What Happened To Labor's Soul?


It's the last week of a campaign in which a record three million voters have already voted. Why did so many decide to vote before the campaign was over? Why is so much of the electorate either switching parties or switching off?

Some clues! On Q and A, a young woman, defining herself as once rusted on Labor, asked Rudd why should she now vote ALP? She wasn't content with his answer. The ALP have moved to the right, she thought, and she saw Rudd and Abbott as too similar. As Paul Keating said, why would voters go to the photocopiers?

I've been listening to the vox pops – selective I know – but interesting nonetheless, as they don't reflect the official "debates". Very few ever mention a particular policy unless prompted. Most responses are judgements of least worst options: who they don’t want to vote for. Personality, character, motives, attitudes and other non policy judgments are more important – suggesting that votes will be distributed on feelings, not on calculated benefits. There is not enough perceived difference in policies to grab attention away from the tactics of both major parties.

Yes, there are policy differences, but they don't put fire in your belly! Labor, in particular, tried too hard to woo the "workers" who they felt they had lost, by pushing more money in their pockets. By punishing some focus-group-identified scapegoats, the ALP turned off the fair-go true believers, but failed to buy the fickle consumer voter.

The question of what makes people vote for a person or party is hard to determine. Pre and post hoc research can map correlations – eg more or fewer voted for the party with policy X, but was policy X really why most actually cast their ballot? As a researcher, I know that people’s answers to questions often reflect what they think they ought to say. We want to sound rational, even when not, so claiming economic drivers is better than acknowledging "basically they both give me the shits but this lot less so!"

Listen carefully to what people say unprompted. They'll pick the less problematic of the two major parties. Those who want positive reasons can’t find the differences, so switch off. The race to the bottom may be seen as annoying among the so-called latte drinkers – like me – but the lack of any feel-good policies can be bring about a more general malaise.

This scurrying to the presumed self-interested middle reduces the branded differences between the "products" on offer and it suggests the "vendor's" only interest is power, not good policy. "Whatever it takes" as an approach doesn't suggest integrity or competence in office. I remember the late Peter Andren telling me, why he held conservative local votes despite his radical views on asylum seekers. They said they disagreed on that issue but wanted a representative with integrity, so voted for him.

The ALP has tried too hard to be the Coalition. Their critiques are all scare tactics – despite signalling an end to the "old politics of negativity". How do voters engage seriously witth the prospect of a schedule of cuts under Abbott?

The focus on the economy has ended up with a range of targeted bribes but no overarching vision to excite the "punters". The whole process suggests a deep disrespect for voters and assumes the public is venal. The resulting lack of difference on policies allows voters to punish them for lack of character, discord and factional game playing.

In 1949, Ben Chifley delivered his Light on the Hill speech, as a plea to a fracturing party that was condemned to 24 years in opposition:

"I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labour movement would not be worth fighting for."

This is a lesson the current ALP needs to hear. The Greens have picked up some of what the Labor used to offer. That has created great enmity, as the Left always hates its closest competitor. But the Greens are yet to offer a sufficiently articulated vision – they are still only presenting individual bits of policy, and good, carefully costed ideas. They deserve encouragement and a vote in the Senate. They could perform a very useful third party function if they hold the balance of power – but only if the opposition actually opposes.

The plethora of minor parties may confuse things. In particular, Palmer and Katter are scary: they signal a return to divisive populism, simplistic appeals to emotion, and the possibility of abandoning evidence-based policies altogether.

There is a serious sense of disengagement that bodes ill for those who might suffer under the new arrangements: the 20,000-plus unprocessed asylum seekers, those about to be sent offshore, the sole parents and others on inadequate Newstart, and those who will soon join them. We can’t afford the many voters who feel there is no point in political activity. No one who is likely to have power will represent their views. Those of us want a fairer and better society need to start working on better options for the next election. We need to be better advocates than we have been!  

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.