One day it would be interesting to research whether Paul Kelly was the first to proclaim the importance of the ‘narrative’ in Australian politics. Certainly, it’s been his leitmotif. And central to his two door-stopping tomes on recent political history has been a claim, sharpened in last year’s book The March of the Patriots, that both major parties reached a consensus on ‘economic reform’ which was necessary to save Australia’s economy (society doesn’t get much of a look in).
It’s a thesis, twinned with the contrasting spectre of the old Australian Settlement (a phrase which has sadly passed into the mainstream, given its distortions of history), which is somewhat derivative of assertions that Margaret Thatcher destroyed some sort of closed shop Keynesian scleroticism in British policy.
The problem has always been that it’s at best only partially true.
This story doesn’t fit workplace relations well. Labor effectively drew a line under workplace flexibility in 1993 with the Industrial Relations Reform Act and WorkChoices was anything but deregulatory. Both parties were more interested in deregulating product than labour markets, and only John Hewson’s Fightback actually embodied what is normally coded as ‘reform’ in these debates.
Now, Kelly is watching as his story unravels before his eyes, moved to write one of his oracular essays on Tony Abbott’s embrace of the Fair Work Act, echoed in more populist vein by the Master’s Apprentice, Peter Van Onselen.
Kelly’s also upset by Julia Gillard’s “little Australia” rhetoric, and joins a growing cast of characters berating big business for not pushing its agenda more effectively, and damning both parties for being “poll driven” (which they are).
On the supposed doom we face because ‘labour market reform’ has now receded from the horizon, Kelly writes:
there is public tolerance of the Labor Party’s great lie that the sole obstacle to more jobs is lack of skills rather than Labor’s laws discouraging hiring. For Australia’s future, it is a dismal start to election 2010.
Climate change, never an issue he’s been comfortable with, is ignored in Kelly’s doomsaying. Also absent is the reality of population flows which is just as integral to neo-liberal globalisation and just as resistant to seamless shaping as capital flows. In truth, Kelly’s vision has always been a limited one – a Fortress Australia navigating the seas of economic turbulence and opportunity rather than a node in a global network with a government rendered less powerful by the evisceration of the state and the deligitimisation of state action.
It’s notable that he provides no evidence for the contention that IR laws are the barrier to job growth. That’s because the nature of ideology is to assert rather than to prove. Kelly’s tragedy is that his ideological consensus has shattered, and therefore his words are empty.
But our tragedy is that there’s no real social democratic alternative on offer. Rather, the end of the neo-liberal consensus has seen what’s rightly described as a climate of complacency, and in this election, we’re seeing a populist consensus emerge, offering complacent solutions for turbulent times.
A boring election held in interesting times indeed.