QUARTERLY ESSAY 15 Latham's World



David Burchell

Margaret Simons’s masterful essay on Mark Latham ends on a discomforting note. On the one hand – as she observes ruefully – Australia’s self-styled intelligentsia has almost entirely missed the point of Latham’s “crazy-brave” assault on our inherited political verities from the 1980s and ’90s, and failed to offer the kind of moral support it required. Indeed, for all their vaunted capacity for empathy and imagination, our contemporary legion of high-self-esteem-plagued “knowledge-workers” have on the whole exhibited an almost heroic incapacity to evince sympathy for the bleached backyards of Australia’s suburbs and provinces, and the local, humdrum concerns of those who live there. And so, what could be called the “new suburbanism” of Latham – an attempt to connect with the anxieties and tribulations of those seeking to build families and futures out of their own resources in a time of unremitting social, cultural and gender based change – has passed by largely bereft of a sympathetic hearing from those who’ve devoted their lives to “social issues” of a grander variety. Instead, we were told again and again that the “real” issues of election 2004 were the two great knowledge-workers’ cris de coeur – the asylum seekers issue and the war in Iraq. (What a sad, self-indulgent fantasy that was.)

On the other hand, Simons hints, those self-same denizens of suburbia who might have much to gain from listening to Latham’s pitch will probably fear to make the imaginative leap required at the ballot-box. As she puts it, in her third last paragraph:

For decades, voters have been told that the main job of politicians is to manage the economy – a topic in which few voters feel qualified. I doubt if Latham will be able to convince them that it is now acceptable to vote on the basis of social issues, and the concrete issues that directly affect their lives, however much they might want to.

Simons’s misgivings were soundly based. The opinion-page pundits were, generally speaking, embarrassingly wide of the mark. And the punters – while, as the polls suggest, they toyed with it, from early 2004 right through to the early weeks of the election campaign – ultimately rejected the Latham experiment in a fairly decisive fashion, and very likely for at least some of the reasons Simons suggested. It’s now cast-iron common sense in the Labor Party that the party’s failure in 2004 was caused by its perceived lack of economic credibility, and, by implication, by the kind of hard-boiled policy language associated with that. Few people – even hard-heads in the smoke-filled backrooms of the ALP – were saying that, audibly, at least, a few short months ago. Simons was.

Indeed – remarkably, for someone who makes no pretence of expertise in political punditry – Simons’s is one of the few pre-election 2004 forays that survives the cold gale of 9 October almost entirely intact. I think it’s clear that Simons was spot-on in her analysis of Latham’s novelty, and of the reasons why this novelty was underestimated. She was also very close to the mark in her instincts as to why his charge at the Lodge would fail – and fail in such a personally humiliating fashion that he is now being publicly touted as a doomed leader, a mere twelve months after his accession.

And so Latham’s World requires little in the way of post-election revision in the light of events. Instead, I want to offer a couple of brief thoughts – one by way of update, and the other by way of sympathetic criticism.

The update is necessarily tentative, but easily enough expressed. As Simons suggests more delicately than I feel able to, the intelligentsia has largely been out to lunch for the last few years in this country. Ever since the nineteenth century it’s been a defining trait of the higher professions to be preoccupied by questions of political conscience and morality ahead of those of interest and personal security, by the global at the expense of the local, by the grand vision rather than the reassuring gesture. (To this day the present prime minister’s most oft-mocked comment remains his pledge to make Australians feel “more relaxed and comfortable” about themselves – surely an innocuous comment, by any ordinary standard.) From the Factory Acts through the Boer War and post-World War pacifism to the Vietnam Moratorium and Iraq, all that’s changed has been the political label. Over the last few years a curious conjunction of events – first the precipitous demise of the Labor settlement of the ’80s and ’90s, and the confident, outward-looking image of the country sometimes associated with it, then the Tampa, the detention centres and the Iraq war – has sent this tendency into a kind of moral overdrive, to the point that it’s now almost impossible to distinguish extra-parliamentary political opposition in this country from moral-aesthetic revulsion.

It may, just possibly, be that the 2004 election marks a slowing-down of this tendency, and even some kind of recognition that the experience of a tertiary education and an interest in the arts in itself provides no special expertise either in questions of politics or morality. As one small swallow in this approaching summer I’d offer the implicit post-election self-revision of Robert Manne – nowadays the de facto newspaper columnist of the leftish intelligentsia – published in the Fairfax broadsheets a week after the election. After some fairly uninspired commentary on the Prime Minister’s predilection for “conservative populism” (populism being the word you use for successful political ideas of which you disapprove), Manne frankly confesses his discovery that “many of the issues of greatest concern to us” – meaning the liberal-left intelligentsia – “are of little interest or are even anathema to the majority of our fellow citizens”. There is now a “fundamental contradiction” between the “political needs of Labor” and “the values of the left”, which “even the most eloquent flight of fancy cannot wish away”.

Of course, for Manne this doesn’t mean the left itself has any real soulsearching to do about its own political priorities and moral values. (Matters of conscience are rarely debatable, after all.) Rather, it means that the need of the Labor Party to address itself as an aspiring party of government to the concerns of a majority of Australians, and the need of the leftish intelligentsia to plough its own moral furrow, regardless of “populist” considerations, requires that the two groups now part company. And so Manne concludes with a (hardly original) clarion-call for “action independent of government and outside the framework of party politics”. The positive message may be rather feeble, but there is at least an implied recognition that the poet by nature, like the poet by profession, is not, after all, the “unacknowledged legislator of mankind”.

The sympathetic criticism is more complicated to explain, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to express it adequately here. But I’ll try. I agree wholeheartedly with Simons that Latham’s attention to what could be called “new suburban” issues – around personal financial autonomy and security, family and gender roles, the “crisis of masculinity”, and so on – is a potentially fruitful policy vein for Labor, as indeed for anyone interested in the lives and hopes of ordinary Australians generally. And like Simons – if perhaps for somewhat different reasons – I fear a return to the economic verities of the 1980s and 1990s, whose fruits have (in my view) very largely been exhausted.

But there’s still a gulf between these two paired instincts and Simons’s conclusion about “the social” and “the economic”, as quoted above, and personally speaking I’m deeply reluctant to leap it. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s the liberal intelligentsia was as contemptuous of Labor’s economic preoccupations as it is now of the economic and security anxieties of the electorate more broadly. Again, there’s a deadly weight of history here. Ever since the nineteenth-century bohemian intellectuals rejected the “soulless materialism” of their middle-class parents (even as they lived off the allowances generated by it), there’s been a deep instinct among the “knowledge-working” professional classes in favour of “the social”, and against “the economic”, as a way of understanding life, morality and personal relations. It’s another incarnation of what Simons quotes Latham himself as describing (acutely) as the “theoretical” bias of intellectual Tourists in societies like ours: their propensity for dividing the world into rarefied oppositions, and then – as if in a fit of intellectual terror – siding with the term which seems to signify life, warmth, culture and happiness (as opposed to mean and petty pragmatism, bean-counting and calculation).

I’m not suggesting that these thought-processes underpin Simons’s own instincts here, exactly – her analysis is far too generous-spirited for that. Yet when she suggests, as in the quote above, that the punters will stick with voting on the basis of economic imperatives because they’re told to, even though “social issues” are actually “the concrete issues that directly affect their lives”, I think Simons is selling the punters somewhat short. Economic issues matter to ordinary Australians not because they’re told they should, or merely because it’s conventional to think them so. Less still do they matter (as is often tacitly assumed by critical commentators, if not by Simons) because of the supposed limited moral imaginations of ordinary folks. (As if a talent for thinking in abstractions were actually a kind of virtue.) In large measure, economic issues are social issues in most people’s lives.

Inner-city professionals these days have investment advisers, and managed funds; they own investment properties, and plan for their retirement with all the precision of NASA planning a space voyage. And so – even when they’re rather more heavily mortgaged than might be considered prudent – it’s actually quite easy for them to abstract themselves from the impact of interest rates on their lives. They’re just another risk that’s been built into the personal finance equation.

But if you live on a brand-new block in the outer suburbs of one of our major cities, with a brand-new, modest-sized swimming pool and a family car and a few of the mod cons, and you’ve got repayments due on all of them every other week, and you’ve got young kids, and you want better for them than you had yourself when you were young ...then the prevailing rate of interest isn’t just an economic issue – it goes to the very fabric of your life. It affects the way you look at the front lawn, even the taste of the morning cereal. It’s about your ability to get things together in your life, to stand on your own two feet, maybe even to get ahead in the world. And most important of all, the ever-fluctuating value of that family home – your managed fund and your super, all rolled into one – is a simple, brutal calculus of your ability to provide a nest-egg for the children, your inter-generational transfer of assets, that most sacred of Australian familial traditions.

And so, to cut a long story short, I suspect Latham’s (and Labor’s) problem isn’t replacing an emphasis on social issues with one on economic issues, or vice versa. Rather, it’s to do with Labor’s capacity to project a sense of the relationship between the two. Interest rates, after all, are a pretty potent symbol of life on the suburban fringe right now. They betoken a modest affluence in return for effort, and a gradual ascent into economic security and autonomy. Or they betoken all the troubles and anxieties that hit families in times of turmoil and crisis – relationship trouble, stress and tension, alcohol abuse, breakdown. They’re virtually every other rung in that fabled “ladder of opportunity”. It may not be quite right to suggest – as the hard-nosed types in the ALP are suggesting right now – that Latham’s “new suburban” vision prior to 9 October 2004 was too broad. Actually, it might not have been quite broad enough.


David Burchell is the author of Western Horizon: Sydney’s Heartland and the Future of Australian Politics. He teaches in the School of Humanities at the University of Western Sydney and is an associate editor at Australian Policy Online (ww.apo.org.au).


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 15, Latham's World. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 16, Breach of Trust.


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