Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-3-5952 5780

+61-4-1349 7828

June 2008 # 1

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Back to Editorials 2008

Left Right or Wrong

“All hail, the Left is dead!” Well at least according to the reality in which Ken Phillips of the Institute of Public Affairs exists. Ken is one of the Directors of this organisation and I guess he is far more qualified than me to make such a bold claim. 

In an article in the Business section of The Age a week or so ago, Ken wrote that, “About six years ago some left thinkers in Labor made the shift to acceptance of market capitalism”. I won’t argue against the words he writes but I will take exception that this only happened six years ago. Ken obviously needs to bone up a little on his history and look back at the Hawke and Keating years. If he does he will recall that Hawke came out of the left and transmogrified into a full blown market capitalist cheer leader. 

I suggest that the present Prime Minister has always been a market fundamentalist and technocrat. Just as Hawke was welcomed as a saviour from the ‘excesses’ of the so called ‘right’, I predict that within the next two years many will come to realise that Rudd will not only continue to embrace market capitalism but will give up even more of the working class ground to the real masters of the universe. 

So, not only does Ken need to ‘get with the program’ he also needs to drop the oh, so 20th century left / right rhetoric. I suggest that since at least the end of the 1970’s the arguments have not been about ‘left and right’ but about who holds the power to influence the material conditions of large groups of humankind.  

If the supposed ‘left’ leaning Tony Blair was content and without qualms, prepared to sanction and take part in the illegal invasion of a sovereign nation, then anything is possible. If one of the traits of the so called ‘left’ is a hankering for justice and human rights, then where do Blair’s actions regarding Iraq fit? Similarly, if Hawke was an old guard lefty, where does his central claim to fame in dismantling and destroying the solidarity of the union movement fit? Hawke’s Prime Ministership was almost solely focused on destroying the structures that united workers, regardless of their union affiliation and turning the union hierarchy into career chasing functionaries and thus bringing them ‘into the fold’. Looking at the outcome of this today we find that the highly regarded waterfront worker, asbestos victim and anti Work Choices campaigner, Greg Combet, is happy to endorse the global war effort by opening the multinational arms manufacturer, Raytheon Australia’s, “Engineering Centre of Excellence”. I would argue that many more people will die because of Raytheon’s ability to build even more powerful weapons than Combet’s principled stand against the excesses of ‘the market’ ever saved. 

No, Mr. Phillips, the left is not dead, just being abandoned by those who suddenly find that the attractions and baubles of power are far more enticing than spending your days in draughty caravans or hanging out with the dying and unemployed. The real issue is not ‘left / right’ but the demands of power and the want to influence. I’ve experienced this first hand. 

Many years ago a group of parents were fighting the education department over the closure of a specialist school program for our disabled kids. We fought hard, got great media coverage and were united, at least in the beginning. As time progressed parents were ‘bought off’ by the department. We had all agreed from the outset that our kids came first and we would always put them first. So when the department offered free transport, extra class room assistance and other incentives to parents, one by one they accepted and their forthright support fell away. Each time they would express their profound regret but said the offer was a once off, take it or leave it situation and they had to take it.

Towards the end of the fight, when we were reduced to a rump, the department invited the remainder of us to a regional planning meeting to discuss our claims. I was the only one who went. I put our case but was, of course, out numbered. At the end of the meeting the Director offered me a coffee with him and a couple of other department heavies. What began as a general chat turned quite bizarre when they offered me the opportunity to take up a role on a department committee as a parent representative. I declined, said my goodbyes and left. 

Reflecting on this I realised that what they wanted me to experience was firstly, disenfranchisement from the ‘movement’ I was part of. Secondly, they wanted me to realise the futility of the struggle to prevent their “expected outcome” from prevailing. Thirdly, they wanted to reinforce my feelings of isolation and powerlessness in the face of their plans and finally, they wanted to offer me a way out and an entrance ‘into the fold’. They wanted to second me to their structures of power and influence. Rather than meeting around the kitchen table, I would experience air conditioned conference rooms. Rather that photocopying things myself, I could ask the committee secretariat to do that. Rather than be on the receiving end I could “deliver high quality educational outcomes for our school communities”. Bollocks! 

Ken, the ‘left’ is not marching to the tune of the market at all. If it was, why all the concern over the Chavez and Morales governments in South America? If it was dead, why are hundreds of thousands still calling for the prosecution of Bush, Blair and Howard over their failed Iraq adventure? If it is, why are thousands still struggling for a fair go for carers? No Ken, the left is not dead, just abandoned by those who are willing to give up their role in the struggle and take up residence in the halls of power. 

Ken Phillips writes from the perspective of one who is so limited in his outlook that he believes his own propaganda. As one who has access to the ‘levers of power’ Ken finds that many who once challenged his world view are now greeting him as an equal. With that in mind I can understand why he would make such a bold statement. However, what his article really exposes is the disconnect between the ruling classes and the society they are trying to rule. 

The left is not dead, it is alive and thriving. It is not concerned with pursuing the trappings of power and prestige but in pursuing the concerns of those who the market devours as it attempts to sate its inexhaustible appetite for power.  

I’m sorry to tell you Ken that it’s not the left that is dead but the empty rhetoric you turn to in your need to reassure yourself and your peers that ‘all is well’ in the world. The bad news for you Ken, is that the left has moved on from aligning itself with particular party political ideological claims. After all, anyone who considers the Hawke, Keating and Rudd governments as “left” is obviously just as out of touch with reality as you are.

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