Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Quarterly Essay 49: Not Dead Yet: Labor’s Post-Left Future, by Mark Latham

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Former Labor leader Mark Latham looks at the party’s search for meaning and original policy thinking, and sees embracing the science of global warming as the way forward for Labor. Not Dead Yet offers lots of brilliant analysis, but despite its proposed solutions keeps its optimism for positive change in reserve.

This latest Quarterly Essay from former Labor leader Mark Latham examines Labor’s structural and cultural problems, and points to a possible way out of its current existential crisis. Since leaving politics, Latham has devoted time to raising his children and continued on with his writing career, contributing regular columns to the Australian Financial Review and publishing his notorious The Latham Diaries.

According to Latham, Labor has had its meaning and relevance hollowed out. Once a grand working class party that served its active grass roots membership, it is now a sorry mess of weak local branches and powerful union chiefs, this in an age when union relevance continues to slide. What, then, does Labor stand for?

Latham charts a proud history of Labor reform, paying special tribute to the Hawke-Keating reforms from 1983-1996. One of Labor’s big mistakes since Keating has been a failure to capitalise on this history of economic policy success and use it as a convincing argument that Labor is the better economic manager. Since 1984, Latham writes, real wages have increased by 20 per cent as a result of these reforms. Yet still the electorate cries poor (see Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay Great Expectations on this subject).

A large central part of Not Dead Yet reprises Latham’s political writings when he was in opposition, during which time he published such books as Civilising Global Capital (1998), What Did You Learn Today (2001) and From the Suburbs (2003). In these works Latham urged a rebalancing of rights and responsibilities (tilting more towards the latter) for citizens too dependent on government and welfare. He also suggested ways in which globalisation could somehow be harmonised with its more deleterious effects on family and community. Many of these ideas he reprises for Not Dead Yet.

What is completely new in Latham’s thinking is his central idea for giving Labor relevance and purpose in the twenty-first century. In a chapter titled "The Great Disruption", after the book of the same name by Paul Gilding (Latham is clearly convinced by the arguments in that book, which maintains that huge structural changes to the economy are inevitable), it is suggested that Labor should wholeheartedly embrace global warming as the number one issue of our times. This makes unerring sense; it’s just that Labor has gone about the whole thing in such a shambolic manner. Under Rudd it was the moral cause of our time, then he dropped the ETS (one understands at the urging of Julia Gillard) and his popularity nosedived. Gillard implemented a carbon tax and may well lose the 2013 election because of it. Labor is in the strange position of avoiding discussing this huge reform at all due to its unpopularity with the electorate. It seems impossible that Labor could now start talking about global warming as a number one issue. Who would seriously listen?

This is a smart and well observed essay on the Australian Labor Party’s identity crisis, and to a larger extent, the nation’s politics in the early 2010s. Latham strikes some good blows against the right wing media (namely Andrew Bolt) and politicians (Tony Abbott). While I closed Not Dead Yet feeling quite intellectually nourished, the essay has a dry and disinterested feeling, especially for a former Labor leader. It’s as though Latham knows what course Labor should take to revive its fortunes, but remains completely devoid of all hope that it will. This perhaps explains Not Yet Dead’s lack of passion and enthusiasm for Labor’s in the 2010s, while praising much of its past. The grim title pretty much says it all.

Quarterly Essay 49: Not Dead Yet: Labor’s Post-Left Future, by Mark Latham. Published by Black Inc. ISBN:  9781863955973  RRP: $19.99