Sunday, May 20, 2012

What's Wrong with Labor?

Not far beyond the half-way mark in the Gillard government, the consensus seems to be that the parliament has been nothing short of chaotic: scandal upon scandal, lie after lie. Pundits agree that this government is magnificently dysfunctional, when in fact, the Gillard Government has been passing legislation with quiet regularity. And yet, they have all but lost the election that won't be held for another twelve months or so.

The possibility that the ALP could win the next federal election lacks credibility in most quarters, and the newest national sport is hypothesising on what killed the Labor Party, and for those from the left, how to fix it.

Conservative commentator Chris Kenny proposed via on Twitter on May 15 that the ALP's woes are the result of being poll-driven.

Labor's whole problem is it is poll driven - even the claim it is not poll driven is poll driven #auspol
Bill Kelty, one of the godfathers of the Left, suggested to this week's ACTU Congress that they should look within: "...when he advised delegates not to blame the media or opposition because they are just doing their job, the meaning for all of us is that we control our own destiny with our own behaviour." There's more than a grain of truth there, but it's an insider's truth, not the whole truth.

Brisbane commentator Madonna King had a look at the situation in yesterday's Courier Mail. "Voters aren't taken with Tony Abbott, and they've now turned off listening to Julia Gillard." Ms King is correct, as far as she goes, but there's so much more to it, and Bill Kelty nudges it when he talks about making policy simpler for the electorate to understand and embrace.

For Labor, there is no easy answer, no single cause, and no silver bullet. An extraordinary convergence of events and personalities has conspired the Australian Labor Party with its pants on.

Circumstantial shots were fired by the GFC, ensuring that the Labor Governments of Rudd and Gillard would face economic challenges not predicted in the promise-filled days of campaigning. After years of Howard/Costello Budget Bonbons and Surpluses, the electorate was confused by talk of recession combined with stimulus handouts. It was seen as wasting our precious surplus when we needed it most.

History has shown that Wayne Swan's economic leadership through the darkest days of the GFC was masterful. Had he taken us in a different direction, Australia could well be fighting Greece and Spain for the title of Loser of the Week. But as the ALP has learned, it's almost impossible to get that triumphant economic message out.

Factors 2 and 3 in the ALP Real Life Disaster Movie are the Coalition and Media. Bill Kelty cautioned unionists not to blame the Opposition or the media, but it's foolish to discount their impact. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is a skilled No-man, with a team of committed No-People behind him. So relentless, so fascinating is the Coalition's ability to undermine every Labor achievement, the media has no choice but to cover it, particularly when our articulate government ministers seek out a microphone and react every time the Noalition says anything. This is Labor allowing the Opposition to control the national agenda.

Who are the big media names in this country, the commentators with a personal following? Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, Andrew Bolt, Piers Ackerman, each of them aggressively conservative, with anti-refugee, anti-climate change, anti-gay rights agendas. There is no left-leaning equivalent with anything approaching the reach of these men.

Add to that Today Tonight and A Current Affair. They may not be overtly political, yet their lowest common denominator stories about undeserving asylum seekers living the good life, dodgy public officials and the appalling cost of everything, feed into the anti-government sentiment. Even as I write this blog, Today Tonight is promoting noted xenophobe Pauline Hanson's guest-starring role this week as another Caucasian making you mad at people who look like me.

Chris Kenny, journalist and Liberal party operative, suggests that the ALP downfall is because it is poll-driven. The assassination of Kevin Rudd's Prime Ministership had an element of poll-reliance to it, yet those poll numbers that Rudd had in mid-2010 would be a dream come true for Labor now. Why hasn't the ALP benched Julia Gillard? Perhaps they aren't as poll-driven now as they were two years ago.

What else do the polls tell us? Concern about the economy trumps all other policy areas, despite Australia's world-beating financial status. The latest Morgan poll on issues doesn't seem to determine ALP focus, but it does reflect the agendas of the right wing shock jocks.

Does all of this suggest that the Coalition is simply better at getting their message out via traditional means than Labor is?

The final, most disastrous element in the ALP's decline is the simple truth that the Party and it's traditional base are separated by an ever-widening ideological gulf. Bob Hawke can sing all the union anthems in the world, but it doesn't mean anything to the unionists who see "their" ALP slow-dancing with policies so far to the right that even Malcolm Fraser has to swivel his head to see them.

So there they sit, disgruntled unionists, disillusioned greenies, disenfranchised lefties of all kinds, wondering where their party went. Polls, media, an obstructionist opposition, a hung parliament, the GFC, climate change, asylum seekers and the rise in popularity of the raspberry macaron notwithstanding, the base is still there, where they've been all along. The ALP chased the centre, and in doing so, moved so far to the right that it's unrecognisable to grass roots lefties like me.

How does Labor fix the problem? Start by turning 180 degrees to the left and peering into the distance. There's literally hundreds of thousands of Aussies over here who'd like to have a chat.



  1. Oh, I like that final line especially. Nailed it again Sal, nailed it again.

  2. Everyone is writing Labor off federally. Have we learnt nothing from our CanDoLife?

  3. We've learned nothing from our two months of CanDoiness, or from NSW's experience with Barry O'Farrell, or from Victoria's experience with Ted the Toff. Last week's Galaxy Poll showed Queensland support for Federal Labor at 23%. There's way more pain to come.