Monday, 9 July 2012
The Greens will never embrace Labor’s delight at sharing the values of every day Australians, in our cities, suburbs, towns and bush, who day after day do the right thing, leading purposeful and dignified lives, driven by love of family and nation.
J Gillard speaking in Sydney in 2011, days after NSW’s Labor biggest loss
The Greens have come to take the Labor Party for granted. The truth is that they have put us in a position where sometimes anywhere else would be better with our preferences, and that includes even the Coalition.
Sam Dastyari in The Australian
Wait a second. Haven’t we been here before? Every day may be Groundhog Day in the Labor party at the moment, but those who can remember all the way back to 2010 will recall that it was precisely to shift away from the Green agenda that Gillard and her Sussex St chums took over in the first place.
Before looking at why Labor seems to be revisiting something as though for the first time, let’s deal head-on with the issue that just shows just how much Labor and its “hard-heads” are riddled with all the delusions of politics as it is now.
For the last decade, Labor, and most of the left for that matter, have understood their declining relevance in Australian society in moralistic terms. Since 2001, Labor’s successive defeats at the hand of a politician of mediocre popularity, and now its flailing at the hands of an even more unpopular one, has been put down to a problem of being unable to reflect what “real” Australians think.
And why? Well, to not put a too fine point on it, Labor’s just simply too good to stoop that low. Because of this gap between Labor’s enlightened views and those of the electorate, political commentators have claimed that Labor is vulnerable to a “wedge”.
This “wedge” is portrayed between as one between a high-minded Labor party and its more earthy supporter base or, as the conservatives like to portray it, as between effete inner city middle class progressives and its traditional blue collar base who are just itching to become “Abbott’s battlers”.
The trouble with this view is that no one ever points to polls that show where this wedge actually is. Indeed on polls on issues such as asylum seekers, gay marriage, environment and the mining tax, Labor has usually been to the right of its supporter base and closer to the Coalition, than its own supporters. On asylum seekers, for example, polls suggest that around 2/3rds of Labor supporters prefer onshore processing, an “extreme” position only held by the Greens and that mysterious silent entity known as the Labor left, while the government’s desperate search for an offshore solution is wanted by less than a quarter of its own supporters.
Take gay marriage, another issue that conservatives like Gerard Henderson love to claim is one only supported by middle class types and is a reason for Labor’s growing detachment from real Australians. Actually polls show that there is not much difference between white and blue collar workers on the issue (they both are for it), with the real sharp difference being, as would be expected, by age. Again the vast bulk of ALP supporters support it, with the Prime Minister’s position supported by the same minority of 22% of Labor voters that support her on offshore processing.
If there is a “wedge” on social issues then polls suggest it would be not between Labor and a more conservative support base, it would be the opposite – between a fairly progressive section of the electorate and a more conservative party, especially its current leader.
A common retort to this is that the public may be relatively progressive on these issues, but do not share the priorities of the left and the Green’s as to their importance. There is a point here. Polls suggest that the main priorities are health, education and the economy. The problem is that Labor has nothing to say on them that would distinguish government under them as it would under Howard.
One of the other notable features on polls on social attitudes is not only showing how Labor is to the right of its supporter base, but how similar are Labor supporters’ views (almost identical) to that of Greens supporters. This should not be a surprise, since in many ways they are much the same thing.
To listen to political commentators, and especially the Greens, you would think that their agenda came from nowhere and Labor has had to respond. Actually the Greens agenda has largely come from Labor itself. It was the unions, most notably the BLF in the 1970s, and later Labor, that brought environmental issues into the national arena. During Whitlam, controversies such as Lake Pedder in Tasmania and Fraser Island in Queensland were used as a means of centralising power over the states to Canberra and giving the party a progressive edge as its support of union influence and state spending faded away. The latter became especially important for the Hawke government both at the start with the Franklin dam in 1983 and his “green turn” at the end in 1990.
In Labor, environmentalism was first taken up by the pointy end of the union-Labor relationship, the left, but by the end of Hawke, even Right hatchet-men like Graeme Richardson were playing up the green angle. However, what was only a tactic for managing the problem never solved it. After all, Labor was set up as a party to assert union interests through government programs, not as an environmental party.
By the 2000s under Howard, the increasing irrelevance of Labor’s core program continued and what was seen as a solution to it, its stand on progressive issues, became seen as a problem. For Labor it became more convenient to understand its irrelevance as being too progressive on social issues rather than having nothing to say on the economic issues it was formed on.
It was convenient for both left and right in Labor. For the left it could preen itself as too progressive for its own good, for the right, opposing the Left was a sign of its pragmatism. Both were equally deluded as Labor’s base for being progressive and pragmatic, its relationship with the unions, had gone. In between the two were those like Gillard, and her erstwhile mentor, Latham, who replaced Labor’s defunct program by embodying Labor values (whatever they were) as a personal thing.
Howard, of course, played on all of this ruthlessly and teased Labor by playing up “wedge” issues and creating a mythical constituency in Labor’s heartland in western Sydney of Howard battlers. But the wedge was not between Labor and its blue collar base in western Sydney, or anywhere else, but between Labor delusions on where it stood in society and reality.
That’s why when Gillard and the Sussex St mob sought to take back the party it did so on trying to “reconnect” with voters but by taking up positions that voters didn’t think that important or even support. Watering down the mining tax, and delaying the ETS under a Citizen’s Assembly were both done to reconnect and get the government “back on track” even though neither was wanted by the electorate, let alone Labor supporters.
The exquisite irony, of course, was that so much did Labor fail to reconnect, it lost its majority and ended up having to take up the Greens agenda anyway, especially on the ETS. But even Gillard supporters can hardly claim she has been stumping the country talking about the dangers of global warming, preferring instead to talk about the cash hand-outs. As some have noted, this has been a debate about climate change without actually talking about it.
But there was one issue that Gillard Labor was intended to really reconnect on, an issue that goes to the heart of how the political class understands itself and its relationship to the electorate – asylum seekers. It was on asylum seekers that Labor understood its problems after the Tampa election of 2001 and on which Gillard and the party power brokers were going to re-establish their authority over the electorate and the party. No matter how oblivious the Timor solution and the Malaysia solution were to the realities of international and domestic politics, the government was determined to carry on regardless because that was how the leadership saw the problem, and its solution.
On Thursday 28 June 2012 Gillard gave that up. Handing asylum policy over to a committee was precisely the type of response that her predecessor would have done that was seen as a cop out by the current leadership, but is now where they have also ended up.
With the carbon tax now passed and not to be mentioned again, Sam Dastyari’s call for ending preferences to the Greens is an attempt to revive the strategy from 2010 but is classic bad Sussex St politics. Making an enemy of a party on which your supporters agree on practically every issue is at best an empty gesture and at worst will make the Greens the anti-establishment party they clearly crave but don’t deserve. It has no point, but then neither now does Sussex St.’s recapture of the party just over two years ago.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 9 July 2012.Filed under Key posts, State of the parties