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The emptiness of reform rhetoric in Australian politics

  • 08 September 2015

'This week Australia began to rekindle its memory — it tried to rediscover the art of reform that in the past generation helped to drive high living standards and made Australia the envy among smart nations.'

That's Paul Kelly, writing about the National Reform Summit, a conference hosted by the Australian, the Financial Review and the consulting firm KPMG, and attended by a pretty good cross section of the political class.

Yet the urgency with which Australian pundits demand 'reform' corresponds with a peculiar opacity about what the term actually means. As Ben Eltham says, 'there's no emptier word in contemporary politics than "reform"'.

That's not a coincidence.

Raymond Williams says that when 'reform' came into the English language in the fourteenth century, it simultaneously implied the restoration of a former state and the making of something new, since 'the idea of changing something for the better was deeply bound up with the idea of restoring an earlier and less corrupted condition'.

Later, the term began to imply political radicalism, with a 'reformer' someone who demanded parliamentary representation.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, 'reform' became a key term within the socialist movement, with the coinage of 'reformist' to distinguish those who fought merely for the palliation of capitalist oppression from those who sought the system's overthrow. In her 1900 pamphlet Reform or Revolution?, Rosa Luxemburg anticipated the later split between social democracy and communism, with her excoriation of the 'revisionist' Eduard Bernstein for concentrating solely on union struggles, electoral advances and the like.

But that twentieth century usage — the reformer as Fabian, toiling patiently to improve the workers' lot — has largely vanished, probably since, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Western communist parties, the implicit juxtaposition with 'revolution' no longer seemed meaningful.

Even more importantly, the victory of the West emboldened free market thinkers within the ranks of social democracy, so that, from the mid 1980s, 'reform' became a neoliberal mantra: a catchcry of those dedicated to rolling back public ownership, trade unionism, tariffs and most of the other measures specifically associated with those who were previously called 'reformers'.

You can see the distinction very clearly in the reaction of Kelly's colleague, Greg Sheridan, to the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn winning the leadership of the British Labour Party. Corbyn's a 'reformer' — but in the old, social democratic sense of the word. So what does Sheridan think of Corbyn's 'reform agenda'?

'The prospect