Monday, March 26, 2012

Labor - Whatever That Means

It’s 2012, and I’m struggling to define the ALP, or even recognise it. For over a century, the ALP has been Australia’s party of the left; an inclusive party of workers, for workers. I’m not sure it can claim that description any more, although it is still marginally to the left of the Nationals and the Liberal Party.

Just two days ago, Queensland voted to change governments, from the ALP to the LNP, in a victory from which Labor may not emerge. Vanquished Premier Anna Bligh has removed herself from the game, forcing a by-election in South Brisbane. Defeated ALP members are thick on the ground, yet they aren’t volunteering to lead the handful or so Labor members that survived Saturday’s massacre. Both Andrew Fraser – expected to be the next leader – and Grace Grace have confirmed that they won’t contest.

It’s not just Queensland. The entire eastern seaboard has rejected their long-serving ALP Governments and replaced them with Liberal/National Party Coalition Governments, or in the case of Queensland, the LNP.

On the federal level, Julia Gillard just scraped back into power with the assistance of the independents and Greens. She is phenomenally unpopular, and as was the case with Anna Bligh in 2009, snuck back into power in part due to an Opposition that was perceived to be worse than the Labor alternative. The Federal term has just passed the half-way mark. If Labor is to recover, it must start now.

Labor was never going to win these elections, and one has to assume that under Julia Gillard, the Federal ALP will fall too. The inevitable Labor soul-searching at all levels will be deep and it will hurt.

Can the ALP redefine itself, rebuild, and sell its new message before the next Federal Election is due in the second half of 2013?

The question was posed on Twitter yesterday:

“What did we (the ALP) do wrong?”

Contrary to Tony Abbott’s beliefs, the Queensland election was not a referendum on the Carbon Tax or the Mining Resources Rent Tax. Exit polling indicates that this election was fought on state issues, with Cost of Living topping the list.

The first of the two big issues for the Bligh Government was the attention span. The LNP campaign theme ignored all of the issues and emphasised the length of time Labor had been in power. Anything over ten years, and the electorate will start thinking about change. The Bligh Government should have been defeated in 2009, and would’ve been, had the Opposition been able to mount a coherent campaign with a charismatic leader.

The second issue is the Bligh Government’s perceived mismanagement of the Queensland Economy. A great deal was made of Queensland’s downgraded credit rating, and Premier Bligh’s decision to sell state assets, coupled with impressive increases in electricity charges and car registration costs. Even though it was back in 2009 that the asset sales were announced, that decision is still a talking point. Queenslanders have never forgiven Ms Bligh for that.

I’m one of the few who would back Ms Bligh’s decision to sell those assets. Why? Because the Queensland economy is reliant on mining and tourism, and both took an enormous hit during the depth of the GFC. Would anyone care to guess where our credit rating would be had we not realised the additional funds from those asset sales?

There were other issues, of course: the ongoing issues with the Queensland Health payroll system made the department – and hence the government - look incompetent. Jayent Patel’s trial during this parliamentary term just added to the perception of a key department in crisis. The Gordon Nuttal trial and sentencing was another blow.

Finally, there was the intense negative campaigning from the ALP, direct at Campbell Newman and his family’s financial affairs. There were, and still are, some questions I’d like to see answered; those questions were both relevant and timely. But they were also personal, they were aggressive, they were negative, and Australians don’t like that style of campaigning.

It doesn’t matter how much time the ALP organisation spends contemplating its belly button, knowing what went wrong with the Queensland elections won’t help it win the Federal Election next year.

The first hurdle in rebuilding Labor is for Labor – by which I mean it’s members – to decide what it wants to be. Are the values that Labor built on a century ago still relevant? Should Labor reconnect with it’s Union roots, or is there a new vision? Given how far the ALP of the 21st Century is from its unionist / socialist roots, should it try to regain it’s base, or try to build a new one?

There’s an impressive gap between the ALP and the Greens, the two parties which are perceived as being left in today’s environment. Check out the Political Compass. In 2010, the ALP was considered to be Centre-Right, and the greens slightly left of centre. There’s an opportunity there, pretty close to the centre of the political map, and I suspect that if we were to examine the values of “old Labor”, it would fill that gap quite well.

The three major parties are now crowded together with little to differentiate between them. It’s worth considering that if the major parties could demonstrate genuine ideological and policy differences, they would be better placed to campaign without the personal mudslinging and negativity.

But for now, there’s no party to represent those of us who favour a conservative approach to economics, but a more progressive social agenda. The balance of power is tilting ever so slightly away from the Capitalist/Christian paradigm that defined the 20th century. Role models from Ghandi to the Dalai Lama to Nelson Mandela would be unrepresented in Canberra. That must be a consideration for anyone developing an ideology in this, the”Asian Century”.

If there is one ray of hope to come from Labor’s ensanguined result in Queensland, it’s this: their destiny is within their control. They must take this opportunity to become meaningful again.

Whatever that means.

The answers only take us half way.

1 comment:

  1. "The inevitable Labor soul-searching at all levels will be deep and it will hurt."

    I suspect it won't be. And I suspect that's the problem.