Failed party in search of a purpose

Speech extract

2010 September, 4

Since former Labor minister John Button delivered his devastating analysis of his beloved party in his  2002 Quarterly Essay, it is plain in 2010 that the Australian Labor Party never did step up to the  challenge of renewing its purpose in Australian national politics. Which way forward indeed for those  who dream of a better world?  


Button’s essay Beyond Belief laid out a devastating analysis of the state of the Labor Party in the new  century. It was required reading then and, there being little evidence it was ever heeded in the eight  years since, is required reading today. Anyone seeking to work out how it has come to this in 2010 is  advised to return to this essay.  


Let me say from the outset I am a Labor outsider. My father and his father before him drove cattle in  Cape York Peninsula in the days before our citizenship: the picture of black stockworkers sitting out on  the dark woodheap, looking through the kerosene lamp-lit windows of the boss’s station house, dining  on damper and black tea while the white fellas sit eating their corned beef, potatoes and white sauce, is  an enduring metaphor of black rural and remote Australia.  


I won’t rehearse Button’s diagnosis of the Labor Party after the 2001 election defeat, but the main themes are the same as those that emerged in the lead-up, conduct and aftermath of this year’s election:  a party bereft of purpose and peopled by a decreasingly diverse talent pool of apparatchiks.  


While this derogatory appellation is commonplace, American historian James Billington’s definition  makes it particularly apposite in the present context: “A man not of grand plans but of a hundred  carefully executed details.”  


Less than three years on the Treasury benches and it has come to this. Whether or not Julia Gillard  succeeds in salvaging a government from this wreckage, Button’s eight-year-old counsel hovers like  Banquo’s ghost over the bloody scene. The failure of the federal Labor Party to define and to articulate  other than in the most banal terms its raison d’etre in national politics is not good for the cause of those  who seek progress in Australia.


Labor’s most compelling claim as to its most essential difference from its conservative Coalition opponents was that it was what Kim Beazley Sr called “the party of social attack”.  


Whereas both Labor and the liberal conservatives might make claims to more or less competent management of the nation’s government and both might make claims to their commitment to economic reform, it is only Labor that harbours the idea that it is about social change.  


While the liberal conservatives also wish for a good society, by definition they eschew governmental  agendas for social progress. They have a long philosophical heritage that sees social progress as a steady evolution, and large governmental attempts to contrive progress will only result in waste and unintended consequences.  


The liberal and conservative tradition has a well pedigreed scepticism, and indeed strong objection, to  what their opponents once called social justice.  


Today Labor is more sparing in its deployment of these two words: social justice. While social justice  is still part of Labor’s intra-mural pieties - a useful rallying cry for the true believers in front of the  nation at large - the concept is muted and liturgical.  


If Labor were to say what it was about, why could it not simply say that it was about economic prosperity and social justice? The truth is that it could cannot. And the problem is not with the notion of economic prosperity: plainly, Labor stands for it and everyone is clear on its meaning.  


It is the social justice part of this formula that Labor could not sustain. It could not because the notion  of social justice is completely elusive and has for too long remained undefined by those who say they  were and are all for it. Both the end state of justice and the means by which that end state is supposed  to be achieved is utterly undefined.  


And all attempts to cobble together a definition of what contemporary Labor politicians mean when  they deploy the words social justice would just confirm to their liberal conservative opponents that  Labor has in mind yet another great socialist project that will end in waste and tears.


How is it that a concept that has travelled with the social democratic project through such a long and  storied history has ended up so equivocal? Why does every attempt at articulation sound like someone either sincerely wanting or insincerely promising utopia?  


Kevin Rudd’s great nemesis, liberal economist Friedrich Hayek, once wrote: “I have come to feel strongly that the greatest service I can tender to my fellow men would be that I could make the speakers and writers among them thoroughly ashamed ever again to employ the term ‘social justice’.”  


It may be that the high priest of what Rudd called neo-liberalism has finally succeeded in intimidating the social democrats out of their convictions about social justice. My intention is to suggest that social justice could be a real concept and could be the concern of a party such as Labor that seeks to actively  work to make a better society if it be properly understood.  


This proper understanding, however, would require an abandonment of the great part of the accumulated theology of social democratic thinking around social justice, and would more heed the  rational objections of the liberals than the moral enthusiasms of the social democrats.  


Let me at this point dilate on two of my own native thoughts about leadership. My first point concerns  the difference between natural and structural leadership. Structural leadership depends on formal  political, cultural, economic or religious structures for mandate, authority, power and influence.  


Natural leadership depends on no institutional power or recognition: it is simply the power of human  self-determination and the informal recognition of its inspiration and influence over other humans.  


There are many more natural leaders than structural leaders in the world and they will be readily found  in families, community groups and in the full range of informal social, cultural, religious settings.  Some structural leaders are also natural leaders, but most natural leaders do not occupy formal  structures.


The problem with the parliamentary parties is that they provide pathways to power for structural leaders who may have never exercised natural leadership and may never possess it. They are masters of  the structures of power but in the absence of those structures they could not lead men and women.  


While it is not a problem exclusive to it, it is this preponderance of structural leadership that is a large part of Labor’s problem of parliamentary representation.  


My second point concerns the dialectical way in which I conceive leadership and policy. It is important  to my argument to explain my dialectical view and what I mean by the radical centre.  


Let me extract the explanation I laid out in my 2007 essay for the Griffith Review: “The cold-eyed and  impatient pride themselves on their lack of romance and emotional foolishness: pragmatism and a  remorseless Kissingeresque grasp of power make winning and survival the prize every time.  


“Those who harbour ideals but who need to work within the parameters of real power [as opposed to  simply cloaking lazy capitulation under the easy mantle of righteous impotence] end up splitting the  difference somewhere between ideals and reality. This is called compromise. I prefer a pyramid metaphor of leadership, with one side being realism and the other idealism, and the quality of  leadership dependent on how closely the two sides are brought together.  


“The apex of leadership is the point where the two sides meet. The highest ideals on earth are realised  when leaders strive to secure them through close attention to reality. Lofty idealism without pragmatism is worthless. What is pragmatism without ideals? At best it is management, but not  leadership.”  


In my essay I suggested that there were at least 10 classic dialectical tensions in human policy: idealism v realism, rights v responsibilities, social order v liberty, individual v community, efficiency v equality,  structure v behaviour, opportunity v choice, unity v diversity, nature v man, and peace v war.


But the truth is that dialectics are everywhere: Hegel and Marx were right about the dynamic unfolding of history through dialectical tensions and the Confucians who gave us Yin and Yang and their cultural  counterparts the world over were right about the unity of opposites.  


There is much tug of war in the world and tragically too little productive synthesis. The productive synthesis is the radical centre. The radical centre is both an intellectual place and a real place in the dynamic political economy. The radical centre therefore requires intellectual insight and practical political and economic action.  


Intellectual insight alone is no guarantee that the real circumstances will change accordingly: we can  often see what we need to do, but we may not succeed in doing so.  


One example of the intellectual identification of the radical centre concerns the dialectic of war v peace  set out by President Barack Obama in his acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace last  year: only by the preparedness to fight war can peace be maintained.  


Many will not agree but I think Obama identifies what I would say is the radical centre of this fundamental tension. Whether his leadership can get his country to follow his intellectual identification  of the radical centre is of course another question.


Edited extract from Noel Pearson’s 2010 John Button Oration at the Melbourne Writers Festival last night.

Failed party in search of a purpose