Academic journal article Social Alternatives

First Term Labor and the Question of Identity: A Discussion with the Hon Mark Butler MP

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

First Term Labor and the Question of Identity: A Discussion with the Hon Mark Butler MP

Article excerpt

In the wake of the culture wars and a clash of ideologies and visions around Australia's national identity, this article examines the Rudd Labor government's position within that debate around social identity and social policy. The article offers a provocation to the Labor federal Member for Port Adelaide and Parliamentary Secretary for Health, The Hon Mark Butler MP. That provocation highlights Labor's past insufficiencies in the culture wars, and underscores the centrality of issues of national identity in the ideas debate. The provocation then questions how these issues are evolving under the Rudd Labor government as it moves through its first term. Mark Butler offers a broad ranging response, detailing his perspective on how Labor is navigating these issues of national identity and social policy, and putting these perspectives into historical context.

Introduction

Moving through Labor's first term of government in Australia, and in a climate where all conversations take a backseat to the global financial crisis, it is interesting to reflect on Australia's sense of national identity and on what it means, in terms of the politics of identity, to be Australian. The global financial crisis leaves little room for illusions of insularity, or for any clinging to a belief that Australia is in some sense a fortress, or an island in an economic or political sense. Economically, Australia is enmeshed within the world and within a global community, having slipped the moorings of its protected past to drift into a global present. But if the economic realities are uncontested, the same cannot be said of Australia's sense of its social position. This paper brings the issue of the social - the issue of Australia's national identity - to the fore. The paper starts with a reminder of what has broadly been called the culture wars, and of the retreat into conservatism of Australia's sense of itself in the years following the defeat of the Keating Labor government. It then asks a series of questions about the current Labor government's position on, or imagination of, national identity, and about how that is articulated in policy terms. In other words, as economic policy gets played out nakedly and flamboyantly and with no questions about the fact that being Australian implies a sense of cosmopolitan and global citizenship, this paper asks questions about the policy landscape and political vision which the Labor party is sketching around social issues.

In a broad ranging response to the questions posed in this article's opening provocation, The Hon Mark Butler MP, federal Labor Member for Port Adelaide and Parliamentary Secretary for Health, paints a picture of where Australia is tracking with its sense of identity and its sense of a place in the world, and he paints - in his own words - an impression of the government's and the Labor party's role in that unfurling. Butler comes to the task as a new MP, elected in 2007, and as part of an emerging new face of Labor. He begins his response by putting the question of Australian national identity in historical context and looking at Labor's role in that history. He then moves his focus to questions of social, foreign and economic policy in order to tease out recent developments in the evolution of an Australian sense of self prior to the election of the Rudd Labor government, and since that government's inception. Butler reflects on the Rudd government's role in reshaping Australia's image of itself and the image it projects overseas. He looks at the evolution of Australia's nation building and identity-shaping policy environment over the first half of Labor's first term in government. Critically, he seeks to answer a question as to whether the Rudd government is playing out a series of ad hoc or hodgepodge policy positions, or whether a sum of social policy initiatives so far flagged under Labor constitutes a coherent vision or message about how Labor sees questions of identity, and about how it sees Australia, its place in the world and what is meant by the idea of Australian citizenship. …

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