What is Julia Gillard the leader of, exactly?

Guy Rundle reports on how Australian Labor, cut off from its social roots, is now little more than a husk.

Guy Rundle

Topics World

‘The people have spoken, but it’s going to take a little while to work out what they said.’

As it became clear on Saturday night that neither major party in the Australian election would gain a working majority, ex-US president Bill Clinton’s famous quip was suitably deployed by Australian prime minister Julia Gillard as she addressed the Labor party faithful.

At the time of writing, both Labor and the Liberal-National coalition are stuck on around 71 to 72 seats each out of the House of Representatives’ total of 150. In addition, one seat has gone to the Greens and three to rural independents, which leaves about three or four seats still in doubt. Even a completed count, which, given the difficulty of counting AV votes, is days away, will not end the uncertainty, as there is a strong likelihood of court-ordered recounts in key seats. With the first option on forming a government probably going to whichever of the major parties is leading 73 to 72, the process may take weeks. And since Australia has not had a hung parliament since 1940, the uncertainty appears to be causing mild panic.

The election began with high drama: the swift sacking of sitting prime minister Kevin Rudd by his own party in July; his replacement by Gillard; and the near-immediate calling of an election. With Tony Abbott being the most personally conservative leader that the Liberal-National coalition has ever had, and Gillard ostensibly a member of one of Labor’s several ‘left’ factions, the stage seemed set for some sort of confrontation between worldviews.

Labor’s supporters gave Gillard a couple of weeks’ grace while she addressed issues that had damaged the Rudd government, such as the influx of asylum seekers arriving by boat and a 40 per cent super-profits mining tax, which had been opposed by a highly-funded resources industry campaign. Thereafter, they assumed she would launch an aggressive and bold campaign on popular Labor principles, and they waited for it to begin.

They waited in vain, because nothing resembling a programme or narrative emerged. Having rushed into an election in order to minimise accusations of non-legitimacy, Labor had nothing. The party couldn’t even run on its record – for the achievements, such as avoiding a post-2008 recession by deploying a comprehensive stimulus package, occurred under Rudd.

Labor also passed up the chance to run a good old-fashioned fear campaign, by, for example, zeroing in on Abbott as someone who would take the opportunity to attack ordinary people’s living standards. By contrast, Abbott’s coalition attacked immediately and effectively. It argued that Rudd’s stimulus package had been unnecessary, that the goverment had created billions in waste and debt, that it had gone soft on asylum seekers by abandoning mandatory refugee detention, and that the coalition would ‘turn back the boats’.

Any polling gains that Labor had made by dumping Rudd were lost, and it was week three of the election campaign before the party gained some initiative, rolling out its proposal for a publicly built ‘national broadband network’ – which was the cutting edge of technology in the early 2000s. From there, Labor staggered towards the finish line. Barely three years after it had routed a highly successful conservative government, it lost 15 seats back to the conservatives.

What was most remarkable about Labor’s campaign was its staggering ineptitude. Surrounded by focus groups and micro-poll results, it became obsessed with the scientistic idea that the public were simply a static, inert mass holding a series of fixed beliefs to be catered to on a seat-by-seat basis, rather than a dynamic population who might just be persuaded by powerful argument.

Rudd had been dumped, ostensibly because he had launched too many madcap schemes without gaining wider party or public support, and the factional leaders who dumped him had presented themselves as hard-nosed realists able to connect with the public. As it turned out, the reverse was true – the factional leaders were entirely disconnected from the process of public politics, and their idea of themselves as (mostly) men of the people was a fantasy designed to cover up the process by which Labor had declined.

Australian Labor, like its European, social-democratic relatives, has all but decomposed now. But certain specific features of the Labor experience, and Australian politics more generally, deserve consideration. The first and most important is that Labor, even in its industrial heyday, has always had a dual character. The first labour party in the world to win power – in the Queensland legislative assembly in 1899, before Australia was even federated – the victories of the early Australian labour movement set it on a course which has emphasised controlling its supporting classes rather than having a dynamic relationship with them.

The Australian High Court’s ‘Harvester’ decision of 1907 had mandated that Australian employers pay a ‘living wage’ that would keep a worker and his family in ‘frugal comfort’. Thereafter, a great deal of industrial dispute and conflict was instantly translated into the legal realm. Strikes became the opening salvo in cases that would then be resolved before specific arbitration courts. This system was in place for so long, and was so rarely challenged, that the visible existence of class politics became obscured – and the state, the trade unions, the courts and Labor became the quadripartite managers of labour demands and labour gains. From the left, only the Communist Party (founded in 1921) opposed this system as a state mechanism designed to limit and depoliticise labour movement action – and even the Communists, by virtue of their base within union leaderships, were obliged to deal with this system.

The commitment to arbitration held the two largest groupings of Labor together – industrial workers and Catholic communities – even though they differed on whether Labor should socialise major industries. In the late 1940s, these differences exploded under the pressure of the Cold War. One group of Catholic members and supporters split off and created the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), which sustained the conservative parties in power for a generation by ‘preferencing’ them in the AV system. Those who stayed rapidly coalesced into a right-wing ‘Unity’ faction – anti-communist, anti-socialist, pro-US alliance – and an organised Left. For 35 years, the two groups essentially worked as separate parties, with their own caucuses, publications and ritualised sharing-out of officeholder positions. These internal struggles often had more real political meaning than the party’s external struggles.

At state level, Labor parties would often hold power for decades uninterruptedly, their role to do little more than keep the conservatives out and not rock the boat. Admittedly, the Whitlam Labor government of 1972-75 dallied with some radical ideas, such as using petrodollar loans to buy back Australia’s entire resource sector, but chaos and ineptitude ended its term early. By the time Labor came to power again, in 1983, the socialist moment had passed and the party once again resorted to what it did best: managing the expectations of its base.

Once the public decisively rejected Labor PM Paul Keating in 1996 for John Howard’s Liberal-National coalition, Labor simply fell apart. Furthermore, without the semblance of a left-right battle, the Labor factions decomposed into sub-groups based around either a small set of micro-policies or networks inherited from student politics. Though their ability to wage internal war was undimmed, their capacity to fight the actual enemy was atrophied. Unsurprisingly, Labor increasingly attracted people who loved the internal struggle – the plot, the backroom and the scheme – rather than the external fight for the bigger idea.

Whatever the result of the current election, it seems unlikely that anything but a total impasse in forming a government will prompt people to press for change, either within the parties or in the system as a whole. UK fans of AV should note what the system delivers – a parliament dominated by two groups, Labor and the Liberal-National coalition, plus a single Green and a couple of independents. More interestingly, it is possible that the system will deliver, for the third time in two decades, the situation in which the party with the larger two-party preferred vote will have fewer seats. At that point, and with a shifting balance of forces, the role of the Governor-General – the queen’s representative, albeit selected by the Australian prime minister – becomes crucial, but also arbitrary. From party base to the apex of power, the Australian system is sclerotic.

Indeed, for either side, success in this election will save them from a reckoning. But it may also delay the moment when the parties have to re-ground themselves. Julia Gillard’s rather pallid speech to the party faithful on Saturday night might have more accurately commenced: ‘The people haven’t spoken, and we don’t know what to say…’

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 Presidential Election. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics World


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