The trouble with Labor

February 19, 2011

Australian illusions about Labor are likely to have more serious consequences in the very near future. Unable to charter any real alternatives to the neoliberal formula of war, privatisation and social exclusion, Labor’s pseudo-social democracy will fail, delivering us to neo-fascist regimes and multiple global crises.

The Labor government of Julia Gillard will be replaced by as ugly a bunch of thugs as we have ever seen; just as Obama will be replaced by the same neo-fascists that drew us into a series of bloody wars.

That is the price of our own illusions and of our failure to build a real alternative. The recent federal-state health reshuffle has added nothing of substance.

We can already see what that means in Europe and North America.

Unemployment skyrockets while social security collapses. Youth unemployment in Spain is approaching 50%. People are being banned for years from social security in Britain, while university fees triple.

And the US government, after surrendering hundreds of billions to private banks, has been unable to create a public health system.

In Australia, we have been insulated from much of this, riding on the coat-tails of Asian demand for our resources. But when the Asian boom dims we will not remain so insulated.

Unemployment will hit and social programs will be cut, as neoliberal regimes seek to satisfy the banks by containing public deficits.

Pensions, education, housing and health care will be further individualised and privatised. Private superannuation companies will fail and workers will be robbed.

More land will be stolen from Indigenous and Pacific communities. There will be no rational approach to environmental degradation, as the new bubble economies of “carbon markets” play out.

The mining companies — at the centre of the Australian oligarchy — were the main beneficiaries of the east Asian boom, yet have refused to share the benefits. Nor have we demanded it of them.

This issue was behind the coup against former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

The fall of “Kevin 07” shows that illusions about Labor are rife within as well as without the party.

It was a perfectly reasonable proposition to raise taxes on mining companies in the midst of a minerals boom; reasonable, but suffering from the bureaucratic illusion that government rules in Australia.

Within a short space of time, the mining companies and their mates in the media monopolies were able to portray a tax rise as a threatening move.

If there had been a campaign to educate people on the move, to mobilise public support, it could have been a very popular policy. But Rudd thought he was in charge.

An oligarchy rules in Australia — a tiny cabal of mining, banking, media and investment companies — and the politically conscious need to recognise this.

They allow some second-order debate in their media monopolies, but they also have lines that cannot be crossed — without a fight.

Who is prepared for such a fight? Not the Labor Party leaders, who are focused on securing the benefits of office.

They are aware of the consequences of losing such fights, even over quite modest reforms, as happened with the Gough Whitlam Labor government in 1975.

After the 1975 coup against Whitlam, a new era of Labor coordination with the oligarchy began.

The NSW Neville Wran government in 1976 and the Hawke federal government in 1983 tied their agendas tightly to corporate ambitions.

Take Labor’s 1983 election promise to introduce a national Aboriginal land rights regime. This came about after many years of Indigenous rights campaigning.

Even after being elected, the Hawke government spelt out plans for the most comprehensive program ever to recognise Indigenous dispossession. Yet the mining companies, along with WA Labor, mobilised and, within a few months, the Hawke government reneged on its promises. It all came to nothing.

The history of this betrayal has been buried. Nearly a decade later, the High Court’s Mabo decision forced on Labor what seemed a very limited and discriminatory recognition of land rights. In fact, it was worse than this.

The great evil of the 1993 Native Title Act was that it pretended to legitimise “extinguishments” of land rights for the great majority of Aboriginal people.

Since that great betrayal, Labor has played on tokenism. Keating recognised the genocide in his Redfern Park speech in 1992. Then his adviser Don Watson helped promote the myth that Keating had actually done something for Aboriginal rights.

This might have seemed credible in the face of Liberal PM John Howard’s later refusal to apologise to the stolen generation. Yet Kevin Rudd’s subsequent apology added little of substance.

We must remember that it was Labor that gave the banks control of their interest rates and fees in the mid 1980s, removing social requirements (home lending, small business) that had been attached to volumes of lending and to interest rates.

This helped build the “financialisation” of our economy, where financial companies (read “markets”) rule, speculators rob people in real economies and property inflation makes home ownership a remote dream for younger generations.

It was Labor too, in league with the oligarchy in the 1980s and 1990s, that abolished award wages, abolished the link between wages and price increases (“indexation”), and began the process of replacing public pensions with private superannuation.

Just a few years after introducing the Sex Discrimination Act, these changes were the greatest blow to women’s rights in decades. Women suffer much more than men from the joint abolition of award wages and public pensions.

Yet after a decade of the Howard government, illusions in Labor re-emerged. Young people had not seen Labor in action and people simply didn’t read their history.

Howard didn’t become PM out of personal charisma. He was the little grey man who gave the oligarchy all they wanted.

Labor would sugar coat the pill, but was not prepared for a fight. It is simply not prepared to confront policies of war and privatisation, nor the new bubble market scams.

Labor MPs (including a raft of ex-union leaders) now sit in parliaments across the country, speaking and voting for things most privately disagree with and which their constituents hate — wars, racism and privatisations — yet they are too weak and scared of losing their jobs to speak out.

Those in Labor Party branches, in their turn, fondly imagine that theirs is a democratic institution and that their policy proposals mean something. Union leaders either see no other option or are looking after their own superannuation, as Labor MPs.

George Petersen said back in the late 1980s, after a 20-year period as a NSW Labor MP, that the Labor Party was the greatest obstacle to progress in the country. He was right, precisely because the hypocrisy of Labor inspires ongoing illusions.

Our problem is that these illusions have their costs. Labor’s “honeymoon” will come to an end and we will be faced with the same problems, but in worse circumstances.

The world faces crises of food, environment and energy, as well as wars of aggression and resistance to imperial occupations. This is not a time for “more of the same”.

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