Federal election 2010: The end of Paul Kelly’s neo-liberal consensus

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.

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Posted in environment, federal election 2010, government, immigration, politics, sociology
18 comments on “Federal election 2010: The end of Paul Kelly’s neo-liberal consensus
  1. Sam says:

    Stutchbury has also been sinking the slipper into Tones over IR. It is amusing to see the OO columnists belatedly discover that Tones is not a neo-liberal. He is a Santamarian. There is a huge difference.

  2. John D says:

    One of the problems with Paul Kelly style “reforms” is that its definition of productivity is expressed in terms of manhours worked rather than available manhours.
    In the mines I worked during the Hawke Keating years, these reforms led to agreements with unions that resulted in improved wages and more interesting jobs for those who stayed and more generous packages for those who took voluntary retrenchment.
    However, they all resulted in a reduction in the size of the workforce at a time when Australia’s official unemployment rate was well above 5%. In some cases this was made worse by agreements actually pushed up the average manhours per employee.
    Even worse, the changes usually reduced job opportunities for people with low education and/or physical limitations. For example, operators (usually only 3 years at high school) were replaced by tradesmen operators. Jobs that would be done by a tradesman + TA were done by two tradesmen. Agreements that included a “general duties” clause meant that some one with a suspect back who would have been OK as a reclaimer operator could no longer do the redefined job that added “change a conveyor roller” to the list of tasks.
    We still need reform but it needs to focus more on quality of life, sharing the available jobs and increasing the range of jobs available to people with physical or skills limitations.

  3. anthony nolan says:

    The neo-liberal consensus, agreed by the ALP under Hawke/Keating as well as by Blairite Labour, was to undermine the post war settlement between labour and capital that transferred wealth to the state with a view to redistribution through social welfare mechanisms. The intention was to creat the conditions for inclusive social citizenship. When social democrats acceded to this they aligned themselves with the ruling interests behind neoliberalism. They effectively agreed to ‘neoliberalism with a human face’.

    The so called ‘libertarians’, Hobbesians in drag like Friedman and his ilk (Hayek, Nozik), are dissatisfied that the remnant of social democracy has put up even the pissweak rear guard action that it has. They are furious because their project of creating the new feudalism in industrialised countries has stalled. Hence the constant battering propaganda, fear and hate campaigns and nutters like Abbott occupying parliamentary space and receiving sublime levels of journalist support.

  4. Mr Denmore says:

    A party truly espousing neo-liberalism would advocate a more liberal immigraton policy and the introduction of a market price on carbon. Come in Malcolm Turnbull?

    Also, are the arguments from Labor for “sustainability” and a small Australia just a politically acceptable sop for the dog whistling right and a foundation for a marriage of convenience with The Greens?

  5. anthony nolan says:

    Mr Denmore: you are correct to ientify those elements of ALP policy as out of sync with neoliberal agendas. This is why the big end of town still loathes Labor – a rel neolib agenda would mean no limits on imported labour, no award system wage and conditions safety net, unlimited migration to drive the housing sector and so on. The neolib agenda is not an easy one size fits all program. What the ideologues of the US think tanks fail to grasp, and this is a function of their narrow imperialist mind set, is that there are historicallys specific contingencies that resist the atomisation of social life into radical individualist self maximisers. Your comment raises the irony that it appears to be the case that raacist Australian xenpophobia is currently appears to be the major culturl bulwarck agaisnt the full force of open slather neoliberal globalisation. Who would have thought? If the Libs had any brains they’d marry that xenophobia to a nationalsit narrative of protection Australian nature by limiting population but guess who got in first?

  6. paul walter says:

    Mr Denmore, I’ll go along with Anthony Nolan’s comment.
    As for “sustainability”, Its real world concept, but observed in the breach rather than as to adherence, in neolib economics.
    There are just a few of us who want to see proper planning for the future based on the science and economics, rather than out of racial ignorance.
    Had there been proper attention to the relationship between ecology and economics eg, the science, we would have had the planning up that would have ensured a country capable of taking on higher levels of population influx, without shattering the environment and hence the future survivability of large populations here.

  7. Dr_Tad says:

    Mark

    Well said. I reckon, though, that we need a more detailed analysis on the Left of what this damned “neoliberalism” thing is/was. I have tended to see it in terms of two projects, interlinked but each not reducible to the other.

    First there is a (somewhat shifting) ideological argument about small government, free markets, methodological individualism, globalisation, footloose capital, and democracy being best expressed through consumer choice, etc.

    But second there is the actual policy expression, which has much more focused on what David Harvey aptly describes “the restoration of class power”. This has often included very non-neoclassical policies–such as the ones you point to around IR–that have actually increased the size of government alongside those ones that seem to better fit the ideology (e.g. floating the dollar). But either way they have tended to grossly favour the interests of big business over those of the working-class majority of the population.

    That helps separate out the confusion sown by people like Rudd in his Monthly essay, which doesn’t distinguish between ideology and policy.

    The other thing I think should be considered is a more detailed periodisation of the relationship of both projects to elite and mass political consciousness. Did everyone really buy the project? And how did politicians react when they could no longer sell it openly? I might have a go at that soon and post again. 😀

  8. Nickws says:

    I wouldn’t throw out the bare bones of the Australian Settlement thesis, as the only reason it’s popularly associated with Kelly is because John Manning Ward died before he could either publish or follow up his book about the federation consensus, IMHO.

    Of course the idea of a 20th Century Australian polity coming to an end was dumbed down too much in Kelly’s writings. John Hewson was meant to be the ultimate technocratic star of ‘End of Certainty’. Hewson’s Australia—the peak neoliberal state of being. Think about it.

    I disagree that there is no social democratic alternative. Sure, there may be is no such thing in the very limited world of Paul Kelly, but even an economic ignoramus like myself can see Joseph Stiglitz may be onto something when he says, “[Australia] shows that you can actually have a capitalism that works.”

    If Tim Colebatch and Stiglitz’s views are incompatible with social democracy then you’re gonna need a bigger boat, Mark.

  9. Lefty E says:

    These ‘reform’ guys remind me more and more of teleological Marxists each year.

    The ‘necessary’ condemns social reality; political failure measured by the shortfall.

  10. Salient Green says:

    Kelly’s wrong invoking ‘populism’ as most polls I have seen are around the 80% mark against further population growth so you can be sure that many of those as well as some speaking out against would be counted among the so-called elites.

    He’s wrong again trying to relegate the anti-population growth support to a few “Greens, Hansonites and marginal seat voters in the suburbs ” for the reasons above.

    On some posters here, I see repressed xenophobia in those who consistently, tiresomely and unhelpfully trot out the tired old ‘Xenophobic’ when population growth is discussed. It is a mean and small minded attitude which attempts to shut down constructive debate.

    While most people cite congestion, infrastructure and service deficiencies, loss of farmland and water shortages as their reasons against further population growth, there is also a growing awareness of the resource depletion and terrible ecological damage due to over-population which will make life very difficult for our kids and grandkids. As if that weren’t enough reasons without invoking ‘xenophobia’,

    Many people also have had their quality of life markedly reduced due to rapid population growth by immigration and it is natural to blame the foriegners to some degree for their discomfort but to diagnose this as general xenophobia is nonsense. Re-aquaint yourself with the definition if you don’t agree.

  11. anthony nolan says:

    Salient: in fact I have been for a long time and remain resolutely opposed, like many environmentalists, to population growth designed to pump prime or sustain certain sections of the economy. There are many reasons for this but it is unnecessary to canvass them now. My point about the xenophobes is that it is their anxiety that is driving populist resistance to immigration. Incapable, however, of grasping the difference between migrants and refugees, they are content to act out their fear of the latter who, as we all know, constitute a tiny proportion of net annual population increase from migration. I’d be happy to see a ten year moratorium on migration and a very significant increase (about 50% of current migrant intake) of refugees.

    But maybe this is so far off thread that it doesn’t belong here.

  12. Fran Barlow says:

    The reality is that population is composed of more than permanent migrants or natives. Everyone who comes here on a visa of some kind is part of the population. As long as there is a demand for labour, Australia’s population will grow. Soemthing like 10% of the workforce are non-citizens.

    You’d have to shut down student entry and change the arrangements with NZ on their nationals coming here as well as radically cut skilled migration in order to put a serious cap on population.

    Rudd was really stupid callling his vision “big Australia” because the reality is that whatever Australia becomes (big, medium or small), in practice it will have almost nothign to do with whatever any government of the day decides. We aren’t about to put up a sign saying :House full! and prevent people from coming here. We aren’t about to introduce mass compulsory euthanasia or abortions or trash the economy and governance badly enough to make the place unattractive to live in. We aren’t even going to introduce an internal passport system to ensure places that are under-resourced don’t get new population. Australia and all of its subdivisions will be as big as they get. I’d really like someone in the political class to challenge the proponents of a “non-big” Australia to specify what how big a non-big Australia could be, and having done so, outline when they’d like Australia to get to that point, and by what actions. It’s worth noting here that Gillard hasn’t actually said she’s against a “big” Australia. What she has persistently said she’s against is hurtling down the road to a big Australia and that she’s in favour of taking a breath to have a national conversation about sustainability, whatever that means. I think it means that she wants people to stop thinking she wants to flood the western suburbs with the wrong kind of migrants. Somehow, people who look threatening will go off to live in White Cliffs or Carnarvon.

    This “debate” (such a polite term for bile!) is always going to be incipiently xenophobic, because although migrants and visitors can come from anywhere, the most visible ones look different. The place not only has to seem overcrowded, but apparent “foreigners” have to be there, and anglo-Europeans don’t look like foreigners, even if they are, whereas ostensible Asians, Arabs, Africans, and people from the subcontinent look “foreign” even if they aren’t.

    One thing is certain. Unless this trope is defeated we will be hurtling down the road to a small-minded Australia.

  13. Salient Green says:

    Fran Barlow “As long as there is a demand for labour, Australia’s population will grow.”
    This is one of the fallacious arguments of the pro-growth lobby. There are vast unused labour resources in Australia – unemployed, underemployed, seekers of part time and flexible work, people needing a little training. Population growth is a principle driver of labour demand rather than labour demand requiring population growth.
    Take a look in the mirror Fran, there is the xenophobe. You are by far the worst culprit for continually judging others to be what you yourself are. These parts of western Sydney you refer to are stacked with migrants going back 50 years and you have the arrogance, not to mention ignorance, to call them xenophobic! It’s bloody full of foreigners! It’s bloody FULL!!! I’m sure there’s a lot of racism fermenting away but to accuse them of being xenophobic is laughable. Maybe you think they brought it with them when they immigrated to a FOREIGN country! And these xenophobic immigrants chose to cram themselves into Western sydney because that’s where all the foreigners are! Your argument’s looking sillier the more I explore it.

    Best you temper your arrogance and obsessiveness, re-aquaint yourself with the definition of xenophobia, have a good look at yourself, and get over your paranoia because at the heart of negativity towards population growth is a fear of reduced quality of life for this and future generations, NOT a fear of foreigners.

  14. Fran Barlow says:

    Take a look in the mirror Fran, there is the xenophobe. You are by far the worst culprit for continually judging others to be what you yourself are.

    Salient … I believe there is a rule on metacommentary … anyway …

    It’s worth noting too that xenophobia is not an exclusive property of anglo-Europeans.

    at the heart of negativity towards population growth is a fear of reduced quality of life for this and future generations

    So it is based on baseless fear of the future rather than baseless fear of the foreigner is it? I’d say the two are intimately connected, given that the reduced quality of life assumes it is diminished by the (competing) presence of foreigners.

    Quality of life is hard to measure. It is highly subjective, but in so far as some people feel as if they don’t like the pace of life it is hard to link this to population density. Inner city folk live a lot closer together and pay more per sqm of residential space and yet it’s at the suburban margins that the “population” canard has some resonance, where people are complaining about Islamic Schools and the like.

    Nopbody can say for sure what Australia’s population will be in 2050, but if public investment in infrastructure is rational, (putting aside climate change challenges) those around to appreciate it will be better off than worse off.

  15. Salient Green says:

    “So it is based on baseless fear of the future rather than baseless fear of the foreigner is it?”

    Resorting to deceit? I’ve already said it and I’ll say it again, their quality of life has been markedly reduced by overpopulation. Therefore, their fear is neither “baseless” nor is it a “fear of the future”. And repeating myself again, like telling my teenage son something first thing in the morning before it gets in, it is a fear of reduced quality of life, which is well founded going by their current experience, continuing for generations.

  16. Dr_Tad says:

    I am far more with Fran than Salient here, but I think the key for the Left in dealing with the issue of population is to break with the instrumental economic arguments both in favour and against. Oddly enough with the population issue, you could be forgiven for thinking that people’s needs were not part of the equation.

    Richard Denniss in the Fairfax papers today ran the line I heard way too many times in the Greens when I was still a member: big business wants immigration but environmentalists and unionists don’t, so the latter must be right. On the other side, some have tried to harness libertarian free market arguments or simple appeals to maintaining economic growth to the side of left-wing pro-immigration sentiment.

    In contrast to Fran’s statement that “As long as there is a demand for labour, Australia’s population will grow”, capitalist states take often contradictory stances on the issue of who gets to enter a nation. Sometimes they are driven by short-term economic pressures, but at other the politics of division may lead to genuine limits on immigration. And business leaders are not always united on the question… I certainly remember that anti-migration arguments were heard quite loudly from elite opinion makers in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the economy seemed to be less robust.

    What’s missing in this debate is the Left’s ability to articulate an alternative vision of society that puts infrastructure, public services and environmental sustainability ahead of capitalist growth models. For people like Denniss, his pessimism that such alternatives exist leads him to argue for shutting the gates first.

    The same is true for the Greens in general, something I discuss here (including a disturbing bit from an internal policy backgrounder from Bob Brown’s office):

    http://left-flank.blogspot.com/2010/07/never-mind-quality-feel-overcrowding.html

  17. paul walter says:

    Fran Barlow: “…if public investment in infrastructure is rational..”.
    That’s a HUGE “if”, based on the history of this country over the last couple of decades.
    Everything in the history of globalised Australia and the globalised world, points to the opposite, its a function of the system of globalisation that rationality and related use value is abandoned in favour of exchange value and property rights with little concern for others, the underpinning environment, communities, sustainability or tomorrow.
    What we get with the current, now-entrenched stystem, is GFM’s, mid east wars and Morning Sunrise.
    Sorry mate, I need something a little more complete than a “we’ll see what comes out in the wash” outlook- by then its likely too late, as it already too late for many things.

  18. Rebekka says:

    @Fran, you’ve set up a lovely straw man here.

    “Rudd was really stupid callling his vision “big Australia” because the reality is that whatever Australia becomes (big, medium or small), in practice it will have almost nothign to do with whatever any government of the day decides. We aren’t about to put up a sign saying :House full! and prevent people from coming here. We aren’t about to introduce mass compulsory euthanasia or abortions or trash the economy and governance badly enough to make the place unattractive to live in. We aren’t even going to introduce an internal passport system to ensure places that are under-resourced don’t get new population. Australia and all of its subdivisions will be as big as they get. I’d really like someone in the political class to challenge the proponents of a “non-big” Australia to specify what how big a non-big Australia could be, and having done so, outline when they’d like Australia to get to that point, and by what actions.”

    You’re right, the government’s not likely to put any of those policies in place. This description of population “policies” is nothing but a straw man. But that doesn’t mean government policy doesn’t influence population growth, or lack of it. There is ample evidence for example, as I know I’ve pointed out to you on a previous thread on this issue, that the baby bonus had an effect on the birth rate. You can offer people incentives in the other direction, too. Free education if they agree to work x years afterwards in an underpopulated area, for example. Bonuses for having fewer children. Even free contraceptives.

    Migration numbers can certainly be controlled, and you’re right, we’re not likely to stick up a sign saying “we’re full”, but you can make it harder to migrate here, which has happened progressively over the last fifty years.

    “It’s worth noting here that Gillard hasn’t actually said she’s against a “big” Australia. What she has persistently said she’s against is hurtling down the road to a big Australia and that she’s in favour of taking a breath to have a national conversation about sustainability, whatever that means.”

    “Let’s not make our national goal a `big Australia’,” Ms Gillard said.

    How is that not saying she’s against it?

    “This “debate” (such a polite term for bile!) is always going to be incipiently xenophobic, because although migrants and visitors can come from anywhere, the most visible ones look different. The place not only has to seem overcrowded, but apparent “foreigners” have to be there, and anglo-Europeans don’t look like foreigners, even if they are, whereas ostensible Asians, Arabs, Africans, and people from the subcontinent look “foreign” even if they aren’t.”

    I can’t even express how wrong this is. I favour zero population growth personally, but that doesn’t make me a xenophobe. It makes me someone who’s not having kids, and who is perfectly happy for the population to be kept level through migration instead of people breeding. And if that means the Australian population ends up looking a lot more “foreign” than it does at the moment, well, all I can say is “whatever”. I’m happy for the population to look like a foreign melting pot. But I’m not happy for it to mean we end up with not enough water, not enough food because of climate change, and east coast cities that are just endless urban sprawl.

    “One thing is certain. Unless this trope is defeated we will be hurtling down the road to a small-minded Australia.”

    And if we don’t have the conversation, or the ‘trope’ as you call it (which by the way, odd choice of word, I gather you’re using it in the sense of a repeated phrase or motif, but it doesn’t really mean that), we’re going to be hurtling down the road to water shortages, failing infrastructure (and to the idea that we invest in it rationally, I can only say “Ha!”), and climate change (not to mention peak oil) biting us on the a*se through food shortages. We can’t just shut the hell up about it because it’s seen as non-PC and ignore, as they say, the elephant in the room (now that *is* a trope – there is no literal elephant).

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