Albanese Labor, the cultural right turn, and the future of progressive politics in Australia
Though it is a minor event in global terms, the election of the Albanese government is of a significance from which much can be read. Coming to power with a slim majority of three in overall terms (77 seats in a 151-seat parliament), it has an effective 30-seat lead on the Coalition, due to the election of three Greens and eight community independent ‘teal’ candidates. They can all be relied on to guarantee confidence and supply in a crisis, so the working majority is secure. Yet the Greens and ‘teals’ fell just short of a slightly perverse dream: Labor falling just short and relying on the crossbench for support. Had that occurred, Labor would have been in a difficult position, but Australian progressivism would have been in clover, capable of making a series of major demands in exchange for passing other more centrist legislation.
With Labor’s majority, the opposite has occurred. The Albanese government has tracked sharply to the right of where many people—even grizzled veterans of Labor disappointment—thought it would go. This is particularly so in social-cultural matters. Labor’s refusal to reverse the stage-three tax cuts is, here, not particularly significant. Less an economic move than one about honesty in government—Labor promised to honour the cuts in the 2022 election campaign—it is not of itself a free-market shift. But Labor’s language and policy direction, as registered in the recent jobs summit, shows that in political economic terms it has now been transformed entirely by the logic of capital. Labor, a party founded to take some sort of control of capitalism and run it for workers, or abolish it for socialism, has now rejected and removed the last skerrick of that way of thinking, the last idea that there is anything outside capital. That was present to some degree in the Rudd government, with its notions of a top-flight public broadband service connecting public education and health systems, in a virtuous circle of steady uplift. Contained within capitalism, it nevertheless had a tilt towards a post-capitalist future.
As the language of the jobs summit showed, all that is gone. Speakers talked of workers as a resource, women as a resource, the disabled as a resource. The notion that jobs and the economy are for a wider life, and that wider life might determine how we shape work, jobs, cities, services and the like, was nowhere in evidence. The approach is one with Labor state government urban and development planning, in which new exurbs built by private companies are being added ring by ring to major cities, lacking urban identity, public space, centrality. Connected to the cities by privately built roads, they offer nothing but work, sleep, commuting and Netflix in the evening. The Albanese government’s conception fits right across that as an overarching framework. Childcare extension is for gender-based labour-market flexibility, not for parents’ quality of life, for example. The idea that we might have a debate about hours worked, the shape of work, where it happens, is nowhere in evidence. As federal Labor offers childcare, its state counterparts empower corporations, post-COVID, to force their employees back to offices on a full-time basis, when they clearly do not want to. But capital does what capital wants.
To complement this commitment to capital, federal and state Labor are committing to the authoritarian state required to enforce it, while capital continues to reduce the overall income share going to wages, and to raise costs in an inflationary fashion— which are then blamed on (falling) wages. The Nauru immigration detention facility has been recommissioned, with a US private prison company to operate it. State Labor governments (and Liberal ones) have introduced heavy anti-protest laws, threatening up to two years in prison for the mildest civil disobedience. Laws put or left in place that incarcerate First Nations peoples are appalling: refusal of bail in Victoria, mass lock-ups in the (Labor-run) Northern Territory, children in adult prisons in Western Australia.
In cultural-political matters, Labor governments at both levels are veering sharply away from progressivism. In one of the election campaign debates, Albanese answered the culture war question ‘what is a woman?’ with the answer ‘an adult human female’, thus explicitly repudiating the pro-trans notion of gender self-determination. He has recently reappointed Tony Abbott to the Australian War Memorial Board. On Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum (70th) jubilee this year, an island in Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin was renamed Queen Elizabeth Island. On her death, the Andrews Labor government in Victoria renamed the Maroondah Hospital the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital.
The political intent has been obvious. The Albanese government is not going to give the Dutton-led opposition any room to build a culture war attack against Labor. The question of the Voice to Parliament aside, to which Labor could not not commit to, the Coalition will be forced into culture politics conditions that are either silly or so far rightward as to be beyond the centre-right cultural settings of the mainstream. Thus, when Andrew Leigh went on radio to talk about the post-succession change to the currency and casually mentioned that it wasn’t compulsory to put King Charles III on the $5 note, Peter Dutton seized on it—only to find that most people regarded Dutton’s strategic move as absurd and overblown.
After three defeats against a jerry-built crackpot Coalition, Labor, around 2021, appears to have had a big talk with itself, and decided that nothing must go wrong, or even have the chance of going wrong. The Australian electorate, it has decided, remains centre-right culturally and cautious economically, apart from a progressive inner-urban core. That cultural setting must be honoured, and any last Labor commitment to culturally progressive measures abandoned, or scaled back to the most conservative position (as with the Voice). The post-election polls show this is working tremendously. Labor has absolute hegemony. The Coalition is nowhere, and the Greens and progressive independents are locked out of power, save for some advantage in the tight Senate.
Labor is lucky to have a political system that has made that possible. Our compulsory preferential voting system enabled the Greens to expand and stabilise as a progressive political force. But only to a point. In a fully proportional system, the Greens, at 12 per cent of the primary vote, would have one-seventh of the lower house seats, about 18 seats; Labor would have about 50 seats, and they and independents would govern as a coalition or a supported minority. Instead, Labor can gain a majority, but there is sufficient incentive for the majority of progressives and leftists to work as the Greens party (which is not the case in the United States, for example). This slakes off excessively left-progressive policy to the Greens, and Labor can disavow it, while relying on the Greens’ support in the Senate.
It has taken Labor a long time to realise that the Greens were a gift and not a curse. For a decade, Labor has screwed up its strategy in suburban and regional seats by imagining it can recapture ground lost to the Greens, absorb them, and re-form the grand Whitlamite coalition in one party. The mistake was as much sheer personal political narcissism on the part of Labor leaders as it was a strategic misstep. The shattering 2019 loss appears to have finally administered the morale-improving beating with regards to the Greens.
Elsewhere, large centre-left parties do not have this luxury. In Britain, Labour must hold together a coalition of socially conservative native-born working-class and progressive migrant or first-generation workers in London and the large cities. Italy’s electoral system has obliged the left Democratic Party to absorb as many small parties as possible, thus drawing cultural progressivism into its centre, and handing large sections of the working-class vote to the fascist-derived ‘Brothers of Italy’.
Ditto in Sweden. In the United States, Joe Biden must contend with a left section of the Democrats on questions such as Black Lives Matter and race relations. In all these polities, the centre-left is the victim of the growing distance and antagonism between progressives and the mainstream, and much of its political energy over the next decade will be consumed by internal fights over the limits of progressivism.
In Australia, Labor has been spared that, and it is in the rare position in the Western world to move steadily into the area occupied by the centre-right, make itself the legitimate representative of mainstream suburban and regional politics, and guarantee itself a decade in power, and the exclusion of the Coalition to the cultural-political fringes. But it will only do so by wholly occupying the social conservative centrist position occupied by the Menzies or Howard government. This is something more than the left-centrism of Hawke/Keating or Rudd/ Gillard governments that were in a sort of dialogue with progressivism and the left, drawing some of their energy from them, refusing their petitions at other times, but acknowledging that they were all in something close to the same project.
That has now gone, I believe, and it has to go for Labor to occupy securely this position of developing political hegemony. The alliance was cemented in the 1960s with the rise of Gough Whitlam to the leadership of the party, and was sustained through the Whitlam and Hawke years, the rise and fall of the Australia Party and the Democrats, the first quarter-century of the Greens, the decline of the socialist project and of the Australian industrial base and its working class, the ‘alternative’ inner cities, and their transformation into prosperous professional areas. When formed in the 1960s, that alliance was between a very small progressive group—what we call the ‘intellectually trained’, in professions wielding knowledge—and the much larger industrial working class. It worked initially because Australia was so backward that many of the measures proposed by the progressives were pleasing to a wide group of people: lifting censorship, reducing the power of the church, equality for women, no-fault divorce, a more independent foreign policy, money for the arts and the like.
From Whitlam’s accession to the leadership, right into the 1990s, much of what Labor did was simply the modernisation of a culturally and politically backward country that had become part of the world. This was buttressed by a left nationalism that spread across progressive and working-class groups, a desire for Australian movies, TV and music, as well as novels and poetry, an assertion of ourselves as a unique place, rather than as a variant within the Commonwealth tradition.
But, as I’ve noted elsewhere, that alliance started to shift as the underlying conditions that supported it changed. The Hawke/Keating final assault on the remaining tariff walls and protection system from 1990 onwards resulted in a rapid decline in the number, power and cultural centrality of the working class. At the same time the new knowledge and culture sectors began to expand, and the number of university graduates rose to 30 per cent (from 8 per cent at the start of the Hawke/Keating period). Having been a small minority, whose power arose from their alliance with the working class, they were becoming a group in themselves, with their own demands and non-negotiable moral-political priorities.
Increasingly those were of a character that expressed the nature of social practice at the core of knowledge-culture work—they were open to the ceaseless transformation of the particularity of inherited ideas, while loyal to the general principles of universality, borderlessness, transgression and change. That is, it is ‘natural’ for knowledge/culture workers to be cosmopolitan, oriented to radical equality, interested in oppressive situations everywhere, while it is ‘natural’ for workers in non-routinised labour to orient themselves by the bordered and framed cultures in which they grew up and came to adulthood: the great error of Marxism has been to take the habits of the first group— which were the habits of Marx, Engels and their philosophy-grad-student cohort—and project them onto the developing working class of nineteenth-century Europe. On that move has a vast amount of wasted political effort been based.
Thus, as progressives/the knowledge class began to assert their own ideas in the 1990s—totally equality for LGBTIQA+ people, the attack on the centrality of the traditional family, the oppressiveness of Anglo culture, and the shame of colonialism—their core values came increasingly up against that of the still substantial working class. This social-cultural split was supercharged into a political split when the Democrats collapsed and a nationally organised Greens party replaced them. The Democrats had been a hybrid party, started by a Liberal (Don Chipp), joined by progressives (the Australia Party) and never in the subsequent 25 years able to find a unified politics. The Greens by contrast were part of a global movement (one that Australian activists had played a huge role in starting in the early 1970s), and their politics was a unity, arising from a core position regarding the relationship to received institutions; that they should be subject to rational revision—of the rights of property, of traditional moral values—no matter what their claims to privilege or right. Such a position is common to the anti-industrial deep green anarchist, the ‘watermelon’ green Marxist and the social democratic green technocrat. It expresses progressivism in its unquestioned totalising form, in which the saving of the Amazonian rainforest is the same as abolishing any state preference for traditional families, as is renaming 26 January ‘Invasion Day’.
The coming apart of the progressive-working class/middle class coalition happened in the mid 1990s, made John Howard’s 1996 victory possible, and guaranteed his success after the 1998 wobble (when the Libs lost the two-party-preferred vote; this was the Labor alliance’s last ‘successful’ outing). Labor’s failure to dominate the subsequent era—from 1996 to 2022, 26 years, it has held power for six, three of them in minority government—has been a direct result of its inability to quit the progressive/ working-middle-class alliance and project itself wholly to the suburbs and the regions. Beneath any effects of superficial politics—the effect of News Corp, the quality of particular leaders, faction shenanigans—that has been the root problem. Every Labor leader has had to grapple with it. All except Kevin Rudd failed to find a solution, and Rudd’s ingenuity came from his position outside Labor traditions, his capacity to think in a global and creative fashion. The Albanese government has committed itself to the welfare of the working and middle classes, and is willing to make structural change on their behalf, with the reintroduction of industry bargaining or expanded subsidised childcare, but it has no interest in substantial structural change, or a new deal for those on low incomes. That combined with its right-ward cultural politics may well give Labor the centre ground and the stabilisation it has long sought. Those of us who are politically radical but socially conservative in some ways would hope that it could achieve this political-cultural stabilisation—and we have argued for it—and then expand the possibility of real structural political-economic change. But we won’t be holding our breath for it—even given the Victorian government’s wonderful new hospitals.
This new period thus suggests a sharply reduced range of political opportunities for progressives. When the Coalition is in power, progressive forces can form a ‘pure opposition’, attacking the very principle from mandatory detention to the First Nations ‘intervention’ and refusal to set a real emissions target, and so on. When Labor has been in power with a progressive alliance, the progressive voice has been of a ‘dialogic opposition’, faulting Labor for falling short of the values it shares with progressivism. The shift of Labor into a right cultural space problematises that. It is not simply that people are not in the habit of regarding Labor as anti-progressive—though it appears this is now a hard lesson for many to learn—it is that Labor casts a shadow of progressive values that one would expect it to have. Finding that it is now perpetually absent from that slot in substance leaves progressives without a strategy for confronting one socially conservative move after another.
Progressives must also confront a fact that they have been able to hide from themselves for decades—that they now represent a minority view, subscribed to in its full form by about 15–25 per cent of the population, and which exercised its power by its relationship with Labor leaderships throughout much of that period. That relationship has gone at the same time as the particular constellation of progressive beliefs has become as radical as it has ever been, and separated from accepted social beliefs. Progressives believe in open borders, large-scale immigration, the automatic recomposition of given communities by whatever influx occurs as a result of quantitative immigration settings. They believe in a radical version of the nation’s history—the ‘settler colonialism’ thesis—which holds colonial relations to exist unchanged in their essence from 1788, and to thus give us a nation to which a positive or patriotic emotional attachment is impossible.
They believe that men and women are not merely equal, but that there is no root difference between them, and that gender is a social construction. In the field of human development, progressives believe that gender is radically separated from the given body, that any claim to a given gender is legitimate, and that forms of education and child-raising should be oriented to this fact. Progressives believe that all forms of sexuality are to be equally desired and accepted. They believe that states now called ‘neurodivergent’ are fully legitimate forms of subjectivity and not conditions we should try to minimise in the process of psychological development. They tend to believe that white supremacy saturates every aspect of social and cultural life, and they sometimes elide into a quasi-essentialist belief that the spread of European colonialism from the sixteenth century onwards was unique in its evil (as opposed to being unique in its technical and military force).
The mainstream believes none of these things, though it has an overlap of practical values, arising from notions of universal rights, that defeated religious-derived particularity. They believe that a nation has a right to control borders, that immigration is an invitation not a right, that neighbourhoods and regions have a right to control the change in their composition and character, and that this right is important to meaning, identity and tradition. They believe men and women should be legally equal, but are fundamentally different beings with different desires and needs, arising from biology. They believe in a sort of de facto recognition of transgenderism, but they would want its occurrence to be minimised at the adolescent development stage, if possible. They believe the biological family is the preferred option, if it is happy and working well, but that divorce, blended families and single parenthood may be necessary. They believe that homosexuality is an ‘originary’ desire, to be acknowledged as such—but most hope that their children will turn out to be uncomplicatedly heterosexual. They believe that the creation of Australia involved dispossession and massacre, rising to genocide, but they also believe that this country is something that can be positively emotionally attached to, even without programmatic patriotism.
These are the beliefs of the mainstream—by which I mean the 50–60 per cent or so of urban and regional moderate people whose lives are founded in office, service, retail or manufacturing work, and of a section of the knowledge class as well. There is a remnant 20 per cent or so who are explicitly social-religious conservative to be found in rural areas such as central Queensland and in Muslim and fundamentalist Christian populations of the major cities. Over six decades the beliefs of the ‘middle fifty’ have gone from a standard religious-derived conservatism to a moderate secular conservatism, less because of the campaigning of progressives than because the entire social world has been transformed into one where a notion of human equality is a given. This is a product of the postwar mass advance in global communications, connections, immigration and the increasing interaction of communities in Western societies. As capitalist production began to be substantially globalised, the frequency of interaction and reciprocity laid the basis for the decline of ‘race’, the dominant notion of identity from the 1870s to World War II. The Holocaust’s impact, the civil rights movements, anti-imperialist revolution, all played a role in this shift. But it is crucial to understand the material shift that underlay it to appreciate the limits of advocacy and change of culture through change of consciousness.
In this shared framework of modernity, the progressive/knowledge class grouping has come up against the hard limits of social transformation, but believes that the over-arching direction of the postwar progressive era is still in place. That is the proposition: that new ways of social and cultural life will simply flow from a core avant-garde—now the rather substantial knowledge class—to the wider population, and that this process will be unending. What appears to be happening across the world is somewhat different. What powered the great socio-cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s was this ‘catch-up’ modernisation, as religion lost its power to control cultural meaning, and a vacuum opened up in how social meaning—life’s purpose, collectively—was to be understood. With that process largely completed to the point where it ‘matches’ the advance of new globalising technologies of communication and image, the pace of it slows to a crawl. For progressives and the knowledge class—and especially for an elite core of such in cultural creation and media—the full transformation of culture to a fluid, borderless, social constructionist, ungrounded continuum is unfinished business. But they are now substantially out of sync with the wider settings of the culture. So there arises a widespread resistance to the cultural push from the knowledge/ culture elite.
This is now manifest globally, first in the success of a wave of fairly crude right-wing populists—from Trump to Viktor Orbán to Putin—who combine brutal national suprematism with a conservative illiberal line on cultural matters. But it has also now generated a second wave of right-wing parties, often with fascist roots, which have created a modulated form of such illiberalism, and presented themselves as the voice of the mainstream on social and cultural matters. The ‘Brothers of Italy’, led by Giorgia Meloni, and the Sweden Democrats, who have enjoyed recent electoral success, have followed this model, presenting themselves not only as the defenders of the nation, but of the centrality of the traditional family and the culture it underpins. Notably, neither grouping has the older, more concrete right-wing beliefs of their predecessor parties, such as a hatred of gays and lesbians, or anti-Semitism (though vicious anti-Semites and others persist within their parties).
The new right conservatism is thus conformed to a world in which the 1960s has irrevocably happened but it does not consent to the endless transformation of broad social values by the elite in the knowledge/culture class. This characterises other parties that may yet win victory such as the National Rally in France. It is part of the ‘forward defence’ against this tide rolling from the cosmopolitan West by figures such as India’s Narendra Modi and China’s Xi Jinping. And in a country such as Denmark, where the cultural-right wave crested early with the success of the Danish People’s Party in 2015, the left-wing Social Democrats have snatched back power by going culturally right themselves, imposing laws against ‘ghettoisation’ by preventing large groups of migrant neighbourhoods from forming.
Thus what has happened in Australia, one can argue, is that the Albanese government has brought in a fairly soft version of this mainstream resistance against the core cultural elite, because, one suspects, many of Labor’s current leaders no longer believe in the unity of labour and progressivism they might once have entertained in their youth, and as a way of excluding the political right from regrouping around a culture war. In a way, one could link the relationship of the Albanese government’s policies to these new global forces to the Hawke–Keating government’s particular form of social market neoliberalism, in comparison to the full neoliberalism of the Thatcher and Reagan governments in the rise of the last ‘new right’ in the 1980s. It is a less brutal and transformational form of resistance to progressive or left-wing trends, to be sure. But it also cements such changes as widely consented to by the larger population.
But this leaves progressive groupings without access to a majority power, a situation they have not known since the 1960s. ‘Access to majority power’ existed even when Labor was in opposition, since progressives at least had access to and dialogue with a party that was in a position to take power. Progressives who have believed that there is a greater social groundswell of support for their values than is actually the case may find the next period to be somewhat surprising, frustrating and disappointing.
The illusion of wider support for the ‘radical progressive’ project arose from progressives’ outsized presence in, and support by, state cultural structures, and in their professional role as producers of daily consumer media. The state control began in the Gorton/Whitlam period, as it became an accepted idea that state apparatuses should play an active role in the shaping of cultural production, rather than just shooting a very small amount of money to authors or orchestras from time to time. Since that time, and uninterrupted even by Coalition governments, such institutions and agencies have expanded relentlessly. All governments have had some commitment to the support of culture for its own sake, but increasingly they have understood its role in national and urban branding, the necessary maintenance of some sort of national ‘high’ culture, as competition with other nations.
It was also understood that the managers of such resources would be progressivist in their politics, and would become more so as the progressive/knowledge class circuit expanded. The Howard government tried some pushback—the appointment of a few conservative figures in key places, including the ABC board, an inquiry into the national museum and the sacking of its director, and so on—but it never expected there would be much cultural-political shift, and it knew it did not have the political clout (and may not have had the desire) to undertake a full institutional war, abolishing and reorganising culture. Tony Abbott mooted something of this sort, but was too disorganised himself to see it through, before Malcolm Turnbull succeeded him and knocked it all on the head.
This may be another field in which a post-progressive Labor government—essentially a ‘left-Howardist’ outfit—will want and be able to do things that the right could not. It may combine this with a double whammy ‘against’ the cultural sector, by buying it off. I would be surprised if the new government did not substantially increase funding for artists in all fields, and be happy to increase funding for the small and marginal projects that Abbott and George Brandis attempted to choke off in favour of major companies. This may well be of such ‘generosity’—a real tide of money for novelists and other cultural producers, long deprived—that it will essentially silence many artistic and progressive critics of the government’s policy on mandatory detention and the like.
It will bifurcate the progressive cultural elite, by dividing those who are primarily aesthetic in their pursuits—and merely hold conventional left-liberal progressive opinions—from the smaller group, who are militantly political. Watch concern over issues such as mandatory detention fade markedly, as a relation of gratitude between the state and artists is bought. This will apply to a lesser degree to First Nations issues, especially with white solidarity. The smaller group of genuinely political artists will be further isolated. Since many of their journals and outlets now have no social movement underneath them, they are now substantially state enterprises in any case. Nor is the Albanese government likely to go to war with progressives in the creation of the new national cultural policy whose drafting process it has recently announced—though hopefully there will be institutional change to bodies such as the Australia Council, which has slouched on for decades without really being rethought.
Still, as with everything else it is doing—as per the jobs summit—the Albanese government’s approach to national cultural policy will be relentlessly capitalist-nationalist, with a social-progressive dimension. There will be substantial money for the sort of projects that can integrate easily with elements that extend the circuit of consumer capital spending—festivals above all—and also those that give a progressivist patriotic version of the national story. Dissent will not be crushed. It will simply not be funded as well as other aspects of cultural production. Much of the independent social-political movement that underpinned Australian culture—one dependent on a left nationalism—has fallen away since the 1970s and 1980s, and has been undermined by the ‘colonialist’ view of our national history.
The result is really a sort of ‘cicada’ structure of a national ‘high’ culture, in which the state exoskeleton remains, as the green body has died away, leaving a widespread psychological dependency among many cultural producers and artists. The idea of free voluntary activity has diminished, and the notion that the state must be always immanent in cultural production—that the only point of sustained voluntary effort is to be grant-ready—has become dominant. It will contribute to a new servility among many artists, on the raw political issues, as the money begins to flow. Perhaps this is too pessimistic and unfair to cultural producers as a group. An alternative possibility—all events are contingent in the last analysis—is that Albanese Labor’s rightward totalisation of the political sphere may produce a unified and forthright radical resistance on the part of culture creators.
But even if that were to occur, there might also be a more internal revolution, by a new and rising cohort of cultural creators, for whom the comprehensive progressivist ideology, embedded in multiple state and institutional cultural practices, from grant awards to tertiary teaching and media choices, will be received as a stifling orthodoxy, drawing vast amounts of life energy up into the super-ego realm of moralising and self-surveillance. To a new, young group of cultural creators, the ecstasies of gender self-definition may come to be seen as the dull desexualisation of the human body, and the denial of the originary character of sexed being.
The notions contained in the ever-expanding idea of colonialism may be seen as a disabling servility, not an act of solidarity, and a denial of identity and historical continuity. The question of class—as a deep structure of human being, and the uses to which a bourgeois/knowledge class elite put gender, race and identity questions, in order to deny its real heft—may come to the fore. A revival of the priorities expressed by movements such as existentialism—to live and make art freely, expressively and with an eye to the immediacy, brevity and contingency of life, rather than cultural creation through the endless attempt to find channels of shaming, guilt and apology without limit—may occur. That will be essentially a fight in the headquarters of culture. But if it should happen, it will have wider ramifications. What we can say, for the official high culture we now have, and its lost access to channels of discursive power, is that it won’t be easy under Albanese.
Guy Rundle’s most recent book is Between the Last Oasis and the Next Mirage: Writing on Australia (MUP).