The work for Labor’s generation X leaders

Following is an extract of the Henry Boote Address – “In the shadow of giants: the paradox of modernisation in the second generation” – which was given at a UK Policy Network-Chifley Research Centre event overnight (Friday evening UK time) in Westminster.

It was first published by The Guardian on Friday 26 September 2014.


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 what I call a “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. 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 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.

The “nostalgia for the new” is made even worse because the history of the 1980s is now so distorted in its telling by conservatives. 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.

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.

There’s two critical qualifications to this argument. The first. My point isn’t at all that, for instance, the “Blairites” or “Keatingites” 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.

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

Look at clean energy. 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?

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.

About Michael Cooney

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.

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