"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it,” said Julia Gillard this week, as she invited her Labor colleagues to make next month’s conference a “noisy” one. Actually, it was John Cage, the American avant-garde composer who used those precise words, but in may as well have been our Prime Minister.
John Cage’s most noteworthy contribution to contemporary culture was a piece entitled 4’33”. Composed in three parts, it always features numerous diverse instruments, but it is famous because not a note is actually played during the performance. Instead, the audience get to listen to whatever noises (rustling of papers, someone coughing, a mobile phone going off etc) that haphazardly occur over that period of time. One would struggle to think of a more apt metaphor for the “robust debates… full of energy and ideas” that Julia imagines the Labor conference will usher forth.
To put it bluntly, this government and this Prime Minister are not only devoid of original ideas to put to the country, but are only dimly aware of what the real issues confronting us are. When a political party’s one big achievement is to introduce a policy that they had no mandate for, and which by their own admission can be nothing more than a hopelessly tokenistic gesture aimed at getting other nation’s to “join in” combatting a “belief”, then the avant-garde claim that we live in a world of surrealist absurdism starts to come uncomfortably close to being proven true.
Confusing “loving an argument” and “making a noise” with what she doesn’t mention – coming up with fresh and unconventional ideas – the PM poses a series of questions that come with their own in-built set-piece answers. “As Australia becomes one of the richest countries in the world, how can we ensure a fair share for all?” she asks. And “how can we ensure no one is left behind by accident of birth or circumstance? How can we combine prosperity with stewardship of the environment?”
Clearly missing from these carefully scripted, meticulously “spun” questions are the far more fundamental ones. Such as “how do we actually generate the wealth to pay for all the things we want?” And “how do we avoid the debt crises faced by the rest of the West when we keep going further and further into debt ourselves?”
Already, the Gillard/Swan/Rudd team have destroyed the surplus that protected us first time around, have bloated the bureaucracy, have imposed crippling restraints upon productivity, and have committed the country to massively expensive and wasteful projects such as the NBN. Will any brave soul in the conference actually put up their hand and say “how do we increase the size of our nation’s purse?” No, of course not. It is a given in Labor circles that wealth generates itself. It’s the magic Chinese pudding - Norman Lindsey’s Dim Sum - and everybody can gorge themselves on as much of it as they want.
Actually, I’m being extremely unfair. Julia does have an economic plan. It’s called flogging uranium to the Indians. “One of our nearest neighbours is India, long a close partner. The world's biggest democracy. Growing at 8 per cent a year. Yet despite the links of language, heritage and democratic values, in one important regard we treat India differently,” she informed the true believers, neatly popping India into the “good guys” basket, with a bit of “white man’s guilt” thrown in, in order to justify this obviously pragmatic decision. Forget sound economic arguments, such as “we need the dosh.” The reason for selling uranium to the Indians is now, apparently, to prove we’re not racist bastards. Oh, OK. That’s fine, then.
And the other big issue designed to generate heated and passionate debate? Why, (yawn) gay marriage of course! “My position flows from my strong conviction that the institution of marriage has come to have a particular meaning and standing in our culture and nation,” says the unmarried, living “in sin” Julia Gillard. Really? Or might it just be a contrived stance that allows her to look tough on an issue the polls are very clear on as others “make some noise” on the conference floor?
“Labor’s National Conference is our highest decision-making forum and Australia’s largest political gathering. National Conference has always played an important role in defining the future direction of our Party and our nation,” boasts the conference website.
“A party able to hold robust debates is a party that's full of energy and ideas,” claims Gillard, but the evidence is not there to support such a worthy claim. There will be no debate on the success or failure of Fair Work Australia, the mob who haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory over the Craig Thomson shenanigans and have yet to prove themselves in the Qantas showdown. There will be no debate on the affordability of the ever-expanding health services, or education. Small business won’t get a guernsey. The size of government and the need to reduce it won’t get a look in, either. And then there’s the taboo areas of immigration, reforming aboriginal welfare, building new dams, deterring asylum seekers, energy resourcing and pricing and so on.
None of these issues – all of which require serious, considered debate and analysis - are on Julia’s mind at the moment. But there is one issue that keeps her awake at night. Presumably, this will be the subject of the longed-for noisy, robust and passionate debate.
“The second issue is party reform. I want a Labor Party that is growing - with an extra 8000 members as a first step,” Julia tells us.
Or, as John Cage saw it: “The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all.”