Jewell of Anstey

November 15, 2010, 11:28 am
Filed under: Brunswick, politics

Last Sunday I went to church.

I went to the official opening of the renovated Uniting Church on Sydney Road. Given that I am not a member of the Uniting Church, I know a remarkable number of people in that congregation.

Part of my Irish-Catholic inheritance is a deep distrust of Protestantism.  I am always intrigued to find how deeply these ancient antipathies run in Australia among people who think they left their religiosity at grandma’s. The advent of multiculturalism papered over the historical differences between the various tribes of the British Isles. But under the surface of the homogenising label ‘Anglo’, cultural differences persist.

I feel diffident about campaigns against gambling and drinking, because I remember that wowserism was historically a way to marginalise the Irish.  I find campaigns that purport to support state schooling can still sometimes be more anti-catholic than egalitarian.

Religion issues have been much discussed in recent months.  There have been objections to religious instruction in schools. Outcry over school chaplains. Major challenge to the traditional institution of marriage. Sneering responses to the canonisation of St Mary KcKillop. A lot of commentators have confidently assumed that to be progressive is to be against religion.

But the people I know who attend the Brunswick Uniting Church are the salt of the earth.  I come across them organising school fetes, sitting on committees of management, working with asylum seekers. They contribute. I was pleased to join them in celebrating the great work they have done restoring this historic building to create a new centre to support their worship, and their community work.

This progressive congregation prays for women’s rights, global equity and the environment. They sing 21st century hymns with thoroughly modern lyrics displayed on a large computer screen. But they still make admirably traditional morning tea cakes.

I would have liked to join in the singing, but I got an attack of sentimentality that caught my throat.


Progressive v left wing
November 9, 2010, 1:09 am
Filed under: Brunswick, politics

I heard a rumour that some people walked out of a recent CPA reunion when a speaker described The Greens as the ‘left wing of the Labor party’.

I am wondering if it is time we distinguished between progressive and left-wing.

There is no doubt The Greens are loudly and proudly progressive on a range of social issues. The most obvious recent one is same sex marriage.  The Greens have made no bones about their support for this. Labor has been more circumspect, with some MPs and candidates prepared to voice support, but reluctance by governments to act. One assumes that some Labor MPs might oppose it, either through personal conviction, or in the belief that they would be representing the views of their electorate. We have heard little from opponents of same sex marriage, but we all know they are out there. They have no need to rally against it until a proposal is put up.

Even where the positions of principle for Labor and The Greens are the same, Labor policies are more complex and cautious. This is hardly surprising. With a vastly higher vote, Labor represents a wider range of demographics and views. Representing the views of their constituency involves balancing conflicts, and leaves no room for the purity of The Greens, with their narrower more homogeneous slice of the population.

While Labor is in government, they are also expected to be able to implement their policies.  Labor policies have to be practicable, and achievable within a single electoral cycle.  Being free of these constraints, The Greens can propose clearer, more idealistic positions that are able to capture the imagination and harness the enthusiasm of their target progressive voters.

But does this progressive idealism make The Greens left wing?

The ‘compromesso storico’ between the labour movement and the inner-city intelligentsia was the driving force behind the success of the Victorian Labor.  The core of ALP philosophy was class-based – support for the struggle of working people. Internationalism, feminism and anti-racism could find common cause with the search for human dignity and equality.

Gentrification of the inner-city, and the arrival of environmentalism have challenged and shifted that alliance.  While the inner-city Labor Left readily embraced environmental politics, the ALP as a whole has reflected the patch-work acceptance of implications of climate change found across the country.  The Greens have been the beneficiaries of Labor’s failure to go as far as fast on these issues as many would like.

Meanwhile, gentrification of the inner-city has seen the working class and their jobs pushed out.  Brunswick once housed migrant workers with numerous children, who grew useful quantities of vegetables, kept chooks and walked to work in local factories. Their houses are now home to small families who grow vegetables in a more ornamental way, keep two or three bantams with names, cycle to work or school when they are not using their Subaru all-wheel drive, and worry about whether state schools are good enough for their children. The converted factories house young people with healthy social consciences and enough money to eat breakfast out every day.

Value politics are very important to these people.  When Labor fails to live up to ideals on issues such as treatment of refugees, same sex marriage, or funding for important social services, they lose ground with these voters.  They are rich in compassion.

They are also fairly rich.  The new inner-city has a blind spot when it comes to class politics.  They seem oblivious to just how privileged they are.  They whinge about the wait for a tram and demand more fixed rail, but don’t spare a thought for the plight of teenagers in Caroline Springs who would be far better served by a bus on Sundays.  They think travelling more than 3km to school is hardship. They make donations to lobby groups to save forests, but don’t ask what the displaced workers will do.

The new inner-city politics is progressive on social issues.  But class issues barely rate a mention.

The Greens main constituency is these new inner-city types.  The Greens do not have Labor’s historical and structural ties to the labour movement. Active unionists and other people with strong ties to class-based politics still combine their social progressive agenda with a worker rights and egalitarian agenda within the ALP (or other socialist groups further to the left than Labor).  Some lefties within The Greens have tried to connect them to traditional left issues. But the reality is that The Greens core inner-city constituency does not know or care about the working conditions of cleaners in the CBD, or the loss of jobs in manufacturing, or the quality of education on offer at Dallas primary school.

The political pressure on The Greens to be left-wing, in the traditional sense of siding with the working class, is low.

For the Labor Party, ties to the labour movement are still central.  Class issues are built into the structure of the party. There is political pressure on the Labor Party to stay more left-wing, in the sense of maintaining ties to the working class.  This can also have the effect of pushing Labor to be more socially conservative, in line with the slower speed of social change in communities beyond the inner-city.

Left-wing people for whom class issues are primary are still likely to find more satisfaction with Labor.  If government money goes to Broadmeadows ahead of Brunswick, they are likely to accept that as just.  They may even enjoy direct benefit, since they may well be among the ranks of professionals who service the outer north while living in the inner north. They are less likely to shift to The Greens when they know they are biting the hand that feeds them.

But there are many new inner-city residents who have lost all contact or sympathy with the working class they displaced when they moved into the area.  People more likely to make a donation to Oxfam than to a strike fund.  These people, and The Greens party that best represents them, are progressive.  But I am not so sure they can claim to be left wing.

October 21, 2010, 10:25 pm
Filed under: Brunswick, politics

Brunswick has a long history in left-wing politics. It is a vibrant place, open to change. So I suppose it is hardly surprising that it should be one of the places where the emergence of a new third force in Australian politics plays itself out.

The Greens Party has been gaining strength here over several election cycles. I even have a Greens MP for a neighbour.  In many ways I welcome the challenges and debate that this brings.

But I also have a nagging fear.  I worry that this internecine conflict will drive politics underground.

For so long, pretty much everyone in Brunswick was on the same side.  The socialists and communists were further to the left, but they supported the labour movement, and did not see the Labor Party as the enemy.  People are used to standing shoulder to shoulder to fight a common enemy, and in that context their political commitment flourishes.

But what happens now the Labor Party and the Greens Party are fighting for the same patch? Last night I saw a spat break-out on facebook between people who might once have called each other comrade.  If we see much of that, I fear that the sites of public community life – fêtes and committees and street parties – will quickly be placed off-limits to those who want to raise the political issues of the moment.  In the interests of pleasantness, we may lose those opportunities to inform and rally people to causes that are bigger than our little neighbourhood.

Many things about Brunswick are changing.  I hope I am wrong about this one.

Hello Brunswick
October 9, 2010, 5:30 am
Filed under: Brunswick

It is spring in Brunswick. The sun is shining gently.  Peach and plum trees in my front garden are laden with blossom. Cyclists are out in force. There have been some early sightings of cricket whites.

This is a great place to live.