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Issue # 1427      9 September 2009


Mark Latham and Labor’s love-hate relationship with capitalism

Mark Latham could have been Prime Minister of Australia – the country’s 26th and the 13th for Labor. As it is, he is a footnote in history; an also ran who missed out on the top post. Like a number of past Labor leaders he appears keen to tell all and to offer advice for his successors and to the rest of the country. His memoirs, The Latham Diaries, partially lifted the lid on the can of worms that is the federal parliamentary Labor Party.

He liked to present himself as a straight talker, a battler surrounded by spin doctors, robots, silvertails and phoneys. He liked lopping tall poppies and identifying with the mass of ordinary Australians living in our big cities’ outer suburbs. He used to get stuck into the “Tories” and the unequal social order they have built in Australia. He sympathised with its major victims – the unemployed, Aboriginal Australians and the other marginalised people in the community. Latham was going to do something about it. He and a new generation of social democrat leaders across the planet were going to “civilise global capital”, to borrow the title of his 1998 book in which he presented “new thinking for Australian Labor”.

All that is in the past. In a piece in The Australian Financial Review last week Latham appears to have laid out what he really thinks. The “left” – a grouping that includes anybody with concerns with the direction of the social and economic development of globalised capitalism – is “living in dreamland”. This spent force is clinging to populist, “feel-good” notions and plans for “micro-economic reform”. Unfortunately for them, according to Latham, the era for such visions has gone. The whole world just wants to shop and get richer. The ideals of collectivism and solidarity are not just passé, they sound like a nightmare to most Australians.

Latham could hardly describe himself as a social democrat any more. “The greatest skill of the social democratic state is wasting money,” he notes bitterly. He gives as an example the NSW government’s decision to spend $4.3 million on duplicating the entrance-way to the Mount Annan Botanic Garden. The Botanic Garden itself is a failure; a twisted manifestation of the bad decision-making typical of “anti-market elites”. The evidence for this conclusion? The adjacent Flower Power garden centre attracts many more visitors on the weekend. He quotes a local shop owner on the issue, “Around here it’s shopping or it’s flopping big time.”

Latham worries that the current economic downturn has given the “cultural and political elites” of the left a reprieve. Deregulation and privatisation are very worthy objectives according to the former Labor leader but on the nose for the time being. He needn’t fret. It’s true that while the rhetoric has changed, deregulation and privatisation are not slowing down for anybody. In fact, unprecedented strides are about to be taken in the areas of health and education.

Kevin Rudd, the eventual 13th Labor PM, wrote an essay for February’s Monthly magazine that attacked “extreme capitalism” and proposed a global cooperative effort to bring the beast to heal but there is little evidence of this in reality. Even the massive stimulus being administered to the economy at the moment is being done in such a way as not to restore the role of public enterprise.

The parallels between Latham’s commentary and that of Rudd are worth examining. The current PM used to describe himself as “Christian socialist” until relatively recently. Then he was a “fiscal conservative” and finally, when the global recession began to bite, a “social democrat” once more. It is an interesting question whether Latham was a neo-liberal through-and-through while he was writing his various pieces outlining his “new thinking” about “civilising global capital” or whether his conversion came once he exited the political scene. What does Rudd really think about the “left”, capitalism and “the entrenchment of a money-based culture” described by Latham? Will he eventually come clean in his retirement and admit he never believed any of his own “greedy capitalism” eyewash?

Latham is right on one question; Australian parliamentary politics has become a deeply cynical game. He once observed that “the electorate has worked out the artificiality of it all. They can see through the spin doctors, the publicity stunts, the polling and the tricks of marginal-seat campaigning. This is why people now talk about politics with a cool anger. They have a clear feeling that the system is far from genuine. That the robots, in fact, are tin men.” They saw through him. They will eventually see through Rudd also but the fact remains that the alternative to this farce has still to be built. The need is urgent.

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