Writing the first draft of history, as journalists and columnists are conceited enough to imagine that we do, is a fraught profession. Political changes, when they happen, are almost never discernible in real time. They can take years to be fully felt and sometimes decades to be understood in their proper context. Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 was just a hard-fought presidential election to the onlookers of the day — it was only much later that we recognised the beginning of the end of the Democratic Party as a force in national US politics for a lifetime. Gough Whitlam’s evisceration of the left-controlled Victorian Central Executive in 1967 looked just like another factional brawl to the delegates and journalists who saw it, but in hindsight we understand it as the beginning of the migration to Labor of the white-collar middle class that set the stage for Labor to win seven of the next eleven federal elections.
Parliaments and parliamentarians are lag indicators of political movement, rather than foreshocks of the earthquakes to come. Demographic shifts presage polling ones. Parties change internally before they change externally. Politics lives downstream from culture.
So the history of Stephen Conroy, who resigned from the Senate today, will be written up as one man resigning after a long and gory career steeped in the political blood of others. And it’s true that most of Conroy’s enemies have ended up in early and involuntary retirement. But the bigger significance of his departure is that is represents the end of perhaps the last significant Labor parliamentarian to see Labor as communitarian party, rather than a progressive one.
The tectonic shift has already occurred; it just took a few years for the Parliamentary party to reflect the new topography.
In that context its fitting that Conroy’s resignation coincides with Labor’s leader being overseas at Global Progress conference hosted by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trudeau is, of course, the pin-up boy for a new generation of progressive, identity-based liberal politics (and not at all sexually objectified by leftist cis-women the world over, oh no). That Bill Shorten would actively seek out such a gathering and such a host is illuminating. Canada’s Liberal Party, of which Trudeau is leader, is aligned internationally not to the Socialist International, as the ALP is, but to the same international brotherhood of political parties as our own Australian Liberal Party.
Justin Trudeau is, in short, a liberal. His party is not a workers’ or union-based or labour party; that mantle in Canadian politics falls to the New Democratic Party. That Shorten identifies as a progressive in the style of the Canadian PM says much about the direction of today’s Australian Labor Party … a very different party to the one Stephen Conroy was appointed a senator for in 1996.
It’s not misrepresenting Conroy to say that he was a social and political conservative in the Labor mould. A communitarian, if you will. Communitarians and conservatives see the world not as a mass of individuals but as a set of interlocking structures and institutions — family, church, union, community, the nation-state — that operate to restrain, support, guide and direct the individual and in return, the individual has responsibilities and obligations to the laws, mores, cultural expectations and perhaps religious edicts of those structures. The order of human affairs relies on these institutions and as such, change to them should be treated with caution, if not outright suspicion or even hostility. Changes to marriage law, family structures, national racial, ethnic and religious compositions, political structures or community expectations are all subject to the same cynicism for a communitarian or conservative.
This is in contrast to those self-labelled progressives or small ‘l’ liberals, for whom the most important unit of society is not the family or the community but the individual — and consequently, individual rights. The right of a foreign national to claim asylum, the right of a person to marry any other person without reference to any other authority or concern, the right of a trans person to any bathroom they may wish without reference to the accepted social structure of gender. For a progressive, structures, institutions and mores are repressive, stifling the individual and oppressing them, and they are to be removed.
Progressivism, simply put, is the triumph of the subjective over the objective; the prioritising of the individual over the collective.
It would be safe to say that for the first hundred years or so of its existence, the grand old Australian Labor Party was a collectivist party. The notion that a collective such as a union provided better and fairer outcomes for workers than an individualist approach to wage negotiation and arbitration is a bedrock principle of historical Labor. The idea that progressive taxation and government distribution of revenue provides a fairer society. The idea that “We’re all in this together” trumps “You’re on your own”.
The Labor Party that Stephen Conroy joined, worked for and represented in the Senate for twenty years was a collectivist, communitarian party. It had room for social conservatives like Stephen Conroy (and Joe Bullock). It embraced a collective understanding of humanity, whether union or religious or in other forms. It accepted that working people came in many shapes and sizes — some were religious and some were not, some were conservative and some were not, some were gay and some were straight, some were ambitious and some were content to enjoy a comfortable life with a fair wage and four weeks’ holiday a year.
It is a communitarian party no more.
The exit of MPs such as Stephen Conroy from Labor signal a shift not to the left in economic terms, nor to the Left in factional terms. Stephen Conroy himself will see to the second. But it throws light on the philosophical shift of the ALP to one of progressive, individualistic liberalism, one of subjective moral relativism, in which the rights of the individual are paramount and whose leader mugs for selfies with liberal leaders half a globe away.
This is a Labor Party that moots regressive taxation — the kind that hits working people the hardest — such as a ‘sugar tax’ or a ‘carbon tax’. It embraces social issues such as gay marriage as litmus tests and speaks of ‘individual rights’ as a mantra.
There is, of course, a conservative case for gay marriage; Kristina Kenneally and others have made it very well. But federal Labor doesn’t take that brief on; for them, marriage is about the individual right to marry who you love rather than a social institution in which the whole of society has a stake. The very language used gives the game away.
The internal Labor culture war that Gough Whitlam declared in 1967 has been fought and won – and won by the Don Chipp wing of the ALP. Labor is now a fully progressive party, committed to the individual over the collective, the subjective over the objective. Even Senator Conroy’s Right faction has largely accepted the language and philosophical underpinnings of this ideological shift.
It remains to be seen if Labor’s seachange resonates at the ballot box with the broad mass of the Australian public, a majority of whom (if previous referendum and election results are to be believed) are either unconvinced or uninterested by progressive politics. The even more progressive Greens Party succeeds only in the inner cities; Labor’s most recent successes at national elections have come when they have taken communitarian and conservative positions on major issues, namely, WorkChoices in 2007 and Medicare in 2016. And Labor’s economic philosophy — when it actually engages with economics — remains within a communitarian, materialist framework.
But it won’t include Stephen Conroy any more.
Conroy wasn’t perfect — for example his position on uranium, as expressed in a speech to Labor’s 2011 National Conference, was a cheap shot at the tear ducts that missed the frontal lobe by a long way. But he represents and represented a style of Labor thinking that is now lost. And for a genuine conservative, that’s a terrible loss indeed.
Luke Walladge is a former senior Labor staffer