Where To Now For Progressive Politics?

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Some events don't happen when they're meant to happen. The 2013 election looks like being on those events. Officially slated for 14 September, the federal election is essentially already over.

New Matilda's readers are a discerning lot, and they tend to get annoyed by ceaseless reference to opinion polls. Unfortunately, politicians can read an opinion poll just like anyone else, and most in Australia's political classes have drawn the obvious conclusion. Labor is toast, and everyone knows it.

Consequently, an air of inevitability pervades all discussions of the forthcoming contest. Press gallery journalists, never particularly interested in policy particulars, are now in the rather enjoyable position of speculating about just how devastating Labor's landslide will be. The ABC's Barrie Cassidy labelled the election campaign a “handover” earlier this week. “Never before has there been this level of expectation that a government is about to be thrown out,” he wrote, and it's hard to disagree.

This sense of imminent catastrophe explains why internal discipline has again broken down. This week's vaudeville turn from Joel Fitzgibbon (a man who was once Australia's Minister for Defence, let us remember), who enjoyed a joke at the expense of the talking points from Gillard HQ, was only one of a number of examples of Labor MPs “freelancing”, as the politicos sometimes call it.

Also throwing their two cents in were left faction Senator Doug Cameron (“Why should I just take a view that some kid in, you know, in the media department of some minister or the PMO is telling me what I should say?”) and long time factional hack Laurie Ferguson (“We are dead in western Sydney"). Marginal seat holder Graham Perret chimed in with a reference to popular culture. “We're in more trouble than Indiana Jones,” he said this week.

The dawning realisation that Labor can't win has come earlier to some than to others. True believers in the Prime Minister's office appear determined, like Macbeth when confronted by Macduff, to throw down their shields and “try the last”. And many ordinary voters are filled with dismay and anger at the slow disintegration of a government they believed in.

Meanwhile, Labor MPs Daryl Melham and Alan Griffin are packing up their offices. “If I'm unsuccessful I don't want to be coming back up here,” Griffin told Fairfax's James Robertson. Griffin is on an 8 per cent margin in his outer Melbourne seat of Bruce, an electorate that takes in some true battler suburbs like Dandenong. If he is starting to fill cardboard boxes, morale is clearly dwindling.

What then do we make of the next hundred days? For the Coalition, it's really a matter of not stuffing it up. Triumphalism is surging from the backbench and around the right wing blogosphere, and that's only likely to magnify as we move towards spring. For all Tony Abbott's Mount Everest metaphors, many Coalition politicians clearly see themselves approaching a victory lap. That is likely to store up trouble for the Coalition down the track. Cory Bernardi's invocations on climate change on Q and A on Monday night, for instance, appeared to contradict some of Greg Hunt's statements on climate policy.

The Greens are running, sensibly, on a “keep the bastards honest” platform, as Christine Milne told the Guardian's Lenore Taylor today. The party's vote nationally is a couple of points down on its historic levels of 2010, and the sky-high conservative vote registered in recent polls puts a number of its better known senators in jeopardy. WA Senator Scott Ludlam appears unlikely to win, while Senator Sarah Hanson-Young's fate is the hands of South Australian independent Nick Xenophon and his preference flows.

On the other hand, the Greens might be able to pick up a second Victorian senator, perhaps off the back of a good showing from Julian Assange. If the Greens can save Hanson-Young and pick up that Victorian spot, the minor party is a good chance to retain a key blocking position in the next Senate. A poor result, however, will see the balance of power in the Senate held by John Madigan or a member of Bob Katter's Australian Party, and will have many predicting the environmental party's doom.

For Labor, doom is more imminent. The party looks set to be reduced to a rump of perhaps 30 or 40 lower house MPs. They will be an odd assortment of union hacks, time servers and factional players, plus at least two former prime ministers in the form of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. The left of the party will probably be strengthened, because left-faction figures like Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese will probably retain their inner-city seats, while much of the right in suburban seats will be swept away in a blue Coalition tide. A lot of talent will depart the parliamentary party, including right faction hopefuls like Chris Bowen, often spoken about as a future leader.

That will leave an ALP reduced to its true base; a party representing institutional trade union power – a rump that, without substantial internal reform, will be fundamentally unelectable in the medium-term. The union bosses appear in no hurry to reform themselves out of a job. Given the likely decision to parachute right-faction “faceless man” David Feeney into Martin Ferguson's safe Melbourne seat of Batman, internal reform appears as far away as ever.

So for Australians committed to a more progressive future, some hard thinking about the future of left-of-centre politics will be required.

Labor's challenges will be many: it will have to rebuild in a way that allows it to again serve as a glue for diverse electoral coalitions to coalesce around, not just its dwindling base amongst trade union members and middle-class, left-leaning professionals, but more broadly amongst small businesspeople, young families and older Australians — groups that the Coalition has comprehensively won over.

A further challenge for a rebuilding Labor will be to articulate its position about contemporary capitalism. Labor in office has been exceedingly neoliberal, for little gain. The party has managed the economy in a responsible and orthodox fashion, but voters think it has done a terrible job. Deciding exactly what the 21st century ALP believes in is now a pressing priority. Is it markets or people? Is it a safe planet, or jobs in the coal industry? Is it free markets and flexibility, or is it about social values that transcend the almighty dollar? Australia is entering a new economic era; the easy money from high commodity prices is over. The party will have to stand for something more coherent than the Hawke-Keating reforms and a residual welfare state if is to recapture the intellectual leadership of Australian public life.

Another issue is what to do about the Greens. The ALP has essentially two options. One is to wholeheartedly embrace environmentalism, accept that climate change is the key issue of the 21st century, and abandon the pro-market rhetoric of much of the last 30 years. This would quickly destroy the Greens as a viable political force in Australia. But it is a strategy few in the party's right would be willing to countenance. If Labor is to continue to believe in free markets and fossil fuels, then it will need to reach some kind of accommodation with the minor party, which will continue to make gains in Labor's inner-city heartland. In the long term, some kind of informal coalition agreement might make the most sense.

One of Labor's biggest challenges will be in defending the record and legacy of the Rudd-Gillard government, which has seen admirable and historically significant pubic policy reforms. This government has been terrible at articulating its achievements in office, while in office, but perhaps a spell in opposition will help Labor rediscover some its progressive zeal. Labor, in fact, has much to be proud of, and much to build from towards a competitive race in 2019.

And it will be 2019 or 2020 before Labor has a chance at office again. The party – and those who believe in a more progressive Australian democracy – will have plenty of time to lick their wounds.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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