May 2003 #3

Roosevelt, Crean and Democracy, Australian Style

In his book Taking the Risk out of Democracy Alex Carey writes that, "The twentieth century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy".

He argues that the last century was the setting for a war that is fought out on our streets, in our living rooms, schools, churches, pubs and work places every day. That war, for the most part, goes unreported or if reported, conveyed in such a way as to shield the perpetrators from further criticism and opposition.

Using an historical analysis, Carey examines a number of key events and responses to those events as he mounts a sustained argument that the war is being fought not to benefit the majority, but to further entrench and enrich the minority and their sycophantic minions.

One example he uses is former US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his plan to renew American society and its economy.

Roosevelt came to power in 1932 by promising a ‘New Deal’ for the US people. As one commentator observes the "New Deal was eclectic, pragmatic, and frankly experimental". On his inauguration in March 1933 , Roosevelt began what was known as the "one hundred day" plan (which not a plan at all but a push to ensure his key policies were forced through the US Senate and into law).

Among his radical policies was the nationalisation of banks; the establishment of a national social security scheme; grants to farmers and home owners to enable them to reduce their debt levels; the granting of rights and the restoration of lands to Indigenous Americans; a national public works scheme and laws that allowed unions to recruit members and collectively bargain on behalf of their members.

Some argue that Roosevelt had a certain connection to the "average" US citizen who was suffering under the burden of corrupt business practices, greedy land lords and rabid bank fees which saw people lose their life savings as banks closed due to the recession. His own illness, some say, helped him understand the plight of the poor and needy as they succumbed to the unbridled appetites of the rich elites.

It might be argued that this is not an accurate picture of the man, but in this instance let his acts speak louder than his personal foibles.

So what does this have to do with the price of eggs you ask? Well I want to turn now to last week's federal budget reply by our own Simon Crean.

Simon attempted to evoke the grand image of the Roosevelt era by claiming he wanted to propose a "new deal for all Australians". Ten times during his budget reply he used the words "new deal" to emphasise his points.

"A new deal to save Medicare"; A "new deal to protect the savings of Australians"; a "new deal for Australia will save the Murray" he intoned. He finished by declaring that he would fight for a "new deal for Australians and a new deal for Australia".

So what hope has he got?

In my estimation, none.

His lofty ideals and the grand language he used are not intended for us mere citizens. They’re intended for another audience, the old guard who still control the federal labor party and who, whether they be left or right or center faction, have cast their lot with the big end of town and who pine for a return to positions of power.

Crean’s speech, I’m afraid, was little more than window dressing in the big shop we call democracy, Australian style.

If we examine the legacy that Roosevelt left behind we begin to unravel the difficult position the Australian Labor party finds it self in and why I argue Crean’s words are worth less than the paper they’re printed on.

Even before Roosevelt was elected the big end of town in the US was mobilising to oppose him. The National Association of Manufacturers (the NAM) began a campaign to discredit Roosevelt and the New Deal by commencing a propaganda drive that still rages today – although in a much more complicated and sophisticated way.

The NAM prepared fear campaigns saying that the reforms of the New Deal would put millions out of work; that women would not be able to buy the basic products they needed to run their households; that unions were the spawn on Satan (well just communists really); that the world would end if businesses were shackled in any way.

In short, as Carey summed up the situation, the growth in corporate propaganda was commensurate with the desire of ordinary citizens for a more democratic and egalitarian society.

And so the battle rages, still to this day. It's contradictions are too numerous to mention but suffice to say we see banks making record profits while the poor and low income earners are slugged with higher and higher fees; we see record multi million dollar pay-outs to failed CEOs and board members while the same managements sack millions of workers; and we see the dreams of millions shattered by the roll back of social welfare programs.

So what was Crean trying to tell us last Thursday? And what should we expect?

The Labor party is in a tough bind. While it dropped the ‘u’ from its name many years ago and thus set out to distance itself from the working class roots it grew out of, the Labor party finds itself caught between the aspirations of its own ruling classes and the aspirations it must declare in order to maintain some form of party allegiance and membership.

As we know, the socialist edge that the party had was eroded totally by Hawke’s attack on worker’s rights called the "Accord". During those years the party shifted to the right and continues to do so more and more each day. Just look at the Bracks’ government in my home state. They don’t refer to him as "Jeff Bracks" for nothing.

The Labor party is in the invidious position of having to say the words while knowing in their heart of hearts that if they even so much as tried to enact the reality that their words proclaim, they would be cut down faster than an Acehenese national in Indonesian gun sights.

In order for Labor to have any chance of securing power they must continue in the mould Howard has unfortunately cast. That mould is the one of neo-conservatism or economic rationalism. That is, small government with a hands off, free market rules OK philosophy.

So if Crean wants to see himself as Prime Minister and his party as the rulers of the Commonwealth, he needs to convince not only the voting population, but more importantly the image shapers and conveyors – the big end of town.

This end of town in no way wants to see such things as constraints on their (self perceived) right to pollute that would be curtailed by the ratification and implementation of the Kyoto protocols. They don’t want to be saddled with more stringent compliance demands. And they certainly want the privatisation of education, healthcare and, perhaps more importantly, a chance to grab the over $500 billion dollars of private superannuation funds currently protected by law.

In order to please the big end of town, Crean and the Labor party can’t be seen to impose restraints on big business but in order to please the "aspirational voters" Crean and co need to be perceived by the electorate as offering some relief.

As Roosevelt soon found out, you can’t please both. He did persevere but his New Deal did not end poverty, racism, sexism, and religious intolerance nor did it institute a redistribution of wealth but it did provide relief and hope – a hope that is played on in order to subdue the American people up to this day. His reforms did go some way in allowing workers to reclaim some of their rights and some argue his new deal formed the foundation of the civil liberties and social climate that prevailed during the 50s and 60s in the US. Until his sudden death in April 1945, Roosevelt held firm the social vision he had. But the years since his death have been marked by the clawing back of the social reforms he instigated.

In a nut shell Crean has Buckley’s if he hopes to enact the ideals he espoused last Thursday. If he does the real rulers of our Commonwealth will ensure he won’t last, if he or his party are lucky enough to win the next election and they don’t deliver to the electorate, the party and voter backlash will ensure he’s a one term ruler.

Unlike Roosevelt I don’t see in any of the Labor hopefuls much commitment to or understanding of the lived reality of the vast majority of Australians.

Roosevelt was a man of dreams and he was able to take the Democrats with him. Unlike the Australian Labor party, riven by factions, greed and back stabbing, the US Democrats of the 1930’s were looking for a leader who would not only help them win, but who would help save them AND their constituents from the ravages of economic and social malaise.

In the lead up to the next election, let make sure we ask our political hopefuls what they really mean and bind them to promises to look after "all Australians" and not the minority "all" they hope to join at the top of the pile. While Kenneth Davidson calls Crean’s budget reply the "first breach in the neoliberal consensus", I’m far less optimistic in regards to the ability of Labor to achieve the dream of the egalitarian state.

Perhaps as we attempt to invent the lucky country we need to look to the alternatives that present themselves and finally move away from the oppositional side-show we currently call parliamentary democracy.