Professor Dennis Altman
First published in The Conversation on 30 April, 2012.
Like Geoff Gallop I would like to believe the woes of the Gillard government are not also the death throes of the Labor Party, even after the debacle this weekend that saw Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper jettisoned from the Labor Party in parliament. But unlike Gallop, I don’t believe that Labor can revive itself through internal party reforms and appeals to “the working class”.
Leave aside the clumsiness of the Rudd/Gillard years and one sees Labor caught up in the same dilemma that has affected social democratic parties across the western world. The collapse of growth and confidence caused by the global financial crisis, which continues to drag on, most notably in southern Europe and the United States, should have benefited parties of the left, which have traditionally been more sceptical of unregulated capitalism.
This may still be the case in France, where Sarkozy will probably lose the Presidency, and even in the United States, where Obama is most likely to be re-elected, though without necessarily a majority in either chamber of Congress. But in most of the developed world, neither the parliamentary nor the extra-parliamentary left have offered persuasive solutions to the failures of a system they are seen as less competent to control than their right wing opponents.
The troubles of the Australian Labor Party go far deeper than those of leadership, though had the factional leaders not panicked in 2010 and replaced Rudd with Gillard it is hard to imagine the party would be a worse situation. This is not to argue for another leadership reversal. You cannot put the genie back in the bottle. A third Prime Minister in six years would make Labor seem ludicrous, not merely incompetent.
Labor’s real problem is that it has lost major cultural debates, so the often sensible and quietly progressive policies of this government are too easily demonised by the opposition, and even more so the media. The basic social democratic belief that a strong state is necessary in a complex society to provide the goods and services that individuals cannot purchase for themselves has been replaced by an unthinking veneration of the individual and the market, even though these are clearly inadequate ways of solving major problems of employment, urban growth, land degradation and declining infrastructure.
That a Labor government has found it so difficult to justify using taxation of mining profits in the national interest, and is so fixated on a budget surplus against the advice of many conservative economists suggests it has forgotten its basic beliefs. Too often Labor leaders seem to accept the rhetoric of smaller government and lower taxes without pointing out that there are real costs to losing government services, and the cost of greater inequality is ultimately born by society as a whole.
I agree with Gallop that “the class implications of inequality in health and education should be a primary focus for Labor”. But this implies a willingness to question the whole structure of a two-tier system, where the better off can buy their way into private schools and hospitals and leave the public system struggling for resources. It might also mean embracing the Greens proposal for an immediate denticare system.
Gallop also argues that Labor still needs to look to the working class for its sustenance. The problem with this argument is that a majority of Australians no longer think of themselves as “working class”, and distrust the language of class solidarity. It is not merely, as he concedes, that “unions aren’t so important today”, it is rather that most Australians are cynical about the claims of unions and hence of Labor’s structural ties to the union movement.
As more and more Australians seek to build their own businesses, or take up white collar jobs in private firms, the old appeals to workers' rights decline in salience. A Labor Party still needs to stand for equality, a fair go for employees and a decent set of workplace arrangements. But it may need to do this without maintaining the formal ties with the union movement that has been its bedrock since its foundation.
Gallop here seems to be echoing a call from former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally and her husband to make the party more relevant to “working people”. Again, the problem is that this appeal assumes an identity in which work is central, in an era when most people have multiple identities and when appeals to “working families” sounds strangely old-fashioned.
Many suggestions for party reform have accepted the need to reduce the role of unions and union officials in the party organisation. I am sceptical if many voters take much notice of the internal arrangements of a political party. But to genuinely rebuild Labor as a mass party would mean moving to a party with only individual membership, and a party whose members directly elected the Parliamentary leader, as is true for British Labor.
But the biggest challenges for Labor are not organisational. They are ideological, in the sense that Labor needs to find a contemporary version of Chifley’s “light on the hill” that would attract a new generation of members and activists. Why would one be a “true believer” in a party whose leaders find it so difficult to articulate a vision of what sort of country they want to build?
Gallop sees Labor needing to “take up the battle against opponents of the green left and of the populist right”. That the Greens are the real enemy is a common thread in much Labor thinking. Painting the Greens as the irresponsible voices of latte sipping inner city trendies is fun, and may console Labor for its loss of votes in seats like Melbourne. But it denies the reality that if Labor wants to be a progressive party it has far more in common with the Greens than the Liberals, and the attacks on the Greens are unlikely to win back many voters.
Labor stalwarts may hate the idea, but it is possible that the future for the left in Australia is a coalition of Labor and Green rather like that forged on the right between Liberals and Nationals. This would allow the two parties to compete against each other, but would recognise what has been apparent through the past six years, namely that there are more shared values than either party wishes to acknowledge.
Gallop wants Labor to rebuild around “fairness”, but that concept has been systematically eroded over the past two decades so that any attempt to point to massive inequality becomes negated by claims that this is an expression of class envy.
In an era when the political culture has moved to the right it is not sufficient just to point to inequality as if this were self-evidently bad.
Labor needs to find a narrative about building a society in which we will all prosper through greater cohesion and equality, and tell it with the same conviction that Tony Abbott sells his nostrums of lower taxes and greater individualism.