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The prime minister promised to restore commonality and common purpose.

The reality is Labor is delivering just more of the same.

 

When Anthony Albanese claimed victory on election night in 2022, he spoke of making Australia a “common ground where together we can plant our dreams”. The moving sentiment, just about the only striking phrase of the election, appeared to indicate that his government would do whatever possible, within the limits all governments face, to restore commonality and common purpose in a nation fractured and directionless after a decade of right-wing misrule. There was hope.

Ha ha, in fact, there wasn’t. Two months or so later, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek announced that the new government would be continuing and extending existing carbon credits and offsets schemes, turning Australia into a “green Wall Street”. The announcement came hot on the heels of the retention of the stage three tax cuts and the refusal to raise the basic benefits rate, and so was merely seen as part of the Festival of General Disappointment that follows the election of any Labor government. 

Yet the “green Wall Street” announcement was a bit more important than that, because it wasn’t an isolated decision or action. Coming from the mouth of a minister from the “left”, in a government headed by a prime minister from the “left”, it was a programmatic announcement — not merely to the nation but, more importantly, to the party and its core supporters — that this was now a thoroughly neoliberal outfit. 

It wasn’t just what Plibersek said but the way she said it: with a glutinous sort of glee. This was a big “eff you” to anyone in what remained of Plibersek’s faction who thought Labor might try to mitigate the global drift to neoliberalism, asserting that, in the matter of the environment in particular, things should be valued on their terms — and the market restrained as with regards to its control over them. The sheer exuberance of Plibersek was clearly one of relief, throwing off what she and others now saw as dogma and irrelevance.

The importance of such a move can’t really be overstated. Instead of pushing back against the haphazard, jerrybuilt, ramshackle neoliberalism the Coalition had pursued under two crackpots and a hostage over the past decade, Labor was now moving to streamline, purify and redeploy it. Labor was and is rational, efficient and disciplined, whereas the Coalition is a freak show and will be for some time. So in taking over the neoliberal approach of turning every aspect and layer of life into a market, Labor has suddenly reversed neoliberalism’s fortunes in this country. 

Thus, the effect of the Albanese government has been to make Australia pretty much the most neoliberal government and state on earth. Why? Well, even though the actual implementation of neoliberal, and legacy anti-statist, policies might be greater elsewhere, there is also contestation elsewhere. For example, in the United States, there is a surging and real left within the Democratic Party, which has forced the Biden administration into recovery programs that have a degree of “New Deal” politics and social reconstruction about them — the big state getting stuff done. 

In the UK, 40 years of neoliberalism — with some Blairite, big-state stuff added on top for a while — is now being challenged by a wave of strikes that has the potential to link up, and which has made it impossible for the Starmer Labour opposition to move the party back to a neo-Blairite position. Starmer and co have been forced to adopt key components of the program from the Corbyn leadership, much as they hate to. New Zealand and Canada have centre-left governments with a genuine left component and approach. 

Only in Australia do we have a Labor government committing to programmatic neoliberalism, without any vocal opposition. A genuine left is gone from the party. The unions lack any independent point of view with any visibility. Having mounted explicit social critiques before the election, they have gone vewwy, vewwy quiet since. 

The “industrial left”, once promising a program of sorts, has rejoined the socialist left. With the departure of Kim Carr, it is now led by Andrew Giles, which is like finding out, on the eve of D-Day, that your battalion is being commanded by Tiny Tim. The Greens have a real social democratic program and a critique, but it is being drowned out by debates about identity politics, which is simply the left flank of neoliberalism.

Key to understanding this is to see the relationship between the Albanese government’s general program and specific policies, and not to mistake one for the other. Its general problem is to extend neoliberalism into every facet of everyday life. From that, it may hang specific progressive and left policies, such as changes to enterprise bargaining. But these isolated moves shouldn’t be mistaken for the program itself. Carbon credits and “green Wall Street” is not an add-on, it’s the core.

This will eventually negatively affect Australian society and culture, which is atomised enough as is. Some of us had hoped Labor would see its victory as a chance to reintroduce notions of common purpose, based on common sense, and to put that at the centre of politics. From there, the Coalition could be assailed for the destruction of the common and essential heritage of the Murray-Darling River, the endangerment of the koala and many other irreplaceable species and habitats. These are not left-wing values. Only the most right-wing ideologues argue there is no commons whatsoever, that it should be kept from the market.

Labor has now become the agent of that ideology. It will further undermine our fractured social solidarity. By coming from the other side, it will make the entire political spectrum neoliberal, and remove the notion of common purpose and shared goods from the political imagination. The downstream effects will be gradual, but real: a society where altruistic action and volunteerism are even harder to imagine than ever (even as Andrew Leigh takes his dog-and-pony volunteer show around the country), and a further decline in trade unionism, even as the ACTU and others run around like headless chooks because union membership is on track to fall below 10%, within the life of this government.  

Within Labor and its supporters there’s no joined-up thinking about this, no one with a basic sociological understanding or mindset, no one who believes society is an actual thing. Carbon credits are Thatcher’s rule (“There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families”) applied to the natural world. The mindset in this country is now of a totality as regards that, and you can supply the adjective yourself.

As to what one does about this, I have no easy answer. But the first action is always thought, and a thorough refutation within oneself, of any refusal to recognise what has occurred. The Albanese Labor government is now the world’s most efficient agent for extending neoliberalism, and any understanding of Australian politics should proceed from there. 

 

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