Left Forum: Care on the Left

My parents were Welsh, and other Left excuses

The Australian has been running a series in its opinion page on where the left is at in Australia and, to be frank, I doubt regular readers have been awaiting each instalment of ideological exposition with nail biting excitement. It has all been a bit "ho hum here we go again". There are now so many areas where the left is indistinguishable from the right, that these terms are pretty meaningless. Even the terms conservative and progressive, which are often employed to describe differences on social issues don’t have a great deal of meaning. I have encountered too many lefties with whom I have more in common on the family and social front than plenty of so called conservatives. I find the libertarian right just as aggravating and immature as the didactic left of my youth. But two contributors interested me. Julia Gillard, undoubtedly the most successful woman in Australian politics and definitely one of the more intelligent whose portfolio is partly education. The other was David McKnight, who wrote about the left’s approach to the family and other issues, previously outside the ambit of politics.

Julia’s explanation for being on the left was rather disappointing, and just a little trite.  In the first sentence she says that “my parents were Welsh”- cue the mellifluous male chorus singing “Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”, gritty miner’s stories and How Green Was My Valley. We were told that despite doing well in the eleven plus Julia’s dad couldn’t go to a grammar school. He probably had to go to work, and Julia never forgot it.

But what was Julia’s point? Surely her justification for being “on the left” was not just a sense of resentment that her dad couldn’t go to grammar school even though he was clever? Julia’s father at least had the opportunity to go to an English grammar school. They were fine schools, specifically designed for equality of opportunity for the poor who were clever. I hope that we have an education minister that apparently wants all children to achieve an education as good as those schools offered. Anyway, if that is what Julia is saying it would be a welcome change for someone whose “team” is the left.

In the education system where I worked as a teacher for 15 years, equality of educational opportunity, meant equality of mediocrity, or sometimes plain equality of ignorance. Why? It was controlled by one of the most left wing unions in the country; the NSW Teachers’ Federation, of which I was a compulsory member. Like most intimidatory left wing unions the Federation, whose then supremo was Jenny George didn’t care about anything except its own power.

In NSW, unlike the old Wales, hardly any of our brighter children could have ever aspired to the equivalent of a good English grammar school education. Under the system held to ransom by the Federation, there was a policy of abandoning even the few selective schools we had. All was subsumed to so called egalitarianism: curriculum, schooling structure, and teacher promotion. Elitism was the baddy. Egalitarianism, the goody. There was no acknowledgement that true egalitarianism comes from elitism for all. Fairness comes from wanting the best for everyone. It is called aspiration, a term much used during Howard’s prime ministership. It is a term that explains everything about Australian politics. No wonder that in a speech two years before the election Julia conceded that the culture wars were over, declaring that the aspirational “conservatives” had won. After all – look at aspirational Kevin Rudd, and his über aspirational wife.

So it was surprising that Julia explained her dedication to the left with the old “immigrant comes to land of opportunity, and education” story. Most contributors to the what’s left column were veering off the old “I grew up in a cardboard box” story. And anyway, so many people, including my family, came to this country in so much worse circumstances than the ten pound poms, that Julia’s rather paltry story of woe would cause mirth. So many Australians of Julia’s own generation had to leave school early to work, or as was the case with my husband, who despite attending the best selective high school in Australia couldn’t go to university and went straight to work aged 19, or as in my case, had to take a scholarship to do something you were not all that interested in because the scholarship paid you.

But then of course the left can point to free university education under Whitlam which was supposed to benefit everybody. But what happened? The universities had to expand to the point where standards went south. Most tradesmen are much better educated than the media graduates of some of these universities. The main objective, to expand education to the poor, was not realised. The real poor were not the ones who became the beneficiaries of the Whitlam university largess. It was more of the mediocre middle, children who previously would have worked in the trades, nursing, teaching or in other skilled areas.

And of course that middle group, pedestrian and gullible were recruited into the counter cultural left. If they were useful women they became the vanguard of the feminist movement. How many have sailed through academia in paltry women’s studies courses and were later taken up and promoted into areas of the public service by affirmative action? Within the Labor party we still see the old Emily’s Listers still holding sway. So many of them were unsuccessful until Julia came along that it was embarrassing.

A lot of contributors to the what’s left column were veering off the old “I grew up in a cardboard box” school of left wing dialectic. Many of them were pointing the way to future preoccupations. This is about two things. The left would like to control the agenda on workplace reform and the family, because so far the right has done this. Also young up and coming women in the Labor party are becoming frustrated at the dominance of the old feminist guard, who really don’t understand that the values and priorities of young women with families are not the same as theirs were. I discovered this for myself recently when I gave a talk and debated Susan Ryan at NSW Labor party headquarters, Sussex Street. These younger girls, whether they are on the left or the right are genuinely interested in their families and family policy. They do not see themselves as mere units of production and they resent the old intimidating career obsessed feminists, who they bluntly told me “just don’t get it”.

David McKnight asked why “the left” don’t talk about the family. For McKnight as for most commentators the terms progressive and conservative have replaced left and right. So why have the left, progressives conceded the ground on the family to the conservatives? Good question. The reason the left don’t talk about the family is that during the rise of feminism they abrogated their right to talk about the family. The new left of my generation specifically condemned the family as a tool of oppression – especially female oppression. The family is the only bulwark for the gullible young against bullshit. Consequently deconstructing the family was very important to the new left to keep the now old feminists on side.

To this end the new left invented, a parallel series of moral paradigms, expressed as repetitive slogans designed to show us that progressives were simply, well, more progressive. Choice  became a paradigm in itself. Now “choice”, the buzz word of feminism, of a generation, that hallmark of left progressive thinking is representative of a hideous immoral barbarism, 100,000 abortions a year, not some sign of progress. This new morality cannot distinguish between right or wrong, because the choice is not informed by an overarching morality; the choice is the morality, one choice as valid as any other choice, never mind if it is a right or wrong choice.

However, back with the family that McKnight realises must vote for you if you are to gain power. That family whether voting Liberal or Labor are all trying to pursue the same aspirational dreams. So here, according to McKnight is fertile ground for another moral mantra, another slogan for the masses, that is relatively new to the big brother lexicon: care. Care is now being used, the way feminists use “choice”. But it is “care” at tax payer’s expense of course. They are now calling for a “right to care”.

This is a very popular idea, and it has some justification because of course children have the right to expect care from the people who love them. And we have already accepted a level of government funding for outsourcing childcare. However, this can lead into a level of state involvement in the family that is neither desirable, cheap nor ultimately, what most Australian parents want.

As in Sweden women will be “freed” to work. But mothers, having become mere units of production will become mere breeders of children, whose care is then abrogated to the state. This is not solely a leftist vision. It was something seen as desirable by members of the previous government. Joe Hockey remarked to me when I questioned him about the unfairness of many of the Work Choice policies towards women in low paid jobs, “Angela, the country is running out of workers!”

Neither the left nor the right are willing to support the family as a unit. Both want to diminish mothers to units of production. But care is not something we can really “outsource”. Care is an OBLIGATION. Care can only be a real concept if it is based on the desire to give of one’s self to care. That is what a family is based on, mutual obligation to care. The family should be supported in its mutual obligations as a unit. Policies designed to separate mothers from children are usually nothing more than a clever ploy under the guise of “freedom”, to split the unity of the family and force mothers into the workforce, often against their will. If the left want to get into the debate on the family they should dump the militant individualism of old feminism and realise that the family operates as a unit. Consequently there is no “right” to have the state care for your children.  Parents care for each other and they in turn care for their children. That is a parent’s privilege and right, and if you surrender that right to the state you have abrogated the most important thing you have to the Moloch of the new state whether it is a left or right wing one – your child.

Angela Shanahan is a columnist with The Australian, and a contributor to Quadrant. Her most recent Quadrant article was “Human Rights and the Unborn”.

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