The day the Gillard government died

Monday, 9 July 2012 

David Rowe in the AFR

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

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17 responses to “The day the Gillard government died”

  1. Alexander White on 9th July 2012 10:26 am

    The Dastyari plan of putting the Greens last would be a mistake:

  2. Dr_Tad on 9th July 2012 10:49 am

    “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.”

    I’m not sure the current Greens leaders crave to be anti-establishment. Milne is much less able to articulate outsider status than Brown was.

    Witness Milne attacking Therese Rein for “destabilising” Gillard:

    Nevertheless, you’re correct that Sussex St is giving the Greens more cred than they deserve.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 9th July 2012 11:00 am

    Guess I mean anti-establishment in the broadest sense of the words, i.e. not the two major parties, not a bad thing to try and be.

    Just saw Milne as being cack-handed making the obvious point, they would rather Gillard leader than Rudd – preserves the Parliament.

    Wish I had read the Howes piece in the ST before I wrote this. It’s a cracker!

  4. twobob on 9th July 2012 11:58 am

    Are they really so dumb?
    Howard pulled a three card trick to confuse the racists and get their vote.
    First he demonised boat people and by doing so he pretended to be hard on immigration but his government allowed in more immigrants than any other government.
    The refugee issue is too hard to be solved but the Labor party need to do a Howard. Let them in and show how hard they are by decreasing the number of official immigrants by a fraction more than the number of refugees that we take.
    The debate has become quite Orwellian but don’t be confused. What our political parties are doing is seeking the racist vote. I don’t like immigration much anyway as it takes opportunities from younger Australians. If we need a worker train up our own young and if there is no one willing try the tried and true method of upping wages and conditions. It will always work. Be hard on immigration – point at howards numbers and hey presto you have your support back. But Labor are fighting a losing battle by pretending that it is concern for refugees and not racism that is driving voters. They should wake up and get with the real world on this. It will be a game changer if they can.

  5. DrFriendless on 9th July 2012 5:12 pm

    When I read Dastyari’s vomit this morning I did something I’ve never done before – donated to a political party. Labor is dead to me, and the Greens will need every dollar I can spare to get the incompetent corrupt bastards out of office.

  6. Thomas Paine on 10th July 2012 10:40 pm

    Gillard Labor thinks they have to become more like Howard Liberals, because after all wasn’t he so successful (without a closer look at how he got over the line at each election). And anyway doesn’t SStreet pretty much represent Howard’s view.

    Gap opening up in the centre center/lft and the Greens can probably can hardly believe their luck, if they are smart enough to move into it.

    In fact maybe hard to actually identify the centre whilst Labor keeps looking with longing at the right.

  7. Riccardo on 10th July 2012 11:38 pm

    Definitely agree with TPS.

    Howard was only successful at portraying himself as pro working class becoz the ALP let him. They were in awe of his supposed political skills whereas what they were seeing was the effect of thier own retreat.

    Keating never forgave Kimbo for porttraying him as un popular and for supposed bad economics which never happened. Note it was Kimbo who did this, not Howard/Costello, who merely used the opportunity to do so. By 1996 the economic troubles were history but Kimbo let it be known he wasnt going to challenge Liberal rewriting of history.

    If you’ve ever tried reversing a car with trailer, you’ll understand Dastiyari’s problem. Everything you do, every direction you turn seems to produce the opposite result from what was intended. Demonise th Greens and harden their vote, sow doubt in your own vote, and vindicate everything the Libs have been saying, without actually changing anything on the ground.

    Support Gillard in doing everything you complained Rudd was doing the same. Prove Abbotts claim that minority government doesn’t work for him.

  8. Riccardo on 10th July 2012 11:43 pm

    Also why attack the inner city voters during the Melbourne byelection? Why draw attention to how similar you asylum policies are to the Libs? Or how you don’t believe in climate change? Or don’t support gay marriage. Funny way of getting the inner city vote, especially with the Libs not standing.

  9. Doug on 11th July 2012 1:26 pm

    Collateral damage from Sussex Street could help the ALP lose the seat of melbourne in the Victoria Parliament and damage the ALP in the upcoming ACT election. It will remind the people who have been voting Green there precisely why they aren’t voting for the ALP. It has also given the chance for the Liberal Party to open up another front against the local labor Party.

    Great work guys

  10. The Piping Shrike on 11th July 2012 5:00 pm

    Think it’s a long time (if ever) that Sussex St has lost sleep doing damage to Vic Labor’s prospects.

  11. Riccardo on 12th July 2012 10:11 pm

    Last drinks gents. Time to call time on the ALP. Sad reading rodney Cavalier and Frank Sartor, ones who believed.

    Time to pack up the tents and put the lions and elephants on the trucks. The circus is leaving town. People assume that a) all the benefit of he ALP folding will go to the Libs and none to the Greens and b) that the Greens ould be upset if they got 20% of the primary and the Libs 80%.

    Both are wrong. The Greens could boost their own vote, stay pure, and be the official opposition. If the ALP is the NSW right, and they are no different politically from the Libs, there is no difference.

  12. Marilyn on 13th July 2012 6:49 am

    I confess I voted for the ALP for the last time in 1983. I was tempted in 1987 but then Hawke sold us to Murdoch.

    These days I see Beazley squabbling over dead refugees with Ruddock and my hand shakes so much I can’t do it.

  13. DM on 13th July 2012 10:14 pm

    The attack on the Greens from the Right wing of Labor would be justified if Sussex St and their cronies would actually provide the reasoning why Labor is the better centre-left/progressive option. But this way it’s just a hollow attack that I’m afraid will backfire.

  14. James on 20th July 2012 5:22 pm

    Shrike, you must give us a piece about the Melbourne by-election once it’s done and dusted.

  15. The Piping Shrike on 20th July 2012 10:50 pm

    If I find something to say about it!

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