Monday, October 18, 2010

Power Crisis; a review

I had the great pleasure of attending the launch (see me at 3 minutes 50 seconds) of Rodney Cavalier’s Power Crisis last week.

The title is a cute play on words, as the book covers the recent ALP history over power privatisation while putting it in the context of the history and structure of the ALP. In doing so Cavalier covers the difficulties of the contemporary left, the ineptitude of political reporters, the absence of leadership and the failing structure of the ALP.

Cavalier has great credibility as a commentator of the Left, having been an active protagonist in that cause for four decades. Over those decades he has gathered a wide reputation for his prodigious written output. Significantly the book portrays Rodney’s love of language and the art of writing. This is not just a book on politics, it is an example of the kind of mastery of the non-fiction craft that is now displayed all too rarely.

The plot of the book is the attempt by Morris Iemma and the Parliamentary Labor Party to pursue electricity privatisation against the wishes of the Party as expressed in a resolution of annual conference. The backdrop to the tale is the history of the party, its great splits and the existence of factions and fractions within the ALP.

Where Cavalier is most critical is the fact that the labels of those divisions within the NSW ALP of Right and Left no longer have any meaning that distinguishes between the beliefs of the two groupings, they are merely the labels of two groups for political patronage.

This provides the opportunity for an excursion, that is based on a Fabian Society address, that addresses the question of what happened to the Left. He notes that the Left no longer has any belief in the socialist objective – be that the broader left as in the ALP nor the group within the ALP that calls itself the Left. Instead of a commitment to “the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange” there is substituted a motley collection of causes, in Cavalier’s words “In the absence of an ideology, gesture politics has become all important to those wearing the label of ‘Left’”.

It is reasonable to ask how it has come to this. After all as Cavalier also notes “The broad discourse of Australian politics from 1941 to 1983 was inside a Leftist prism”.

I will write later more on the whole question of what happened to the Left. For now let me observe that the future for the Left is in redefining what it stands for, and that will be found in the words "the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange". The difference is that it is now not a matter of public ownership versus ownership by a select class called "capitalists", because by dint of things like superannuation "we are all capitalists now".  (And by recollection once Cavalier was asked in parliament why he as a socialist owned BHP shares, to which his reply was something like "There is nothing in the socialist scriptures that requires you to impoverish yourself in the capitalist phase).

The path to a new understanding of "socialisation" is by the rejection of the fundamental precept of the neo-liberals  - that all individuals acting in their own self-interest is the best organising philosophy, both economically and morally. In reality the "golden rule" of acting towards others as you'd like them to act towards you is the most important moral rule. It transpires it is also a fundamental requirement to make market economies work.

The public would have little idea of what is really happening in politics. Cavalier's second target in his book are those paid to report on politics. He makes the criticism that these "journalists" make no effort to understand the historical context of anything, that they rely excessively on the tit-bits they are fed by politicians rather than what they find out and that their writing fits the narrative of power and power struggles rather than a contest of ideas. (My own observation has been that in an election campaign the reports on a policy launch are more about what sector of the community a policy is designed to please, rather than analysis of the substance of the policy itself).

He makes this point throughout the book in a series of boxes in which contemporary press reports incorrectly report what is going on and what will happen. No one features more highly for inaccurate reporting than the Daily Telegraph's Simon Benson who has written his own version of these events as Betrayal. That book ultimately tries to sheet the blame to Kevin Rudd for not delivering Federal intervention. As Cavalier notes, expecting Rudd to be able to deliver the numbers on National Executive was as naive as believing that Iemma could get the vote out of State Conference. Neither controlled the right-wing union dominated citadels of the party.

It is in contrasting the approaches of Curtin and Iemma to implementing a policy that was in conflict with the principles of the party that Cavalier does his best work. In this he is describing political leadership, irrespective of the specific constructs of a party. The story itself, though, is described within the framework of the ALP. However, the words of a leader not able to convince his party could just as well be those of Malcolm Turnbull to the Liberals on climate policy (I am the leader and you will follow me!).

Ultimately Cavalier's major concern is with the structures of the ALP. He has long been an opponent of the union control of the party conference, and rightly notes that the Crean reforms were totally inadequate for the goal of affecting change. In noting that Iemma did not try to sell his case to the party membership he notes there was no membership to sell it to. While making the case for reform to remove the votes of the unions at annual conference, Cavalier reminds Iemma and others that this is a cause he has championed for some time and which others should have joined.

But in this analysis, Cavalier makes this out to be a particularly ALP problem. Elsewhere political scientist like Ian Marsh (in Political Parties in Transition) identify four eras of political parties; from cadre parties, to mass parties, then catch-all parties and finally cartel parties. The catch-all party is the one that on the ALP right represents every polling driven outcome, while on the left it represents the loose collection of "progressive" causes. The cartel party refers to the process whereby parties are publicly funded, both for campaigns and the fact that all "operatives" wind up on various staff.

This disease exists on both sides. Unfortunately John Hyde Page's The Education of a Young Liberal had to be withdrawn from sale, but it told the same tale of a party driven by patronage not ideal, where even sharing the spoils of opposition is more important than prosecuting any case of philosophy.

The disease though is worse for labour. John Faulkner in his launch address (not on line that I've found) referred to the ALP as the political wing of the union movement. This is historically incorrect. The ALP is the political wing of the "labour movement" (or Laborism) while the trade unions is the industrial wing of that movement and philosophy. But the consequence of cartel parties is that both parties become clients of those other factors inside society that are able to exercise power. The most obvious is the power of the capitalists as represented by "business", but close behind them are well organised groups of various beliefs, be they religious or environmental. In the modern age these other forces can be little more than mobs whipped up into momentary hysteria through cascades of tweets and texts and facebook messages and youtube videos. It is the cause of labour that gets overwhelmed in these moments.

But given where we are, how can anything change? Loss of Government in NSW will only make paid positions in unions more important as a place to house operatives. The "reforms" to conference (e.g. central branch) only serve to further hollow out branches. The umions will be just like the Labor appointees to the Legislative Council who failed to vote for the abolition they had been appointed to bring about. Worse the bulk of remaining branch members are aged unionists who date from the days where workers were habitually union members.

My own sorry tale is that I left the ALP in 2006 after the realisation that the Crean reforms meant nothing and nothing could shake union control. At the time I'd read Graham Freudenberg's A Cause for Power. It appeared to me that all previous reform of the ALP had occurred as a consequence of pressure from the outside, not within.

Rodney Cavalier's book and John Faulkner's speech had me regretting that decision. They know what the cause of labour is, and they know what the failings of modern democracy are. I'm just not sure that hankering for the old days and old ways is the solution. Perhaps there are ways through the legislative route, such as requiring that organisations that want to endorse candidates for election must be organised on democratic grounds. But why would the cartel parties pass laws that break the cartel?

But then again I don't have any better ideas. And for anyone who is despairing, this book is an excellent place to start; we need someone to work out an answer.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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