Truth, lies & narratives: What ALP’s crisis is not about

by · February 15, 2013


In a considered piece at ABC’s The Drum on Thursday, Jonathan Green highlighted a phenomenon that seems to overwhelm Australian politics — the inability of simple facts about the Gillard Government’s performance to overcome the stench of crisis hanging over it.

He is correct to point out “that in assuming that the mere facts of its record should be enough to carry the political argument, this Government fundamentally misunderstands the question.”

Green argues that elections are decided more by impressions than objective performance:

Cases for re-election are based on the creation of political impression, and the impression of this Government, successfully created and willingly propagated by its opponents, is that Australia is economically underperforming as a result of federal mismanagement, and that we are suffering through a long and debilitating period of rolling political crisis.

He concludes:

What works politically is in fact a compelling, ahem, narrative — whether it be manufactured from fact or fiction is not really to the point.

Which is what the left and Labor doesn’t get. Fact checks, the record-correcting fleets of the blogosphere … these things have right on their side but they are not making the winning argument.

The problem with this approach is that it explains the crisis of the Gillard Government almost entirely at the level of ideas, as if the mass of people (including many former Labor voters) is gullible enough to simply vote for the better crafted tale, no matter how divorced it is from reality.

This is also the frustration expressed in an article Green quotes, by the ALP’s court philosopher, Tim Soutphommasane, in which the latter essentially accuses Australians of experiencing a mass delusion that serves the fortunes of the Right:

Economic debate is distorted by a hysterical, nonsensical concern about the cost of living. … The popular sense of economic wellbeing is no longer anchored in anything objective; it has become something increasingly subjective and impervious to the facts.

The same theme has dominated Leftish blogs and tweets in recent months, often tied to anger at a mainstream media willing to brainwash the public with right-wing fantasies about Labor’s incompetence. At times the tone has been positively unhinged, with accusations that anyone critical of Gillard from the Left is effectively lining up with Abbott.

There are three key problems with this idealist approach.

The first is that it misses the material basis of Labor’s predicament, a crisis that has seen it slump to primaries as low as those suffered during the Great Depression — results that are hard to explain purely on the basis of difficulties in constructing a “narrative”.

The use of mechanical economic arguments to make the case for Labor therefore misses the point. Such arguments fail to explain the long-run attrition of Labor’s political authority in seemingly good times. As I have written elsewhere, the dimensions of Labor’s crisis include the erosion and splintering of its “rusted on” vote, the decay of its party organisation, the dramatic decline in the organised social weight of its base in the unions, the ossification of its factional structures with an emptying out of the social interests they reflected, and the gradual evaporation of the party’s raison d’être — the representation of a class interest within the political system.

Hawke with then ACTU President Simon Crean

Next month is the 30th anniversary of the election of the Hawke government, which presided over a systematic shift of wealth upwards from labour to capital, and initiated the economic reforms now referred to as “neoliberalism”. It broke the back of union resistance to the effects of the economic downturn of the 1970s via a mixture of incorporation and (when needed) confrontation with its own social base. In the process Labor became incapable of articulating a clear “narrative” not because it lacked good storytellers, but because its agenda no longer reflected or cohered a clear set of social interests. While such an agenda survived when resolving the impasse of the Fraser years, it was eventually exhausted and if anything marks Howard’s rule it is that in practice he was no more neoliberal than Hawke and Keating.

Gillard’s current problems are not reducible to this history, but her government has exacerbated Labor’s crisis of authority, in no small measure because in order to win the party back for the factional chiefs she had to trash not just Rudd’s mistakes but his successes. It is hard to claim credit for saving the country from the GFC when you apparently saved it while your Government was at its most dysfunctional, living in terror under a psychopathic leader.

All this cannot be fixed either by whipping out a few vaguely progressive policies with an “old Labor” feel about them (which, like the NDIS, have a market economics sting in the tail) or engaging in overheated yet hollow class rhetoric (like that used against the same mining billionaires to whom Labor made massive tax concessions). Labor voters’ detachment from the party has thus taken either the form of a drift to the Greens on the Left or a willingness to humiliate Labor at the ballot box even if the result is a similarly unsatisfactory Coalition regime.

Simply put, it’s not that voters are blinded from seeing Labor’s successes; it’s that they see through the claims of the political class to be representing their interests.

The second problem with the idealist approach is that it overplays the coherence and social power of the political Right. The conundrum the Left faces is not of how much voters want to follow Abbott but how incredible it is that a party led by Abbott could be so far ahead in the polls. There is no evidence that the Coalition under Abbott’s leadership is “popular” in any normal sense of the word, and his already pathetic personal ratings suggest that scare campaigns are not likely to gain much more traction.

But the Right’s troubles run deeper. The Coalition parties’ organisations have long been saddled with structural weaknesses and internal feuding. Further, there is little evidence that public attitudes have moved Right in recent times. As Scott Steel (Possum) made clear last June, on most socio-economic questions ordinary people are to the Left of the Coalition and Labor. Regardless of that, it would be hard to credit Abbott and Hockey’s manic-depressive lurches between big spending promises and balanced-Budget austerity rhetoric as constituting a narrative, let alone a compelling one. They are likely to use a big election win to claim a mandate to pull out nastiness of the type that Campbell Newman has deployed, but it is also likely to be as clumsy and destabilising as the LNP’s efforts in Queensland.

This comes to the third problem, which bridges the first two. The idealist approach serves to disarm any attempt to build a better Left — one that can have widening popular influence and be able to resist the kinds of policies seen as inevitable if the Coalition wins. This approach sees the electorate as essentially passive, successfully manipulated by Abbott and his boosters in the Murdoch press. The task then is for the Left to become better manipulators storytellers. Or to sink into passive despair and wait for Abbott to unravel in power. Or, worst of all, to adopt more of Abbott’s right-wing agenda to “neutralise” it, in the hope that voters will prefer the imitation to the original.

It also encourages the poisonous narcissism of small differences that is officially known as “partisanship”. One of the clearest outcomes of the economic experiment of the last 30 years has been to shrink the substantive policy differences between the major parties to almost nil, further cementing the belief that there are no politicians left looking out for ordinary folk. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the overblown shenanigans inside the Canberra bubble.

So is there an alternative to this sorry state of affairs? For a time the Greens seemed to represent such a possibility to the Left of Labor, a party that took politics seriously but refused to simply acquiesce to the decay of the existing political establishment. Yet, as I wrote last September, the Greens’ entry into a series of alliances with Labor has cost them support. Their independence has been constrained in favour of “constructive” governmental participation, but with little benefit in terms of public recognition for their limited legislative wins. By joining the “bastards” of the political class they claimed they wanted to replace, they have limited the development of a Left that could have reached out to the masses of voters disgusted by the major parties. For many of those voters, in the absence of a credible alternative that can articulate their interests and aspirations, punishing Gillard is the only “fact” worth pursuing this year.

Discussion16 Comments

  1. BonnieJeannie says:

    Yet the alternative was to have Abbott at the helm…Maybe the Greens suffer from being too naive in expecting the average voter to understand. Maybe it is time for the Greens to trumpet their achievements and to distance themselves from Labor, not as a payback but just to restablish our real identity and, while we are at it, to Green up the Greens and not to be afraid to mix in the colour red, “It’s Time!” again.

  2. […] Tad Tietze:  Truth, lies and narratives – What ALP’s crisis is NOT about […]

  3. Cate says:

    Succinct, eloquent and, in my humble view, correct. The base has crumbled over 30 years but the excision of Rudd alienated many older ‘rusted on’ voters. I’d vote for a reinvigorated Green Party but at present am countenancing a fine rather than excercising my electoral obligation. I can’t think of an argument that nullifies that prospect.

  4. John Bernacki says:

    So true! Labor seem either unable to “read” the electorate, or unable to deliver the integrity expected. People no longer know who Labor are, so are more are inclined to go for the “devil they know”. I think more people trust and respect a party who are consistent with their values and principles, even if not always agreeable. Labor is trying to succeed via spin, rather than with true leadership and courage. It keeps promising to reform itself but seems incapable of doing so. Labor should be able to make minced meat out of someone as ridiculous as Tony Abbott, but their lack of credibility and integrity prevents it. And yes, many want to punish Gillard, yet Labor stay their course.

  5. David says:

    Cate I suspect we r not alone my intent is to vote only for parties with moral policies on Indigenous and Refugees . We do not have to to accept the ALP as the lesser of 2 evils.
    I Will consider the fine option. It Would only work if we refused to pay fine and made media on this re optional preferential voting which would in turn support a real leftist party.
    This would make the left ‘story tellers’.

  6. Godfrey says:

    The truth hurts but then it can heal.

  7. Little Omar says:

    I saw this re-posted on The Drum. I thought this was one of the better articles I’ve read there in a while. Thanks for allowing it to be published there and consequently bringing it (and your blog) to my attention.

  8. I agree with the bulk of this article. The ALP has never been much chop but since the installation of Hawke/Keatingit has become no more than a pale imitation of the Tories. The name-calling that pervades parliament happens because there is little else to critcise; the policies of each are too similar. In other words the ALP has distanced itself too far from its class roots. However, unlike others here I have very little faith in the Greens. They are not a class based party and in fact most of their members have have a very post-modern view on the class structure of society. If they do have a class view it is middle class which is a position adopted by those that really do not know where they fit in society

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      I think Left Flank shares some of your reservations about the Greens, as our extensive critical engagement with the party’s positions and strategies should indicate. The question of why we think the Greens are important is a separate one — and this comes from our analysis of how Labor’s crisis produced a clearly Left split of Labor’s voter base (even one with confused ideas, etc.) in the form of the rise of the Greens. This is an important political axis that any construction of a better Left project must take into account in its perspectives.

      As I wrote in 2010: “For the Left outside the Greens, the space remains limited, simply because without a resurgence in mass struggle, politics has a tendency of being refracted through existing institutions. Nevertheless, the inability of these institutions to provide more than temporary solutions to the ecological and economic crises (or even the appearance of them) means that schisms are likely to emerge. But the dominance of the Greens means that they cannot simply be bypassed on the Left when breaks occur. The internal discussions in the Greens are also likely to be both a partial reflection of debates in wider society and, in turn, to impact on developments inside social movements and the working class.”


      • CW says:

        The problem with the above comment is the assumption that the Greens are ‘left’. Whilst I concede that many of them are of the left, I believe it is a case of your above description, “politics has a tendency of being refracted through existing institutions”; the greens being another of these institutions. I know many progressive Greens that subscribe to the theories of David McNight in his ‘Beyond Left and Right. I also know of others that have very leftist tendencies. The problem for the Greens is the same as for the ALP and the Trade Unions, that is, they do not politicise their membership. The hierarchy of the ALP and the Unions do not do it as they do not want to be challenged by an educated rank and file. The Greens don’t do it because basically they act like a social movement and not a political party, The problem with social movements is that they form around a particular issue and once that issue is addressed then they lose the reason for their existence and either dissolve or stumble away.

        • Dr_Tad says:


          I find the terminological debates over whether the Greens are “Left” or “beyond Left and Right” unhelpful, because they don’t tell us what role the party has actually played in Australian politics. My experience of such ideas within and outside the party is that they are used polemically in debates about what the party’s strategic outlook should be.

          The point I was trying to make is that the Greens’ rise has been predicated on them acting as a (vacillating, inconsistent) Left pole of attraction that has been able to break a substantial chunk of previous Labor voters who hold political positions to the Left of average ALP voters. This is borne out by analyses of the Australian Election Study, one of which I refer to in my 2010 Overland essay.

          Regarding “politicisation” I am not sure that is true. I think the problem is that the politicisation is a clearly reformist one, and hence the relationship between leaders and rank-and-file, MPs and party activists, takes on characteristics that conform to the notion that politics is necessarily hierarchical. There is a growing division of labour between an elite, all-knowing leadership operating inside the political system, and a membership expected to get them elected (although such tendencies are less pronounced in the Greens than the major parties).

          There has been a growing politicisation of the Greens membership in recent years, but the lessons are drawn in the course of debates about a reformist strategy that accepts the idea that entry into the capitalist state is a central part of social change. In that sense the Greens have moved well beyond their movementist roots.

  9. CW says:

    Terminological debates may be unhelpful, but post-modernists aside, terminology is an aid to finding tthe level of certain people and organisations in a short space of time. When I spoke of politicisation I should have elaborated by also using political theory (especially in a comparative historical context). Most Australians whether or not they belong to a political party have very short term political memories. This accounts for many pining after the Howard years and the ALP’s and Unions lack of memoty regarding Hake and Keating.

    I don’t quite grasp the intent of your last paragraph. Are you implying that the Greens in general have recognised that social and ecological ills are exacerbated by capitalism, or that it is possible to achieve success in these areas by working with the capitalist system? In my experience I find the latter to be true. One of the reasons I say this is that most of the Greens that I meet believe in a market driven carbon pricing system. That is, polluters are able to dodge their community responsibilities by shuffling their allocations rather than addressing the problem. In this way it seems that many Greens subscribe to the priciple that the ends justify the means.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      I’ll try to put my last paragraph another way. I think that the Greens’ membership has become less movementist and more political, but that it is a type of politics that sees capturing the existing capitalist state as the method to bring about significant progressive social change. My view is that this leads to the party being increasingly captured by the priorities of the state, not the other way around.

      More from me on the Greens at The Drum today:

  10. […] a sense of crisis swirling around the government, last Friday’s post on how the ALP’s problems run much deeper than a faulty “narrative” was republished at […]