Rebecca Huntley

I finished reading Clive Hamilton’s What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy on a sunny Easter Sunday afternoon. I laid it down with a deep sigh, feeling both dejected and full of ideas about how to respond. “Why do you continue to care so much about the ALP if it makes you so unhappy?”, my husband asked me, not for the first time. “Well,” I replied, “because it’s important. And sometimes, love isn’t meant to be easy.” 

There is much about Hamilton’s contribution to the current debate about Labor that is correct. It’s just his conclusion I don’t agree with.

Hamilton starts his Quarterly Essay with a remembrance of conference past, one in which the Labor Left bristled at his ideas about a policy shift from an emphasis on growth and deprivation to a focus on the social and environmental effects of affluence. Hamilton is right when he says Labor’s Left has a strong tendency to be reactive, even conservative, in its approach to policy, one consequence of spending so much of the Hawke–Keating years defending (often unsuccessfully) the status quo. As an active member of the Left faction, I sometimes feel we spend too much time protecting old policy positions with worn-out ideological arguments. This is certainly the case when we look at how the party has tackled – or, more accurately, avoided – the question of affluence.

There seems to be genuine public confusion over whether Australians are “doing it tough” or more prosperous than ever before. At the same time as Hamilton is successfully publishing books like Growth Fetish and Affluenza, journalist Elizabeth Wynhausen is writing about the working poor in her book Dirt Cheap. It seems, however, that both Hamilton and Wynhausen are correct. A minority of Australians – anywhere between 5 per cent and 15 per cent – are living in poverty. Many in this minority are part of an entrenched underclass: people caught in cycles of unemployment, poor education and housing, and abuse of all kinds. The rest of us are enjoying record levels of wealth but not, importantly, wellbeing. In light of the fact that the majority of us are doing quite well, Labor needs to rethink its commitment to the deprivation model.

Interestingly, this attachment to the deprivation model is more rhetorical than actual. Australians living in poverty are not a key constituency for any political party. The teenage mum or unemployed man living in housing commission flats aren’t viewed as particularly heroic figures when compared with the coalminer or wharfie of Labor lore. Consider how public housing has fallen off the political agenda, even in the ALP, where a number of parliamentarians spent their childhoods in housing-commission properties. Rather, the talk on the hustings is all about mortgages and interest rates. In its inability to grapple with the new politics of affluence or to deal with the minority underclass, Labor is failing the next generation of Australians, the young people of Macquarie Fields, as well as middle-class teens and twenty-somethings with HECS and mobile phone debts. 

Hamilton is right when he points out that the majority of Labor politicians are tentative about seizing on a deeper analysis of consumption. Such tentativeness is out of step with the concerns of so many young Australians. In my research on Generation Y – young Australians now in their late teens and early twenties – I found them to be seriously conflicted about consumerism. On the one hand, they are notoriously enthusiastic and indefatigable consumers. They are a generation for whom consumption is a sport, a hobby, a way of life and, most importantly, a key mode of self-expression. However, I also found that the vast majority of young Australians believe that our society’s obsession with consumption and material goods is ultimately destructive. There are high levels of cynicism among Gen Yers about our empty consumer culture and the invasion of the brand into our society. In particular, while young people want money for the freedom and options it provides, most recognise the pursuit of “stuff” cannot provide the basis for a life philosophy. They question the values of a society that equates success with money, especially when that success has a human toll: broken marriages, poor friendships, estranged children. In light of this, I feel Hamilton overstates his case in his comments on “the individualised world”. There are mitigating factors at work here, a curb on young people’s unqualified embrace of consumption and the market. One of these forces is friendship, an almost romantic belief in the importance and durability of the friendship group. Then there is their reverence for marriage, the desire for permanent and fulfilled family arrangements. Connected to this is their commitment to balanced living, their intent to avoid the workaholism and wage slavery they have observed in their parents. These early impulses, if they persist into later life, have the potential to create an electoral base of support for a political party willing to cultivate a new politics of wellbeing.

Due largely to a perceived inability to develop such a new political vision, Hamilton concludes that we must abandon the ALP as force for social justice and progressive social change. He also revisits what is now a well-worn, albeit accurate, critique of what’s wrong with the ALP as a party. This critique was best articulated in a previous Quarterly Essay, Beyond Belief, by John Button. Since Labor lost power over a decade ago, we have been treated to countless op-eds, books, essays and speeches describing Labor’s malaise, pinpointing our inadequacies and past errors. These dissident remarks circulate against a backdrop of Labor denial. There is now a deadlock within Labor ranks about the way forward. The majority of those in power reject the notion that there are genuine problems. Their energies are directed towards maintaining the present course, hoping that the pendulum will swing Labor’s way through force of time, that Kim Beazley will be the Labor equivalent of John Howard, the loser who triumphs in the end. Those calling for reform air their grievances and critiques but rarely, too rarely, offer rank-and-file members any concrete solutions. No one seems willing or able to develop a practical campaign to fix these problems. I don’t believe any institution created by people can’t be changed by people. But leadership is needed and, unfortunately, sorely lacking among those in power with the desire and capacity to reform the party.

Hamilton comments at length about former federal leader Mark Latham. He observes that when a narrow majority of the caucus elected Latham as leader, it was a brave and bold move in favour of new ideas over old ways. Looking back, the decision to endorse Latham seems akin to the desperation of a woman who hasn’t been on a date in years, who says yes to the first promising male who asks her out, fantasising about the engagement before the entrée is finished. We expected too much based on too little. But Latham, for all his faults, offered us (especially Laborites of a younger generation) a peep at an alternative Labor Party, one that attracts candidates like Peter Garrett, that articulates an independent foreign policy, that considers a good public school (rather than a large corporation) to be our most important institution. In Latham’s transformation from Labor messiah to stay-at-home psycho, much has been lost. Now anything that smacks of Lathamism is derided in much the same way as was Whitlamism during the early years of the Hawke–Keating government.

Hamilton admonishes those interested in reforming the ALP for focusing largely on structural concerns. He states: “It is pointless debating organisational reform without first debating philosophical renewal.” It is certainly easy for debates about reforming Labor to be sucked into never-ending talk about processes and structures. Understanding the rules and regulations of the party – and being able to manipulate them – is a key attribute (along with a penis, it seems) if you want to be a Labor Party powerbroker. Of course, just arguing about structural reform keeps the debate on comfortable footing for the majority of party hacks, who couldn’t come up with a fresh idea if their parliamentary super counted on it. However, like so many people outside the ALP’s unique culture, Hamilton underestimates the extent to which structure is both an impediment and a facilitator of party democracy and, ultimately, policy development. Structural change is important. I have seen how the party’s convoluted and antiquated rules and organisation can stifle debate, prevent involvement from unfactionalised members, undermine democratic principles and divert energy away from discussion and campaigning around ideas. However, the drive to democratise the party’s structures has to happen simultaneously with a wider debate about policy and purpose. Hamilton is right when he argues that form should serve content. 

Unlike Hamilton, I remain ever hopeful about the ability of Labor to reform itself. On a practical note, I believe it would take less energy to change the ALP than it would to start a new, viable political party based on the principles espoused by Hamilton. I still believe in the capacity of the ALP to heal itself, to change, to face the challenge of an altered political, social and economic climate. It has happened in the past. Under inspired leadership and the support of the membership, Labor has made significant changes: from a national conference of faceless men to an open conference with delegates from all states and territories, from a White Australia policy to government-sponsored multiculturalism, from a party run by a red-faced fraternity to a party supporting sex discrimination and affirmative action laws. Of course, Hamilton is correct when he says that the kinds of changes he is proposing are more fundamental than those just listed (economic and growth imperatives underpinned both White Australia and multiculturalism, industrially entrenched sexism and state-sponsored feminism). 

But the development of a progressive politics of happiness and wellbeing as espoused by Hamilton is too important, too urgent a task to be left to some yet-to-be-established minor party. 


Rebecca Huntley has worked as an academic and political staffer and is now a freelance writer. She is the author of The World According to Y: inside the new adult generation. She is a member of the ALP.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 21, What’s Left?. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 22, Voting for Jesus.


Lech Blaine
Peter Dutton's Strongman Politics
Alan Kohler
Australia's Housing Mess and How to Fix It
Micheline Lee
Disability, Humanity and the NDIS
Megan Davis
On Recognition and Renewal
Saul Griffith
Electrification and Community Renewal
Katharine Murphy
Albanese and the New Politics