Michael Costa, George Megalogenis & the strange death of ‘reform’ politics

by · December 7, 2010

Now also cross-posted to ABC’s The Drum website.

The last fortnight saw the release of two significant contributions to the post federal election debate on the state of official politics, and more specifically its intimate connection with the fortunes of the Australian Labor Party. The first, the new Quarterly Essay by George Megalogenis of The Australian, is a detailed attempt by a senior journalist to go beyond the usual trivia proffered by the major parties and media hacks. The second, by former NSW Labor Treasurer Michael Costa, is a withering attack on ALP traditions, structures and policies.

What is fascinating is not the extent of contrast between the two accounts, one leaning Left and the other firmly pursuing a right-wing agenda. Rather, it is the shared set of assumptions that animates both.

Bitter polemic

Let’s start with Costa’s polemic in the Australian Literary Review last Wednesday. His argument is that the ALP must reject any attempt to win back ground lost to the Greens by adopting “extreme Left” policies, because by doing that it would abdicate the all-important centre-ground of politics. He scoffs at analyses like those of Rodney Cavalier that Labor should embrace socialist policies, pooh-poohs calls for internal debate promoted by Doug Cameron, and even derides Greg Combet’s belief that the party should restate basic, if vague, values around social justice.

For Costa the dilemma of modern government is how to allocate increasingly scarce public monies to projects demanded by a voting public that wants services but also to pay as little tax as possible. This can only be achieved through a continuation of Paul Keating’s reforms of the 1980s, predicated on the rejection of the historic trade union allegiance of the ALP Right in favour of “economic liberalisation and continuous micro-economic reform”.

For Costa the fall of the Berlin Wall and the sharp decline in union membership from the 1990s provide the ideological and material basis for rejecting statist solutions to social problems. But this shift to market liberalism has now been derailed by the continuing (archaic) influence of unions on the ALP, producing a class of incompetent, poll and focus group driven machine operatives who stop sensible reforms like electricity privatisation in their pursuit of electoral advantage, rather than letting far-sighted politicians like Costa drive the reforms and win the voters to their inherent value. He reserves special vitriol for Kevin Rudd for damaging the cause of market reform with his attacks on neoliberalism.

The only solution for Labor is to break its “union gerrymander” and let the market liberals run the show unimpeded by the party organisation.

What is more important than Costa’s bitterness at his defeat over electricity privatisation here is his inability to piece together a coherent argument explaining Labor’s crisis. If market reforms are the road to electoral success why were they consistently so unpopular (80-85 percent of NSW opposed the power sell-off despite Costa’s months of public sales effort)? Why did Rudd, the ALP leader with the greatest disdain for the party machine and trade unions, also prove to be the most vociferous critic (even if selectively so) of the neoliberal project? What was Costa’s preferred response to the GFC — perhaps an Ireland-style scorched earth approach? And if market liberalism is at the heart of the ALP project, what separates it from that of the Coalition, and therefore why do we need a Labor Party at all?

Costa accidentally gets to the heart of his position: He sees himself as part of a new generation of ALP Right hardheads more committed to markets than working people, but misses that this project actually implies the dismantling of Laborism as a political tendency. It is his project, not that of the dinosaurs holding onto social democratic ideals, which has led Labor to its current impasse, and which the union leaders are now starting to baulk at, even as it continues to run out of their control. Costa, much as Rudd did, seems to believe ALP leaders are disabled by the party’s traditional base (i.e. the organised working class, as mediated through union bureaucracies). But, unlike Rudd, Costa is a true prophet of neoliberal-isation — ideologically obsessed with constant social restructuring in the interests of capital. If only he was allowed to crack the whip harder, we would all come to realise the genius of his endeavour.

The retreat of the reform conversation

George Megalogenis seems, on the face of it, to provide a quite different, more nuanced and progressive account of the crisis of mainstream politics. Megalogenis is popular in the left-leaning blogosphere and is frequently depicted as a “journalist’s journalist”, relying on carefully reasoned and painstakingly evidenced analyses of demographic and political trends. It is easy to see why — when compared with his ranting, ideologically driven colleagues at the Murdoch broadsheet — he commands respect and admiration.

Indeed, in “Trivial Pursuit: Leadership And The End Of The Reform Era”, he is highly critical of the dog-whistle race politics of the Abbott and Gillard campaigns, provides a plausible account of how Rudd’s abandonment of climate action was the key tipping point that undermined trust in his entire agenda, and rails against the Liberals and the mining billionaires for their hysterical public campaign against a relatively mild set of tax reforms.

Yet beyond these issues, he has produced a Quarterly Essay that, at its best, provides limited new insights beyond the already well-rehearsed mainstream media analyses of the lead-up to the federal election. Rarely has the MSM been so out of touch with the scale and depth of the crisis of political legitimacy faced by the major parties as during that campaign. Yet their disorientation is glossed over by Megalogenis and instead the degeneration of official politics is essentially reduced to two key themes: (1) The dumbing down of debate by the acceleration of the news and opinion poll cycles, and (2) The ungratefulness of voters in refusing to give politicians a break despite having reaped so much “prosperity” from the back of the Hawke-Keating (and early Howard) economic reforms.

It is an account that recognises the impasse faced by the political elite, yet one bedevilled by the author’s desperation to dance around the elephant in the room: whether “reform” in the “national interest” is really evenly distributed — and therefore whether its more recent abandonment is a function of poor communication and political cowardice or a deeper structural reason. The possibility that even with the most patient debate run by the best-intentioned politicians “reform” could still be rejected because it has caused economic and social pain to the majority of voters is never countenanced. It is telling that Megalogenis paints the achievement of the Accord in slashing real wages in the late 1980s (something Thatcher may have dreamed of but was never able to do) as a good thing that was repaid with some meagre social policy gains. Megalogenis simply takes as given that upward distribution of wealth and increased power for capital over labour were a success for everyone, not even bothering to drill down into the structural reasons for voter dissatisfaction. There is no serious discussion, for example, of social inequality or the corrosive effect of productivity gains driven by intensification of work and extension of (often unpaid) working hours. Little attention is paid to the way that privatisation of services has undermined not only bank balances but societal trust and cohesion. There is simply no deeper social analysis here, and while “capital” and “labour” make a quick appearance at one point, no sense at all that class may be a significant aspect of modern society.

The resort by politicians to playing the media cycle, pandering to the politics of distraction and division, and abrogating any attempt to have that magical, Hawke-like “reform conversation with the people” is better explained by the fact that voters are fed up and bitter about the direction of 30 years of neoliberalisation, even if politicians are no longer willing to try to sell the free market project openly. For Megalogenis the glory days were those when politicians successfully convinced working people they had to sacrifice for the health of Australian capitalism. Yet the mechanism by which that worked, transmitted through the links between a Labor government and its base in the trade union bureaucracy, was dramatically eroded by the success of those very reforms. Labor now lacks the legitimacy, institutional connections and coherent ideology to sell workers yet another shellacking in the interests of capital. The rise of the Greens is not just a function of being seen to “stand for something” but that they stand against (in however partial and confused a manner) the bipartisan consensus of the last 30 years, the very one Megalogenis despairs may never be resurrected.

Après moi, le deluge?

In this sense, despite on the face of it projecting himself as a progressive analyst of the current context, his thesis rests firmly on many of the same presumptions about market reform that Costa articulates, although in a more measured and less polemical fashion.

There are of course important differences. While Costa blames residual union influence on the ALP’s repudiation of the reform agenda, Megalogenis essentially situates it in his technologically determinist view of the “information revolution” and the adaptation of political operatives to those realities. He is far less critical of unions, seeing them as legitimate (if terribly weakened) players in a pluralistic system. Megalogenis rightly describes Rudd’s style as that of “our first federal Premier” but fails to dig deeper into the way that this type of technocratic managerialism is an inevitable product of the way that neoliberalisation drove a post-ideological perception of politics, where government was little more than a service-delivery business — something that Costa holds up as the ideal. And while Costa ignores Cavalier’s attack on the growth of a professional political class inside the ALP (of which he was a de facto member), detached from the party’s social roots, Megalogenis sees the detachment of politicians from their roots in society as a real problem.

Yet the key area of agreement with Costa — the importance of market reforms — runs throughout “Trivial Pursuit”. Need action on climate? Use an emissions trading scheme. Why support population growth? To help overcome labour market pressures. Why have an RSPT? To more efficiently allocate profits across different sectors of capital. Problems with an ageing population? Why, just ramp up privatisation of pensions by increasing superannuation contributions. And so on.

It is a testament to the defeat of the old Left in the 1980s — at the hands of the Hawke-Keating government with the collaboration of many key former radicals from the Communist Party and union leaderships — that these arguments are accepted as progressive. One only needs to look at the Greens Senators’ inability to imagine old-style state intervention (hardly a radical measure) as a mechanism for climate action to see how much the “Left” has capitulated to neoliberal ideology.

Megalogenis understands that the reform he favours is “never painless”, but in making the case that voters have rejected the major parties because they have given up on such reform he confuses two things. On the one hand, there is a quite logical cry for politicians to look to the “long term” given the way that they have allowed infrastructure and public goods to fall by the wayside in the name of short-termism. Yet on the other, the subordination of every aspect of social life to the imperatives of market mechanisms favoured by the reformers is exactly what has driven the economic short-termism that afflicts our modern existence.

On climate change, for example, if Megalogenis’ favoured emissions trading schemes are introduced then our futures will be even more at the mercy of a narrow class of financial traders seeking to make the fastest buck possible, whatever the later consequences (remember the GFC, anyone?). This is the contradiction at the heart of his cry: In effect he is arguing we need a long-term plan to introduce more market short-termism. One would think that the last 30 years is evidence enough that this has been a social disaster, but also one for the political class that has pursued it.

Après moi, le deluge [After me, the flood will come]” they continue to say, but in reform land things are already looking pretty waterlogged.