Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mr Whitlam

This week Gough Whitlam turns 96, and aside from the sadness of the birthday without his late wife Margaret, Mr Whitlam will look back across the past half-century and wonder what the hell happened to the once great Australian Labor Party. He is not alone

This year also marks 40 years since Gough’s audacious strategy to woo middle class voters secured him the Prime Ministership in 1972. In the late 1960s, Whitlam recognised that in order to win government, he would need to attract middle class voters who had favoured the Liberal Party since the late 1940s, while at the same time, retaining the loyalty of traditional Labor voters from the factories and mines and shopfloors. 

Regrettably, E.G. Whitlam will always be remembered first for The Dismissal, that ferocious time in our political history which could have seen the death of the Labor Party. Labor endured, much to my grandfather's disappointment, and governed again under Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, yet right now, Labor’s future looks about as desolate as it did back in November 1975 when Sir John Kerr terminated Whitlam’s political career.

Gough Whitlam is probably in the best position of anyone to explain the desperate situation of the ALP in 2012, and possibly, to structure another miracle comeback. After all, he’s the one that started the slow-dance with the middle classes...

The music stopped about 20 years ago yet the ALP kept on pirouetting to the right, from Government under Paul Keating into Opposition under a progression of lacklustre leaders: Beazley, Crean. Latham. The more successful Coalition Prime Minister John Howard was, the harder the ALP tried to emulate them.  As Whitlam had done prior to the 1972 election, Labor seemed to think that if they were more like the Coalition, if the offered positions more appealling to the middle classes, they could win. 

Again, Labor went after the middle class voters. The strategy probably would’ve succeeded in 2001 too, but September 11. We were, quite appropriately, scared by the world. Conventional wisdom suggests that the left's strengths are in education and welfare, while the right is about border protection, defence and the economy. Labor lost another one.

Take a look back over the past twenty years:  Labor’s one big success was Kevin-07. It was also the one time when the ALP differentiated itself from the policies of the right: Your Rights At Work successfully tore the heart out of Tony Abbott’s WorkChoices and once again aligned Labor with its working class origins and union-based sponsors. On the environment, Labor was talking about moral challenges and an ETS while the Libs were trying to decide if Climate Change was a global conspiracy. 

Surprisingly, Rudd is socially conservative, but that mattered less to many voters, and gave Labor a vital point of differentiation against the Greens, who now occupy a position on the continuum very similar to that occupied by Gough Whitlam in 1972.

The landscape is very different 40 years on. Tony Abbott leads the most popular political party in the land, while simultaneously surviving spectacular personal disapproval figures. He has company, though; Julia Gillard's personal approval numbers are as bad as Mr Abbott's. Both primary voting intention and two party preferred figures have Labor all but gone. 

The future of the Liberal Party looks even healthier when viewed through the one-dimensional lens of polling results. The two parties are trying to kill each other by fighting over the same slice of electoral real-estate; the slice traditionally belonging to the conservative right. The Coalition has the home-court advantage.

I wonder what Gough Whitlam, Elder Statesman of the ALP,  would say about this situation. He certainly wouldn't be advising his team to fight Tony Abbott for the middle class aspirational voters, and the Mining Executive Class. I think it might be a lot simpler...and a lot more complex.

When the primary vote would have to climb to reach one in three, admit you've lost your way. It's not about leadership or carbon tax or asylum seekers. It's about the people Labor left behind when they forgot to stop moving right. Labor can't be the government we need if they're in Opposition.

The least we can do would be to ask Mr Whitlam for his advice, and listen to the wisdom of his 96 years.

Happy Birthday, Mr Whitlam. 

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