Review of 2008 – Labor

Wednesday, 24 December 2008 

It is not easy to review Labor in 2008 since politically, the party seemed to make barely any impact.

While Liberal shenanigans made most of the headlines, Labor party manoeuvres were rarely reported as such, even if they remained very much a feature of 2008 politics.

The Labor party throughout 2008 was dominated by the small clique of Ministers around Rudd. This may not appear that different from the Hawke/Keating governments before, but the narrow grouping around the earlier Labor Prime Ministers was still against a backdrop of a union movement that had a key role in Labor government policy. This new Labor government was very different.

A sign of this was the leadership’s relationship to the party’s factions. Rudd came to power as the first Labor leader not sponsored by a union. Coming from the right as is traditional, but the first not to attend their faction meetings as leader (with Gillard also being the first deputy not to attend hers). At the election, we saw so-called ‘celebrity’ Labor candidates brought in by Rudd over the heads of the branches and the factions in unprecedented numbers. After the election, we saw the appointment of the first Labor Cabinet member, Peter Garrett, not to be in a faction. All of this produced a Labor government less aligned with the party’s power bases than any in the ALP’s history led by its most detached leader.

Yet behind detachment there is always conflict. Rudd’s alliance with left figures such as Gillard and Tanner was not based on their program (indeed there is little evidence of the left’s program when Gillard oversaw the introduction of the most anti-union legislation in the party’s history or Tanner started almost immediately cutting spending at a time of surplus). Rudd’s alliance with the left was based on their view on the party’s factions and the old political order. Those of the left who had the least to lose from the end of the old party power bases aligned with a leader who owed least to them.

It was the political assault on the old power bases of the party that was the underlying theme of federal Labor in 2008 and it was centred around three initiatives. The first was the attack on party programmes and spending plans that started even before Rudd came to power, at last year’s election launch and then was reinforced immediately after victory by over-hyping the inflation threat. This period running up to the May Budget saw the leadership clamp down on any party spending plans under the guise of controlling inflation and the importance of keeping election promises even as the US slowdown started to hit.

Generally the media seemed to take the inflation crisis at face value, although you have to wonder whether the right–wing press, like The Australian, that also took up the anti-inflation cry were not also aware of its political implications. If that was so, the media’s campaign would be unlikely to be targeted at merely discrediting the former Howard government, who had already been defeated, but surely more those on the Labor side whose hands were now supposed to be closer to the levers of power. There was probably no clearer sign of the defeat of the party than its acquiescence to dropping any new spending plans while preserving Howard’s tax cuts.

The second initiative was more symbolic but probably far-reaching in message and that was the 2020 Summit. While viewed as a celebrity stunt, the message from Rudd’s speech opening the 2020 summit that the major parties, including the one that was supposed to be governing, were politically bankrupt and had nothing to say for the long-term future of Australia was real enough.

The third initiative was much more grittier and more fascinating to watch, the destruction of the party’s most important power base, the NSW Right. This largely centred on the NSW government and Iemma’s attempt to break with the unions over electricity privatisation. It was a move that destroyed the influence of the NSW Right in the process. However, in doing so the unprecedented toppling of a serving Labor Premier has not resulted in the resurgence of the party base and the unions either. Instead NSW now has a vacuum at the top occupied by the man from nowhere, Nathan Rees.

The role of Canberra in all of this is a bit cloudy. Certainly Rudd never came to Iemma’s rescue like he promised he would while in opposition. Partly this was because he did have an interest in the destruction of his former faction, but also reflecting his lack of a support base in NSW from which to have much effect, certainly the current state of Labor in NSW would not be his ideal. But his approval of Gillard’s hounding of Neal over Iguanagate, so also damaging her right faction boss husband, made it clear that he saw what happened in NSW as a necessary evil.

The story in NSW is not over. From being the most entrenched and successful model of the union-business model Labor model of the 1970s and 1980s and the last to change, NSW Labor has crashed straight through the technocrat models subsequently adopted by other state Labor governments and ended up in a vacuum. However, that sense of a vacuum end-point was also felt in other state Labor governments in 2008, most notably in WA and NT, where Labor governments suffered large swings against them. Not because the Liberals were reviving with an alternative; as seen in WA when they scraped into power, they had none. Nor because of an inevitable swing back to the Liberals now Labor is in Canberra, a mechanical formula that has suffered a bit of a hit with the latest round of state polls. But because at the end of the day, being a technocratic organisation without a social base may make it more suited to the functionary role state government has become, but also leaves it vulnerable to being turfed out for the most trivial of reasons. This is a lesson that has not been lost in Canberra. Busy, busy.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 24 December 2008.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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