Politics

In the last twenty years, the belief in a transformative left – socialist, communist, whatever – has collapsed more comprehensively than at any time since its beginnings in 1789. The Western working class is overwhelmingly oriented towards individual life, acquisition and consumption; the working class of the developing world has not developed major radical parties in the face of substantial repression of trade union organisation; faith in central planning, market socialism, interconnected cooperatives and the like drained away in the late 1970s, and no alternative plan for running the economy is on the table. 

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The debate about the costs and limitations of power is as old as the ALP, but it has been given new urgency by the changes in the Party since Labor won government in 1983. So far this year, three books have been published which deal wholly or in part with the Hawke government’s relationship with the traditions of the Australian Labor Party: Carol Johnson’s The Labor Legacy, Graham Maddox’s The Hawke Government and Labor Tradition and now Dean Jaensch’s The Hawke–Keating Hijack: The ALP in transition.

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How many of us would really want to be prime minister? The road to The Lodge is littered with depressing tales of ambitious politicians abandoning their friends, principles, and even their own authentic voice in order to secure the Top Job. Then, once you’ve fulfilled your life’s ambitions, voters and your own supporters are liable to tire of you and seek a new political hero. Nevertheless, prime ministers become accustomed to the power, public attention, and perks of office; they find it difficult to choose the ‘right time’ to leave office.

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You didn’t have to be Antony Green to know that by seven o’clock on election night things were looking very bad for Bill Shorten. The problem itself wasn’t complicated. While all the available polling suggested that Labor would gain support, the majority of booth results said that Labor was going backwards. Numbers were breaking for Scott Morrison, with the Liberal National Party driving a bulldozer through Queensland, while expected Labor gains in Melbourne remaining stubbornly out of reach. Echoes of Don’s Party were hard to ignore.

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Campaigning during the 1912 US presidential election, the great labour leader and socialist Eugene Debs used to tell his supporters that he could not lead them into the Promised Land because if they were trusting enough to be led in they would be trusting enough to be led out again. In other words, he was counselling his voters to resist the easy certitude that zealotry brings; to reject a politics that trades on blind faith rather than the critical power of reason.

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The import of this book is best summed up by pinching one of its section headings: ‘another Europe is possible’. In this other Europe, this better one, the ‘democratic deficit’ that has bedevilled the European project from the outset has finally found a satisfactory resolution. A dream? Not at all. For the authors of this book, it is a ‘realistic utopia’, fully achievable if the right measures are taken. All that is needed is an agreement on a treaty and the dismantling of a Trojan Horse. 

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Andrew Johnson’s first day in the White House was less than promising. Whether, as his supporters claimed, he was suffering from illness and had attempted to self-medicate or had simply been celebrating his new position as vice president, Johnson was devastatingly drunk. It was 3 March 1865, the Civil War was rapidly drawing to a close, and the recently re-elected President Lincoln was to deliver his second inaugural address. In prose that would eventually be inscribed across the walls of his marble memorial, Lincoln reflected on God, war, and the emerging challenge of how to rehabilitate a divided Union. The vice president’s words that day were barely decipherable and after prostrating himself before a Bible and subjecting it to a long wet kiss, he was quickly ushered away.

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Every biographer has a relationship with their subject, even if they have passed away. A real advantage for biographers of the dead is that the subject cannot say what they think about the book. The relationship between Margaret Simons and Penny Wong was fraught. That this mattered is evident from the opening sentence: ‘Penny Wong did not want this book to be written.’ Simons, a journalist, biographer, and associate professor at Monash University, uses her preface to complain about how difficult it was researching the book without Wong’s assistance and against her will. 

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In 2016 John Kaye was dying. Once leader of the Greens in New South Wales, he had a final message for his party. ‘This isn’t and never has been about changing government … This is about changing what people expect from government.’ In our era, dogged by chronic distrust of parties and government, it might have served as a rallying cry for people to transform politics by demanding more of their representatives. But Kaye was a man of the left, and in the context of an impending election, as the Greens descended into vicious factional brawls over preselection for his seat, his words unleashed a storm of controversy over the direction of the party.

This is just one among many eruptions of internecine warfare over the purpose of the Greens chronicled in Paddy Manning’s comprehensive history. The survival of the party since 1992, despite the elaboration of a program, and despite its professed commitment to consensual democratic processes, has depended on its leaders: the iconic Bob Brown, then Christine Milne, and lately Richard Di Natale.

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The war on journalists and whistleblowers

Kieran Pender
Monday, 21 October 2019

It is a famous parable. If a frog is dropped in boiling water, it will immediately leap out. But if placed in tepid water that is gradually heated, the frog will not notice the increasing temperature until it is boiled alive. The parable may be biologically inaccurate, but it remains instructive in the context of civil liberties ...

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