TRUE OPINION: Australia’s Labor Party continues to offer tired old platitudes and uninspiring policies while an actual old white man over the Pacific in the United States offers some real hope, writes Tom Tanuki.
A week ago, I watched the results come in confirming Bernie Sanders’ victory in the New Hampshire Democratic primaries. The bizarre Iowa caucuses stamped out any hope of the usual clarity they provide on the favourite for the nomination, so there was no simple message for America (like ‘Bernie won’). That hasn’t stopped Bernie’s campaign. It’s been electric to watch his chances turn from hopeful to realistic. His percentage of support has held as strong and consistent as his unwavering left politics. It is now overwhelmingly likely that Bernie Sanders will nab the Dems nomination and go head-to-head with Donald Trump in November. That was unthinkable a few months ago. When I see that, and the victory of Sinn Féin in Ireland – described as “something of a revolution in the ballot box” by party leader Mary Lou McDonald – I feel like I’m watching something genuinely transformative. The rebirth of populist but staunch left politics.
So I stayed up watching and reading all about that. Then I went to sleep and I had this recurring half-waking dream again. I keep having it nightly. It’s a dream about cash-for-cans.
Here’s what I’d do as five-year-old in 1987 Melton South, taking part in the Victorian container recycling scheme: first, I’d go ask mum for a big black garbage bag. Once I had it, the bag ceased to be a garbage bag and it became the Can Bag. I wasn’t collecting cans from bins at home. I was an enterprising Meltonian dreamer, knowing that cans meant cash. Cash for cans. So I’d hit the streets with the Can Bag. I would check the park down the road. Other parks. Gutters. Then abandoned houses. Melton train station. Then the train tracks, keeping an eye out for passing V/Lines. Here’s a good one: I’d always check down by the creek. Kids would bring beers down there on Saturday nights, hang out behind the cliff face that hid them from the houses, and spray-paint things on the rock wall like ‘RING A ROOT’ followed by their enemies’ landline phone numbers.
I’ve been dreaming of this experience as a child for months. I think it’s been happening since Scott Morrison was elected Prime Minister. But the dreams are making me think more about the Australian Labor Party. Every time I hear what Labor are saying next, I have the dreams again. It’s making me reflect on life growing up in a Labor-voting union family in blue-chip Labor areas.
I grew up in the Hawke and Keating eras of the 80’s and 90’s. As a kid I’d hear our successive PMs talk what seemed like a great game when it came to multiculturalism. ‘WE ARE ONE, BUT WE ARE MANY!’, hollered the beneficent anthem of my Australian childhood: The Seekers’ well-intentioned 1995 number I Am Australian. Everyone said they wanted it to be the new anthem, even though the lyrics seemed to be written from the perspective of a race-shifter who is both Albert Namatjira and Ned Kelly. We were fresh out of ending the White Australia policy and profoundly pleased with how progressive we were. We all got a Bi-Centenary coin at school. I couldn’t tell as a kid, but they were enshrining in policy a kind of ‘assimilate and we’ll love you!’-style multiculturalism. Only a year after I Am Australian, Australians got sick of being magnanimous and anyone who didn’t agree that WE ARE ONE BUT WE ARE MANY! was being bullied into it by One Nation. We are one! And if you aren’t too then fuck off, we’re full!
As I became a young adult, I learned about how all that sweet Labor multiculturalism rhetoric from my childhood was running parallel to ushering in an era of neo-liberalism, eroding worker rights and union-busting. You’d never vote for the fucking Libs, though. Not my family. We were all far too broke in Melton. The only Lib voters were the families who pretended they weren’t broke.
Still, what good had Labor done for us out there? Mum and dad began to ask that after a while. Melton was blue-chip Labor territory, like all of the Western suburbs, and in return they’d done nothing for infrastructure or opportunities out that way. Save all the investment for the swing electorates in the south-east – the ones that matter! There were no jobs in Melton.
After 1989, during John Cain’s state government term, we couldn’t even collect some cans for a few bucks anymore because they cancelled cash-for-cans. Later, Kennett got voted in, and he privatised every damned thing he could, including the rail. My dad, a former rail guard, was out of a job for years. We were hand-over-fist. That was around the time that Keating introduced the last increase to Newstart that Australians have received, way back in 1994.
The best cans to pick up, as a five-year-old in 1980’s Melton, were the soft drink ones. Coke, Pepsi, Tarax. They’d often have ants all over them but at least they didn’t smell. The worst were the VB ones. They’d leak out half a can’s worth of old beer over my little hand. It stank. I’d use that hand to hold the Can Bag until it dried out. Got to keep going and fill that bag.
Way better than Australia’s Labor Party: Bernie Sanders, an old fella who does more than yell at clouds and post boomer memes on Facebook in his spare time (Image: Wiki Commons)
Since the Morrison election our Labor have publicly concurred that what we all want to do is Get Tough on Asylum Seekers. I never got the memo, but it’s been the ringing political anthem of my entire adult life. Generations of pricks in Canberra have been chanting about Getting Tough, and Labor are way past mumbling along hoping we might not hear them. They’re singing their lungs out! NSW Labor Senator Kristina Keneally’s most devastating attack on Dutton is that he flies asylum seekers in via plane instead of letting them in via boat. She’s been bringing it up for months. Who’s she saying that to? Me? It’s like I’m overhearing a conversation that sounds like it can’t be meant for me, even if the person talking is looking directly at me and no one else is nearby. Am I supposed to think it’s bad that the Liberals let a little bit of refugees in, when I’ve been asking for them to let a lot in?
Howard started the chorus of bashing asylum seekers around 20 years ago. It’s devastating to consider that there are people, children who grew into adulthood, who have reached legal voting age having never in their lives heard our politicians – both Labor and Liberal – not vow to Get Tough on Asylum Seekers. What a crushing shame for that generation, to have never heard compassion from above.
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It’s like Labor are looking for discarded old Liberal policies, picking them up, and collecting them all. To recycle them.
‘Albo’ – and when I say ‘Albo’ I feel a bit creepy, because no one normal calls him ‘Albo’, ‘Albo’s’ not my mate, is he anyone’s? – recently insisted that January 26th shouldn’t change as a date of celebration. So? Who’s asking it to change, ‘Albo’? Not most Indigenous people. That’s not the point of the Invasion Day rallies around the nation. They are to solemnly commemorate a history drenched in bloodshed, attempted genocide and brutal colonialism. ‘Albo’ doesn’t seem to know. What conversation is ‘Albo’ having, and with whom? Is it the people who actually call him ‘Albo’? What demographic of person are they, and are they also the ones asking Labor to continue supporting coal exports? I don’t know who those people are.
You know what it’s like? It’s like they’re collecting old Liberal policies. Picking them up down by the creek. Behind the shopping centre and in the gutter. Popping them in their big black Policy Bag. And taking them down to the shops. No one is waiting for these policies, and yet there they are, with bags full of them. For who? Me?
Sometimes the cans were also full of old piss. Not VB piss, mind you. Piss piss. Old drunk Melton Saturday night piss piss. Down by the creek, where I’d look at the RING A ROOT graffiti as a boy and wonder if anyone has ever actually rang one in earnest. So I’d fill the Can Bag, mindful not to overload it lest it break. And I’d drag it home. Then mum would drive me up to Melton Shopping Centre, to the big Comalco cage in the carpark. (Note: you couldn’t fill the cans up with sand to bump up the weight. They’re Comalco, not idiots. They know cans. They won’t put up with games. You’ll be turned away.) So, fair and square, I’d give up my cans to the Comalco people.
I’d get a tidy $10 for my Can Bag if I was lucky. And that would be for sweets. Or sometimes it would be for food. Because we were broke.
Broke children must now start reciting a regular pledge of allegiance to the fatherland! Labor’s Tanya Plibersek came up with that one. She said we should train up a generation of loyalist children to recite a schoolyard oath to our nation. She tried to infuse this tripe with soft left overtones by suggesting that patriotism is about ‘solidarity’. It’s okay, because something something refugees, something something mateship. The problem is, Labor ain’t no Sinn Féin, and Australia ain’t no Ireland. Left nationalism cannot happen here. We continue to refuse to soberly acknowledge our own modern history of colonialism, displacement, ecocide and attempted genocide. We keep obfuscating the true, millennia-old history and sovereignty of this nation’s Indigenous peoples. Those refusals are written into the history of the colony. Therefore, any plea for nostalgia and patriotic loyalty to the country as it is invokes racism. Perhaps after we commit to a full accounting and acknowledgement of our history, and truly honour Aboriginal sovereignty, perhaps one day after all that the intergenerational trauma might heal. Maybe then, future generations could all talk about ‘left nationalism’. But not before decolonisation. Not before a revolution. And not our generations. Not in our lifetime.
But that’s deep, systemic work, and Labor don’t want to do that. Nah! They want pledges, hand-flag celebrations, and to crow about Getting Tough on Asylum Seekers.
It’s like… you know what it’s like? It’s like they’re stuffing a big bag full of the old, discarded Liberal policies that are swimming in stale piss, and now it’s all over them, and they too smell like stale piss. Sorry if I’m pushing the metaphor a little hard, but please. It’s in my head. I am dreaming about cash-for-cans every night.
The Comalco cash-for-cans program was introduced to help combat waste and recycling issues across Australia. The scheme was stopped in 1989 and currently, Victoria is the only state that doesn’t have a container recycling scheme. It’s nice to hear that they’re finally bringing back the scheme for Victoria, after nearly 30 years of broke families not having a little something to help them get their next feed. But it still won’t address any real, root problems, which all revolve around growing up in Melbourne’s broke, abandoned outer-Western suburbs. The scheme won’t rescue Australians from poverty like raising Newstart would. It won’t save the Australian environment like stopping coal extraction and export would.
At night, I get excited about the Sinn Féin victory in Ireland and Bernie’s progress in the United States because it hints at the prospect of a left on the rise. Then I go to bed and I dream about growing up broke in Australia. Then I wake up and I hear about Labor, who want coal exports, schoolyard patriot pledges and less asylum seekers. The ALP is our strongest ‘left’ party, and they gatekeep ‘left’ politics with their hollow neo-liberal rhetoric and the scraps of old ca – sorry, policies discarded by the Libs. So my excitement about politics abroad doesn’t last long. Until a genuine political left emerges in Australia, we’re a world away from our own “revolution at the ballot box”. Maybe one needs to happen on the street first.