Labor has its fake campaign too

Wednesday, 17 October 2007 

The media has become as awed of the ritual of the campaign as they were of the Budget in May when Costello announced the last round of tax cuts.

If they are surprised that such a major launch is announced now rather than later in the campaign when it might make more electoral sense, then it is because they under-estimate the urgency of the Liberals’ morale that a strong start of a big round of tax cuts are intended to address. However if the media is taking the Liberals campaign start too much at face value, they are making the same mistake with Labor’s start on Workchoices. Labor has its internal needs too.

While Labor doesn’t have a demoralisation problem like the Liberals, it does have a morale problem of sorts. There are still an awful lot of Labor party members and supporters who want a return of a traditional Labor government that they are not going to get. Managing the internal needs of a party still formally organised around its old role of representing union interests has not been easy since that role was wound up during Keating’s time. Fortunately, Howard wanted to keep the charade going as well, so campaigning against an anti-union measure like Workchoices has given the Labor leadership a way of managing those expectations to a degree.

There are those who have even got carried away thinking that opposition to Workchoices is why Labor is polling so well. This is despite surveys like yesterday’s Newspoll and past ones like ACNielsen, as well as focus groups, suggesting, often to the surprise of the media, that industrial relations remains a low-ranking issue and Workchoices, an anti-union measure employers are hardly bothering with, being something of limited concern outside possibly Labor’s core supporters.

A recent article in The Age summed up the dubious analysis which is going around to justify this view, namely slapping the timing of Workchoices’ introduction on to the rise in Labor support and concluding one caused the other. Unfortunately he goes into a little too much detail on what actually happened to Labor’s support over the last two years which undermines the case. It is probably fair to assume that some of the rising support Labor posted in 2005 was due to the unions effective scare campaign against Workchoices and Beazley’s strong association with it. The trouble was that as it became a reality, the momentum faded (possibly because it didn’t transform the industrial landscape like Labor and the unions said it would).

The campaign was double-edged for Labor. It highlighted that Howard’s laws were excessively punitive on unions, but it also highlighted Labor’s and Beazley’s links with a union movement with fading relevance to Australian society. It also gave Howard the appearance of an agenda he didn’t really have, so concealing his crucial weak spot. In fact it was that inability to deliver momentum to Labor’s polling that led to the replacement of the leader associated with the union campaign against Workchoices with one who wasn’t even union-sponsored.

It is also why, over 2007, Rudd and Gillard’s objection to Workchoices have become less substantial and more and more distant from the unions as the year progressed. What their opposition boils down to is for awards to be set centrally through a government body to meet employers’ general dislike of AWA’s individual negotiation, what they are certainly not for is any return of union influence that Workchoices intended to diminish. If there are those who think that this is just to please employers rather than how they want it coming across to the electorate then they should listen to Gillard’s speeches to the profession that would be carrying Labor’s message to the electorate, the journalists, in two fascinating appearances at the National Press Club in May and June.

In May she first of all quoted approvingly an employer view noting the distance of the new leader from his predecessor:

Many employers will and should already be relieved that Mr Rudd’s announcements represent a more employer-friendly approach than pursued by Labor under Beazley.

However, much more extraordinary was her noting the rapid decline in union membership under the last Labor government.

During [Labor’s] reform period the decline in trade union membership levels averaged 5 per cent per year, compared to an annual average fall of 2 per cent under the Howard Government.

Readers can make up their own minds, but it reads like a boast. June’s speech followed Keating’s claim that Labor were presenting their IR policies as more union-friendly than they were. Gillard then devotes almost the whole speech to setting out five reason why Rudd’s government will be more anti-union than Keating’s or Hawke’s ever were.

This is a long campaign and at this stage both parties are addressing their internal morale problems that comes from having lost their historic role. As Howard trips off (again) to the symbolic marginal of Eden Monaro to talk about tax cuts to give an appearance of normality to his party, Rudd talks about Workchoices and goes to equally symbolic Werriwa to talk about housing affordability. As the campaign progresses it is likely Howard will stay focussed on holding onto his core supporter base, while Rudd will become more open about why he is making such inroads into it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 17 October 2007.

Filed under Key posts, Tactics

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