Labor Myths In The Making

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As Labor stumbled out of the 2010 parliamentary sittings of the Gillard minority government, lost office in Victoria and looks forward to a March massacre in NSW, its apologists are busy inventing legends about the party in the early 21st century.

These apologists highlight the ALP’s supposed achievements in recent years. Circulated by the Party machine, Labor ministers such as Greg Combet, union leaders such as ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence, and ambitious academic sympathisers such as Tim Soutphommasane and Nick Dyrenfurth, they are likely to become authorised history, at least within the ALP — just as the self-justifications of earlier Labor governments did.

Unfortunately for Julia Gillard, they are mainly about Kevin Rudd’s government. But even these legends are about tokenistic, mendacious or cheap policies. Rudd certainly apologised to the Stolen Generations of Indigenous Australians. His government, on the other hand, also continued the racist Northern Territory Intervention that deprives Aborigines of rights and land. It dismantled the limited Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs that is the key to really closing the gap between Indigenous and other Australians in mortality and morbidity rates, education, and unemployment.

Labor supposedly saved Australia from the global financial crisis. Yet it can hardly claim credit for the large budget surplus that it inherited from the Howard Government and used to pay for much of the stimulus packages. Nor was Rudd responsible for buoyant Chinese demand for Australian mineral resources.

True, the Rudd government introduced public-funded, paid parental leave. The scheme is one of the least generous in rich countries. And both Tony Abbott and the Productivity Commission proposed more generous alternatives.

The key to the ALP’s victory in 2007 was the union movement’s Your Rights at Work campaign against Howard’s WorkChoices industrial relations legislation. While Labor dispensed with the name WorkChoices, Labor’s Fair Work law was aptly dubbed "WorkChoices Lite", by Victorian Electrical Trades Union secretary Dean Mighell, among others. Thanks to Gillard’s efforts when she was Minister for Workplace Relations, life is more difficult for unions and workers now than under Howard’s 1996 Workplace Relations Act.

Rudd did pull Australian forces out of Iraq, only to plunge more deeply into the US-led occupation of Afghanistan, propping up one bunch of drug-dealing warlords against another.

Despite the venom spraying across the House of Representatives chamber, there has been little difference between government and opposition, especially in foreign and economic policy. And, with a few brief exceptions, that’s been the Labor tradition since Federation. Like her predecessor and foreign minister Kevin Rudd, Gillard is painting foreign policy by numbers.

The guiding principles remain the profitability of business here and retaining great power support for Australia’s influence in south-east Asia and the south-western Pacific.

This was clear at the AUSMIN talks between US and Australian defence and foreign ministers and military chiefs, and Gillard’s recent outings to the G20 meeting in South Korea, the APEC gathering in Japan and the NATO summit in Portugal. She rejected the US call, directed against China, for restrictions on the size of countries’ trade surpluses and deficits. Gillard used lofty free trade rhetoric but the underlying logic of her position was that nothing should restrict the lucrative flow of minerals from Australia to China.

The close military ties between Australia and the United States are only getting closer. The blood sacrifice of Australian troops (their effectiveness and the Afghans they kill are secondary considerations) is worthwhile if it means the United States will be a more reliable supporter of what Australian governments do at home and in their own regional backyard.

That was the underlying concern in 1914 too, when Labor leader Andrew Fisher promised to commit to the "last man and last shilling" to Britain during World War I. Only a union revolt prevented the party from imposing conscription on Australia — at least until Billy Hughes’ tenure in 1916 — and drove leading politicians out of the ALP.

The differences between the ALP and the Liberals over the Vietnam War waxed and waned. But Labor’s support for the US alliance has been steadfast. The main concern of the party’s leadership was that involvement in the war was ill-judged and likely to weaken US prestige and power.

Labor’s commitment to attacking militant unions, with its continuation of the construction industry ABCC, and its so-called fiscal conservatism are nothing new. In line with conservative orthodoxies about sound management of the economy, the first Labor government in NSW, under Jim McGowen, attacked striking gas and waterside workers. During the Depression, Labor prime minister Jim Scullin and state Labor premiers cut public service pay and jobs.

John Curtin and Ben Chifley certainly expanded the Australian welfare state during the 1940s — but this was an essential trade-off for the imposition of income taxation on low-paid workers for the first time, in order to pay for the war effort.

Since the 1890s, Labor has had a base in the working class, through union affiliation, its members and voters — but has consistently served the interests of big business. Today, the party still has distinctive links with the working class, but they have declined in strength. Labor voters are much more likely to be workers than are supporters of the Coalition (or Greens). Half of the delegates at state and territory conferences of the party still come from unions. But the union movement is itself weak and the strike rate at an historically low level.

So the Gillard government is not under much pressure from workers and unions to change its conservative policies, given the low levels of industrial action and workers’ self-confidence. On the other hand, the state of the global economy and confidence of big business in Australia have a major influence on ALP policy, reinforcing ministers’ own conservative and pro-business predispositions. The party’s current difficulties are less the consequence of poor communications, as its leaders suggest, than of its actions.

This explains why Labor’s recent efforts to restore its credibility and to tell a story about itself that might be the stuff of future ALP myths have been so feeble and hesitant.

There may be a referendum on mentioning Indigenous Australians in the constitution. There will, according to the Gillard Government, first have to be consensus around the issue. Given the Coalition’s predilection for playing the race card, that rules out any substantive change. Interminable discussions about the constitution are, more importantly, likely to distract attention from the Northern Territory Intervention and the government’s opposition to Aboriginal self-determination.

In mid-October, the Government stated that it would move children and families seeking refugee status out of detention centres and into community accommodation. This will, however, not take place until June next year. Further, Labor will open two new detention centres to lock up almost 2000 more people. It also became apparent that children and families would actually be in community detention. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young helped sell this sleight of hand.

Of more substance has been the support by senior Labor figures – Doug Cameron and Stephen Jones on the Left, Mark Arbib and Paul Howes on the Right – for same sex marriage rights. But the Prime Minister is still adamantly opposed and the issue won’t be dealt with until the federal Labor conference, late next year.

The conservative foundations of the ALP’s approach have not changed; those who want an alternative to policies that put profits first will have to look beyond parliament.

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