Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

Speech at launch of 'Whitlam's Children' by Shaun Crowe

October 27, 2018

Shaun has written an important book, and written it well.

Whitlam's Children deserves to be read, and talked about - it illuminates a conversation that has been more characterised by heat than light. This has benefited neither Party, nor our politics.

He raises the prospect of a ‘more robust, self-aware relationship’ between the ALP and the Greens.

Whitlam’s Children enables us to explore this, in a more considered way, and to set its terms.

Like Shaun, I’m ‘invested in the future of Labor and Greens in Australia.’ Or, as I’d put it, securing Labor’s future.

And I think Shaun is right to place this issue in the context of political fragmentation more generally, though his reference to ‘the remarkably stable coalition’ already seems somewhat dated! With Ged being part of this launch, I also observe that the experience of the Batman by election, and its implications for both parties also shows that political life moves pretty fast.

Context matters, and he does the context well. Whitlam’s Children takes us through the development of Australian party politics to Gough, before examining what he meant and what his legacy means.

Through a series of lenses: offering a theoretical and historical perspective, analysing the parties’ engagement on key relationship flash points (policy debates and coalition questions) and drawing out a wide range of participants’ views.

It’s all of this - and his insight - which opens up the prospect of a debate that is informed as well as robust, and which challenges us to be more self-aware.

The rich material he has sourced directly from such a large number of prominent Labor and Greens figures represents an invaluable resource. He has asked the right questions of the right people - and he interviewed me as well.

I can testify to the quality of Shaun’s cross-examination, which pressed me to think deeply about my commitment to Labor, my hopes and concerns for the future of the party and what the Greens mean for us.

Reading the book, it is clear that these thoughts aren’t mine alone. I take great comfort from those shared by my Labor colleagues - if only the conversation in these pages had been taking place within the forums of the Party! Great comfort, and inspiration too.

I’m very hopeful this will shape people’s attitudes around their own political involvement.

Which, for me, is where I’d like our robust and self-aware debate to take us. From reflection, to analysis and to action.

From my Labor perspective, the accounts presented by the Greens are particularly important. They suggest where the present leadership will seek to take the party, and why - and what this means for Labor. Which is, of course, my principal concern.

Shaun observes that ‘Bob Brown compared the rise of the Greens to Labor’s growth in the 19th century’. Such an attitude, which makes clear the terms of which any relationship would be struck, is amplified by Richard Di Natale, who sees manifest destiny in demographics - he says ‘even just basic demographics will tell you that as these cohorts move through the population over time our vote will continue to increase’.

This in turn, as I see it, drives prevailing attitudes to the ALP relationship. Not so much a contest of movement building as managing the results of economic and social change. That ‘old party’ label is instructive.

So much for policy, so much for persuasion, so much for politics. It’s a kind of anti-populist anti-politics.

Also revealing is why members joined the Greens: ‘Most greens responses involved some kind of disillusionment with the Labor Party’. I note that many also emphasise grassroots democracy- but I suspect this may be another way of saying the same thing! And of course we have to take their word for this, given that this concern for democracy doesn’t extend to transparency.

I think we need to draw two lessons from this. Firstly, that strength in support for the Greens directly reflects weaknesses in Labor’s appeal (I’ll come back to this point). And secondly, that it is divergent attitudes to government that represent a fundamental cleavage between the parties, not questions of policy. It’s this point that anchors his conclusion, and mine.

Shaun describes the approaches as those of ‘office-seeking’ versus ‘policy-seeking’ parties. I think this is apt, though more generous than I’d be.

It colours the quite divergent views on past cooperation, particularly the experience of the Gillard government. It’s interesting to me how much more positive the Greens’ responses to this time are than those from Labor - but this illustrates the point I think.

Such a framework suggests not that the Greens are less pragmatic than Labor (whatever that means), but instead possessed of a functionally different approach to compromise. As I see it, the Greens prefer to outsource their pragmatism, rather than compromise internally.

They don’t reject the transactional side of policy-making but seek to separate it from them, at arms length. And suggest that this is qualitatively different to what is referred to as ‘Labor’s debased model of catch-all politics’.

You won’t be shocked to hear that I disagree with such a suggestion. In fact, it strikes at the very heart of my concerns regarding our growing democratic deficit in Australia.

Having read Whitlam’s Children I am concerned to take its message into not just the debate between Labor and the Greens, but into the conversation within the ALP. This is the existential question for me.

To secure a better, fairer and more sustainable Australia we need to bring together all of us who are concerned to achieve this end.

And as inequality and technology separate and segment people, and their experiences of life , this becomes more and more important. I note there’s been research recently produced linking the decline of mass parties (as well as trade unions and other civil society organisations) to political fragmentation in a number of advanced economies. So we need to consider how the ALP operates, structurally and culturally, to keep people involved and to see the diversity of those we’d like to support us electorally brought together politically through the Party.

Almost all the Labor representatives quoted consider the challenge of maintaining our appeal to a broad section of the Australian community. Almost none of the Greens refer to this.

Earlier I referred to Shaun’s assessment of why people had decided to join the Greens, being driven by disaffection with Labor. This represents a real challenge for both parties.

For Labor, we have to recognise the significance of this and to ensure that we welcome into our movement anyone who wants to be part of securing a good society, through the transformative work of governments. To be the Australian social democratic project, not simply to influence it.

I don’t want to cede a centimetre of reformist political space to anyone else. Labor should aim to cover the field of left and centre left politics in Australia.

Some in our Party have taken a different view. I welcome their contributions to what is an important debate. But I reject the suggestion that we should ever welcome the proposition that it is somehow a good thing that the Greens have carved away a section of progressive and left-wing Australians.

Quite the reverse. If it is the case that support for the Greens grows when Labor alienates people from our political project, then let’s listen to what’s said by those who clearly want Labor to be their political home - those who see the connection between political and economic inequality as vital . Let’s be less defensive in doing so, too.

This year, my friend Ged Kearney won the Batman by election. This should not just be seen as a tactical victory. Beyond the drama of the contest, particularly within the Greens’ campaign, it’s important to see how Ged and her team anticipated much of what Shaun has put forward.

Having read Whitlam’s Children I feel that I better understand the dynamics of the Greens - but this has reinforced rather than changed my view that the party is a vanity project in that it is unconcerned with the possibilities of government or the political dimensions of inequality.

Labor is, as Shaun contends, an office-seeking party. Whitlam’s Children suggests this is where we fundamentally part ways with the Greens.

I think he’s right.

At this time of increasing inequalities of income, wealth and power, and decreasing faith in politics it’s my firm view that this should be the basis on which we seek to continue to represent the concerns of all Australians who see government as the key to securing a good society.

Thanks Shaun, for making such an important contribution to understanding the state of the left of Australian politics today, and to looking to its future.

It’s a privilege to launch Whitlam’s Children here in the epicentre of this Labor-Greens conversation, in inner-city Melbourne.

My remarks are both partial and preliminary. I’m excited by the conversations to come - looking forward to hearing the thoughts of Labor colleagues, reactions of Greens, as well as those in academia and the media.

Shaun, you’ve given us the basis of a critical conversation. I hope we can do justice to your work.