Dead horse flogged

Monday, 28 March 2011 

It’s a bit hard to know what to say.

Kerry O’Brien on NSW election night

If the Labor Party’s stocks ever get so low as to require your services in its parliamentary leadership, it will itself have no future.

Keating in a letter to John Robertson 2008

In 1932, NSW Labor went down to a catastrophic defeat in the polls after having been at virtual war with the federal government, defaulted to international creditors, sacked from office by the Vice Regal representative and having helped bring about one of the three great Labor splits of the 20th century to the point where the federal party actively campaigned against it in core seats.

Yet it received getting towards twice the vote that NSW Labor did on Saturday.

What was striking through the entire election night was the disjoint between what on paper was an historic, unprecedented event in Australian political history, yet on the other hand was utterly banal. In contrast to the turmoil of the Lang years, records were now being broken because … two Premiers of mediocre popularity had been dumped for reasons that were never quite clear, infrastructure and services were second rate (like that’s new in Sydney), scandals that were tawdry, but of little political significance, and a row about privatisation of electricity that more enthralled the party and its supporters than anyone else.

If the last point jars, then why did the electorate swing so decisively to the Liberals? Does anyone seriously believe that they won’t change their opportunist position on privatisation? This wasn’t a swing over policy or values, the Liberals don’t really have any, as seen by the non-issues Barry O’Farrell will use to “take the fight up to Canberra”. The electorate swung to the Liberals because they seemed capable of governing, which Labor did not.

Not that you would tell that this is what the electorate was doing, going by what Labor was saying on Saturday night. Throughout the whole night the message seemed to be that Labor needed to reconnect with its core base. Who on earth did they think were the only ones voting for them? Labor lost votes to the Liberals, not the Greens or the left. If the problem was that Labor had lost sight of its values, voters had hardly gone off to Barry O’Farrell to find them.

When the NSW Right starts to talk of “Labor values” and “core beliefs” then you know we really have an existential crisis in the party. Indeed if anything, the problem was the opposite. Far from abandoning Labor’s core values, wherever they resided on Sussex St, NSW Labor’s core project, of fusing the interests of the union bureaucracy and business, that had made it one of the most successful political machines in 20th century Australian politics, has collapsed.

This was a model that had been replicated across the country and reached its apogee under Hawke in the 1980s but has been slowly unwinding across the states over the last twenty years. This model relied on the unions being able to deliver and, as their influence began to decline after the Hawke/Keating years, so did business less need the ALP. It was in NSW, having avoided the expulsion of the right during the DLP split years, as in Queensland and Victoria, that this model was most successful and endured the longest.

By forgetting this basic dynamic behind the success of the NSW Right, commentators have tended to see the decline of the NSW ALP upside down. What had been long-standing features of the NSW ALP during its successful years, now become presented as the reasons for the decline. Long-standing relations with business suddenly appear scandalous, and the normal internal workings of the party now become a problem.

Along with a need to reconnect with core Labor supporters, the other meme of Saturday night was the problem of too much influence by the power brokers and the need to democratise the party. The control of party affairs in the hands of the few is hardly a recent phenomenon in the NSW ALP. The problem is not that influence is in the hand of the few, but that those few don’t represent much anymore. As seen by the switching from one leader to another, they couldn’t seem to make up their mind if they wanted someone to carry out their programme, or like Rees, to revitalise the party by defying them. Similarly, the privatisation itself was not the issue, no matter how much the left might like to tell themselves – it was merely the form in which that breakdown of that business-union model and its overseeing by the Parliamentary party took.

This equivocation and indecisiveness over whether to assert its agenda or allow someone to over-ride them, is the classic sign of a political grouping that is coming to grips with its redundancy. Of course, we saw even more spectacularly what that indecision can mean in Canberra, when the NSW Right supported a new leadership in 2006, and then rebelled when it did precisely what it said it would do: set about dismantling their power. But herein lies the real problem for Labor from what happened on Saturday.

Bruce Hawker thinks we have been here before. Labor in South Australia, a traditional Labor state, suffered almost as humiliating loss in 1993 following the collapse of the State Bank. As in Victoria, the financial problems of the state governments in the 1990s finished off the business-union model. Yet the Liberals were quickly at each other’s throats and Labor was back in two terms. What emerged from the rubble was a technocrat model that had always had a strong presence in the SA ALP through the Centre Left faction. Under this model, the suppression of internal factional differences reflected the more distant relationship between the unions and business outside the party.

But that was nearly twenty years ago, and the conditions for that model have passed. One of the wicked ironies of Saturday was that one of the last acts of the Sussex St brokers was to snuff out that technocrat model and enact their last hollow power play in Canberra. It has meant that the bridge has been burnt for a new viable model on which to rebuild. The lack of options is why they are less wanting to talk about reconnecting with the electorate than preferring to retreat up their own safe seats and pretend to talk to their base. By Keating’s reckoning, Robertson seems just the man to do it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 28 March 2011.

Filed under State and federal politics

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6 responses to “Dead horse flogged”

  1. Riccardo on 29th March 2011 10:27 am

    And I think the Murdoch and Packer machines were very pro the business-ALP model back in the 80s.

  2. Riccardo on 29th March 2011 2:56 pm

    So the progression is:

    1. “Australian Settlement” labor movement comprising of political and industrial wings, aiming for legislative/executive changes to suit workers, and striking for better pay conditions

    2. “Business/Union” model, with political aims of splitting the proceeds of the economy between capital and labor, and moderating labor demands to boost economy

    3. Managerialist/Technocrat model, with labor aims subsumed within bureaucracy, and political and industrial wings hunting for raison d’etre

    4. ???? Political realignment, large political middle party, as in much of Asia, with activist left and right parties to each side, or token middle party divided into 2 wings competing at election. No role for industrial or political labor representation, as labor role in economy reduced to consumer/citizen role.

    We will not see a real Tea Party here, Australia does not have a constituency who spend all day fantasising about guns, freedom and low/no taxes. However, 2-5% who can be counted on to vote for a combination of loony right schemes, whether religion, guns or immigration based.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 29th March 2011 4:42 pm

    First comment. I agree.

    I also think a Tea Party equivalent is highly unlikely (however much it is a real phenomenon in the US) as anti-government sentiment rarely ahs a basis on which to mobilise. Even Abbott’s little excursions, like the one last week, cause him trouble. Have they seen what some of the Tea Party placards are saying about Obama?

  4. DM on 30th March 2011 5:16 pm

    Hold on a sec…isn’t Keating from the same team as Robertson??

  5. Dr_Tad on 30th March 2011 6:28 pm

    “Dead Horse Flogged”. How did you know that PJK was going to be on TV before we did?

  6. The Piping Shrike on 30th March 2011 7:08 pm

    Wasn’t it a curious, truncated interview? I feel a post coming on …

    DM: I think you have hit on a fundamental truth.

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