02 February 2016
by John Passant

Noel Pearson and the myth of the radical centre

On Australia Day Noel Pearson told us of the need for a ‘radical centre’ in Australian politics. This ‘sensible’ centre would balance between the mad right and the loony left and come up with ‘solutions’ to problems that the nutcases to the left or right couldn’t because they are trapped in the language and practice of ideology. Well, that is my summation of what Pearson said. You can read an edited extract of his speech in the well know centrist newspaper (sarcasm alert) The Australian.

There is nothing new about what Pearson is arguing. In fact he has been sprouting the need for a radical centre for a decade or so. It seems his attempts at setting up just such an enterprise have floundered on the shoals of reality. If the radical centre is where all the sensible people with their sensible solutions are why has Pearson made absolutely no progress in the last ten years in setting up this political Shangri-La?

One of the answers is that the distinction between left and right in Australia is blurred. The Australian Labor Party is in the process of moving from being a CAPITALIST workers’ party to a capitalist party. To call it left-wing is a long stretch. To give one current example: Anthony Albanese, the darling of Labor members for the leadership and one time Minister in various neoliberal Labor governments, faces a challenge in his seat from Greens candidate and former member of the International Socialist Organisation Jim Casey. Rather than addressing the issues, Albanese has red baited Jim. Jim’s response is classic:

“I make no apologies for my socialist ideals. It is a bit sad [Albanese] is running away from this; he’s happy to DJ songs by Billy Bragg for his mates but when it comes to a political context he’s channelling Joe McCarthy,” Casey said.

The dichotomy between left and right that Pearson argues for doesn’t actually exist. There may be some differences over the detail of policy and the speed of austerity but on the major issues of shifting wealth from labour to capital, of moderating real wages and cutting welfare, Labor and the Liberals agree.

It is not just Pearson who has been arguing for the need for a centrist party, balancing between a non-existent radical Labor left and Liberal right. This appeal to the centre has a long history. This third way was the election strategy of Bill Clinton in 1992 and Tony Blair in 1997. Ah, but they won elections and were re-elected I can hear you say. True, but that was in the specific context of people looking for alternatives to the status quo and believing, wrongly, that Clinton and Blair offered an alternative to austerity, war and class war. They didn’t. Clinton and Blair gave us Bush and Cameron. Frankly Mitchel Pearce’s dog could have won those elections.

And let’s look now at the long term consequences of this appeal to the centre in the UK and the US. Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders is winning more and more support in his campaign, against Hillary Clinton, to become the Democrat Party Presidential nominee. He is even ahead in some recent polls in the forthcoming Iowa and New Hampshire primaries.

In the UK Jeremy Corbyn, an avowed and practising socialist, is the leader of the Labour Party Opposition. He is giving the Blairites, the radical centrists in the party, nightmares. He is winning more and more support for radical left wing policies and left wing solutions. Such is the level of support that he may well become, contrary to the nonsense from the establishment and its echo chambers in the Labour Party, the next Prime Minister of Britain.

By the way Corbyn’s policies align with the desires of most voters in Britain who on most issues are well to the left of their politicians. The same is true in Australia and the US. His policies were in fact the policies previous Labour governments carried out 50 or 60 years ago.

In Australia, the radical centre was the Democrats. They collapsed after they did a deal in 1998 and 1999 passing a modified GST, one of those ‘sensible’ solutions that involves attacking the poor and working class. Their supporters abandoned them.

Pearson’s policies – support for the milksop that is constitutional recognition, support for Tony Abbott, support for the intervention for example – are essentially conservative. The radical centre is rhetoric that gives cover to conservatism.

In Australia there is no and will be no radical centre. There is no demand from ordinary Australians for a group of politicians who will compromise to make capitalism run adequately, in other words politicians who sell out. We don’t need a radical centre in Australia today. We need a radical left.