Hearts and Minds

Hearts and Minds (2013) by Chris Bowen, the current treasurer of Australia is a rather good exploration of what the modern Australian Labor Party (ALP) stands for.  The book is oddly named, not many people would name a book of rejuvenation after a failed slogan from a failed war. It should also be said upfront that this journey into the heart of darkness does at no time wind up with Bowen meeting the strange ‘Colonel Rudd’ deep in the Queensland jungle during an election campaign and nor does he declare at any stage that ‘we had to destroy the electorate in order to save it’. But nonetheless, we can all be thankful Bowen didn’t call the book ‘My Struggle’.

Bowen looks at what the ALP believes in and decides that reclaiming liberalism from the right is an aim. He puts forward economic growth and increasing opportunity as the main objectives of the modern ALP. There are two chapters devoted to each of these aims.

 Bowen starts with a chapter on what, in general, the ALP believes in. Bowen includes the official objectives of the ALP that include anachronistic references to the socialisation of industry. Bowen points out that this has nothing to do with the way the modern ALP governs.  Bowen has read, and refers to some interesting figures like Tony Crosland who argued in the 1950s that increasing wellbeing was more important for the left than government ownership. Roy Hattersley went further to declare that the true objective of socialism is to create a society where individual liberty is greatest. It’s interesting, and perhaps redefines socialism to an unrecognizable form but it is worth considering. In Bowen’s eyes this contrasts what the modern left should be doing to what the modern right does, which is to adopt much of the thought of Hayek, von Mises and Friedman.

There is then a good sized chapter on the ALP being the party of growth, which is all about how Hawke and Keating put through many important deregulatory, pro-market and some other reforms that are largely well regarded. There is a problem in that the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government has a poor record here. Bowen remarkably argues that the Carbon Tax created jobs as some academic argued that you can regulate your way to higher productivity. It’s more than a bit of a stretch.

The chapter on Opportunity highlights how by removing fees for University under Whitlam the ALP increased educational opportunities and then by bringing them back it again increased educational opportunities. Apparently whatever the ALP does to fees has magic properties. But overall this chapter does highlight what the ALP thinks it does differently to the Liberal Party.

Bowen then puts in his ideas for reforming the ALP which are well put and put into an international context. His arguments for changing the way the ALP leader is chosen are well put forward. He doesn’t really consider the counter argument, namely that it isn’t a broken system and in the past 50 years the only mistake the ALP has made was removing Rudd. The chapter also makes other recommendations on how to elect delegates for conventions and other ideas.

Bowen concludes the book with a few remarks summarising his positive vision for the future of the ALP. The book is nicely short, it’s well thought out, well written and really does put forward a reasonably coherent vision of what the ALP should be. There is a bit of silliness and little recognition of the contribution of the Liberal Party’s contribution to Australia, but that’s fine for this kind of book. It’s really quite a refreshing read and a good antidote to the fairly dour election campaign that is currently going on. 

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