Review of book by same title by Adrian Pabst, Kapunda Press and Connor Court Publishing, Redland Bay [Queensland], 2019, published in the Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Vol. 20, 2019, pp. 178-182.
Story of Our Country is an important book on the Australian Labor legacy and modern challenges. This review considers the challenge set out by the author and the gap between task and accomplishment.
The writer, Adrian Pabst, a UK academic commissioned by the P.M Glynn Institute, a public policy research centre of the Australian Catholic University, clearly has worked hard in understanding the ALP and local nuances. The book displays his wide reading and engagement with dozens of Australians in thinking through what is good and bad in contemporary Labor.
He calls for a revival of values and connections with movements and compatible traditions, particularly Catholic and christian ideas of justice and moral integrity.
Pabst describes and elucidates Labor’s rich paradoxical heritage – progressive and conservative, radical and traditional – in attempting to marry values of equality, diversity and redistributive justice.
The book is divided into an Introduction, Conclusion, and four separate Chapters on: The Present – the ALP’s Positioning; The Past – A Short History of Labor’s Ethical Purpose; Philosophy – Labor’s traditions and Dispositions; and Politics and Policy – Renewing Party and Country.
Influenced by the Blue Labour stream of the UK labour movement, Pabst is inspired by Lord Maurice Glasman and creative, moderate thinkers like Jon Cruddas (an anti-Corbyn Labour MP). The “blue” is an allusion to the blue-collar traditional base of the movement – thrifty, family oriented, often Christian-inspired and tradition-respectful, earthy decency. The nice types you find in George Orwell’s books, like The Road to Wigan Pier. Blue Labour’s website proclaims: “Our politics is a challenge to the liberal consensus of the capitalist order, it does not belong to the revolutionary left. Its inheritance is the labour tradition.”
Blue Labour shares with elements of the left a revulsion about the alleged cosy corporatism of Blair Labour, the evils of globalism, as well as opposition to intolerant liberal humanism.
Before the 2019 Australian election, Pabst was writing in The New Statesman (London) about the appealing features of the Australian Labor model, which he foresaw as certain to win the forthcoming Australian election.
This book, therefore, is partly a reckoning with illusions and delusion with aspects of a much hoped for Australian example.
Pabst sees Australian ideals of the “fair go” and “mateship” as ethically inspired. He argues that: “The emphasis on rewarding work, which provides not just an income but also a sense of self-worth and meaning, is an example of how economic and socio-cultural concerns overlap and converge with ethical considerations. Linking them together is a certain conception of justice centred on the common good, which can be defined as an ordering of relationships in a way that holds in balance individual fulfilment with mutual flourishing, based on the dignity and equality of all people.” This is a fine statement about immanence in our daily world.
But what is this in opposition to?
Pabst complains of the slide in recent decades into “cartel capitalism, bureaucratic overreach, unfettered globalisation and rampant individualism.” The adjectives here are all pejorative and self-defining.
Too often in Labor politics books, “liberalism” is unmoored or unfettered, and “individualism” is rampant or selfish, as if neat and tidy descriptions of such vices complete the morality play.
Threaded through the book are valuable references to historic Protestant and Catholic influences that shaped the ALP. The papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) and local Catholic political activity is an obvious starting point.
There is a history of some Labor figures seeing Christianity and labourism as intertwined. W.G. Spence, the founder and organiser of the Australian Workers Union was a lay-preacher. Indeed, Victor Daley, poet and dreamer wrote a poem that began: “My Name is Labor, but they call me Christ.”
Pabst unearths information about The Rev. Lance Shilton’s regret in a statement in the mid-1970s about the neglect by Protestant churchman compared to the Roman Catholics, of engagement with the unions and labour movement generally. He was then Dean of St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney. There is also reference to the Rev. Alan Walker’s consideration of pre-selection as an ALP candidate for a seat under the guidance of Gough Whitlam. Walker was then a Methodist minister and soon a driving force in the merger of churches into the Uniting Church of Australia. These references are revealing and indicative of authoritative scholarship about source material.
Pabst writes beautifully and persuasively throughout much of the book.
He suggests that “the ethos of the ALP can best be understood as a paradoxical combination of radical and small-c conservative values in a Burkean sense: tackling injustice in the economy and renewing political institutions, while also conserving tradition and society.”
The balance of individual rights and mutual obligations, secular and religious values, is part of the contemporary mix. There is much to be said for William Lane’s argument in The Workingman’s Paradise that: “To understand Socialism is to endeavour to lead a better life.”
An issue not clearly addressed in the book, besides the consideration of Labor’s imperfections, is why does it usually lose elections.
By describing the big-C Conservative enemy as tied to nineteenth century ideas of unregulated (or weakly-restrained) capitalism, as fear mongers on race and immigration, as uninspiring champions of dull white picket fence conformism, Labor can bask in the seemingly warm inner glow of moral superiority.
But Gina Rinehart/Kerry Packer unrestrained capitalist ideology is a distance from the politics of Menzies, Howard, and ScoMo.
Part of Labor’s success has been in influencing its adversaries to be more moderate, compassionate and supportive of some important planks of social protection.
Ironically, the lack of a coherent account of “compassionate Australian Liberalism” is missing in Australian political writing. (Perhaps David Kemp, in the forthcoming, final two volumes of his history of Australian liberalism might be equal to that challenge.) There is a gap in the market for a Liberal book like Pabst’s.
In the Pabst book, however, there is only a brief mention of families and what might be called the politics of families. This points to a vital feature of aspirational politics. Former Deputy Leader of the ALP, Tanya Plibersek said after the last Australian election that she did not understand what was meant by “aspirational.” She was suggesting it is an easy cliché to bounce around the political park, but that the word does not tell us much. Except, it does in this importance sense: no successful political party in Australia will ever owe its success to ‘possessive individualism’ or free-range selfishness. In this country the conservative appeal is not to (or just to) “individualists” but to people wanting the best for their families. They see themselves in a wider context, not just as self-regarding automatons. They are families and parts of networked communities. Although she blundered in articulation of the point, there is insight in Margaret Thatcher’s argument that: “…there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” She was portrayed as a champion of “rampant” individualism in that formulation, but I believe her point was that society can be an amorphous concept, whereas families and real people matter.
In some ways, the Australian achievement is a continuation of Australian exceptionalism, including the creation of a relatively prosperous and successful nation. In 2019, and in recent elections held among OECD members, Australian politics presents as the most boring, least antagonistic. This is something we should be proud of.
A further issue for Pabst and what might be broadly called the Blue Labour view, is ambivalence to the modern world. This has many manifestations, including contempt for the so-called neo-liberalism of the Blair, Brown, Hawke and Keating governments. Instead of seeing those administrations as commendable examples of social democratic reform, there is confusion about their place in the Labor heritage, and whether they have a place at all.
In other writings, Pabst is super-critical of neo-liberalism in its “untrammelled” aspects. Australian Labor, under Whitlam and Hawke and Keating, were tariff reformers and modernisers. There is not so much criticism in this book of Australian Labor (compared to what might be said about UK Labour, even before the sainted red grandpa, Jeremy Corbyn took over), but there are hints of the ALP losing its way under “neo-liberal” pressures. I am not sure, however, what this means.
There is a further ambivalence about the people Labor needs to appeal to. There seems to be an image of “the workers” as a lot of blue-collar wage-earners out there somewhere who need to be won back as they emerge from the factory gates. That world vanished decades ago. Modern workers have moved to either the gig economy or self-employment. On the one hand there are precariously employed pizza deliverers, Pakistani Uber drivers, and musos, and on the other, tradies, fast chicken franchisees, and suburban reiki therapists. Is Labor speaking to them? I do not believe so.
Of relevance is Larry Bartels’ book Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (2017, second edition.) Although about the US, it is helpful in explaining why Labor lost and why people adhere to certain political views. The gist is that people are often guided, in voting, neither by rational economic calculation nor by cultural issues, but by “unenlightened self-interest.” Bartels found that level of income had little to do whether someone favoured cutting the tax rate for the highest income band. Instead, voters were more likely to support cutting the rate if they felt their own tax burden was heavy. Bartels also found that inheritance tax was persistently and deeply unpopular among all income groups and even among people with egalitarian values who wanted more government spending.
How to best appeal to real people requires understanding them. How to shift opinions requires much more. This dilemma is indeed paradoxical to those who think in a linear or one-dimensional way. Each of us are made up of combinations of complex feelings, instincts, belief systems, and behaviours. Traditions, heritage, the people we engage with, all matter in shaping our thinking. Characteristics like loyalty, solidarity, respect for the ethos of a movement, a church or an organisation, as well as active understanding through engagement in the stuff of daily life is part of the story. So too, in the calculation, rough and ready, of what is good for my family and my world.
Pabst has written a superb book that should provoke Labor to freshly assess its past and more easily engage with the challenges of tomorrow. The paradoxes he refers to, the ambivalence also of some of what he discusses, is present in his own writing. Perhaps that is one reason his phrasing and writing sometimes soars so high.
Pabst is a serious academic whose interest in linking religious ideas to the Australian Labor political tradition, I considered an extremely important project. You might only get one go at getting this right. So, I made detailed suggestions, edited and suggested sentences and paragraphs for incorporation. The references to Dean Lance Shilton (1921-1998; Dean of St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, 1973-1988) and the Rev. Alan Walker (1911-1993) in the book were entirely from me. It was perhaps a tad cheeky to commend Pabst for that scholarship in the review.
I also sent Pabst my ‘Burke and Australian Labor’ article which I completed in June 2019 (although the book in which it was to appear as a Chapter would not be published until 2020.) Sections and footnotes were lifted from my piece, including the Keating quote from which the book’s title, Story of Our Country, was taken.
I better understood the stories of old, about demolished buildings and the materials taken for a new construction elsewhere. I did not mind. I was glad that from my quarry, the stones could be re-used elsewhere, absorbed into someone else’s creation.
The important thing was to stimulate discussion, debate and fresh ways of seeing the world. As my review indicates, I admire Pabst creation.