'Being in Labor is a matter of managing embarrassment'


By Tracy Sorensen

Hawke's maiden speech in parliament centred on unemployment. In March 1983, when he was elected prime minister, there were 650,000 officially out of work. That year, he was moved to tears during a televised discussion about its impact on young people.

The official unemployment figures for March 1991 show an increase over February of 40,000, bringing the total to 777,100 — the largest pool of unemployed, in absolute numbers, since the 1930s depression.

Political journalist Laurie Oakes commented in the April 23 Bulletin that "the Hawke government has boasted of job creation as its greatest achievement. But if the jobless level hits double digits, it will be seen as no better than its predecessor."

Labor's other great theme as it swept into government in 1983 was the redistribution of wealth. Labor was no longer about the socialisation of the means of production, it was announced, even as a long-term objective: the point was to create an environment for economic growth and then ensure that everyone got a fairer slice of the larger pie.

It went to the 1987 federal elections with the now-famous promise that no child would live in poverty by 1990.

In Inequality in Australia: Slicing the cake (Heinemann Australia 1991), sociologist R.W. Connell comments: "Taking all forms of wealth together, as a broad generalisation ... it would be fair to say that approximately half of all the personal wealth of Australians is owned by the richest five per cent".

And: "A small number of businessmen extract very high incomes from their corporate power, while approximately two million people live below the conventional 'poverty line', including one-fifth of Australia's children. Trends are difficult to measure, but it seems that the overall level of economic inequality decreased in the 1970s and increased in the 1980s."

These days, it's unlikely that anyone would bother to argue that Labor might suddenly decide it's time to "change direction" and return its gaze to the light on the hill. Before the Hawke experience, this was still discussed as a possibility, whatever the objective chances of the miracle occurring. There were sincere reformists in the party.

Now, the best Labor can offer to progressive-minded people is a promise to be less nasty than the alternative, a position which admits that Labor can move a long way along the road of nastiness. Labor allows uranium mining, sends frigates to the Gulf, charges tertiary tuition fees, gives to the rich and takes from the poor.

It has moved so far to the right that it can no longer contain the social movements — for peace, the environment, women's rights and so on — within it. It has coopted some sections of these movements, demoralised others and made thousands examine alternative political formations.

Those rank-and-file members still in the party and not looking to rs have had plenty of time to question their continued involvement. The relentless stripping away of democracy has left them virtually no role but to staff polling booths at election time.

In February the Haberfield, NSW, branch decided to call it a day, and tried to move a motion declaring itself closed. Head office rushed in and pointed out that the branch was not allowed, under the rules, to suicide.

At that meeting "there were a lot of people in the same position as I was", Ian Robertson, branch president, told Green Left. "I'd joined when there had been 23 years of conservative government. Gough got elected and there was all that youth radicalisation in the 1970s, there was Vietnam and the end of conscription, the recognition of China — all those real landmark things which you never forget about."

The commitment of troops to the Gulf disgusted Robertson. "I'd joined a party that was committed to getting us out of a foreign war, and here they were busily getting into one."

But would the Haberfield branch members actually take the plunge and leave the party, if they succeeded in closing their branch?

"The thing about eight years of Hawke is that anyone who's still in Labor now is there for life, basically, or for a long period of time. We still get out and campaign for Labor because, well, here in NSW [Labor opposition leader] Carr is better than [premier Nick] Greiner. But it's embarrassing. Being in Labor now is a matter of managing embarrassment." n