Sacha Blumen writes:
Helen Razer launched a storm with her piece in Crikey last Friday slamming the Australian ‘Left’. To Helen, it has had a misdirected focus on symbols of cultural identity rather than the substantive issues of material conditions and social and economic class. She drove home the point:
Because the “Left”, such as it is, is not able to think about systems; about social and economic class. It has not only borrowed the cheesy stupidity of Andrew Bolt; it has borrowed the idea of his “individual” as well.
The “Left” now hungers for symbols of cultural identity and spurns the idea of class. Or, indeed, of material conditions.
Nowhere, for mine, is this more starkly drawn than in plaintive chalk on sidewalks as queer activism gives up its campaign for mental health reform and supplants it with the symbolic fight for an equality that already exists in law. Nowhere was this in sharper contrast than on the day of Gillard’s misogyny speech wherein many single parents (chiefly women) were consigned to Newstart.
As so often, Helen has articulated a view whose clarity cuts through the messiness of day-to-day culture and politics.
Her piece struck a chord with me, particularly in relation to inner-Sydney politics over the last 13 years. (I moved from Brisbane in 2000 to inner-Sydney.) While Helen’s piece was about national cultural politics, I see it also played out in inner-Sydney cultural and electoral politics.
I’ve variously been an observer, active participant, and critic of inner-Sydney community, electoral, and ALP politics. It’s often struck me that ‘progressive’ politics in inner Sydney has been somewhat misdirected – in the way Helen wrote.
It would be expected the ‘Left’ and progressive side of politics would display interest in material conditions – e.g. housing that isn’t too expensive, being able to access health services, personal safety, educational opportunities, and business investment leading to jobs.
However, with some exceptions, the focus of progressive politics in inner Sydney often seems misdirected.
The clearest recent example of this was the Taylor Square rainbow crossing campaign and #DIYRainbowCrossing movement. What had been a hamfisted removal by the NSW Government of the temporary rainbow crossing was somehow turned into a fight for civil rights by local politicians, Mardi Gras, and community members who would think of themselves as ‘progressive’.
Now, while there’s nothing wrong with people drawing rainbows on footpaths, it doesn’t do much to improve the material experience of lgbti people. Nor does it do much for civil rights, as glbti people in NSW have almost precisely the same legal rights as everyone else.
While people were chalking rainbows on footpaths, a NSW Parliamentary Inquiry recommended reforms to provocation laws that will have a material impact on lgbti people in time. This recommendation would have been the outcome of the efforts of many, especially the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby. A material outcome.
This isn’t to say that symbols aren’t important. But material-related issues are as well.
The somewhat odd focus of progressive politics in inner Sydney was displayed in the major campaign issues in the October 2012 by-election for the State seat of Sydney (triggered by Clover Moore’s resignation from Parliament).
While election campaigns always have their own logic, it may be instructive to examine them. The major issues in that by-election appeared to be:
- anger at the State Coalition Government supposedly forcing Clover out of Parliament (when in fact they had made her to choose whether to be Lord Mayor or an MP)
- local parents wanting a new Government high school in the inner city – when there was an underutilised high school close by in Alexandria
- whether the electorate would benefit from having a Government MP or an Independent MP who would ‘stand up for locals like Clover did’, and
- marriage equality.
In addition, there were promises of new government subsidies to help small businesses navigate the online world and changes to Oxford St in Darlinghurst to improve the retail disaster that it is. Banning goat racing also made an appearance.
Now while each of these things may or may not be worthwhile (e.g. the new high school felt like pandering to a noisy local parents’ campaign who wanted convenience, and the banning goat racing had featured in Clover’s recent Parliamentary work), there seemed little focus on things that were, on reflection, probably more important.
A selection of materially important issues in inner-Sydney – to me – include addressing the generally high cost of housing, assisting people experiencing homelessness, and enhancing economic activity (hence jobs). A major aspect of the last issue has been to improve transport infrastructure (as well as encouraging private sector investment).
Did these things make an appearance in the by-election campaign? Not really – except in the promises by the Independent candidate to improve Oxford St – which he would have had little chance of implementing.
The ongoing lack of focus on the high cost of housing in inner Sydney is another failure of progressive politics. To date, most of the focus has been on ensuring there is ‘affordable housing’ in the area – i.e. categories of housing with cheaper rents. There has been little focus on attempting to impact the general (average) costs of housing.
Local elected officials have seemingly been more concerned with representing NIMBYs against high-density developments and sending messages that the State Government is requiring a certain level of development than in introducing policies that might impact general housing costs (to the extent that is possible). As part of this, the message from local progressive officials has been that population increases can substantially occur in currently non-residential areas. There would be a limited impact on residential amenity.
To my knowledge, the only person in electoral politics recently bringing up high housing costs was Cassandra Wilkinson – when she was a preselection candidate for Labor Lord Mayoral candidate for the City of Sydney last year. Fortunately, the issue is gaining more prominence in progressive circles with the McKell Institute publishing a report on the issue in 2012. It’s telling that one of the report’s priority areas was: A more intelligent civic dialogue about the need for housing – ending NIMBYism’s threat to our children’s futures. A breath of reality.
In addition, I have found it particularly astonishing that there doesn’t seem to be a larger focus on addressing acute disadvantage in inner Sydney. There are many disadvantaged people in the area as well as pockets of disadvantage – in particular in Woolloomooloo, Millers Point, and Surry Hills. While there are the complexities associated with disadvantage found anywhere, local politics seems more focussed on issues of amenity – e.g. footpath gardens and parks.
Perhaps this focus away from material things reflects the interests of the generally higher-income residents of inner Sydney. Maybe this is the post-material world. Helen Razer wrote about how the ‘Left’ has lost itself with a focus on individualism and symbols. Maybe this can be seen in part in inner Sydney – in which there seems a greater focus on symbols, amenity and convenience than the more important material conditions.