BOOK REVIEW: A Letter to Generation Next

Kim Carr, A Letter to Generation Next: Why Labor, Melbourne University Press, 2013

Australian Senator Kim Carr’s A Letter to Generation Next: Why Labor is a rare addition the shallow pool of books encouraging young Australians to be more involved in politics. Carr – a federal Senator for Victoria since 1993 – clearly sees much more of a role for government in his appeal for the next generation to join the Australian Labor Party’s cause.

The role of government, Carr recalls in George Black’s words from the New South Wales Chamber in 1891, is to “make and unmake social conditions.” The barometer of progress within these pages is not individual enterprise but the state – “intervening”, “meddling”, “agitating” and challenging “the entrenched conservatism in Australian politics.”

Carr’s appetite for the redistribution of wealth is undisguised, alongside a distrust of capitalism and a desire to pummel the status quo. Driving these views is a deep attachment to social democratic instincts that; are interventionist and not utopian; respects the power of science and technology (to harness for social and economic innovation); rejects nostalgia and scaremongering; and challenges privilege and inequality.

Appealing to young Australians to be more involved in the political process is commendable. But the interventionist recruitment theme does little to attract younger Australians who see sense in the cultural maintenance of Australia’s institutions, or view politics as more than simply a large exercise in redistribution.

Additionally, for an instinctively liberal younger generation, doused by consumer and career options, a run at politics is unlikely on the cards. So when Carr writes that “Australia needs more agitators meddling and interfering with the status quo,” and then asks, “Are you up for the job?” many young Aussie hands are likely to stay down.

A fundamental question to ask is why the loathing of the status quo? As a western liberal democracy, Australia has clearly prospered over its relatively short history. There is certainly much to reflect sensibly and proudly upon in Australia – from a thriving Westminster system and rule of law to an opportunity society built on free enterprise.

This interpretation of Australian history, however, is absent. “As my own political consciousness grew,” Carr writes, “I came to recognise that from its beginnings Australia has been an unfair country.” Citing the plight of women, migrant families and Aboriginals, Carr’s appeal of using state tools to right perceived past wrongs will no doubt attract many young Australians to a political cause or two. But Carr fails to acknowledge Australia’s global lead in women’s electoral rights, the economic opportunities that continue to drive immigration and the overall decent intentions that governed Aboriginal affairs.

Reading on, there are some peculiar observations about world issues. For example, the human element of Greece’s debt crisis was not caused by profligacy but by a lack of “jobs, the public services, and… sense of security.” Margaret Thatcher is viewed as a contemptible figure whose achievements were high unemployment, welfare reductions and laying “the foundations for the contemporary global economic crisis and an economy that deified speculation and greed.” Carr is unmoved by current UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempts to rebuild Britain’s public finances after a decade of heavy spending and high debt. Based on a trip to the UK in 2012, Carr assesses Cameron’s Big Society program as “a massive fraud.”

Back on home soil, the legitimacy of Carr’s appeal for the Labor team is poorly timed – his party’s instability has only seen him gain, lose and then re-gain the innovation and science portfolio prior to the 2013 Australian Federal Election. Regardless, the insight Carr brings to technology is genuinely interesting, and underlines the tech-heavy plateau that will form part of Australia’s future.

However, the federal human services portfolio, which Carr led from March 2012 to April 2013, is used to highlight a key benchmark for the progressive side of politics – more people on welfare – and the callousness of “those whose mantra is for government to step aside and citizens to look away.”

The Australian Liberal Party’s contribution to welfare reform is therefore absent. For example, Carr writes that, “Welfare fraud is actually not that common,” and then fails to acknowledge the pivotal contribution of the 1996 Howard government. As Paul Sheehan notes in Among the Barbarians, “Within a year of Labor losing office, the new [John Howard-led] government began to clamp down on welfare abuse, immigration abuse and lax spending, and quickly extracted savings of more than one billion dollars a year (italics mine).”

But for Carr, the conservative side of politics will continue to remain difficult and irreconcilable, especially over two areas of future economic terrain – industrial relations and equality. “Conservatives still trade in the politics of ignorance and fear,” writes Carr, “…they now want to take away the gains ordinary Australians have made over decades of hard work, revoke long-established rights, and restrict opportunities to a favoured few.”

A young Australian today is continually reminded there is little difference between the major parties. Why Labor, however, stands as a clear example of the underlying and ongoing philosophical chasm between the two major sides of Australian politics. Opposing views on the role of the state and the individual – or contrasting views on Australia’s past – will continue to enliven political debate into the future. For generation next, the battlelines are clear.

Published at Menzies House

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