The beginning of the end for Iemma?

I am on the other side of the world, but even I can scent a whiff of change in the air for NSW Labor. Setting aside for a moment the disturbing and unacceptable schism between the parliamentary leadership and the rest of the party in relation to electricity privatisation, it would have to be a rare punter indeed who believes that the Iemma Government is doing a stellar job of managing the state. Reiterating this perception, Tim Dick has a frankly unsurprising report in the SMH today noting that a Griffith University study has found that the NSW State Government is the most unpopular government in the country. If that wasn’t enough, Andrew Clenell and Alexandra Smith report that a leadership challenge is imminent, backed by party general secretary Karl Bitar, who has fallen out with Iemma and Treasurer Michael Costa over the electricity privatisation issue.

What I think is important at this juncture is for NSW Labor to do some seriously constructive navel-gazing. It’s all very well to talk about changing leaders, but what is really required is a culture shift in the way the party interacts with the electorate and indeed conducts its affairs. It’s arguable that such a shift can only really happen if the parliamentary leadership changes, and on that basis, in the absence of any serious prospects of improvements otherwise, I would support a change in the leadership at this point. Despite his professed loyalty to the Premier, his factional handicap as a member of the Left and his close association (as Deputy Premier) with the current leadership team, I am inclined to think that John Watkins is the right man to take the party forward.

Let’s put the last fifteen months in perspective. The Iemma Government won a fairly strong election victory in March 2007 over an Opposition that was rendered incredible and unelectable by its then leader, Peter Debnam. Thanks to Debnam’s weak leadership and somewhat flawed personage, the government honestly did not encounter the tough electoral challenge it might have expected after four years of decidedly so-so governance. From what I can gather, Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell has not exactly been blazing the trail in the job since obtaining it a month after the election, but nor has he been doing that badly either. I think most voters would agree with me when I suggest that he is a credible alternative leader, even if he is not doing a very inspiring job. This spells trouble for NSW Labor in 2011 unless people’s impressions of the government change for the better and change fairly rapidly.

As a party member, I do feel that Morris Iemma really has tried his heart out to put things right over the past couple of years, thrown into the lion’s den as he was after Bob Carr’s abrupt resignation. Although I tend to disagree with Michael Costa’s views more frequently than I agree with them, I do believe he wants to do the best he can for the party. However, particularly in light of the electricity privatisation debacle, with the party wrenched apart in a recklessly destructive fashion, I don’t think it has been good enough. For many punters, I am sure it has not even been close to good enough. For the good of the party and indeed the state, I think both Premier Morris Iemma and Treasurer Michael Costa should stand aside and let a new leadership team try and steer the government in a fresh direction.

Iguanagate

If I was Kevin Rudd I would be quite royally pissed off about all of this. Perhaps its best for Belinda Neal and/or John Della Bosca to both fall on their swords in advance of any inquiry findings. Federal Labor has been damaged enough by this tawdry episode as it is.

Modern politics and that dirty, dirty word

One of the most obscene political words that one can use today, should one attempt to use it in some positive light, is of course socialism. To attempt to suggest that any particular socialist government might have achieved some good things for the country during its time in office is effectively tantamount to saying that you wish that George Bush or Kevin Rudd could be more like Joseph Stalin. In public discourse, we may as well just pretend that the word “socialism” and variants thereof have been blacklisted by some global, authoritarian political language regime. In the new political lexicon compiled by the enlightened victors of the Cold War, everything whatsoever associated with socialism is bad – or worse, evil. For some, this faith in the fact that socialism and everything associated with it is evil transcends the intellectual and becomes a quasi-religious fervour. As sure as Satan is evil, for such people, you can rest assured that socialism is evil as well.

In mainstream political culture, the central avenue through which this curious treatment of the word “socialism” emerges is through the world’s major centre-left political parties. The Labour Party in Britain and the Australian Labor Party have both publicly exhibited some embarrassment at retaining a reference to socialism (being a dirty word, and all) in their respective party constitutions. Soon after Tony Blair assumed the leadership of the Labour Party in 1994, the party voted to change the wording of Clause IV of its constitution to “modernise” the party’s relationship to the so-called “socialist objective”. The revised clause does interestingly make a reference to socialism (albeit qualified with “democratic”), but removed the admittedly anachronistic references in the clause to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. The Australian Labor Party has also discussed dropping the “socialist objective” from its constitution given socialism’s “taboo” status, with Kevin Rudd even going so far as declaring that he has “never been a socialist and never will be a socialist” after being elected Opposition Leader by the party in December 2006. To that, one would have to wonder precisely what Kevin Rudd means by “socialist”, given his known religious views and support for public health and education.

All this namby-pamby tip-toeing around the word socialism does, for someone like myself who believes that not everything associated with socialism is evil, intellectually grate. It makes comments like these from London Mayor Ken Livingstone in an interview with The Guardian seem quite refreshing by comparison. Here is Red Ken on some of the challenges facing the world today:

“All the politics of the post-war period was about the clash between the Soviet Union and America, and virtually all issues ended up being subordinated to that,” he says, “Now, the question is, what is the most a socialist can achieve in a global economy? What do we do about climate change bearing down upon us?

“In a sense, it brings us back to the basic socialist tenets. The only way you get through this is by sharing and planning, resource redistribution, allocating priorities – the market isn’t going to get us out of this. The market is a brilliant system for the exchange of goods and services, but it doesn’t protect the environment unless it’s regulated, it doesn’t train your workforce unless it’s regulated, and it doesn’t give you the long-term investment you want.”

Livingstone goes on to heap praise on Hugo Chavez, which is probably unfortunate. However, his beautifully succinct statement above, which summarises some of the limitations of markets with respect to some of the major problems facing the world today, is unequivocally, undeniably true, regardless of if you think Karl Marx was an economic Satan or not. It is true that Livingstone is portrayed in the media as a stereotypical leftist (and he certainly does his part to perpetuate that perception), in a way that perhaps Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd are not. However, one does somewhat wish that the leaders of centre-left parties like the Labor and Labour Parties would use reality as a device for crushing at least part of the stigma associated with the s-word.

Socialism as a body of thought is not in any sense equivalent to communism. The vast majority of people who refer to socialism in positive terms today do so out of deference to the humanistic and compassionate qualities of the ideology, not to the horrific calamities instigated in its name. Stripping away the irrational bonds of the taboo enforced by some intellectuals about this peculiarly modern dirty word, the truth of the matter is that we are all socialists now, at least to some extent. The “sharing and planning” that Livingstone speaks of is a basic, critical human activity that is inextricably embedded within the infrastructure of modern human society, and if compassionate and effective civilisation remains a desirable goal for the human race, we should hope it long remains there.

Federal-state relations: a new beginning?

As we all know, Federal Labor today finds itself in the privileged position of sitting at the head of the national legislative table. Not only does Labor sit at the head of this table for the first time in over a decade, but at the head of a table stacked entirely with colleagues who in broad terms, share a common ideological approach to solving the nation’s problems. This arrangement provides unique challenges and unique opportunities, in a not dissimilar way to which the Howard Government’s control of both houses of parliament during its last term did. The challenge for Federal Labor and indeed the party’s state branches will be to make full use of the co-operative opportunities that the current arrangement presents, whilst avoiding the temptation to abuse the power granted by their inevitably temporary position. The political waves caused by the passage through parliament of the ideologically-motivated Workchoices package serve as a warning for Labor in this regard. Let’s be clear: this is not the right time for the Rudd Labor Government or its State and Territory compadres to pay bounteous tribute to their “mates” in any way, shape or form.

Now that Labor occupies the federal government, the prospects of building effective multi-tiered regimes on a number of policy fronts is a real possibility. Industrial relations is a case in point. It is obvious that the antagonisms that existed between the Howard Government and the state governments on industrial relations were ideologically based. Now that those antagonisms no longer exist, at least not with the same venom, a cohesive national industrial relations platform has more than a snowball’s chance in hell of getting off the ground. Such an outcome would represent a significant win for business, and unlike the previous government’s approach to industrial relations reform, be driven by common sense rather than ideological concerns. As Professor George Williams writes in The Australian today, such an outcome is federal ALP policy and also represents the best model for change in the near-term:

A co-operative scheme will eradicate the wasteful conflicts that bedevil the current system. It will also produce a more stable law not prone to radical shifts with each new government. In being beyond the control of any one government, it will also drain much of the partisan politics away from the debate. This is long overdue in an area where politics can impede the best outcomes.

I think just about everybody in the country at the moment has a fairly significant bone or two to pick with their local state Labor government. One or two of them are getting on a bit, and when you have a dyed-in-the-wool Labor supporter feeling completely comfortable saying that, you have to wonder what the average non-aligned punter out there in the electorate thinks. There is a window of opportunity available right now for the Australian Labor Party to show the country why it embodies the right approach and the right values for this country’s future. The party’s time in this position is limited by the realities of democracy. If a robust and co-operative approach to addressing problems in areas of great national need like education, health, transport and inequality can be forged now, it could well set the tone for a new Australian century of co-operation at the highest levels of government, and an era of unprecedented success for Labor.

It is all too obvious whose court the ball is in. Now let’s just hope that something appropriate is done with it.