Michael Field ( Diminishing the standing of Parliament ) has suggested that worsening divisions in Tasmania about forestry “flow from differing value systems not some monopoly of the truth”, and that arguments such as mine, expressed in a recent op-ed ( Working For The Man ) “diminish the standing of parliament”.  Robin Gray ( Gray’s vision: the LibLab Coalition; see also: Bartlett’s LibLab Accord )  has urged the formalization of the right-wing Labor-Liberal accord in Tasmania into an anti-Green political coalition or merger, akin perhaps to the federal Liberal-National coalition, but perhaps the creation of a new right-wing political party.

I agree with the assumptions and understandings which underpin what both Field and Gray are saying.  Field is right about a clash of value systems, and Gray is right that there is no difference between the Labor government and the Liberal opposition (opposition is a misnomer).

The only difference between Field and Gray is one of style, of modes of presentation of the same mindset.  Of course “differences flow from differing value systems”.  One value system wants to preserve a healthy water system, a healthy atmosphere, a healthy land, a healthy future, a sustainable and diverse economy.  Field’s value system is relativist in those matters (at best) because it is based on a world view which commodifies everything in strictly material terms, incapable of integrating the ecological critique with 19th century notions of progress in social policy.

Gray’s suggestion (at best) reflects a similar value system, albeit from an unambiguous neo-liberal capitalist perspective.  In practical policy terms there is no difference between Field and Gray on matters forestry, because both endorse whole-scale clear-felling, aerial spraying of catchments, woodchipping at double the current annual rate, forestry “regeneration” for the establishment of monocultural plantations, triazines in drinking water, dioxins in the marine environment, trashing of the Tamar Valley, trashing of farming communities in some of Australia’s most productive agricultural districts, and wholesale conversion of Tasmania’s best agricultural land into nitens, a totally useless timber for anything except chips.  This falls far short of a comprehensive list in relation to the ramifications of differing “values”, but it is an adequate summary.

Robin Gray’s suggestion of a coalition or merger of Labor-Liberal is interesting and informative on several levels.  It is in one sense an affirmation from a corporate insider and Liberal Party insider of a Labor-Liberal accord in Tasmania at an “ideological” or “philosophical” level (or the absence of any such underpinnings) and in policies across the spectrum.  It is an affirmation that the only differences are the names of the parties and the politicians.  It acknowledges that in policy and ideas and beliefs they are interchangeable. It is an affirmation from a corporate perspective (that is, Gunns’ perspective) that the parties are the same, Labor is Liberal and vice versa, and Bartlett is Hodgman. 

On another level it is indicative of a growing awareness among Tasmanian right-wing power-brokers across the corporate-political-union-bureaucratic-pseudo-NGO network that they are losing their grip on the reins of power and influence.

It is this aspect, in relation to Gray’s suggestion, which deserves more serious consideration and analysis.  It is warranted for one very important reason.  On most occasions in Australian political history since federation when major political parties have merged or amalgamated they have done so from the right, to preserve or enhance personal position, and with a view to destroy what they perceive as a strong reformist agenda, or a challenge to the prevailing power relationships in society, particularly in the distribution of wealth.
There are at least three times since federation in 1901 when this sort of political amalgamation has occurred at federal level (prompting state alignments), and it is pertinent to understand the circumstances of those political scenarios in relation to a merging of Labor-Liberal in Tasmania.

In 1909 the anti-Labor political parties in the federal parliament, the seemingly irreconcilable Free Trade Party and the Liberal-Protectionist Party, came together under Deakin in a successful attempt to destroy Fisher’s Labor government.  The Fusionist government consisted of every politician opposed to the Labor Party irrespective of their views about anything else.  Deakin wrote to his sister that “behind me sit the whole of my opponents since Federation”.

In the first decade of the 20th century the Labor Party was the party of reform, seeking change and legislative action on behalf of labour against ingrained establishment notions of class and privilege and the distribution of wealth, and was seen as a threat to the power of those in control of the means of production in all sectors of the economy.

Up until 1908 Deakin’s protectionists had relied on Labor support to maintain power, in return for concessions, but when it became apparent that Labor could gain majority electoral support in its own right, with the election of the short-lived Fisher government, trade issue “principles” and other differences with Reid’s right-wingers lost relevance.

So it came to be that the Fusionists created the Liberal Party, marrying a polyglot group of liberals, conservatives, business, property and industrial interests together that only had one thing in common which really united them all – a desire to stop Labor gaining parliamentary power.

History repeats itself, but never exactly, so it is not too difficult to discern the similarities between 1909 and Robin Gray’s suggestion for Tasmania here and now.  In fact, there is much, much less to differentiate Tasmania’s Labor-Liberal accord now than there was between Deakin’s protectionists and Reid’s free-traders in 1909.  The motive for such a “fusion” is essentially the same – to preserve the status quo, to stop a socially progressive reformist agenda, and to stop it in the interests of capital and corporate power.

The second occasion of party amalgamation occurred in the aftermath of the failure of the first conscription referendum in 1916, designed to draft troops for the trenches of the Western Front in World War I rather than rely on volunteers, a proposal backed by the Liberal Party and by the right wing of the Labor government, including Billy Hughes the Prime Minister.  Hughes, faced by a revolt of anti-conscriptionist Labor MPs, joined with the Liberals to form a new political party (Nationalist Party) in order to keep the prime-ministerial reins of power.  In this new arrangement five ex-Labor politicians shared cabinet portfolios with six Liberals, and Hughes retained his position as Prime Minister until 1923, but the Labor Party did not regain government until the worst possible time to hold office, in 1929.

The lesson of this amalgamation was the first strong indication of the convergence of (right wing) Labor with the increasingly non-liberal Liberals on one key policy issue which enabled a long-standing workable merger.  It was a merger, for example, which enabled Billy Hughes to be re-elected to federal parliament until his death in 1952, aged 88.  (Hughes sat in the House of Representatives for 50 years, from its foundation in 1901 until 1952) 

Hughes’ 1917 merger is close to the sort of arrangement Robin Gray is suggesting for Tasmania, a merger of the right across the political spectrum in an attempt to marginalize the left.  The main difference is that in 1917 the left was marginalized by a Labor split. However, just as with the 1909 Fusion, the relationships between Hughes and his new party colleagues were much more difficult than any differences between Bartlett and Hodgman in 2009, which are essentially cosmetic.

The third merger took place in 1932, at the height of the Depression, and again involved a Labor split to weaken or destroy the left, with the Labor right, led by Joseph Lyons (former Labor premier of Tasmania), joining with the anti-Labor parties to form the United Australia Party, with Lyons as leader and Prime Minister from 1932 to 1939.

There is an important element of difference between these amalgamations and Gray’s suggestion for Tasmania. 

They all entailed the destruction of Labor as a political force. This is no longer necessary because since the 1960s the ALP gradually converted to the right-wing neo-liberal agenda of its opponents, especially in the period of the Hawke-Keating administrations, without any dissenting voices from within its own ranks.  Gradually the ALP jettisoned its traditional commitment to a social reform agenda (except in rhetoric, because this helps to persuade the rusted-on voters to keep the faith, at least for old-times sake).

The two main parties have gradually converged on every main area of policy across the spectrum, and since the 1990s have rarely bothered to campaign on strong policy differences (Howard’s industrial relations policy of 2007 was an exception, at least in public perception), so that now, as Robin Gray says, there is nothing to differentiate them except the artificial battle for personal power, based around leadership perceptions. 

In the first half of the 20th century there was always a genuine and strong commitment within Labor on matters of equity and social justice, a commitment which survived the splits of 1917 and the 1930s into the post-war years (or endured as a consequence), and which lingered against the trend of neo-liberal transformation for some time in the hearts and minds of some Labor politicians after the 1970s (best exemplified, in my view, by Bill Hayden, and his hard fight to implement an equitable national health scheme), but then weakened and has since died.

That is the political context in Tasmania (and elsewhere in Australia, as exemplified by the Greens’ success in the single-member seat of Fremantle – a Labor stronghold since 1924) of Robin Gray’s call for a joining of the Labor-Liberal accord in a more formal arrangement, and it is a call to push all social-environmental-economic considerations away in the interests of one predominant driver in the way our land, water and air are used and abused, and the one predominant driver in the way huge amounts of public funds are misdirected, misused and wasted. 

This is no way for Tasmania to move into the future, whether urged by Robin Gray or Michael Field.  This is the way to create the next exodus of our youth, large segments of our workforce and those who would seek something better for their families.

It is not a merger of Labor-Liberal that holds the promise for a better Tasmania.  It is their transformation or their replacement that is required.

We are living in a time when the ecological and the social are two faces of the same dilemma, and to deny that is to merely strengthen the system of power which has no other objective than to maintain the status quo of its privileges, the inequitable distribution of wealth, social division and a trap of rust-belt decline.

Herve Kempf, a senior journalist with Le Monde, France’s most influential daily newspaper, wrote this in 2007 in relation to the important issues we need to come to grips with in Tasmania if we are to restore proper standards of governance, proper political representation of people, and proper democratic processes as the basis of our future policy development:

“The compromise with free-market fundamentalism has led the left to so totally adopt the values of free-market liberalism that it no longer dares – except in the most cautious terms – to deplore social inequality.  On top of that the left displays an almost cartoonish refusal to engross itself in environmental issues.  The left remains pickled in the idea of progress as it was conceived in the 19th century… and intones the chant of economic growth without the slightest trace of critical thinking.  Moreover “social capitalism” rather than “social democracy” is the more apposite term.  Nevertheless, can the challenges of the 21st century be addressed by the currents of tradition other than the ones which identified inequality as its primary motive for revolt?  This hiatus is at the heart of political life.  The left will be reborn by uniting the causes of inequality and the environment…”

Robin Gray’s call should serve as a question to Tasmanians to ask what Labor-Liberal means in policy terms, and in the way in which public funds should be distributed in the public interest.

Gray’s call should also serve as a question about the purposes of parliamentary processes in Tasmania under a Labor-Liberal accord, given that under the current administration one of those purposes is a tactical one which has systematically abused and undermined democratic conventions for personal and partisan self interest.  This is not even worth a debate.  It is a truism. 

It is time for all Tasmanians who believe our collective future should hold something better than a progressively weakened democracy, and a political party system that cannot be trusted to respect, value and protect the fundamental social needs of its citizens, to work to ensure that the 2010 election prevents these circumstances being allowed to continue.

Otherwise, as has happened so often in Tasmania’s past, Tasmania will be a good place to leave, and a good place to stay away from.

Peter Henning


Last week two of Tasmania’s former premiers both decided, almost simultaneously, to enter the public debate about Tasmania’s future in relation to the issue of forestry policy.