There is something of an ending coming upon the ALP. It is the end of a long conversation, a discourse that has become more about the value of the ongoingness of the conversation than anything really substantive. The long con that the ALP began when Hayden replaced Whitlam as leader in 1977, and the party redeployed its politics in the centre, is in its final movements.
When Simon Crean forced the recent failed confrontation he was just trying to ensure that the chitchat had a chance to keep going for a little bit longer. But, really, everyone is so over the conversation that the prospect of another stoush excited only bookmakers and the commentariat.
Simon Crean was the last of the Hawke-Keating cabinet ministers and his final play marks the close of the third act. It might be a conclusion, but it marks the final occupation of the political centre, a resting position based on populism, media cycles and internecine bargaining. There is nothing to see here, nothing to invest in, and nothing that might provoke acts of faith. Gillard hasn’t been a bad PM, quite the contrary, but her party are no longer able sustain a vision in which they are not central.
It’s been a long time coming, this final death of the Hawke-Keating government. The fleshy, exciting bits were over almost before it began: the dollar floated, financial deregulation, the Accord, privatisation, ending protectionism, FBT and CGT. These were in place pretty much by 1985 and the gig of government since has mainly involved not enabling the big end of town to exploit everyone else while they revelled in their new-found economic freedoms.
As the Commonwealth government legislated away its control of the economic levers (bar tax) the Federal ALP found itself minding the shop. It wasn’t visionary and it wasn’t a light on the hill. The electorate, sensibly I suppose, chose a manager for managerialism and Howard served as Prime Minister for eleven long years. Rudd was simply a new manager, sunnier and less austere than Howard. After Howard was so roundly beaten Rudd seemed like best kind of high school principal and that there might be a new dialogue between the governing and the governed. Maybe a new story had started.
Not anything revolutionary mind, just some optimism and an openness that suggested care. The Apology, the 20/20 conference, the Kyoto Protocol, Work Fair: all of these things built some faith that the Federal ALP was not simply a navel gazing bunch of racketeers focused on their own primacy, such as the NSW ALP became, and was interested in Australian futures.
It didn’t go that way sadly, partly because the state apparatuses were (are) just a bunch of rotten boroughs but mostly because the Federal ALP didn’t trust the electorate to respect what the Rudd government did, or the reasons it did what it did. The removal of Rudd then exactly validated the electorate’s lack of trust. The leadership shenanigans since have had all the sincerity of a stalker: I’m doing all of this for you. It doesn’t make you feel loved, only ready for this to be over.