float or Clause Four, and so much more to promise than “reform”.

This must be the work for Labor’s Generation X.

Not to succumb to nostalgia for the new, but to modernize in the second generation.

Not to close our eyes and repeat, but to open our eyes and change.

Not to continue, but to begin.

About Michael Cooney:

Michael is a former Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre. He was previously Speechwriter to Prime Minister the Hon Julia Gillard MP, Senior Adviser at the HR Coombs Policy Forum, Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, and was Principal Policy Advisor to Federal Labor Leaders Kim Beazley and Mark Latham.