Centre ground reform shows the way


The problem with the ALP is that it has lost connection with outer-suburban electorates on the centre-right and cannot reconnect with them. Given an increasing trend to investment in the property and stock markets, it must appeal to these sentiments as well as its traditional base to win the centre ground of politics.

As John Howard’s industrial relations reform moves the government to the right, the ALP should capture the sentiment that the extent of the reforms are unfair and unnecessary. But as the1998 and 2001 elections showed, the ALP may lose this sentiment if it tailors its response to its traditional constituency at the expense of mainstream opinion.

The Patrick Stevedores dispute displays the ALP problems in seeking the centre-ground on workplace issues. Most of Australia had sympathy with the dock-workers but not the unproductive work methods of the MUA. The ALP needed a message that could capture this position with a reform agenda that was fairer than the Liberal’s offering. This could summarise the current debate on industrial relations reform “ it’s a massive opportunity for Labor to win the centre ground if it takes on fairer and better reform than John Howard’s.

In recent times the media has claimed Beazley’s stand on tax is a blunder: however from a longer term perspective any leader, be it Beazley or Latham, can create a policy on the run but can they deliver a taxation framework which outer-suburban voters identify with. In such a framework, Beazley must identify a set of principles that support both progressive taxation and investment returns in equal measure.

The ALP recognises a need to balance the aspirations of the middle ground investment voters with its traditional base. However, it has problems in delivering policy that is popular with both groups. Wayne Swann has identified wealth creation as an important goal and Beazley’s tax proposal was more aspirational than many thought with a top tax bracket starting at $100 000. Whether this has resonated is yet to be established.

Paul Keating, as usual, advocates working towards a more radical approach and his view is well considered that having a top rate with a three in front of it would create definition among all groups who aspire to participate in the Australian economy. Ross Garnaut outlined a similar position on reducing the top tax bracket and both claim it would reduce the benefits of tax evasion by the wealthy.

However, in the 1998 and 2001 campaigns Beazley failed to identify that pro-market reform economics of the kind Labor pioneered in the 1980s would still give Labor credibility. Those tax reforms – currency float, finance sector reforms, reductions in tariffs, increases in research and development, and the modernising of education and public health – delivered the Australian economy on which Howard takes credit and this legacy must be fought over by Labor to establish its credibility. Since the recession of 1992 it has not wanted to accept it. Labor must engage with an Australia that is more successful today because of those decisions and continue arguing for centre ground reform to add to this legacy.

To finally compete on equal terms with the Liberals, the ALP needs to address its pre-selection problems. It has too many candidates who are not vote winners. While Peter Garrett may have been recognised, he is not the candidate in mind: Labor needs more centre-ground candidates in the mould of Peter Beattie to really compete hard in marginal seats. With the Liberal Party drafting high profile candidates with good electoral profiles, the ALP has started from second place in many marginal seat campaigns.

It may take primary pre-selection to achieve the best candidates for centre-ground reform. This would be a formula that is more likely to win against Jackie Kelly or Trish Draper as opposed to the current practice of pre-selecting candidates from a narrow union movement base.

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