Why they will never forgive Keating

Friday, 8 June 2007 

Over the last few months, with the confidence of the Labor party returning, there have been some calls from its supporters in the media to bring Keating back into the fold. Last night’s extraordinary interview on Lateline is a reminder why that is unlikely in the near term at least. It was not so much Keating’s attack on the Labor team, but the basis on which he did it.

The interview (and Gillard’s reaction) must have given food for thought to those being sentimental about Labor’s attack on Workchoices. Keating again went back to the structural reforms of the Hawke/Keating years but clarified what they were. While the float of the dollar got the headlines, Keating emphasised that it was only possible through the lowering of wages. It was Hawke’s ability to deliver the unions for this task that gave Labor its relevance during the global deregulation of the 1980s.

But as he said last night, Keating took that further with the dismantling of collective bargaining in 1993-1994. As Keating described it:

I was the guy who had to get the ACTU in a headlock and pull its teeth out with a pair of pliers.

But as he goes on, those teeth were already rotten. The unions in his words are now “dying on the vine” and have little influence.

Keating’s problem, however, is that he fails to see what such action did to the party that was supposed to be the political defence of those unions. His attack on the political advisors Epstein and Gray for being focus group driven and lacking the appetite for power misses the fact that this would have been a natural response for a political party whose social base had been cut off at the knees.

It is also why he misunderstands the role of Gillard who he believes, quite accurately, is giving the impression that Labor is turning back the clock on union influence when it is doing no such thing. As this blog maintains, she was presenting Labor’s inoffensive IR policy this way for internal reasons to cohere a demoralised supporter base, something they were managing quite well up to the Therese Rein affair. Since then the Labor leadership has become more relaxed about keeping unions on-side and her response to Keating was pretty open. As the SMH quoted Gillard:

Labor’s new industrial relations policy featured a tough scheme against industrial action, uniform laws for the private sector, plenty of flexibility and the genuine ability to make non-union collective agreements without union involvement.

While some on the Labor side of the political class will not forgive Keating’s role in dismantling its project, the coalition is unlikely to be comfortable with him either. As he said last night, after the Hawke/Keating years, the coalition had little left to do, accurately putting his finger on the policy vacuum at the heart of the Howard government.

Keating is disowned by the political class because he reminds them that their traditional roles are over and their domestic differences are largely a sham. As he said, domestically, government these days have little to do but make sure they don’t blow the budget. The only contest now is over the international agenda. It is why Rudd is re-making the ALP in a way that is not yet picked up by the media, and the coalition’s more painful makeover is coming.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 8 June 2007.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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