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The Joy of - Labor - Politics

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University, of Senator Kim Carr, A Letter to Generation Next: Why Labor (Melbourne University Press, 2013), Melbourne, 23 July 2013

I should say at the outset that I was both rather touched and a little bit bemused to have been asked by MUP’s Louise Adler to launch Kim Carr’s book, and that Kim went along for the ride.

True it was that that at the time I was asked, a few weeks ago, the market was rather thinner than it seems to be now for anyone prepared to talk positively about Labor’s future, but there were still a couple of rather obvious strikes against me.

The first was that I was manifestly not a member of Generation X or Y, or ‘Next’ to whom the book is addressed – and in fact, on the contrary, am much better described these days as what former Prime Minister Jim Callaghan used to call a ‘CLOOF’, a term that deserves to be in wider circulation than it seems to be.[1]

The other strike against me, I guess, was that in the sectarian labyrinth of Victorian Labor politics from the 70s to the 90s I was always of the Labor Unity persuasion, or the so-called Right (although in those days I think it should be acknowledged that the Victorian Right was two or three standard deviations to the left of our counterparts in NSW).  Kim, by contrast, was of course a heavy duty factional warrior of the Social Left – widely known, as a result, as Kim Il Carr, although when he started wearing those three piece suits I used to think of him more as Coburg’s answer to Leonid Brezhnev.

Happily life moves on, even in the Victorian ALP, and my relationship with Kim has mellowed to the point – and my perception of his contribution to Labor in government is such – that if I’m not careful I’ll be accused of hagiography. I was in fact delighted to have been asked to launch Kim’s book, and notwithstanding those strikes against me, perhaps do bring a couple of credentials to the role.

One of those credentials is my role as Chancellor of the ANU, giving me some familiarity with the higher education and research sectors.  And here I can say with absolute honesty that Kim not only has my total respect but that of every key leader of these sectors, as one of the finest ministers ever in this portfolio, with a complete understanding of all the sensitive dynamics involved and a passionate commitment to excellence at every level. His resumption of his ministerial role has been greeted with real and absolutely genuine enthusiasm.

And I think it’s equally fair to say that in the other part of his portfolio, responsible for industry, and manufacturing industry in particular, he has equally been regarded as a really outstanding minister, constantly focused – in a way that we don't always associate with this role – on innovation, moving the clock forwards rather than back, creating new jobs, and new opportunities, not just providing palliative care for the terminally ill. 

Kim’s ministerial record has been so strong that it demands that, whatever he says about the future of this country and Labor’s role in it, we should sit up and listen. And when we do that, we’ll find he has a great deal to say that’s really worth saying, not only on where Labor should stand on the nuts and bolts of higher education, science, research, and policy, but on the broader philosophical and organizational direction of the party.

My CLOOF status is a negative credential from one point of view, but it does mean that I’ve been around for a while, and have read quite a few books by party colleagues over the years addressing what’s gone right and wrong in the past, and trying to help set a course for the future. Kim’s book seems to me to be right up there with the best of them, for three reasons that I will spell out.

First, it does an excellent job of reminding us just how extraordinarily extensive Labor’s contribution has been to the growth, prosperity and international reputation of this country, and how much we have to be proud of in that legacy of past and present Labor governments.

From the outset, as Kim says, in the decades either side of 1900, the Labor movement’s entry into national and state parliaments made Australia an internationally recognized social and economic laboratory, with the introduction of a minimum wage, national arbitration system, unemployment benefits, pensions for the aged and invalid, child endowment, universal secular education, women’s suffrage and a Commonwealth Bank.

And the Labor governments of the modern era have made similar massive leaps forward. As Kim succinctly tells the story, the post-War Labor Government initiated the Snowy Mountain Scheme, the most visionary infrastructure project until the National Broadband Network of the present Labor government. The Whitlam Government put education, health, cities, human rights, the environment on the agenda in a way, and on a scale, never before seen, and revolutionized our foreign policy.

 The Hawke and Keating Governments transformed the Australian economy, relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and our role in Asia.  With Medicare, HECS and compulsory superannuation, Australia is still a world leader in social innovation. The present Labor government, apart from navigating the global financial crisis better than any of its Western counterparts, has dramatically strengthened our health, education and social security systems, and laid  all the foundations for what has to be the knowledge-based economy of the future

The second reason I like Kim’s book is for the contribution it makes to helping define the philosophy, policy priorities and organizational structure with which the Party needs to face the future.  It is fair to argue, as I for one have, that the party has shown signs in recent years of losing its way when it comes to identifying and sticking to a basic philosophy, developing and sustaining a coherent narrative, maintaining an effective government process, and certainly in maintaining internal cohesion.

Two of his key organizational recommendations – for a party membership say in the election of the leader, and the re-establishment of the Caucus ballot for the Ministry – have already been embraced in the flurry of repositioning activity that is now going on.  But on re-articulating the ALP’s basic philosophy and narrative for the times, a work that is still in progress, Kim has some useful ideas to promote, in particular his encapsulation of the Australia we should stand for as being a country that is not only ‘fairer’ – long the centerpiece of social democratic thinking – but ‘richer’ and ‘greener’ as well.

I’m intrigued and encouraged also by Kim’s emphasis, in his chapter on the pursuit of happiness, on the compatibility of the fundamental tenets of small-l liberalism with Labor traditions, a theme which is echoed and further developed in Chris Bowen’s just published book (just as Bowen’s focus on ‘growth’ and ‘opportunity’ mirrors Kim’s emphasis on a richer and fairer society).  There is more work to be done in bringing together these various ideas, and others as well, in a new statement of Labor philosophy which is substantive, contemporary and easily communicated, but it is very encouraging that common ground is clearly emerging between those who in past decades might have had more enjoyment in waging faction-based ideological war than trying to find that common ground.

The third reason I really like Kim’s book – and here I think his contribution is unique, not articulated elsewhere with anything like this clarity and passion – is the case he makes for optimism about politics and the political process, and the absolute necessity for young people to see active engagement in politics, at all levels from grassroots policy and campaigning activism to standing for parliament, as honourable,  decent and exciting.

It has been all too depressingly easy in the Australian political climate of the last few years to be consumed by cynicism, skepticism and pessimism about the political process. For Generation Next there is a perfectly understandable disposition to regard those few of their generation who are actively engaged in politics as either apparatchiks, losers or tragics. As my Gen Y assistant at ANU put it to me rather nicely, ‘The trouble is that the bullshit detectors of Australia’s Gen Y are currently on overdrive. The ultimate challenge is to convince them that they can overcome that bullshit by engaging in major party politics themselves.”

Kim’s book makes a terrific contribution to meeting that challenge, making the point that politics – and the chance that comes with it to be part of the government of the country – offers the chance to be part of something much bigger than oneself.  Only through politics can one shape and influence the whole future course of our society.  That may make it an attractive profession for those who are consumed with the exercise of power for power’s sake. But it also makes it a hugely attractive profession for idealists – as most of the younger generation instinctively are – and Kim’s book is as compelling a manifesto as you can find for channeling that idealism into politics.

Congratulations to Kim for writing this book, and to MUP for publishing it. I hope very much it finds the audience it deserves.

[1] I was introduced to this expression when as Foreign Minister in 1996 I asked him to be a member of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, and he replied “Impossible, I’m afraid , my dear fellow, I’m a CLOOF “, and then, when pressed to explain, ‘Why,  a  Clapped Out Old Fart of course”.