IPA REVIEW ARTICLE
IPA Review, June 2011
These are dark days for the Australian Labor Party. Its consistently bad opinion polls-the party's primary vote hovers in the early 30s-is but one of the symptoms of its seemingly incurable malaise. Just under a year ago, Labor thought that changing its leader would improve its standing with the electorate. The result was that Labor was the first government in 70 years to lose majority power. Today, it stands even lower in the polls and is facing a threat to its core support from the Greens on its left as well as Tony Abbott's Coalition on its right. The public simply don't know what Labor stands for. Given that it has been in power for three and a half years, this is staggering.
Nothing exemplifies more perfectly the confusion and dislocation that are ravaging Australia's oldest political party than climate change. The media conventional wisdom holds that Labor's decision to shelve the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) a year ago killed Kevin Rudd's prime ministership and nearly Gillard's, too. The truth, as those Sussex Street focus group surveys revealed, was that the complicated cap-and-tax scheme-read higher energy prices-was turning off those working families in crucial swing seats. After the Copenhagen fiasco in December 2009, Abbott's scare campaign was gaining traction in the heartland. The ETS was a ‘big new tax'. It was economic pain for no environmental gain, especially for those Australians mortgaged to the hilt. Paraphrasing Paul Keating, Abbott would say: ‘If you don't understand an ETS, don't vote for it. And if you do understand it, you'll never vote for it.' The Coalition primary vote soared.
Meanwhile, prospects for a global deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions remained virtually zero. China, India and Brazil were chugging along the smoky path to prosperity. The US Senate was failing to debate, much less pass, the most loophole-ridden version of cap and trade. From Canada to Japan, the ETS was stalled in legislative limbo. The EU experience was a debacle: higher emissions, higher energy costs, and devalued carbon prices. To urge Australians, who accounted for only 1.4 per cent of global emissions, to lead the world in slashing greenhouse gases in this environment was heady stuff: the sort of thing that Sir Humphrey would have described as ‘very brave, minister'.
With her wet finger to the wind, Gillard repeatedly ruled out any carbon tax. Her deputy Wayne Swan insisted that Coalition claims to the contrary were ‘hysterically inaccurate.' Climate change had become such a cold issue in middle Australia that Gillard herself dedicated only one sentence to it in her 5,500-word keynote election-eve address to the ALP faithful. The initials ‘ETS' were nowhere to be seen in campaign literature.
Yet suddenly, as we all know, all this has changed. Having formed a coalition with the Greens to create a minority government, and with no democratic consent whatsoever, the Prime Minister has pledged to implement the very policy-a carbon price-against which she campaigned. And when the Greens control the balance of power in the Senate from July, Gillard plans to legislate a carbon tax, followed eventually by a cap-and-trade scheme, come hell or high water.
This history is crucial to understanding the extent to which Labor is seriously wedged between two core constituencies that are fundamentally at odds with each other. By currying favour with the Greens on the legislative front, Gillard risks alienating Labor's outer-suburban and regional constituency on the political front. By flirting with teachers, academics, young voters, climate enthusiasts, gays, culture industry and inner-city professionals, she plays with fire from more socially conservative workers sceptical that Labor serves their needs and aspirations. A party that represented ‘the cream of the working class', in Kim Beazley Sr's memorable language, now represents the ‘dregs of the middle class'.
The recent ALP review into last year's dismal electoral performance indicates that senior Labor people still don't recognise this problem. Complicating matters, the party remains connected at an organisational level to trade unions increasingly resistant to the demands of a market-based economy. This means Labor is increasingly out of touch with the development states of the resources boom, Queensland and Western Australia.
Gillard's overriding challenge is to neutralise each point of her party's weakness. During last year's election campaign, she did so, albeit insincerely and haphazardly. By governing in a more interventionist and progressive direction, however, she makes her job even more difficult.
Abraham Lincoln, the US president who held the union together, famously quipped: ‘You cannot fool all of the people all of the time.' Julia Gillard, the accidental Australian prime minister who struggles to hold her own party together, has clearly not heard this message. Nor is it just her oscillating attitudes towards global warming and carbon taxes that confuse voters.
Take Gillard's recent attempts to paint herself as a ‘cultural traditionalist'. It was one thing for a big spending Kevin Rudd to describe himself as an ‘economic conservative.' It's another thing for an atheist to claim the mantle of social conservative by encouraging Bible study.
In an interview with Sky News in March, Gillard claimed to be on the ‘right' side of issues ranging from gay marriage to euthanasia (against). Yet after the furore which surrounded her government's mooted carbon tax, this tack has only been seen in a cynical light.
Or take border protection. Whatever one's view on asylum seekers, one cannot deny strong public attitudes in favour of a tough approach. Since Labor jettisoned the Howard agenda of temporary protection visas and the Nauru refugee processing centre in late 2008, the unlawful arrivals have dramatically accelerated and public confidence in the immigration system has badly faltered.
It is a safe bet that if the boats continue, Gillard will further aggravate Labor's ‘battler' constituency. Gillard says she grasps the concerns of Australians worried about illegal immigrants, but it is not clear whether her recent Malaysian deal will either stop the boats or satisfy Labor's socially progressive wing.
On other immigration-related issues, meanwhile, Labor recently announced it will appoint a 10-person multicultural council, establish a national anti-racism strategy and reinstate ‘multiculturalism' in the title of the parliamentary portfolio for immigration. This amounts to yet another backflip: last year, Gillard refused to embrace such an agenda, lest it aggravate voters concerned about immigration in the outer suburban and regional seats, especially in western Sydney.
And this is the diabolical dilemma that continues to threaten the ALP. Gillard is caught between two cultures that ultimately view each other with contempt-your inner-city graphic designer has no time for an outer-suburb sheet metal worker, and vice versa-and she will exhaust herself running offers and counter-offers between the two constituencies.
None of this should disguise the fact that the Liberal-led Opposition also has its share of problems, not least tensions between small-l liberals and social conservatives. But they pale in comparison to Labor's more deep-seated structural and ideological problems. To the extent that the Coalition has serious political problems, they have more to do with the uncontainable ambition by certain individuals who threaten to destabilise the party leadership.
In any case, Gillard's nightmare remains clear: her government's dependence on the Greens will force the ALP to become a green-lite party. And although this may warm the hearts of its inner-city progressive constituencies, it could alienate the outer suburban folks who have long been a crucial source of Labor support. Gillard needs to win back this crowd, but the odds of her doing so-even with some good acting skills and ideological face lifts-are about as long as the Richmond Tigers making the AFL grand final.