The myth of the ‘sensible centre’

Kerryn Phelps promised to represent the 'sensible centre'

In the wake of the Wentworth byelection and the debate about its meaning a lot of commentary has focused on the desire for a return to the “sensible centre”.

Guardian columnist Katharine Murphy said the result is a “repudiation of the party's lurch to the right, and the hollowing out of the sensible centre”.

The winner, high profile independent Kerryn Phelps, explicitly campaigned on a promise to represent the “sensible centre”.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott disingenuously advocated for that positioning, despite his association with the hard-right faction in the Liberal Party.

The recent Liberal leadership spill reveals the hard-right is having an impact. But the Wentworth result was a blow to this faction.

Assuming the Coalition loses the next federal election (and especially if Abbott or Peter Dutton lose their seats), this would further undercut the hard right’s momentum.

However, only a fool would suggest that this would lead to their demise.

Labor Party bears heavy responsibility for the rightward drift of the Coalition.

This can be seen in any number of conservative attacks made during the prime ministership of John Howard that Labor in government simply accepted and reinforced.

Take the GST, which is a tax on the poor. Prior to 1998 when Howard campaigned for a GST, Labor falsely claimed that the only way to stop it was to vote for Labor. When asked if it would axe the GST if it won office, Labor replied that you “can’t unscramble an egg”.

Under pressure Labor did change tune, promising to “roll back” the GST. But in government there was no such talk, not even to remove the GST on tampons.

In 2007, then-Labor leader Kevin Rudd campaigned to “rip up” Work Choices. In government, he failed to do that, instead offering Work Choices Lite in the form of the Fair Work Act. This law actually offered fewer protections for workers than Howard’s Workplace Relations Act of 1996.

Labor also refused point blank to end the draconian Northern Territory Intervention in Aboriginal communities, instead disingenuously changing its name to “Stronger Futures”.

Anyone worried about the epidemic of Aboriginal children being removed from their families or the expansion of cashless welfare cards, should take note of Labor’s failure to act on these human rights questions when it had the chance.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of refugee rights — a defining issue of politics in Australia.

From sporadic, mild opposition during the Howard years, Labor in government quickly adopted the same anti-refugee policies. This gave it no answer to Abbott’s 2013 “Stop the Boats” campaign.

Even today, Labor is refusing to end its support for boat turnbacks and offshore detention.

If Labor wins the next federal election, there is no reason to believe it will do anything to fundamentally upset the neoliberal course that has had bipartisan support for more than 35 years.

It follows then that the only way to reign in the hard right is to campaign for and build a genuine left-wing force, not advocate for a mythical “sensible centre”.

Queensland Greens candidate Max Chandler-Mather makes a similar point, arguing that the Greens need to embrace a “radical, transformative platform” to “break the consensus”.

Chandler-Mather wants the Greens to champion widespread public ownership, the redistribution of wealth and the democratisation of public institutions, as well support the right to strike.

The counter argument, put by the establishment media including the Sydney Morning Herald, is that politics “remains the art of the possible”.

“Nothing is possible without compromise,” an April SMH editorial said, adding, we “abandon moderation, the centre, and compromise at our peril”.

The problem with this argument is twofold.

First, the “centre” is meaningless when choices have to be made. Where is the centre between supporting and opposing the Adani mega coalmine? What is a “moderate” position on abortion rights? What “compromise” can be made between supporting and opposing the right to strike?

Secondly, today we live in a world in crisis, which is increasingly polarised between the haves and have-nots.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has sounded the alarm about the need for urgent and radical action on climate lest those with the least to do with creating the problem are wiped out.

A proud fascist has just been elected in Brazil, joining the ranks of other right-wing leaders including Donald Trump in the United States and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Despite their populist demagoguery they rule for elite, not the masses.

Only a resolute and uncompromising left wing that champions human rights and the environment over profiteering at all costs can hope to find lasting solutions.

There is absolutely nothing “sensible” about being in the centre. Today’s world demands we take sides.

[Alex Bainbridge is a national co-convenor of Socialist Alliance.]