Left, right … how politics will march forwards

Yesterday’s edition featuring Greg Weilo’s discussion on left and right these days has attracted some fascinating replies, as did my piece on where Australian politics goes from here. The topics are, as contributions will show, inextricably connected. I particularly recommend a compelling contribution by Christopher Selth, the former head of international equities at Bankers Trust, who sets out where we are and the challenges to come.


The National Library has completed its initial archive of Webdiary in its Pandora archive of nationally significant web publications. You’ll find it at http://nla.gov.au/nla.arc- 21852


TAMPA EDITION, September 27, 2001


1. One liners


2. Christopher Selth, Geoff Honour, Michel Dignand on left and right.


3. Robert Lawton, Rob Staszewski, Russell Ayres, Margaret Paterson, OL, Humphrey Hollins on politics post-Tampa


4. Mark Kelly on the latest Ruddock twist and Michael Walton on mandatory sentencing.




John Clark: John Howard deserves to win the election by virtue of the fact that he is capable of making a stand whereas the Labor party is as usual all over the place, desperately trying to retain the support of the chardonnay left while also appeasing the expectations of the traditional working class who support Howard’s recent objectives.


Rusri Ratnapala: I am surprised that the government has not yet cynically dubbed their policy against asylum seekers arriving by boat “Operation Infinite Compassion”.


Nina Clemson: So Greg Weilo is left wing on economic issues and right wing on social issues. Isn’t that the definition of National Socialism? As in, I believe in Socialism, but only for those in my Nation.


John Boase: A corollary of multiculturalism has been the development of new kinds of racism, the imported variety. It would be simplistic to assume Anglo racism is the only kind around and naive to assume only Anglos are opposing the boat people.


Beveley Rogers: Why can’t Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Lybia and Jordan be prevailed upon to take a share of the desperate people fleeing Afghanistan. Why have offers of refuge een so few from Muslim countries.




Christopher Selth


In response to Greg Weilo’s view of left and right, I am not sure whether or not Greg is confused about the appropriate labels to apply to his position. He is either naive or disingenuous with respect to the label appropriate to his positioning on the political spectrum. More significantly, the underlying politics of his position reflects the deep fissures in our society that the tragedy in New York is opening up.


I would like to respond to the underlying philosophical points Greg raises before coming back to labels. The two issues are, however, very linked.


Firstly, one must distinguish between underlying belief systems, and the strategies adopted by political parties. This distinction can be seen either as reflecting the notorious disconnect between politicians and voters, due to the cynical pursuit of power, or alternatively as the disconnect between high principle, or abstract theory, and its application to the practicalities of government.


A further problem appears from the difficulties, if not bankruptcy, of left and right wing economic theories in generating convincing practical outcomes. Marxism and Socialism, and Economic Rationalism no longer offer the political machines of left and right easily saleable policy stances. Note, so-called Economic Rationalism is in f act the pure application of a brand of capitalist, neo-classical economic theory. It has become clouded with the realiti es of practical, rational, economic policy.


Political parties need to be understood in terms of the electoral base to which they appeal, and the strategies they need to adopt in order to get over the line, to win elections. So-called left wing parties have two traditional constituencies; the working class, which tends to be economically left wing, but culturally conservative; and the liberal humanist intelligentsia, which is more economically rational in orientation, but culturally very liberal.


The right wing parties have a parallel fault line. One constituency is old money and small business. There are a number of sub groups here, including owners of businesses that are often local monopolists, but tend to be averse or incapable of taking on global challenges, farmers, and small businesses. These groups tend to favour state intervention to protect their positions from globalisation and the stresses of change. Their politics can ironically parallel the socialism of the working class, but for powerfully different reasons. Their cultural politics tend to conservatism.


The other group comprises global capitalists and technocrats. This group is not defending its position, it is seeking to expand its wealth. It is confident and pro-globalisation and economic rationalism. It is culturally liberal humanist.


You can see in this matrix the divides that have been evident within the Australian political landscape for some time. It is why the Labor Party has resisted homosexual law reform, and why the Coalition has locked in the positions of Kerry Packer, Qantas, and parts of the agricultural lobby, rather than promoting free trade. Left and right wing parties pursue policies in stark divergence from some simplistic understanding of their supposed underlying support base.


This is why right wing parties tend to push socially conservative and populist policies that appeal to the working classes. It will transfer votes from the traditional left to the populist right. It is key to winning a parliamentary majority. In America these were the so called Reagan democrats.


Pauline Hanson undermined the Australian right wing’s ability to claim this ground. That’s why she was so dangerous. This was why the Tampa was such a crucial turning point for John Howard. Behind this rhetoric, however, the right has little interest in the broad agenda of the working class, other than protecting jobs when it simultaneously protects the economic interests of its support base.


The globalist faction in the right, witness Peter Costello, is invariably outraged by this positioning.


The old left was interested in pushing its liberal humanist agenda to win middle class champagne socialist support, whilst being careful of not alienating its working class base. This was the Gough Whitlam strategy. You can see how long Labour stayed out of power in Australia and the UK as a result.


The new left added to its arsenal by embracing elements of economic rationalism. This was particularly the case as Marxism and Socialism were seen as failing to deliver under the pressure of global capital and change. It owed few favours to old money. The more sophisticated members of the new left, such as Paul Keating, saw that the only way to improve job prospects in the nation longer term was by making the economy more efficient. This would also win middle class votes.


The problem was that the short term pain would always leave it at risk with its traditional voting base. That is what ultimately brought Labor down. It is why Kim Beazley is so scared of declaring his hand. He is castrated by these internal tensions.


Both sides are constantly doing deals that alienate part of their traditional support base. This is reality. It is a clear outcome of the structure of our electoral process and parliamentary system.


An interesting insight on these issues can be found in the work of the now dead US sociologist, Christopher Lasch. His last book before he died, The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy is particularly thought provoking. The core thesis in this book is that the global technocracy, visible in all our major cities, working for globally focused organisations, have more in common with each other than the culture of their particular national hinterland.


I think there is a great deal of truth in this proposition. People like me, educated affluent technocratic elitist bastards, have more in common with our class compatriots in London, Paris or New York, than we do with the average man of our particular economic hinterland. In Sydney this can be metaphorically conceptualised as the difference of culture and beliefs between inner city and coastal dwellers, and the suburbs.


Lasch comments that this global class tends to be socially liberal humanist. He notes the irony that the elite might support gay rights, but at the same time feel it is for the best that inefficient industries be shut down, even at the expense of jobs and communities This is what Greg would refer to as left wing, social ideology. At the same time it is economically rationalist, which Greg identifies as right wing economic philosophy.


The important question that arises is what is the motivation behind the elite’s espousal of these values? Is it legitimate compassion, or a self-serving identification with the fashionable causes of the day, a champagne socialism that can go hand in hand with the process of personal enrichment?


It is the new religion of the upper class, which John Howard often, to his chagrin, runs up against. The have nots of our society often feel these values are hypocritical. Despite all of this, many of these values are of great merit. The irony is that it is this great Western tradition that George W. Bush keeps saying we are fighting for.


Lasch’s work is filled with dark irony. It transcends the distinction of left and right. It hits the fault line on which Greg sits. Whilst Lasch unquestionably has captured a key thread, he does not reach any conclusions. It is a provocative piece.


The attack on liberal humanism, and economic rationalism and globalisation, reflect a common factor, fear of change, fear of the unknown. Human history has seen at these moments objective analysis give way to extremism and hysteria. Legitimate criticisms from both sides are lost. We are at risk of being swept away by this tide. Extremist politics are on the rise.


The question confronting us is: Can we integrate liberal humanism with a new paradigm in economic management? Economic policy needs to balance the dynamic drive of capitalism, with appropriate measures to reduce the shock waves and to humanise the process. Regrettably most such strategies in recent times have been hijacked by traditional interest groups: old money, old unions, and old farmers. The power of governments to act in the face of global forces is itself suspect.


A new economic philosophy and social philosophy is required. We must move forward, not backward. The conservative chest beating post the World Trade Center attack risks the worst outcome.


Greg’s thinly veiled piece emphasises this point. It is not hard to decipher. Greg groups all elements of the community that are not part of his pure national core as dangerous; homosexuals [of which I am proudly one!!!], feminists, pro-abortion groups, multi-cultu ralists. On this front he calls himself a Nationalist. On the economic front, he calls himself a Socialist. A national socialist?


Is it by accident that Greg says that left wing extremists have been running things for the last 50 years, ie the post war period? Fifty years ago there was another National Socialist who was arguing the same thing. His name was Adolf Hitler.


I am afraid that the fight is just beginning against this conservative backlash. I agree with Margo that a new opposition movement is needed. It needs to do more than just say bigotry is wrong. It must address the philosophical and political roots of this problem. It must be a broad movement. It must be self critical to avoid the accusation of elitism. This must be more than just the liberal humanist intelligentsia saying how awful everyone else is.


Geoff Honnor


I was slightly amazed at reading a “right winger” post – it whacked onto my forehead Margo. I certainly don’t fi t my perception of what right wing might be – Heffernan? Abbott? Pell? Bronwyn Bishop? God have mercy. But then what the hell is the currency of “right” and “left” 12 years after the Iron Curtain rusted away? And might the answer to that question not tell us something about the tectonic shifts underway in our political landscape?


For example – Greg Weilo proceed with caution – I’m a 40 something, unreconstructed homosexual, with a haircut that wouldn’t get me in the backdoor of the Melbourne Club and an affinity for history, politics, sex and all night dance parties. My work over the last few years has been in the Australian community-based response to HIV/AIDS. I’d consider myself to be socially progress ive, supportive of a much greater degree of market regulation, deeply sceptical of anyone who claims to have the truth, the way and the light, and well to the left of all 298 factions of the ALP – although I concede that Heffernan, Abbott and Bronw yn Bishop probably are as well.


Given that I’m an adult with a reasonable education and an interest in the world around me, I’m capable of reaching an independent viewpoint on any one of a number of issues without checking to see whether it fits some antideluvian notion of left or right.


I’ve a strong feeling that I’m not alone. In fact we could be the new politics. Watch this space.


Michel Dignand in Wagga Wagga, NSW


It’s inevitable that people who think along similar lines tend to converse with each other. The more we agree, the closer we bond; the less we agree, the more likely we are to push off and find someone to talk to with views closer to our own.


So who might read Webdiary? They have to have access to a computer and they have to be drawn to the Herald site, then

stumble eventually, as I did, through the gateway of the land of free discussion. That’s going to limit the readership for a start.


All postings demonstrate a level of literacy far higher than that in the general population, so bang goes another big chunk of the possible readership.


And then we look at the left/right question. It’s easy to fall into simple traps here, but in my fairly wide experience well-educated, widely-read and well-travelled people tend to lean towards the left. Or maybe it’s the other way round, that people who lean towards the left are well-educated, widely-read and well -travelled!


The other intelligent people are either so self-centred that they couldn’t give a toss , or hard-nosed business people who are, perhaps, too busy to care about others.


I enjoyed Greg Weilo’s thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, and I suppose I can grudgingly see where he’s coming from. But frankly, I c an’t see myself sharing his position on what I consider to be the fence.


In my view a leftie is someone who cares about others in society. And a right winger is someone who doesn’t.


I’m not a bleeding heart, but I still care about others in society. I can’t imagine being a leftie in some things and right-wing in … it just doesn’t add up. There is a divide, hard and sharp. So if I’m right, there goes another large section of the potential readership. Those who agree, please put your hands up.


To even things up, the Herald should get Paddy McGuinness (arch idiot and scowling, self-centred bigot that he is) to start his own version of Webdiary. Now THAT would be something I wouldn’t go near.




Robert Lawton in Adelaide


Thank you for returning to solutions, rather than ventilations, in Retrospective Hansonism.


I was never worried about the PM letting Pauline speak out, in 1996 and after. In my view it was better to have her obsessions discussed openly in Parliament than merely muttered to mates in workplaces, around evening TV, on talkback or in the pub. I had heard enough of her kind of stuff after leaving my Whitlamite family home in the early 80s to know that it drove many (if not most) people’s attitudes to immigration, welfare, Aboriginal people and the economy.


We all know that this country is insecure and xenophobic: the question is, as Lenin said, What Is To Be Done?


Shall we allow the populist tail to wag the executive dog? As long as preference deals rule, the parties will suck up to the crucial minors. Richardson did the dirty work in 1989/90 and saved Labor with “the environment” at an election that even the Peacock-led Liberal/Nationals could have won. Ten years on, Ruddock/Van stone did the same thing with immigration and welfare policies, when it seemed that even the Beazley-led ALP might grab sufficient marginals to take office.


Taking mandatory preferencing away from the voting process will possibly wipe out One Nation and even the Greens. It will certainly harm the Democrats. But it will at least make the majors face their party rooms with homegrown cant, rather than cant bought elsewhere.


As much as I loathe the ALP Caucus’ attitude to the anti-asylum seekers laws just passed, I understand the appeasement attitude behind it and know that optional preferen tial voting would work to cut out the straightforward adoption of policy offensive to decency and humanity, in order to buy votes from bigots.


Rob Staszewski


Your point yesterday about optional preferrential voting is noted, though don’t you think it is but a small, though perhaps essential, part of a thorough review of our electoral practice that is desperately needed? The two party system is no longer an adequate representation of our pluralist selves.


It would be interesting to hear from those amongst us who are disenchanted with their current electoral options. So Kim has let the side down and little Johnny has retreated to a mythical fifties that exists only in some tepid xenophobic fantasy. What now?


We may be far better governed if our representatives in parliament were truely representative of the various threads of concerns that form our social milieu. That they would then have to OPENLY form alliances with other representatives if they wish to hold power does not really cause me any great concern. Suitable electoral reform may radically alter our current excuse for political practice. Scary? Perhaps, but I don’t mind admitting that there are aspects to little Johnny that scares the bejasus out of me.


By the way, I caught M. Fraser on Late Night Live this week. The old bastard sounded positively statesmanlike at times. Recently he has started to make a bit of a habit of it. Having one’s prejudices challenged from time to time must be good for the soul.


Russell Ayres in Canberra


I heard you yesterday on Late Night Live arguing that people disaffected with the ALP will nevertheless preference them ahead of the Libs, therefore their impact will be minimal in the House of Representatives. As you acknowledged, the Senate could be a very different story.


Last week my partner and my son (who votes for the first time in the forthcoming election) wrote to our local member Bob McMullan to say we intend not to vote Labor because of the stance they have taken on the Tampa and refugees. We also wrote to the ALP Senator for the ACT, Kate Lundy, saying the same thing.


This, for us, was a serious step. We once would have been described as ‘dyed in the wool’ Labor voters. Now we are swinging voters – a breed I once felt considerable contempt for as political flotsum, tossed around by whatever happened last week. It was also a serious step because we know both Bob and Kate to some degree and respect them in many ways. But the Party simply can no longer command our respect, let alone our loyalty.


And that takes me to your argument about preferences in the House of Representatives. While you are right that the preferences of voters like us will eventually flow through to Labor in most instances (depending on the strength and discipline of the protest vote) this misses the point.


Even if Labor wins the next election, its support in terms of primary votes will almost certainly be diminished. And people who give their first preference to someone other than whoever wins the election do not, regardless of what happens further down the preferencing list, feel in the slightest sense that they have elected the person who did win. So where does that leave any sense of legitimacy for government?


Maybe we are going to have to have a House of Representatives proportional representation system and forgo the idea of majority government now that we no longer have anything like half the voters supporting any party.


Margaret Paterson


The passage of the migration bills was a gross and disgusting betrayal of principle by both the ALP and the Coalition parties. Since we have to preference either ALP or Coalition on our House of Reps ballot papers, many people will consider that spoiling their papers will be their only alternative. How many of us will be able to stomach voting for parties so focussed on gaining votes that they will enthusiastically betray their principles without qualm?


O.L. (surname witheld on request)


The recent policy position adopted by Kim Beazley and the ALP is just the latest indication of how populist Beazley and his ilk have become over the previous three years and how devoid of vision and policy direction the ALP is.


I notice that some of your colleagues in the press gallery have started making comparisons between Kim Beazley and John Hewson. While there may be some electoral similarities, Dr. Hewson was by far the better leader. He had the courage and the honesty to propose a vision that was relatively unpopular to the electorate because he considered it best for Australia. He knew that it would be necessary to sacrifice votes but he nevertheless stuck to his longstanding convictions and presented Fightback anyway.


Kim Beazley, by contrast, has sacrificed any vision he had for the country and adopted a position designed to win votes. I supported Dr. Hewson in 1993 with enthusiasm. I will vote for Kim Beazley in 2001 only because he is the lesser of two evils.


It wasn’t always like this. There was a period when I had profound respect and admiration for Kim Beazley and his strong commitment to his principles. That was during the 1996-1998 period when he actually appeared to have a vision. I can rememb er his strong dedication to opposing the Wik legislation. Despite indications that the Wik legislation was overwhelmingly popular within some sections of the community, Beazley persevered to take a strong position against the proposals of the Howard government. He may have taken a relatively unpopular stance but he emerged looking like a strong and competent leader. And the ALP came out as a party prepared to advance the principles of social justice, tolerance and compassion above electoral populism.


Contrast this with the performance of Kim Beazely and the ALP over the course of the last few weeks. What we have seen is an Opposition Leader obviously badly advised by his political strategists and frightened to even sneeze in case he does something that will jeopardize his chances of becoming Prime Minister.


He could have pointed out that the majority of asylum seekers have genuine cases to be considered. He could have strongly contradicted Mr. Reith’s, Mr. Ruddock’s and Mr. Slipper’s assertions about the strong connections between boat people and terrorism. He could have come out very strongly against the increasingly pro-Hanson position of the Howard government. But no.


After muddling around for a few days, he comes out fully in favor of the government’s position and vows to endorse whatever the government proposes in relation to boat people. He has done almost nothing to contradict the ridiculous stereotypes advanced by Ruddock and friends. Obviously he is incapable of showing any commitment to social justice, tolerance or compassion if it means he could lose votes.


When the ALP came within an inch of victory in 1998, Beazley had the perfect opportunity to sell himself to the electorate as a leader and a visionary. He has done neither. What we have seen is an Opposition Leader whom continuously whinges and whines about what the government does but does not present any credible alternative for voters.


His advisers obviously considered that they could capitalize on unpopularity over the GST and the Howard government and win votes without presenting a credible vision. Unforeseen circumstances have revealed the shortcomings of such a strategy. Now Beazely is floundering like a fish out of the water.


I doubt the ALP will win the election. Whitlam and Bob Hawke were elected because they presented voters with a credible vision and a perception of strong leadership. Hawke could have won an election, even in hostile circumstances like now, because he gave the impression of being a leader. Beazely just looks like another Neil Kinnock or Arthur Calwell.


Howard doesn’t deserve to win this election but his government has managed to stir up enough prejudice and fear that he will. Beazley will let him.


Humphrey Hollins in Perth, Western Australia


As a working class man I may not have the flair and wordsmith skills of your more educated correspondents but I like to think that I can hit the spot over here in the bigoted west. It is hard to find a person in the street here who has not fallen for the propaganda and hates the refugees and muslims in general. We are an immature, pathetic little country led by a matching PM

and opposition leader.


This is what I got into the West Australian this morning. You would not believe the torrent of hate mail that is published here.


“I’ll come clean. I am a bleeding heart and a do gooder and despite having no religion, I do believe in Christian values.Therefore, I am prepared to take an Afghan refugee into my home, providing all those who litter these pages with their bigoted views do something in return.


�Take your old mum or dad out of the hos pital or nursing home where they are accomodated at the taxpayer’s expense or take a homeless person off the street. Fair enough?”




Mark Kelly in Townsville, Queensland


No flies on the Coalition. Hot on the heals of Paul Keating’s commentary on Lateline last night of our handling of the immigration issues as ‘sublime bordering on ridiculous’, Mr Ruddock’s office have piously trotted out the following statement this morning…….


“The Federal Government has called on the international community to help ease the growing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, says Pakistan needs more assistance to cope with the expected influx of refugees.


�He has told Channel Seven that Australia has already made a significant contrib ution to the $30 million of aid being provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Our contribution of $14 million [is] an effective 50 per cent increase in the total resources that they have available,” Mr Ruddock said.”


Seems a bit rich to be trumpeting such generosity – I just can’t help wondering if the $150M plus that has been spent ch asing boat people around the Top End and housing them on Pacific Islands could not have been better utilised. Our government’s ignorance of the regimes in Central Asis has been breathtaking, and sharply bought into focus by the terrible recent event in New York. I fear an era of ‘NIMBY. driven chequebook aid’ is upon us with a vengence.


MARGO: The transcript of the Keating interview is not yet on the net. See www.abc.net.au/lateline

Michael Walton in Newtown, Sydney


Derek in Retrospective Hansonism raised a valid question on mandatory sentencing and I’ll give him the debating point, though not for the reasons he offered.


A cursory glance around some Internet sites revealed that mandatory sentencing has become a fact of state criminal law. Some Australian states impose a mandatory minimum sentence for wilful murder. There are also mandatory sentencing regimes for drink-driving. The very fact that such laws exist demo.strates that it is inaccurate to claim that an aversion to mandatory sentencing is an accepted tenet of our society. And so Derek scores the “axiomatic” point.


Nevertheless, there is still considerable opinion that mandatory sentencing is both unconstitutional and in breach of international law. Interestingly enough, it is the UN document that Derek uses to make his point, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is most often cited against mandatory sentencing.


For example, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in its “Briefing Paper: Human Rights and International Law Implications of Migration Bills” suggests that the (new) Border Protection Bill could breach Articles 9 and 14 of the ICCPR.


Opinion on the constitutionality of mandatory sentencing centres on the principle of the separation of powers and the right (or otherwise) of the legislature to mandate minimum terms of sentencing.


During the recent NT mandatory sentencing debate, NSW Judge G.F.K. Santow wrote that in his opinion mandatory sentencing could be challenged in the High Court as a breach of separation of powers because “these mandatory sentencing regimes undermine the integrity of the court’s sentencing processes”. This is the basis for the claim that mandatory sentencing is an attack by the legislature on the judiciary.


To the best of my knowledge the issue of mandatory sentencing has never reached the High Court for its opinion. And, for the sake of comparison, I couldn’t find any reference to the US Supreme Court reviewing mandatory sentencing laws either. So, to use an ABC-like pun, the jury’s still out on this one: at least until the High Court rules or a referendum is fought a nd won on the question.


I am opposed to mandatory sentencing as a matter of principle. I cannot put it any better than the former High Court Chief Justice Brennan, who said that “…a law which compels a magistrate to send a person to gaol when he doesn’t deserve to be sent to gaol is immoral”. It’s that simple. Mandatory sentencing has the potential to snare people it was never intended to snare, and the judge has no discretion to rectify such mistakes: the mandatory penalty must be applied.


As for the “it’s the will of the people” argument, just because the people demand a thing, it does not follow that what they demand is just. And that is why I believe that we need a strong, independent and unfettered judiciary – to provide those legendary “checks and balances” on legislative and executive power. After all, that is what the rule of law is all about.


As I see it, the federal parliament, in the absence of any opposition, has this week assumed the power to mandate minimum penalties for certain offences. There was no review, no consultation, very little public debate: the power was just assumed. I am deeply suspicious of governments assuming new powers in this manner.


All of this was done in the name of getting tough on people smuggling. But, in the case of the new mandatory penalties, we’ll be locking up poor Indonesian sailors, not the big guys. Some justice! If we were serious about catching the Mr Bigs, we’d start by signing the Protocol on the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air (2000).


But, as we’ve seen, the introduction of mandatory sentencing in federal law was not the only disturbing innovation passed through parliament this week. We are further restricting refugees’ access to our territory and our courts; introducing yet another class of humanitarian visa; legislating that everything the government did re Tampa was absolutely and unquestionably legal – no ifs and no buts.


I’m aghast that most people have fallen for it. A direct electionist, I am seriously reconsidering my views in the light of the attitude of Australians to asylum seekers. I was kidding myself when I said that Australians would never elect John Laws or Alan Jones as President.


And as for the Labor Party and the politics of supporting all this legislation, I hope they realise that if the government is returned later this year, the whole cynical exercise was futile. they would have ditched their principles for nothing.