Flyer distributed in outer Sydney, Source: Crikey

A few days ago, Kristina Keneally, the bright and perky NSW Premier who is cheerily twittering her way to electoral oblivion, was asked on returning to Australia, what she thought about her party’s calamitous polling, which was showing Labor’s primary on a record-breaking low of twenty-five per cent. Her response was to say that she fully understood how upset voters in NSW, especially in Sydney, were about the economy, cost of living and population growth.

Come again? NSW’s economy may be a bit sluggish but Labor is polling twenty-five per cent, this is not the Great Depression! And cost of living? Twenty-five per cent! And then, of course, there is that other reason why Sydneysiders are apparently switching en masse from NSW Labor to Barry O’Farrell, they are worried that Labor is not doing enough about population growth.

To blame the NSW government for excessive population growth is completely unfair. After all, its contribution towards a stagnant economy and lousy infrastructure has helped make Sydney the slowest growing capital in the country. In fact, hang on a second. Maybe the government’s abysmal polling is because of the stagnant economy, lousy infrastructure, endemic corruption, time-serving incompetence etc. etc. etc. Could that be right?

It would be easy for cynical readers to just say that Keneally’s painting of population growth as a major cause for voter dissatisfaction is just a politically convenient diversion from the real problems of her dysfunctional government. However, it appears that such views are genuinely held in NSW Labor. Bob Carr, the thinking person’s redneck, and who some might even argue shares some responsibility for the lousy infrastructure, general incompetence, etc. of the government he once led, has been a strong advocate of limiting Australia’s population growth by slashing back immigration.

Last November, Carr was arguing this on Lateline against Steve Bracks. Speaking from Hong Kong, one of the most crowded regions, and most economically dynamic, in the world, Carr failed to see the irony when he highlighted the threat immigration would pose to our way of life. But then Carr’s argument is not really an economic one, but an environmental one, saying that there was a limit to how much population our fragile environment and infrastructure can stand. This idea of ‘sustainable immigration’ is a small-minded nationalistic view that is often held by people who proclaim their global environment awareness, which is strange since presumably if moving over here puts a strain on the environment, then staying where they are must as well. A case of stuff up your own back yard, please, not ours.

Actually as an infrastructure argument it is pretty weak, as Carr himself reveals in an article he wrote for Crikey this year, when he highlights how much worse our infrastructure used to be in Whitlam’s day – when our population was almost half of what it is today. In fact, it wasn’t really until Whitlam’s day that infrastructure started to be a leading political priority as the more traditional concerns of our political class, race, industrial relations, started to take a back role. Now forty years later, state governments, at least, have become about little else, and now, it appears they are trying to back away from that, led by the more dysfunctional ones.

Is the political debate now reverting to the past? Certainly Carr isn’t really talking about planning as such. As he has freely admitted elsewhere he doesn’t really have an ideal population target in mind, and he’s “not a demographer”. Simply, whatever the number is, it has to be a low one – and certainly lower than what Rudd was thinking of.

Carr’s intervention was sparked by Rudd’s ’Big Australia’ comment a few weeks before the Lateline appearance. While Carr seems to be worried about the way Australia’s immigration has increased strongly over the recent years, actually he doesn’t really like the previous level either, since that is what Rudd’s ‘Big Australia’ was based on.

Given that Rudd’s Big Australia implied a slashing of immigration levels as well, it would be fair to say that this is not about the environment, nor infrastructure, nor even immigration levels, as such. Rather it is about Rudd touching a raw nerve of how Labor, especially in NSW, understands its decline.

Rudd’s ‘Big Australia’ was essentially one of a series of attempts by Rudd to defuse political issues by throwing it decades into the future. This ‘long term’ view (or ‘vision’ as he liked to call it) was becoming a favourite tactic of Rudd’s at the end of last year as he was still trying to appear to have an agenda, but finding the implementation of anything in the here and now increasingly difficult. But while acceptable on health, education and climate change, when it comes to immigration, putting some grand target on population appeared to the party just to aggravate its detachment from its base.

The real source of Labor’s eroding social base of course, is not race, but the declining power of the unions. It is true that race had a role in that relationship, the White Australia Policy was bedrock of the relationship between Labor and the Australian union movement until Whitlam set about dismantling it in the 1960s. With that sort of history, it is perhaps no surprise, then, that immigration may play some role in how Labor understands the loss of those links.

This certainly came out in 2001, when Howard, already taunting Labor over his inroads into the ‘Howard Battlers’, was seen to be winning by tapping into the supposed ‘savage racism’ of the Australian electorate, especially white working class voters and, especially, in western Sydney. But as this blog has argued before, and Peter Browne and Murray Groot have set out in more detail, this supposed ability of Howard to tap into the darker side of Labor’s base was more a myth of the political class, especially Labor, than electoral reality. Certainly Liberals avoided playing it up in 2007, a wise move given how unilateral efforts back-fired so spectacularly in one western Sydney electorate.

Now with the Rudd experiment to move beyond the old framework having failed, those underlying insecurities in Labor about their uncertain long term outlook have to come to the fore, and Gillard has been charged with the onerous task of reconnecting with its base. That is why we are hearing an awful lot about Western Sydney and that poor old Lindsay MP is getting dragged off to be photographed on patrol boats, and naturally she has Bob Carr’s full backing.

But Labor is doing this from a contradictory position. Gillard’s recent Lowy Institute speech was seen as politically brilliant by taking in both sides of the argument. Another way of describing it was contradictory. On one hand asylum seekers are so small in numbers that there is no reason to be worried, on the other hand she can understand why people are. How, if it’s irrational? Coherent it may not be, but it perfectly encapsulates the prejudices of a party that has to send cheat-sheets reminding its MPs not to call its supporters ‘rednecks’.

The trouble is, as we see in NSW, Labor hasn’t really a clue how to reconnect. We have either Lathamesque trivia of school uniforms, or the more unpleasant variety described in Crikey. Last election, Labor’s leader ran against his own party. This election, the government now appears to be running against its former leader as well. To put it crudely, it seems as though this Labor government is folding itself up very neatly and inserting itself up its own arse.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 15 July 2010.

Filed under Tactics

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4 responses to “Asylum seekers: a panic of the political class”

  1. fred on 15th July 2010 1:18 pm

    In any game, and unfortunately the way parliamentary politics is run in Australia it is a game with only a few major players, one of the basic rules is not to play by your opponent’s rules.
    Once you allow that to happen then its just a matter of time until the opponent calls ‘foul!’ or ‘not allowed to do that’ or ‘if I do it, it’s OK’ and so on.
    Thats what we have in Oz.
    One mob, mainly the media and the vested interests, the power brokers, making the rules and the other mob, the ALP, struggling to find a way to operate within limits placed on it from outside.
    Won’t work.
    The ‘rules’ need to be challenged, the assumptions that underly the debate need to be brought out into the open and subjected to discussion.
    For example, some where recently I saw Hewson making the comment that when he became leader of the Libs he met Paul Kelly of the OO and was told that if he was a good boy and played by their rules he would be OK and if not well then ….. [thats my take anyway].
    The ALP has always, for decades in my experience, been too scared to question the rules made by the rules makers.
    Self contradiction, running around in circles, letting the other mob set the agenda, all these are the inevitable result of a failure of political courage.
    Imigration and ‘big’ Oz are just 2 examples of issues where the ALP will continue to tie itself in knots because it is playing by the rules of the other mob.
    Bound to lose.
    Need to change.

  2. Sasha on 15th July 2010 1:59 pm

    Nice analysis. Better to blame poor infrastructure on out of control population growth rather than a lack of good planning. Fact is, population growth is an inevitability, and both sides of politics know this. Labor can promise ‘sustainable’ growth, safe in the knowledge that no one can hold them accountable until after at least 2 or 3 electoral cycles. Breaking promises that won’t be noticed until ten years down the track … easy!

  3. Paul of Berwick on 15th July 2010 2:08 pm

    I think the issue is more fundamental. To me the “political struggle” has all been about how the factors of production are managed (ie, labour, capital, resources).

    With western economies (ie, Australia) increasingly becoming a services-based economy, “discussions” over the best way to manage these factors become either blurred or passe(ie, political party idealogies).

    For example, with a reduction in the pervasiveness of large manufacturing plants here in Australia the need for organised labour is reduced (is, the labour factor of production).

    And so it is with capital – this is increasingly mobile (foreign direct investment). Likewise with resources – knowledge is key for a service economy (how do you organise this factor from the perspective of a political party).

    Smith and Ricardo were right after all!

  4. Foreigners :The Piping Shrike on 20th July 2013 9:04 am

    […] makes asylum seeker policy primarily a concern of our political class that tends to be projected onto the electorate, exaggerating its electoral importance. Laurie […]

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