The state of the parties – the ALP

Tuesday, 28 August 2007 

Keating can tell it like it is, but he can never admit what he did to his own party.

He was back on the ABC the other night noting that at last Combet and Gillard were admitting that whatever they were saying about Workchoices, they were sticking with enterprise bargaining and not bringing back union influence (in fact they are reported to be going even beyond Keating by agreeing to Howard’s ban on union worksite visits). But unlike Keating, this time Rudd is going to dump the unions and win.

Keating won the 1993 election because he recognised, unlike Hewson and the media, that economic reform was over and it was time for the Great Reforming Treasurer to become a Safe Pair of Hands. But if Keating’s ‘True Believers’ victory speech had a semi-religious tone, it was because the Labor project that his supporters believed in had died and gone to heaven. Having marginalized the unions and ended collective bargaining in his final term, Keating had finished off Labor’s historical mission and now had to find a new one.

Keating’s solution during his last term was a project to create a more assertive and independent Australian nationalism based on three R’s; reconciliation, regionalism and republicanism. In reality much of it was about boosting the stature of the political class – rehabilitating it over past mistakes (the ‘sorry’ campaigns) and aggrandising it through the republican push.

It’s timing could not have been worse because if both sides of the political fence learnt that economic reform was over in 1993, they were about to learn a more unsettling lesson. The realisation that the major parties did not stand for very much anymore coincided with intensifying anti-politician sentiment against both sides. This was not only brought out in the electorate’s verdict on Keating’s project in 1996, but even more starkly with the republican debate in 1999. The dumb proposal to choose the most unpopular model for selecting a President, restricting it to MPs, resulted in the ARM losing a republican referendum in a republican country and showed that if there is one thing the Australian electorate dislikes more than the British Monarchy it is its own political class. At the time it was more this anti-politician sentiment, rather than racism as such, that was also tapped into by Hanson and the One Nation party.

Labor continues to experience the problems caused by the end of its historical role as being organised around institutions that have marginal relevance in society. The coalition plays around with this every time it accuses Labor of being ‘in the hands of the union bosses’. If Labor denies it, it causes internal problems, if Labor gives into it, it looks irrelevant and wedded to the past. This year Labor has managed this with its campaign against Workchoices, but as we are now seeing there is little substance in its opposition. Whatever deluded supporters on both sides of the fence think, the unions are not coming back under Rudd.

Despite the irrelevance of the unions, and anti-politician sentiment preventing a revival of Keating’s alternative, the Labor party is still in a better state than the Liberals for two reasons. Firstly, the international agenda is becoming more favourable to Labor, especially the anti-growth agenda of climate change and environmentalism. More importantly internally, is what has been going on in the states. Since the 1970s there has been a realignment of the ALP at a state level from identifying with the unions towards the provision of state services using links with public service unions as the bridge. At the risk of being parochial, one of the first of these ‘modern’ Labor Premiers to do this was Dunstan with his second SA government from 1970, followed by NSW’s Wran in 1976. As state government has become depoliticised, Labor’s transformation into nothing more than service providers is behind its current clean sweep at the state level.

If there is one thing that distinguishes Rudd from other federal Labor leaders, especially Keating, it is his anti-politics credentials. He has not only used this to undermine Howard, but now through his ‘new federalism’, such as the recent hospital plan, is also laying the grounds for bringing the states’ non-political government into the national arena.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 28 August 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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