Lindsay Tanner: Old labels don't reflect new values

The following is a speech by the ALP Shadow Minister for Finance, Lindsay Tanner at the launch of Beyond Right and Left at Gleebooks on 20 Sep 2005 at Gleebooks in Sydney.

VIRTUALLY every day I read stories in The Australian about a mysterious group called The Left. I rarely see any reference to The Right. Those opposed to The Left are clearly right-thinking people, way too discreet and civilised to warrant anything so impolite as a label.

As a member of the ALP Left I guess I must be part of The Left.

Strangely, though, many of the views and values attributed to The Left in The Australian don't really reflect mine. I don't really see myself as an elitist, pseudo-intellectual, self-hating, pretentious, protectionist, postmodernist. Unfortunately, like all good myths, this jaundiced view of people on the Left contains just enough truth to make it plausible.

Although it is a grotesque caricature in aggregate, enough individual examples can always be found to illustrate specific characterisations. We should be asking why. For those of us who are on the Left, the answers are pretty confronting. The Australian caricature cannot be taken too seriously, but its resonance does tell us something. People on the Left no longer share a common analysis and narrative. In the absence of a single clear and coherent message that defines its adherents, the Left does not really exist as a distinct entity. It consists of a diverse collection of groups and individuals who identify with different and sometimes even conflicting political traditions.

In David McKnight's Beyond Right and Left, the true challenge facing people on the Left is set out clearly and dispassionately. As McKnight points out, the Left-Right spectrum of ideas has collapsed, and many old ways of thinking are finished. Fundamental issues such as environmental sustainability, family life, economic inequality and cultural diversity are no longer readily reducible to a linear Left-Right analysis. When our leading left-wing intellectual is recent former Quadrant editor Robert Manne, and one of the most powerful proponents of left-wing causes is former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser, something funny is happening. They might have changed a bit, but not that much.

The emerging fault lines in Australian politics involve issues such as environmental sustainability, material progress eroding relationships, entrenched poverty reflecting family breakdown and drug abuse, ethical issues about the human body, and globalisation. Although distinctly Left and Right-flavoured positions can be found on such issues, the overall political landscape is deeply confused. The old simplicities have disappeared.

As McKnight points out, the Right has largely absorbed the extraordinary changes of recent decades and thereby transformed itself. The Left has essentially failed to do so. In many respects the Right is now the main force for radical social change, whereas the Left is largely the defender of the status quo. Both are encumbered with inherently contradictory positioning. The Right is economically liberal and socially interventionist, while the Left is economically interventionist and socially liberal.

For most of the 20th century, Western politics revolved around a simple contest for material resources within nation states. It reflected the interminable battle between rewarding effort and equal sharing, the tension in most human activity between competition and co-operation.

Things are more complex now. The old materialist fault line in politics is gradually being overtaken by a new fault line, built around levels of education, and involvement in abstract or symbolic thinking. The Left increasingly reflects the interests and aspirations of the more educated, who tend to be the more affluent.

The traditional champions of the poor have fewer and fewer poor people among their numbers. Resolving this contradiction may be impossible. It could even be that the Left as it has been understood in post-war Western societies is in the process of disintegrating. We need to ask ourselves some pretty hard questions.

We might reject George W. Bush's violent crusade to spread democracy throughout the world, but what are we doing about it? What's our strategy? We may disdain Noel Pearson's blunt assessment of the need for change in indigenous communities, but what's our solution? More of the same? We're often critical of the family as a social institution, so why do we campaign for workers to be able to spend more time with their families? A huge amount of rethinking needs to occur among those of us who adhere to values traditionally associated with the Left of politics. McKnight's book is a timely reminder that we have been flying on autopilot for way too long.

Although some of its members might perhaps disagree, Labor is part of the Left. We have a profound responsibility to nurture the debate about the future of left-wing politics. We need to build a new guiding story which unites us in common belief and common aspiration. For me, that story needs to be international, environmental and relational. Our starting point should be our relationships with each other, the building blocks upon which all human activity is constructed and conducted.

The path to a new story will be winding, rocky and even treacherous at times. Relational analysis will provide us with the map to navigate that path. The social nature of human beings is at the heart of Left values. In a world where radical individualism is rampant, rebuilding the web of human relationships in which we all owe obligations to each other, is absolutely fundamental.

This article was also printed in The Australian on 20 September 2005.