Saturday, 30 October 2010
Something unusual is happening. Labor is not getting the boost that usually comes to parties after being endorsed in an election. It’s primary vote is falling now beyond the levels that party bosses usually use to justify dumping first term Prime Ministers.
The reasons for this are being mis-read by some in the press. In discussing the government’s handling of the MDB scheme, Paul Kelly talks of the Gillard government caught between powerful forces on which it formed minority government; the rural and the Greens. He even had this tick off for the rest of the press:
Yet much of the nation’s political conversation does misunderstand these forces precisely because Australia’s media lacks the professionalism to report on grassroots conservatism, the flaws in climate change and environmental policy agendas and the legitimacy of people complaining about the burden of sacrifice.
But despite his professionalism, Kelly is still refusing to see what can no longer be ignored, that rural independents have snatched heartland seats away from the Nationals by not sharing these “grassroot” issues at all. If anything both Windsor and Oakeshott have long regarded Labor as soft on issues like climate change.
Peter Hartcher paints a similar picture of Labor’s dilemma, if rather less pompously, but more emphasising the other end of the spectrum. He points out that the rise of the Greens marks the emergence of a new progressive party on the Australian political scene that is eating votes away from Labor.
Yet in reality we are not seeing the rise of “powerful new forces” on the Australian political scene. As usual, the press has trouble seeing the most important development, namely the decay of the old “powerful forces” of the major parties, than anything enduring emerging in its place.
While some think we are seeing the dawn of a new voice for the regions, we’re not really. The current, briefly held power of the independents hardly matches the influence the Country/National party had on Coalition, and hence, Australian federal politics for a good part of the last century. A couple of seats either way and the independents would have no voice at all. When they do it has helped that while they have no trouble articulating what they want, the Labor party is inarticulate on what it wants.
As we see for the meetings around the MDB, and even with the recent protest meeting against a detention centre at Woodside, the reaction says more about the government and the media than the extent of support at the ground level. Invariably, such meetings are called “grassroots”, which used to be a term used on the left to legitimise activity outside its traditional institutions. As the left’s problems spread to the right, “grassroots” is a description used to strike terror into the established parties, and awe into the media, none of whom really have a clue what is happening outside the two party political system on which they rely.
The rise of the Greens is also not what it seems. The latest Nielsen was odd because it showed rising support for the Greens, but generally not for issues which would have supported them. Support for climate change action, while nowhere near the vote killer the press have portrayed in the past, is getting more mixed and sensitive to how the question is posed.
The problem for Labor is less that the Greens pose a direct threat than they are tapping into increasing dissatisfaction of existing supporters with Labor. Mumble has noted how Greens preferences appear to be shifting much more strongly to Labor since the election, indicating that the Labor alliance with the Greens has flushed out Liberal-leaning Green voters.
But the alliance has also had an important impact the other way. It has helped to legitimise the Greens and removed what had been an important Labor criticism of the Greens even as recently as the last election, namely that they are impractical and incapable of providing policies suitable for government. It is likely that this legitimising of the Greens has removed an important barrier to shifting a first preference from Labor to the Greens.
In effect the Greens are now taking over the role historically played by the Labor left (with a lot of similar policies), but instead of automatically transferring the votes into one ultimately for the Labor leadership, are now taking the same vote on a circuitous route to Labor – but only provided the Greens come third. In seats where the old Labor left would have gotten significant support, this vote is dropping out of Labor’s hands altogether.
Labor’s pact with the Greens, like its willingness to accommodate to the independents, comes from the internal momentum built up with the decline of Rudd’s popularity and his dumping. The need to vindicate the June coup meant Labor had far less room to negotiate on whether it could return to power. For now, though, the price Labor is paying is not so harsh for the leadership, since if it means sacrificing the left, with Lindsay Tanner being the highest profile so far, then so be it. The irony is that when the left finally gets one of its own to the leadership of the party, it neatly signifies its own demise.
Doug Cameron has tried to stop the rot, effectively asking for permission for the Labor left to mouth off publicly about its policies without necessarily being able to get them effected in government, but it is probably too late. A change in the attitude to Labor, rather than the policies themselves, is why the old left argument of “work for change within” is no longer working.
Does this make much difference for Labor? Even when preferences don’t make their way back to Labor, the Greens elected are still supporting Labor in Parliament. But in politics, organisation is all. The Labor leadership does not have the same control over the Greens as it did over the Labor left. From the other direction, Greens have a lesser interest in supporting Labor than the Labor left did. There is a tension now between supporting Labor and keeping the Coalition out, or undermining Labor and getting bigger at its expense. That tension could quite possibly work its way through the Greens leadership if Labor’s decay becomes more evident.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 30 October 2010.Filed under Media analysis, State of the parties