A plan for Labor


Sydney has been going through one of those horrible Indian summers. I mean, here it is, almost July, and I’ve only just started wearing woollens.

The nights are the worst. You start off snuggling under a heavy quilt because it’s supposed to be winter, only to throw it off in a sweaty fit in the middle of the night. At about 5 a.m. you wake up in pitch black, shivering under a thin blanket, and remembering that old home truth “ it’s always darkest before the dawn.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

I often remind myself of this old adage as we inch closer to 1 July, the day that John Howard, the most right-wing prime minister this country has endured, assumes total control of the Australian parliament.

Sure, it won’t be pretty. But I hope that somewhere a Labor Party advertising firm has salvaged the television footage of Ron Boswell, the likeable if perpetually confused old duffer who leads the Nationals in the senate, informing John Howard of the results of the count for the final senate seat in Queensland. ‘Prime minister, you have control of the senate,’ he chortled down the phone last October, before adding ominously, ‘Open sesame.’

Open sesame, indeed. Labor would have to plumb new depths of political ineptitude not to make something “ and something big “ out of that almighty hint about the plans that Howard and the Tories have for Australia. I hesitate to sound like a new-age life coach, but the Left should look upon Howard’s new dominance not as a defeat but as an opportunity. It’s a chance to draw the sharpest possible distinction between an all-powerful government doing the bidding of corporate Australia and a progressive movement defending the vulnerable.

So please find attached a simple three-step plan for making Labor relevant again.

¢ Know Thyself

It was my old school motto and about the only thing of value that I salvaged from a high school education corrupted by the early stages of post-modernism.

Labor must settle on a canon of non-negotiable principles that distinguish it from the conservatives. We can no longer be a one-ideology state. A senior staffer in Beazley’s office told me recently that it was ‘very hard to define yourself in opposition’. Bullshit. The proof is, I hate to say, Howard himself.

Throughout the eighties, Howard in opposition was as marginalised as Labor is today. Under a succession of left-leaning leaders “ Janine Haines, John Coulter, Janet Powell and Cheryl Kernot (the most talented of all but wasted by an ungrateful Labor Party after her 1997 defection) “ the Democrats, in coalition with Labor, gave the senate a near permanent centre-left majority.

And yet Howard did not run to the centre on policy but bolted to the Right, dragging Labor with him, advocating the sale of the people’s assets and deregulation of the labour market. He identified himself with five things that were not so much policies as attitudes. They were all wrong but they were unmistakably his own: smashing the rights of unions and workers, degrading our iconic national health system, coercing women out of the workplace and back into the home, broadening the tax base to lighten the load on his super-wealthy backers, and reducing Asian immigration. All except the last idea were generally unpopular but Howard was perceived to stand for something. (Paradoxically, cutting immigration is the one belief he has abandoned, happy, as he is, to welcome the money that wealthy business migrants bring).

In RSL clubs across the country “ and as a rookie reporter in the late eighties I spent a lot of time interviewing old-timers “ you could hear them muttering into their beers. ‘You may not agree with the little bugger on everything, but at least you know where he stands.’

Howard’s greatest achievement as a powerless and unpopular opposition leader “ remember The Bulletin cover, ‘Mr 17 per cent. Why does this man bother?’ “ was to make the Labor Party ashamed of, and defensive about, its own values. As Bob Hawke and Paul Keating scrambled to privatise and trim spending, Howard was, in the words of the American self-help author John Maxwell, ‘failing forward’.

Don’t tell me it can’t be done.

¢ Know thine enemy.

It’s time to decide. Whose side are you on? After the 2004 election defeat we witnessed the unseemly spectacle of Labor rushing into the bosom of big business. Bernard Lagan’s brilliant book on the tragedy of the Mark Latham leadership experiment “ and I use the word tragedy in its classical sense, of (potential) greatness brought low “ is rumoured to contain an instructive anecdote.

One night Latham was invited to attend a top-of-the-town fundraiser at the home of a wealthy executive. As he stepped from his car and surveyed the palatial pile, Latham is supposed to have turned to the executive and asked: ‘Who did you have to rip off to get this?’ When the anecdote found its way into the press a few months ago, our corporate friendly commentators reported Latham’s comment like it was a bad thing, shrieking about his lack of deference to our business elite!

But where, pray tell, did they, and the Labor modernisers, get the idea that corporations and executives were popular? They would do well to study the entrails of two major, authoritative surveys released earlier this year.

The Eye on Australia survey of 500 people found that 55 per cent of Australians think corporations have neither morals nor ethics and two thirds of people simply do not trust big companies. An even broader study, of 1700 people, by the social research school at the Australian National University was even more damning. Seventy-one per cent of people think corporations have too much power, while less than 40 per cent believe the same of trade unions.

This is not a country that deifies its business titans. Some Australians may have bathed in champagne in 1983 when Perth ‘entrepreneur’ Alan Bond helped bankroll the yacht that won the America’s Cup; others raised their Moet in 1992 when he went to jail, convicted over the Rothwells collapse.

Employees still resent the sweeping power over their destiny that executives hold, just as small business owners, subcontractors and farmers fear being squashed by corporate behemoths in a marketplace where economic might is ever more concentrated.

¢ Know thine history.

Howard’s solemn promises at the weekend that he would not use his sweeping powers ‘wantonly or capriciously’ ring hollow. For years he has disparaged his Liberal predecessor, Malcolm Fraser, for treading lightly when the Coalition won control of the senate in the late seventies. He is salivating over the prospect of slashing minimum wages, handing the international money shufflers the remnants of our national telecommunications industry and surrendering even more influence to the media barons. There will be no restraint.

And therein lies the opportunity for Labor. History tells us that when governments are endowed with such awesome power, and puffed up with such arrogant triumphalism, they inevitably overreach. And so it will be with Howard.

Yes, it’s always darkest before the dawn.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.