Why is the Labor Party in Crisis?

second-manne-thumbProfessor Robert Manne
Email: r.manne@latrobe.edu.au


Almost everyone now acknowledges that if Julia Gillard leads the federal Labor Party at the next election the ALP will suffer overwhelming defeat. Since July last year the support for the Labor Party, according to Newspoll and AC Neilson, has been as dismal as for any Commonwealth government since polls began to be taken. The Gillard government’s primary vote has pretty consistently fallen below 30% and its two party-preferred vote has averaged less than 45%. For the party and for the nation the crucial question is to try to discover why. That is the reason I organised this forum.

Most analyses of this question tend to favour long-term structural weaknesses or ideological dilemmas. You will be aware of the kind to which I refer. We are told that the influence of the trade unions in the party is too great and has been debilitating. We are told that the functioning and the reputation of the party has been damaged by the system of formal factions and faction leaders that was introduced in the 1980s which is now out of control. We are told that the quality of Labor members of parliament has deteriorated because at present, in general, only timeservers from the unions or from the ranks of political advisers have a chance of winning preselection for winnable seats. We are told that the influence of the party branches has all but disappeared and that as a result the branches are moribund except when they are stacked for purposes of winning a preselection. We are told that Labor has lost far too many working class supporters. We are told that idealistic people, especially the young, have deserted the Labor Party both as members and voters and defected to the Greens. We are told that the party has lost its ideological identity having absorbed and adopted the two dominant right-of-centre ideological strands within the contemporary Anglophone world—neo-liberalism and populist conservatism. We are even sometimes told that the crisis of the Labor Party is a particular example of a more general crisis of social democratic parties throughout the Western world, in an age where the entitlements established by the postwar welfare state can no longer be afforded.

There is obvious strength and indeed plausibility in all these claims. Before accepting them as an explanation for the current crisis there is however one overwhelming problem. All these structural weaknesses existed during the period of the Rudd Government. And yet, according to the opinion polls, for its thirty months of office the Rudd Government was perhaps the most popular government in Australian history since the polls began to be taken. Where the Gillard government’s average Newspoll first preference vote has been under 33% and its two party preferred vote 46%, Rudd’s average first preference vote was 43% and its two party preferred vote was 56%--in both cases a full 10% higher. Despite the structural weakness and ideological dilemmas of the ALP, Labor consecutively produced arguably the most popular and the least popular government in postwar Australia. I want to argue something that might appear strange. In contemporary democracies, where the role of the media is so dominant, where the ideological distance between the parties has been reduced, where far fewer voters are rusted on to one or other party, immediate influences and ephemeral matters are often more determinative than deeper and more interesting structural or ideological issues of the kind I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. To understand the current crisis of Labor depth of analysis may mislead. I am struck by the incredible lightness of citizens’ relation to the democratic process. We are often told that their thirty seconds on the evening news are the most important political moment of the day for both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. We are often now told, in an interesting phrase, that people have ceased to listen to the Prime Minister even though her government has still a potential eighteen months of life. In a vigorous democracy of course things would be very different. If the case I am making is true, what is necessary is unembarrassed emphasis on relative superficialities, on the surface of political life. It is for this reason that I want to argue that the contemporary crisis of Labor is best explained through an analysis of an interconnected series of blunders or misjudgments that all occurred within the space of a few months in 2010.

At the beginning of 2010 the Rudd government was weakened by two problems and the campaigns led by the Murdoch press, especially the Daily Telegraph and the Australian—the return of the asylum seeker boats and weaknesses revealed in the administration of its generally popular and successful post-financial stimulus program regarding school building and home insulation. I would argue that neither of these problems was even remotely potentially fatal to the government.

The real troubles began over climate change policy. The Rudd government, for understandable reasons, had decided to trust the Coalition and to cold-shoulder the Greens in negotiations leading to its most important piece of legislation—the emissions trading scheme. Rudd placed faith in the capacity of Malcolm Turnbull to deliver bipartisan support. When Turnbull lost the Liberal Party leadership in November 2009, and when Tony Abbott made it clear that the Coalition would oppose the climate change legislation, the Rudd government began to lose its way. Rudd could have now opted for a double dissolution and negotiations with the Greens. Instead he allowed members of his cabinet—including his deputy, Julia Gillard—to talk him into postponing the emissions trading scheme for the next three years.

Badly stung by the response within the political nation to the argument that he believed in nothing, Rudd now attempted to prove that he did indeed believe in something, by announcing his government’s commitment to the Ken Henry committee’s suggestion of a resource rent mining tax. The error here was not with the decision but with the absence of political nous at the moment of announcement. Rudd needed to prepare the ground more carefully. He might have commissioned, for example, a white paper on the new mining tax, and initiated a long-term and broad-ranging national conversation on how not to squander the resources boom. In the way the mining tax was announced, Rudd underestimated the ruthlessness and the deep pockets of the mining interest. He underestimated the ideological enmity of the Murdoch press, especially The Australian. And he underestimated his unpopularity among his parliamentary colleagues.

What happened next has proved to be crucial to any analysis of Labor’s current crisis. In June 2010, the Rudd government still had not lost the trust of the electorate. In the last six Newspolls taken before the “coup”, only once did the two party-preferred vote for the Rudd government fall below 50%. There is a lot of ruin in governments; they can withstand many errors and bad patches. By June 2010, there was for Rudd still time for repair. None the less his caucus colleagues decided to remove one of the more popular Prime Ministers in recent Australian history. There were two main political consequences of the swift and secretive unseating of Kevin Rudd. The coup made it impossible for the Labor government to run on its record at the next election. More importantly, the rather sinister quality surrounding the coup instantly revived the old Menzies canard, that the Labor was a party run by “faceless men”. Although feeling about the matter probably does not run deep, the Australian people have never understood why Rudd was removed. Two years after the coup, he remains almost twice as popular as his successor

What happened next is most difficult of all to explain. Having helped convince Rudd to postpone the emissions trading scheme legislation for three years, having promised the electorate that her government had no intention of introducing a carbon tax—Prime Minister Gillard now signed an agreement with Greens for the creation of a parliamentary committee to broker the outlines of a carbon tax/emissions trading scheme. Given the problems this created, Gillard’s thinking is almost impossible to fathom. On the one hand, if Gillard did believe in the need for a carbon price, why had she convinced Rudd to postpone for three years? On the other hand, if she did not, why did she agree to a negotiating process with the Greens? Gillard could not argue political necessity. There was no possibility that, in the absence of an agreement, the one Greens member of the House of Representatives, Adam Bandt, would have supported an Abbott government. By talking Rudd into postponing his climate change legislation, Gillard helped destroy Rudd’s reputation. By promising the Australian people before the election that her government would not introduce a carbon tax, and then signing an agreement shortly after the election for a process leading to one, she helped destroy her own. Gillard outlined her carbon tax legislation in July 2011. It is no accident that it was in July that her government’s already poor public opinion polls now went into free-fall. Gillard was not only introducing a new tax whose absolutely vital necessity for the future wellbeing of the Earth she seemed incapable of explaining. She was also a “liar”.

How are these interconnected errors of 2010 to be explained?

At one level, the explanation might be thought to rest on weaknesses of leadership. Even the greatest supporter of Rudd cannot deny that he was in part brought down by faults of character—rudeness, incapacity to win the trust of colleagues, insensitivity or indifference to the power of the faction leaders inside the party, inability to manage a team. Even the greatest supporter of Gillard ought not to deny that despite the real legislative achievements of her government and her negotiating skills, that she has little capacity to explain her vision or to find the phrase, as Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were often able to do, that dramatises her government’s program and ambition.

Yet the current crisis of Labor has another dimension. In their different ways both Rudd and Gillard stumbled over the politics of climate change. This is hardly surprising. The issue is dauntingly difficult—requiring governments to restructure the energy economy for the sake of future generations and the Earth but without being able to promise their people material improvement or, in the absence of equal contributions from other nations, any certainty of success. The climate change difficulties both Rudd and Gillard faced are moreover obviously connected to the rise of Tony Abbott, a leader of the Coalition who has assured the Australian people that no serious action on climate change is required. In my view this is wicked from the ethical point of view but has been highly effective politically. Abbott has appealed to the preoccupation with material comfort of the character type that is fostered by the consumer society and their self-interested climate change scepticism. He has benefited greatly from the cultural victory of the fossil fuel industry-inspired climate change denialists in the United States, Canada and Australia that has occurred especially since the failure of the Copenhagen Conference in late 2009. And in his indifference to any real climate change action, Abbott has also greatly benefited from the explicit support of the Murdoch press that owns between 65% and 70% of the state-wide and national newspaper circulation in Australia.

I have lived long enough to have seen two great cultural shifts in Australia—the abandonment of White Australia from the late 1960s and the deregulation of the economy from the 1980s. Both succeeded without great friction because of effective bipartisan support. Moving Australia from a fossil fuel to a clean energy economy is a transformation no less fundamental. It had bipartisan support while Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister and Malcolm Turnbull was leader of the Opposition. When Abbott replaced Turnbull the possibility of that kind of smooth transition was lost, we have to hope at least temporarily.

We are now destined for another period of populist conservative Coalition rule. Even though the collapse of Labor is not in my view to be explained with reference to the structural weaknesses or ideological confusions of the party, during the coming period of opposition the ALP should finally seize the opportunity to clarify its ambitions and put its house in order. I do not think it likely that the looming landslide will affect the more than century long two party Labor and non-Labor division of Australian politics. In combination the proportional representation system in the Senate and the preferential voting system in the House of Representatives does provide favourable conditions for the emergence of minor third force parties—like the DLP, the Democrats, One Nation and the Greens. However  on present indications there is little prospect of the Greens, whose core support is among the inner city professionals, and which seems to have hit a 15% ceiling, replacing Labor as the second party in what is a naturally two party system.

From the point of view of the Labor Party my conclusion then has both pessimistic and optimist elements. In the immediate future its crisis—which arose because of the mistakes of 2010, which themselves were grounded in the weaknesses of leadership and the diabolically difficult politics of climate change—is now so fundamental and intractable that is almost impossible to see how, even with another change of leadership, it can avoid a lengthy period in the wilderness. In circumstances that cannot now be predicted, eventually however its fortunes will revive and it will return to government, hopefully in informal alliance with the Greens and with a popular mandate to strengthen the Australian social welfare state and tackle the fundamental question of our epoch—the looming catastrophe of climate change.