The ALP – So 20th Century?


What does Labor actually stand for?

The issue of what — if anything — the Australian Labor Party truly, genuinely stands for is therefore the second big lesson to emerge from this year’s election. The problem is not that the ALP doesn’t stand for anything: it does, as Julia Gillard has repeatedly spelt out. Personally, Gillard says she believes in hard work, the value of education, quality health and human services, and an economy strong enough to provide the tax revenue to pay for them. As for Labor, its party platform is freely available online.

The real problem in the "what does Labor stand for?" debate is that whatever Labor says it stands for, many voters simply don’t believe it. There is a reason for this: in a series of federal and state elections, Labor has shown itself to be all too ready to abandon core principles and follow the conservative parties in a race to the bottom. It’s not as though Kevin Rudd was removed over a matter of principle. He was removed because Labor feared it would lose the federal election.

Of course, under Kevin Rudd, Labor backflipped on one of its key 2007 election promises on climate change. It also caved on the issue of asylum seeker processing. Most of the other big-picture policies of its first term like the mining tax, the NBN and the schools stimulus program became mired in controversy after Labor lost control of its messaging and communications. The relentless deal-cutting and micro-targeting of Labor’s 2010 election policies only reinforced the perception that Labor’s real policy agenda is driven by the need to retain power.

On a longer timeframe, it’s easy to see how Labor has drifted rightwards from its social democratic moorings since the 1980s. For many in Labor’s powerful Right factions, free market principles such as privatisation, deregulation, free trade and "fiscal conservatism" are articles of faith. So is the alliance with the US. If you combine the economic and foreign policy orthodoxy that Labor has long aspired to with its general timidity on progressive social issues like gay marriage and refugee policy, it’s not surprising the ALP is leaking left-leaning voters to the Greens.

Drill down into the policy particulars, and you’ll find Labor has been surprisingly timid in all manner of areas. This week’s backdown by Gillard on funding for a pay rise for community workers — justified on the grounds of keeping the budget in surplus — is a perfect example. This is an issue many assumed would be dear to Julia Gillard’s heart. It’s also something the government can easily afford if it really wants to — for instance by finding savings in other parts of the budget. Instead, the government is arguing against the wage claim with Fair Work Australia.

Another example is the government’s strange decision to continue and extend "income management", whereby it withholds half a citizen’s welfare payment for government-mandated essentials like food and rent. Protecting the entitlements of the socially disadvantaged should be a no-brainer for a Labor government. Yet the relevant minister, Jenny Macklin, a politician supposedly steeped in the values of social democracy, has somehow convinced herself she is making a tough decision.

Then there’s school’s policy, where Labor finds it all too easy to bow to received wisdom at the expense of what should be a "core Labor value": public education. The federal government still gives more public funding to private schools than it does to public schools — more money, in fact, than it gives to universities. The powerful Catholic and independent schools lobby is driving policy here, not the needs of Australian students, the majority of whom are educated in government schools.

Of course, it’s not just the policies. Labor’s really big problem remains communication. It is a commonplace observation by journalists and commentators that Labor has trouble selling its policies. But just because every keeps saying it doesn’t make it any less true.

The woeful handling of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s report on water allocations was symptomatic. It was an open secret in water policy circles that the Authority would recommend harsh cuts to many irrigating regions. The awful maths of water over-allocation means that if the Murray is to live, then farmers must make do with less water. Labor should have known this and spent far more time and effort making the obvious case for more water for the environment. But new Water Minister Tony Burke was ambushed by the Authority’s fundings and the inevitable community backlash. The story could have been "Save the Murray-Darling." Instead it was "Save the irrigators."

The National Broadband Network is another case in point. This is the policy that probably got Labor over the line with the country independents, so in many ways it is responsible for keeping Labor in government. The policy was probably a net vote-winner in August. The economic and social benefits of this project should be easy to sell: one of the hottest movies on the planet right now is "The Social Network" — a move about the internet. Meanwhile Labor struggles to sell faster internet.

One of the reasons Labor struggles so much is pretty obvious: entrenched opposition from many sections of the mainstream media. The implacable antagonism of The Australian under Chris Mitchell has been a given for some time, but the problem for Labor is that The Australian and its sister publications tend to set the agenda for much of the rest of the news media. Even Fairfax and ABC journalists can be found repeating lines of questioning that originate with The Australian, and which would be ignored without the deafening alarums of Mitchell’s sub-editors. Last week’s highly selective quoting of the OECD about the NBN is a perfect example: there are dozens of interesting things in the OECD’s report, but The Australian led with the one sentence that could be construed as a criticism of the NBN. (I don’t know about you, but don’t the OECD have other things to worry about just now? Like, say, Ireland?)

Labor’s communication difficulties are mostly of its own making, but the constant and influential distortion from the Murdoch press is a contributing factor. I don’t intend to start another fight with the touchy inhabitants of Rupert Murdoch’s print empire, but rather to point out that the media affects politics in this country, and one of its most significant effects is to skew policy debates.

This is the second of a three part series on Australian politics by Ben Eltham. Read the first installment here.

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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.