Daddy is divorcing Mummy

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As the New York Times’ columnist Maureen Dowd puts it, there are two types of political parties — Mummy parties and Daddy parties.

Mummy parties are empathetic, inclusive, comforting, non-confrontational and happiest when doling out sympathy along with massive wads of taxpayer cash. Daddy parties are stern, moralistic, aggressive, mean with money and wear unpopularity as a badge of honour.

Broadly, voters put Mummy parties in charge of service delivery, and prefer Daddy parties to deal with the big issues — war and peace, taxation and economic management. In the United States, the Democrats have long been the Mummy party, while the Republicans are the Daddy party par excellence. One party reflects what voters want (unlimited services paid for by someone else) and the other what voters need (security to make and keep the money they earn for themselves and their families). So voters elect the Democrats to take care of service delivery governments while the Republicans run the national economy, cut taxes and protect the nation.

In Australia, the same applies, but even more so. The Australian Labor Party is the Mummy Party while the Liberal/National government enters its second decade as the party of what’s good for you — GST, work for the dole, family morality, detention of refugees, debt reduction and user-pays. Australian voters have long since settled for the Mummy Party running local and provincial governments while the Daddy Party controls the national government.

In the last 50 years, the conservative coalition has won 13 of 20 federal elections and held power for 34 years compared to Labor’s 16. In the century since Australian federation, Labor has formed only two durable national governments — Curtin/Chifley (1941–49) and Hawke/Keating (1983–96). Against type, both these administrations were Daddy governments — facing and taking tough, unpopular decisions in the face of dire threats to national survival and economic prosperity.

As a wartime government, Curtin/Chifley perforce took harsh and difficult measures — such as the introduction of conscription — that would otherwise have been completely unacceptable to its union base and traditional supporters. But once the war emergency passed, Daddy became Mummy again. In 1949, Chifley was deservedly ejected from office when voters realised that in peacetime Labor intended to create a full-blown socialist command economy.

Alone of national ALP governments, only the Hawke/Keating government won and maintained office in five successive elections on the strength of its policies, personalities and performance; and its willingness to force change on its own base. But finally, the policies and methods of both the Curtin/Chifley and Hawke/Keating governments ran foul of the fundamental beliefs and attitudes of the Mummy Party from which they sprang.

Both governments fell when the broader union movement, on which they relied for funding, support, political organisation and votes, cut them off at the knees. For all his post-war embrace of extreme socialism, at the 1949 election Chifley did not survive the rupture with the unions caused when he called out the army to break the 1948 miners’ strike. And as the Hawke/Keating government grew more economically liberal and socially adventurous in government so to the union movement withdrew its political support for that government, which fell in 1996.

The 1996 defeat demonstrated conclusively that while Prime Minister Keating had not lost his relentless resolve to tackle the hardest issues, and to press forward with radical reform, his party and the union movement could no longer digest Daddy’s unpalatable political diet. After 1996, freed of the burdens and hardships of being dragooned to support economic policies for which it had no stomach, Labor again reverted to its political roots.

While accepting the new orthodoxy created by the Hawke/Keating government, it came to a de facto agreement with the new Liberal government to share political power. With the tacit support of the post-1996 Howard government, in the late 1990s, Labor took control of all the Australian service delivery governments. While Mummy governments might be doomed to fail in Canberra, so too are Daddy governments anathema to state and territory voters. Labor’s emblematic 1990s victory was the defeat of the greatest Daddy state government of all — the Victorian Kennett government.

In 1999, Kennett’s slash and burn approach to health, transport and education services, and joyful lack of empathy for those who stood in its way, led to its spectacular defeat. The overall deal suited both sides — the coalition controlled the national government, free to take tough economic decisions unburdened by provincial politics, while the ALP controlled the spending, patronage and spoils of office of the states and territories.

The essential lubricant of this deal was the cornucopia of the GST — Daddy wore the odium of raising the money, which he then turned over to Mummy to spend. Mummy took the money, and didn’t interfere with whatever Daddy did in the shed. Of course, the only loser in this deal was the rump of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. Since 1996, successive federal ALP leaderships never realised that they had been marginalised by a stupendously successful alliance of convenience, in which their success at federal level had no place at all.

In this cosy family comedy, the Federal ALP was relegated to playing the role of the strident lesbian aunt — unable to decide on its gender role. But try as it might, Federal Labor was simply not up to the task of dressing up as Daddy, when it yearned to be as sympathetic, endearing and big-spending as its state sisters.

This blithe incomprehension culminated in the fiasco of the 2004 campaign. Abandoning all aspiration to play Daddy, the federal ALP became Mother Bountiful. It promised tax cuts, welfare and child care benefit increases, free hospital treatment for seniors and the purchase of the Tasmanian old-growth forests. Labor applied to a federal election the policies and rhetoric that worked for it so well at state and territory elections and failed catastrophically.

The voters simply could not countenance Mummy running Daddy’s business. The 2004 election campaign conclusively demonstrated that the broad Labor movement has neither the wish nor the intellectual capacity to take on the burdens of national government, preferring instead the quiet life in its apparently secure provincial fortresses. But, after a decade of political and economic stability, there is every sign that the foundations of this successful marriage are quickly eroding.

Both parents have become increasingly raddled cross-dressers.

Committed to paying their public sector workforces while balancing their budgets, the state and territory governments will find that not even the GST revenues can meet the need to maintain, let alone expand and rebuild vital infrastructure. The state and territory governments are being forced to go into debt, and to raise taxes just to keep services going, with little scope for improving them without substantial further increases in taxes and charges.

Meanwhile, Daddy has become a little too addicted to dressing up in Mummy’s clothes. Not content to simply levy taxes, strike trade agreements and engage in foreign military expeditions, the federal government is becoming increasingly entwined in the infinitely thorny question of delivering human services. In education, for example, the Howard government is creating a Whitlamesque structure of twenty four federally funded and controlled technical education colleges that will bypass state and territory education structures, and the education unions.

But just over the horizon, history’s tsunami is gathering speed and strength. Australians are becoming aware of serious economic, social, demographic and environmental challenges. Income taxes are too high. The overall tax take is rising too fast. Spending on infrastructure is too low. The quality of delivered state services is falling. Consumer debt is massive. We are rapidly running out of skilled workforce upon which high growth depends. There is a rapidly emerging crisis not so much in the availability of water, but the costs of its supply and use. And we urgently need to reduce the age profile of our population by a mixture of increased immigration and higher birth-rates.

To respond to these immense threats, an Australian national system of government is coming into being under which the state and territory governments will in practice, if not constitutional fact, be subsumed into one structure of government controlled by Canberra. Faced with the inexorable grinding force of the problems confronting a small, ageing and indebted Australian population, the race is on for one political movement to emerge as the dominant dynamic political force in 21st century Australia. Labor seems paralysed, unable and unwilling to transcend, if not betray, its history to become the natural party of such a new integrated national government.
It simply cannot convincingly make itself over to embrace small government, low personal taxation, competition, privatisation, globalisation, high immigration, labour market flexibility and mobility and, paradoxically, the abandonment of balanced budgeting and aversion to deficit spending that will fund the transition to a renovated, reconstructed Australia.

Rather, the emerging new political order seems as if it will be constructed on Liberal foundations. Less shackled by rigid orthodoxy and outmoded structures, far less imprisoned by its history and fetishist worship of its icons, the Liberals are more eager to contemplate and implement truly radical reforms. Left alone on the only political playing field that really matters, the Liberals are poised to become the Fusion party of the 21st century, and to preside over the inevitable emergence of a truly integrated and unified Australian national government.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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