NSW Fabian Forum: What happened to the Left?

Yesterday evening (and for the first time in a while) I got along to a NSW Fabian Society forum in Sydney, this one focusing on the following topic:

In years gone by the Left was a serious political force that held sway in once powerful trade unions, the Australian Labor Party and the broader community. The battles between the left and right for the control of the Labor Party were legendary. In recent years the Left has ceased to be a powerhouse for ideas.

Is the Left dead and does it really matter?

The debate was moderated by Rose Jackson, featuring the following speakers:

Professor Geoff Gallop (Former WA Premier and now Director of the Graduate School of Government at the University of Sydney)

Rodney Cavalier (Former NSW Education, Energy Minister)

David McKnight (UNSW Academic and author of Beyond Right and Left).

My thoughts and potted recollections from the night over the fold.


Rose Jackson kicked off the night with a short speech in which she wondered whether a better question might be “What happened to the Labor Right?”, given the recent ructions in the NSW Labor Party, and proceeded to introduce Geoff Gallop as the first speaker.

Of the three speakers, I think I agreed with the gist of what Geoff Gallop said during the evening the most. Observing that it would seem that it is easier to move “beyond the left” than “beyond the right”, Gallop alluded to the works of John Rawls as a key reference in his speech. On reflection I am not sure that Gallop addressed the question so much as turned the question around to suggest what the left needs to do in order to regain some potency and relevancy in the modern political environment.

Gallop suggested that the pursuit of equality could be the cornerstone of an effective modern Left agenda. Defining left liberals as people who consider social and economic equality to be crucial elements of the “good society”, Gallop pondered with reference to Rawls if the left should return to an explicit focus on equality and the social, economic and cultural redistribution needed to achieve it. Noting that ecology joined economics at the centre of debate in the 1990s, he suggested that what used to be “the left” has now become “the green left”.

In concluding, Professor Gallop suggested that the Rudd Government’s existing high profile strategy to address Aboriginal disadvantage should be extended to address disadvantage more broadly. He stressed the notion that a pursuit of equality could be an excellent organising principle for governments and indeed partnerships between governments and third parties.

Academic David McKnight was the second speaker, and the core of his contribution quite strongly aligned with the views expressed in his latest (and recommended) book, Beyond Left and Right. He started his speech by taking a look at the positives for the Left; the broader left have been effectively shown to be correct about Iraq, climate change and WorkChoices. On the other hand, while the Right renewed its vision in the 1980s around a central idea, the free market, the Left has failed to to renew its vision adequately, and does not have an effective response.

McKnight noted that capitalism has proven to be a dynamic and productive system; perhaps in some ways an unsustainably overproductive one. He asserted that society is still somewhat sleepwalking in regards to the climate change crisis. Referencing his book, McKnight moved on to suggest some core principles that could prove useful to the Left in its redefinition of what it stands for:

1. Sustainable development (obviously crucial given the current majority scientific view on climate change)

2. “Care” – juggling care (e.g. supporting family, children, etc.) and work

3. The common good – rather than the divisive identity politics of old (e.g. classes, left and right)

4. Security, caution and social cohesion – The Right are in some ways the new radicals in relation to their free market economic views, so these themes could be recaptured by the Left.

5. A moral critique of greed and excessive self-interest.

The third and final speaker was Rod Cavalier, who gave probably the most entertaining (although, perhaps, the least helpful or prescriptive?) speech of the evening. Noting that he agreed with Gallop and endorsed McKnight’s contribution but did not share his optimism, Cavalier asserted that the Left died when it stopped believing that socialism was achievable. The central and highly contentious crux of Cavalier’s speech was that you can’t be a left-winger without being a socialist, or in other words, you can’t be a left-winger and not pursue the socialist objective, seeking the democratic socialisation of industry and the means of production, distribution and exchange. The majority of Cavalier’s speech was devoted to describing how and when the Labor Party moved from having a genuine subgroup dedicated to socialism to having one that was socialist in name only.

Suggesting that gesture politics has replaced ideology, Cavalier asserted that being a humanitarian does not in itself make one a left-winger, and that in fact Robert Menzies was well to the left of any current Rudd Government Minister (quite a big call, methinks!). Cavalier expressed his belief that competitive tax-cutting has replaced the traditional competition for a better society between the major parties in modern times. He noted with some irony that it was apparently fine for Australian manufacturing industries to be ground into the dust by the policies of economic liberalisation, but that the same rules don’t apply to Manhattan’s financial district, as recent events indicates. Nationalisation is apparently okay for some.

The speeches were then followed by some questions from the audience. Gallop and Cavalier agreed to disagree about the socialist objective, and Cavalier also contributed a few stinging salvos worth relating. In response to a question about whether the Labor Left lacked strong leadership, Cavalier suggested bemusedly that if it was believed that John Faulkner was a left-winger, then anything could be believed. He was a little more optimistic about the Greens, although he did observe that they would do much better if they fielded more candidates who were clean-shaven, employed, and looked more like family types. Gallop noted that the Greens are (for them) mercifully free of the burden of having to try and convince and maintain the support of a majority of the populace.

Anyhow, it was a good night out. For some reason this event was not advertised on the Fabian Society website, but I will post details of any future events I catch wind of in Sydney.

8 thoughts on “NSW Fabian Forum: What happened to the Left?

  1. Hi, I found your blog on this new directory of WordPress Blogs at blackhatbootcamp.com/listofwordpressblogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, i duno. Anyways, I just clicked it and here I am. Your blog looks good. Have a nice day. James.

  2. Nice recap. Some interesting stuff there. Not revolutionary enough for my good self, of course. Oh, and good to have you back, Guy!

  3. Hey Guy, I planned to go to that but piked at the last minute – I knew I’d be falling asleep all day a work if I went all the way into Sydney. I wish I had now. One of these days I’ll actually get along to a Fabian forum. If only there was a Westie Fabian group.

    The main problem with the Left in Australia is that policies were always judged by whether they brought us closer to socialism, when the real question should be this: does it make us a more egalitarian society? Or does it it contribute to creating the good society?

    That’s not to say that there aren’t fragments from our socialist heritage that shouldn’t always be carefully guarded – universal health care, for instance.(Medicare, strictly speaking, isn’t socialised medicine, but it does draw inspiration from socialist ideas).

    And when you look at what is happening on Wall St. at the moment, left-of-centre ideas – like the absolute necessity to regulate financial markets – have never looked better.

    Geoffrey Blainey said quite a few years back that he could envisage a revival of the Left this century. That seemed almost nuts at the time. And who knows how this financial stuff will affect the fortunes of different political parties. All I know is that the Right – with its deology that says deregulation is always good – looks pretty discredited right now.

  4. …I just heard a pin-striped business bigwig say on Lateline that one of the problems is the free-market ideology of the current US administration.

    Many people are going to get hurt by what has happened on Wall St. so I’m in no mood to crow about it, but when businessmen are sounding like, well, like centre-Lefties like me, then in does look as though Thatcherism/Reaganism is in full retreat.

    P.S. Sorry about the long-winded posts!

  5. Damian, thanks for that. Hope Africa is still treating you well. You’re right in that I don’t think any revolutionary ideas came out of the meeting, although I am fairly impressed by Gallop’s thought about making equality the centre of political debate.

    GB, yeah, you know when massive insurance companies and banks are being nationalised because inadequate regulatory controls were in place that the market is in a bit of a sorry state. It’s deeply ironic that one of the most prominent right-wing administrations in the world has been forced to do what would normally for them be anathema and quite unthinkable.

    Wall Street has bounced back strongly overnight though, so maybe we’re on the way towards getting past this little period of tumult. Of course it would be a brave soul who suggests that we’re out of the woods now.

  6. Former Premier of NSW Jack Lang was more ‘socialist’ than self professed socialists. Jack upheld a practical programme of helping the working class through sensible ideas and policies which upheld the socialisation objective of the ALP. Jack also wrote that this was not to be confused with socialism.
    Arthur Calwell- former ALP Opposition leader got quite annoyed with talk of left and right wing factions when he wrote:
    ‘those who say they are either left or right wing do not belong to the body of the bird’.
    God Bless Jack and Arthur. True Labor men.

  7. ? 1998 ???? ???????? ??????????? ? ???????? ?????? ?????????????? ???????????????????? ????????? ? ?????? ???????? ?????? ???????? ???????????. ????? 1998 ??? ????????????? ???????? ?????? ??????? ??????????? ?????????? (PCS, ?????? SPH-4100).

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