By Loz Lawrey
In the Australian political sphere, clear, well-defined and distinct philosophical approaches have always informed policymaking on both sides of the political divide.
Right-wing pundits see themselves as living in the “real world”, dismissing dissenting views as those of “leftist dreamers”. Labor voters tend to draw inspiration from our shared vision of the “light on the hill”.
In 1949, at a Labor party conference just like the one happening this very weekend, former Prime Minister Ben Chifley defined the light on the hill as Labor’s “great objective, which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind, not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that”, he said, “the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for”.
It is that principled and uncompromising worldview which has brought so much good to our Australian social democracy and held fast against the greedy and selfish assaults of powerful vested interests which have always pursued the enrichment of an elite few at the expense of the many.
Thus was drawn the line in the sand – the line behind which we unite, the line that so many of us see as differentiating left from right, empaths from sociopaths, progressives from conservatives.
In his workingman’s anthem “The Union Forever”, Billy Bragg sings of trade unions offering “comfort to the widow, a light to the child”. To me, this line has always encapsulated the inclusive values of the left-hand side: the caring, sharing, giving, helping lens through which the labour movement and its now confused and troubled child, the ALP, has always viewed the world.
I know such language is easily brushed aside as “leftist” and “loony”. The conservative neoliberal take on things always dismisses empathy as impractical, an unrealistic aspiration which policymakers in the “real world” must not allow to taint their considerations.
In the right-wing worldview the only factors on the table are the economic “bottom line” and the politics of vote-winning. The right defines sustainability not as that which is “ongoing for the common good” but as “what we can afford, what we are prepared to pay for and will keep us in power”.
Two sides of politics. Two worldviews, separated by a clearly-drawn line. This is our line in the sand. This is the line true Labor supporters cannot cross, because if we do we abandon principle in the pursuit of power.
This is what differentiates our position from that of those more concerned with their own self-interest than the common good. Because the pursuit of self-interest at any price is likely to require the abandonment of principle.
Thus do we snuff out the light on the hill, all in the name of “pragmatism”. Ah …
”pragmatism”. In the arsenal of weasel words deployed by those seeking to justify unfairness, austerity, cruelty, or warmongering, this is one of the most insidious.
“It’s a difficult issue”, they’ll say. “We’re not jettisoning our values or principles, we’re just being pragmatic. After all, this real world is a harsh, cruel and unfair place”. The fact that the “real world” is actually shaped and organised by humankind ourselves is conveniently overlooked. If the world is indeed cruel, then it is we who make it so.
This is exactly the way false and twisted depictions of social realities are foisted upon us. This is how the Greek public, after voting comprehensively against austerity measures now find themselves swallowing large servings of … you guessed it, austerity.
This is the way Australians are seduced by the “be very afraid, but don’t worry, we’ll keep you safe” rhetoric from the Abbott government.
And this is the way Labor leader Bill Shorten has shoved an unacceptable policy, straight out of the LNP songbook, down the throats of the Labor faithful. By adopting the Abbott government’s “boat turnback” policy, Shorten wants us to effectively slam the door in the face of desperate refugees, sending them off to even greater danger on so-called “leaky boats”. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s a cowardly, lazy, “let the navy deal with it” approach.
Under the banner of pragmatism in the “real world”, we have been sold a pup.
With a concession or two designed to appease us by implying a slightly more humane approach to border policy, apparently this policy dog will drag Labor over the electoral finish line in a winning position.
This mutt of a policy assumes too much, however. Though Abbott and his henchmen may tell us their boat turnback policy is effective, could they ever be believed? The ongoing secrecy, lies and complete lack of transparency around “on-water-matters” suggests not.
Will we ever know the numbers who have drowned and how many will in future because of this sociopathic approach? Will history define this policy as enabling the genocide, not of a particular race or nationality, but of the most desperate people on our planet?
This “turnback” policy mongrel is targeted squarely as an appeal to the most selfish, racist and xenophobic members of the Australian community. It kowtows to the regime of fear of the “other” with which Tony Abbott, and before him John Howard, have infected our society. All for a few lousy votes.
The evidence points to the fact that our democracy is broken. It has been subverted by its perennial enemy, corporate neoliberalism. Surely, rather than accepting and bowing down to a distorted conservative worldview, Labor should be working to dismantle it and return social justice to its rightful and iconic place as the figurehead of the Australian ship of state?
Once Labor cements inhumanity into its policy framework there will be no going back.
Masquerading as a pragmatic approach which will neuter strident government posturing, Shorten’s endorsement of Abbott’s cruel and inhumane turnback policy is proof-positive that Labor is irrevocably compromised. The line in the sand has now been crossed.
Now where can a Labor voter turn for leadership consistent with our “light on the hill” values? I constantly hear the cry from some that Labor is the “lesser evil” and therefore still worthy of our vote. “At least they’re better in general”, people say. Perhaps until now Labor was slightly better, but now the line has been crossed.
The same weasel-words and spin so effectively employed in service of the neoliberal agenda are now used by our own leaders to hoodwink us. They portray a cruel and inhumane plan of refoulement as “saving lives at sea”. We know it is not. Labor voters are not stupid. We are being forced by the party we love to espouse values we don’t. It’s time to walk away. The stench of uncaring cynicism is unbearable.
Will the votes Labor gains by this choice compensate for those it loses? Will an exodus to the Greens, minor parties and independents leave Bill Shorten and Richard Marles alone in an empty room talking to each other? Probably not, sadly. Time will tell.
One thing we can be sure of though: the real winners are likely to be the Greens. They certainly won’t be refugee asylum seekers.