The emptiness of reform rhetoric in Australian politics


'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 of Corbyn as British PM is utterly horrific,' writes Kelly's colleague Greg Sheridan. 'It is a sign of the widespread derangement in Western politics today. This derangement is now a serious problem. It is having truly perverse and increasingly dangerous consequences.'

Yet, while the new association of 'reform' with the application of market principles coincided with (and depended on) the disintegration of communism, the rhetorical style of contemporary reformers bears a remarkable resemblance to the lexicon of the Eastern Bloc.

In the Guardian, Liam Hogan compares the National Reform Summit to the staged conferences of the Soviet era, full of apparatchiks mouthing a bureaucratic verbiage in which they no longer believe. That resemblance is significant: as Don Watson has argued, the weasel words of contemporary managerialism echo the opaque pronunciations of Stalinism because in both cases what is said must obscure what is meant.

The economic rationalism of the eighties was never popular outside the political class. But back then its proponents were confident, their ideas new and unfamiliar.

Today Australians are, as Hogan says, both familiar with, and entirely cynical about, 'our own apparat's language of reform', to the extent where they provide their own translations of its key terms: '"Productivity" is the kind of buzzword a manager throws about when she or he merely wants employees to work a little bit harder, "vision" a familiar joke involving butchers' paper and whiteboard markers, "flexibility" the curse that has people rushing to check their timesheets and casual contracts, "enhancing efficiency" a phrase that looks forward to nothing but more tedious micro-management.'

That's why so much 'reform' talk has such coercive undertones, since it's predicated on getting the public to accept policies that they manifestly don't want. For instance, Kelly lauds his National Reform Summit as stiffening the resolve of politicians so that they can stare down their recalcitrant electorates. In an echo of Sheridan, he complains that 'the political system is failing' and instead, he advocates an almost corporatist strategy, in which big business, union leaders and other stakeholders combine to render market policies inevitable.

But the strange evolution of today's political vocabulary might also provide the basis for a progressive response to the reform push. For, of course, 'democracy' is another word that's undergone consistent redefinition, so that today it's used mostly to refer to the provision of elections for parliamentary representatives committed to an increasingly narrow consensus. Yet, as Raymond Williams reminds us, 'representative democracy' was coined explicitly to supplant an older and more radical sense of the word, one that emphasised popular control rather than consultation.

Progressives should not simply defend the status quo against the market reformers. All manner of things in Australia need urgent change. But an insistence on participatory democracy as a precondition of reform would radically alter the terms of debate.

The National Reform Summit invited participants from across the political class, implicitly urging them to come together on behalf of the rest of the country. But what would a debate that began with those who were excluded look like? What priorities for change would come from a discussion of the managed rather than their managers? What kind of nation might they want to see?

By asking those kind of questions we might be able to reclaim the terminology, so that a call for reform no longer sounded like a barely-veiled threat.

Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, economics, Australian politics, reform



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Existing comments

Well said, Jeff.
ErikH | 08 September 2015

Reading Jeff Sparrow's excellent piece on reform rhetoric reminded me of what a great rhetorician, British PM Harold Macmillan said of the British Liberals platform in 1961. 'As usual the Liberals offer a mixture of sound and original ideas. (Well that got my attention at the time, then he went on to say.) 'Unfortunately none of the sound ideas is original and none of the original ideas is sound.' Something similar could be said of the National Reform Summit, except maybe to say that if there were any original ideas they were cleverly disguised.
Uncle Pat | 08 September 2015

Thank you and well said. Reform and Productivity are just two words used by opportunists to shrill scream their epithets. People who don't like economics perhaps do not know the definition of Productivity.
Roy Fanthome | 08 September 2015

Jeff, the reason national social democratic reform was replaced with market driven reform is primarily due to the global integration of the world economy. Now you have nations competing to offer cheaper labour and lower taxes to transnational corporations and the unions and their parliamentary representatives working with employers to drive down wages and conditions. It's been like that since the late 70s / early 80s.
mark webb | 11 September 2015


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