Why Labor lost


Ross Gittins (The Age Oct 13): ‘In the splendour of John Howard’s stunning victory, we should not forget the squalor of the election campaign and its vote buying contest. It may now be a tawdry memory, but we’ll be paying for it for years to come’.

It was an appalling campaign, devoid of courage, imagination or direction. It was fought in a moral vacuum.

Paul Kelly (The Australian, October 13, 2004) urges Mark Latham to return to his pre-Leadership policies and compete with Howard on the conservative agenda. This raises some problems. Could Latham ever out- Tory Howard? And where would traditional Labor voters go?

Australia now has two mainstream parties of the Right, the ALP in the Centre Right and the Liberal Party on the Hard Right. The same situation exists in Britain, the United States, Canada and France. New Zealand is the exception. This is an illustration of ‘political compaction’, like being offered a choice between McDonalds or Kentucky Fried. Is there any room for a Party of the Left in Australia “ representing people who believe that the world and the nation should be improved, rather than settling for the status quo? Several policy elements produced in the campaign had radical aspects [priorities in schools funding, the Tasmanian forests]but they appeared to be anomalous. On the social and intellectual agenda [e.g. the ‘history wars’] Labor was indistinguishable from the Coalition. We fought on a very narrow agenda. Given a choice between two conservative parties, voters reasonably chose the real one.

Labor essentially fought the 2004 Election Campaign on the terrain chosen by the Government and seemed oddly reluctant to raise some issues on which the Government appeared vulnerable. John Howard determined the Coalition’s strategy “ and ours too. We seemed to be dancing the tango with him, just as we had in 2001. We fought on the economy, stupid, so that the interest rate was a recurrent, even obsessive, issue “ precisely the area perceived to be the Government’s strength. But we failed to set out Labor’s strong economic credentials from the Hawke-Keating years, or to identify areas of Coalition weakness, on trade, investment and private debt.

There was no sustained debate on WMD, security, intelligence failures, the Iraq war, politicisation of the public service and armed forces. It is as if Howard said to Labor, ‘Don’t mention the war, or Aborigines or refugees’, and the ALP responded, ‘We were never going to mention them anyway’. Bush and Blair have suffered collateral damage about Iraq, but Howard has been completely unscathed. The US Ambassador would have been thrilled by the campaign. Howard was quoted as expressing surprise at Labor’s restraint.

We failed to pursue the issue of credibility and truth in Government. Truth in Government was raised by the 43 retired diplomats and officers, but we let the subject drop. The ‘truth in government’ issue produced a very cynical reaction in Australia: ‘All politicians lie’. John Faulkner made a powerful point: all his forensic work in the Senate on issues where the Government was indefensible appeared to make no public impact. Australia seemed to have a more cynical reaction than the US or UK. So what? Who cares?

The election result was a triumph for ‘wedge politics’: finding a set of policies which appealed to a majority of Australians, while ignoring or trivialising the minority. A clear illustration of ‘wedge politics’ was the continual attack on trade union influence (except for the CFMEU). Unionists have declined as a total percentage of the population since 1954, so they are an easy target. Their operations can be attacked as a threat to the economy (such as opposing unfair dismissal, a very sexy issue for John Howard).

If Labor criticised the influence of the rich and powerful (which rarely happened) this was attacked as a revival of class war. So Australia emerges from the campaign with a majority feeling good about themselves but with an alienated underclass in a deeply divided society.

Aborigines were never mentioned in the campaign, nor refugees, because they are perceived as minority causes, completely repudiated under ‘wedge politics’. We are more affluent but meaner, more divided, more preoccupied with immediate economic self-interest. The division between rich and poor has never been wider, a plurality of Australians are doing well “ and bugger the rest. Economics triumphed, ethics, compassion and diversity came nowhere. The Government is morally bankrupt – and we are not too far behind.

Labor suffers from policy anorexia (except for Education and Health). The 2004 National Conference produced masses of policy papers “ how many Party activists, let alone citizens, could identify the five most important policy decisions adopted at that Conference? What could we have put on the T-shirts or the bumper stickers?

Too many policy areas were left out “ Arts, Aborigines, Refugees, Water, Foreign Affairs, Women, ‘The Third Age’, the ABC, Science, Population and Immigration, Trade and Industry, Industrial Relations.

We failed to stitch up a coalition between the aspirationals, who were presumed to have narrow economic preoccupations, and people who were preoccupied with moral or quality of life agendas. It was not necessary to offer much to people with non-economic priorities (e.g. Friends of the ABC) “ but just to acknowledge that they were there.

Labor lacks a set of core beliefs. We must identify and promote them.

The ALP has a thousand tacticians “ and no strategists. Giving ALP Senate preferences to Family First in Victoria and Tasmania is a classic example of a tactical decision that would have probably looked clever if it helped us win seats at no cost to ourselves: but clearly it was never considered strategically “ when our vote collapses would we really prefer a Family First Senator to a Green Senator? Targetting Peter Costello was both a tactical and strategic mistake. So was Medicare Gold, which proved to be a turkey, after an enthusiastic debut. The substance of the Tasmanian forests policy was right, but the timing was appalling.

The dominant role of factions has contributed to party demoralisation. There is a complete disjunction between the feelings of branch members, as expressed in the recent national vote for Party Presidents, the vote for the National Executive and the policies set forth in the election.

Pre-selections are now the gift of the factions, who reward loyalty and accepting the conventional wisdom. The first Hawke Governments had probably the greatest collection of talent in Australian political history. Given more recent arrangements in the ALP about pre-selections for safe seats, it is unlikely that such a spread of talents would be available from the House of Representatives, or the Senate, where endorsement is now generally a reward for factional fidelity. When I was writing a chapter for The Hawke Government (Pluto Press, 2003), I asked a number of colleagues if they believed that they could have won pre-selection for safe or winnable seats under the current factional arrangements, and received a series of ‘No’s , from Hayden, Button, Evans, Grimes, Blewett, Dawkins, Kerin, Ryan, Walsh and Duffy. I would have answered ‘No’ too. All of us had a life outside the major factions and won pre-selection against them. It would not be possible now.

Mark Latham’s metaphor about ‘climbing the rungs of the ladder of opportunity’ has some unfortunate connotations: it has implications that are far closer to Howard’s social views than to Whitlam’s (or mine). Does everybody climb up the ladder? Who gets left behind? Does it mean displacing people on the lower rungs? I hope the ladder fades from view.

In 1978, in a paper I called ‘Them and Us/Us and Them: ALP v. Liberals’ I analysed the basic differences between Labor thinking and the Coalition.

In paragraph 1, I wrote of the Liberal Party, ‘Could be renamed the “self-interest party”. The main beneficiaries of Liberal rule are essentially the voter and his/her children. The Liberal Party symbol could well be a mirror (in which the voter can see the expected beneficiary of Liberal voting) or a ladder (which the voter or his/her children can climb)’.

I proposed as ALP symbols a pair of binoculars (because the voter may have to look some distance to observe Aborigines, refugees, the sick and unemployed) or a safety-net.

In the Review set up after the 2001 defeat, Bob Hawke and Neville Wran attacked ‘the deadening impact of factionalism and the associated phenomenon of branch stacking’ and ‘the cancerous effect this activity has had on the democratic traditions that have been the strength of our Party’. Has anything happened since 2001 to treat this ‘cancerous effect’? No, it has not.

They emphasised that in its policies the Party must have a strong commitment to:

  • the collective responsibility of society (i.e. not leaving everything to the market)
  • unqualified opposition to discrimination of all kinds
  • recognition of Aboriginal prior ownership of the continent
  • an independent foreign policy
  • protection of the natural environment (I would have added, cultural)
  • an enlarged population, including more genuine refugees
  • the right of workers to organise and bargain collectively
  • ‘a correct and humane policy’ for boat people and refugees
  • overcoming ‘a perceived lack of policy differentiation from our conservative opponents’.

Was this reflected in the 2004 election policies? No, it was not.

The ALP is not, and should not be, simply a machine that organises election campaigns every few years “ it needs to provide spiritual, ethical and intellectual nourishment to the Australian people, on an ongoing basis, and promote a creative, generous nation. Labor must promote an inclusive agenda, not an excluding one. Currently, there is a significant disenfranchisement of our traditional vote, people who feel lonely and alienated from the Party they have always voted for. If we do not bring them home, the Party’s heart and mind will die.

Health Consumers of Rural and Remote Australia

Brotherhood of St Laurence:

National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of NSW:

Sane Australia:

Youth Substance Abuse Service, Fitzroy, Victoria:

Health Services Union:

Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League:

Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health:

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners:

The Association for Australian Rural Nurses (AARN), the Australian and New Zealand College of Mental Health Nurses (ANZCMHN) and Royal College of Nursing Australia (RCNA):

Beyond Blue: The National Depression Initiative:

Australian Medical Association:

Mental Health Council of Australia, 2005, Not for Service:
Experiences of injustice and despair in mental health care in Australia

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