In a recent comment on another thread, I remarked on the temptation for renovatory currents within the left, which began with the well-intentioned aim of renewing and modernising the left project through internal critique, to over-egg the critique to the point where it becomes a relentlessly negative, misleading and demoralising caricature of what the left is about, best summed up in the apocryphal article title “Why the left is always already wrong about everything”.
In the light of his opinion piece in today’s GG, I must take a deep breath and declare that David Burchell, a former close political associate of mine, former editor of Australian Left Review, and for over two decades one of Australia’s leading renovatory left intellectuals, has succumbed to this temptation.
The article complements Kevin Rudd and the Federal ALP on their political astuteness in not allowing themselves to be wedged by Howard on issues such as the treatment of Dr. Mohammed Haneef where there is a mismatch between left and liberal opinion (including that of many ALP members and allies) and the responses of the suburban voters who decide election outcomes. This is not an unreasonable position for a pro-Labor pundit to argue; Robert Manne puts a similar view in the current issue of The Monthly. The differences between the ex-communist Burchell in the GG and the anti-communist Manne in The Monthly are that Manne (a) takes some care to fairly and courteously characterise the positions of those on the left who have been critical of the government and of Rudd’s realpolitik and (b) acknowledges that there are legitimate grounds for concern about the government’s actions on the issues in question. David Burchell’s column, by contrast, repeatedly trivialises left-liberal positions on those issues and complacently denigrates those who hold such views.
For example, in relation to the appalling treatment of Dr. Haneef, Burchell praises Rudd & Co. because:
they refused to adopt Mohamed Haneef as a figure of pity and solicitation after the London and Glasgow attacks
This is the sort of demagogic misrepresentation of the issues raised by the Haneef case – such as due process, rule of law, accountability of the government and the security agencies, and concern that long-standing liberties not be blithely cast aside in the quest for security – and implicit smear of those (like myself) concerned about those issues that one would expect from an Akerman or an Albrechtsen rather than a leading social democratic intellectual like Burchell.
His take on Labor’s 2004 Tasmanian forests policy is a similarly lazy rehash of stuff we’ve come to expect from the Murdoch press:
Mark Latham’s ill-conceived adventures in schooling policy and the Tasmanian forests resonated much better among Labor faithful than they did among the electorate more broadly.
As well as lazy, this line on the Tasmanian forests issue is simply wrong, as I have explained at length in previous posts and in the Australian Journal of Political Science. I await David Burchell’s (or anybody’s) scholarly and peer-reviewed response to my article from last November’s AJPS.
It is a matter for legitimate debate as to whether Rudd’s stances on potentially wedgeable issues are motivated by electoral realpolitik or are a reflection of a deep-seated authoritarian conservative streak (as argued by some LP posters and by Tim Colebatch on another topic). This seems not to have occurred to David Burchell. But even if one accepts – for the reasons outlined in Manne’s second-last paragraph – that Labor’s strategy must recognise that a decisive section of the electorate does not like or understand policies on national security, indigenous affairs, refugees, etc., which follow from basic tenets of liberal democracy, accountable government, non-discrimination, etc., one can still recognise that this is not a desirable state of affairs, and that one legitimate response to this problem by liberals and the democratic left is to attempt to turn around public opinion on these issues. At the very least, we have the right to do so without gratuitous denigration and mischaracterisation by an “internal critic of the left” who gives no indication of how he thinks we should respond to the problem other than the “popular correctness” of giving the punters what they want regardless of the questions of principle involved.
[P.S. The post title is inspired by an Australian Left Review front cover which attracted its fair share of discussion by ALR readers.]