What’s wrong with Labor: how long have you got?
Diagnosing the pathology in the Federal Labor Government has become something of a national pastime. The commentariat, practitioners and pundits have all had a go trying to work out why an otherwise healthy government languishes so far in the polls and seems to have such difficulty engaging with the electorate.
We hear many analyses. Some blame party factionalism. Some blame the killer instinct with which KRudd was removed from the Prime Ministership. Perhaps we are not seeing the “real” Julia. Maybe the government lacks a “narrative”.
The 2010 Labor Party review by former Labor senator John Faulkner and former state premiers Bob Carr and Steve Bracks, secret bits and all, identified a lack of policy input from party members. In fact there is a lack of members, full-stop! It may be apposite to propose a different analysis.
The government is failing to communicate a central idea, or set of ideas, that make sense of its policy and explains its direction. They are failing to communicate their fundamental party values.
It is not an issue of ideology; that term carries implications of fanaticism, failure to compromise, and a simplified way of seeing the world. But it is something more than mere concepts or story. What the Federal Labor party currently lacks - as have certain other governments in Australia’s past - is an intellectual structure within which to frame its policies.
Within this framework particular policies, particular ideas, start to make much more sense. A framework is something the electorate can identify with and use to understand the government working within it.
A survey of the the intellectual frameworks that have guided Australian governments in the past proves enlightening.
Curtin and Chifley brought together a nascent nationalism, reflected in the shift of foreign defence policy to self-defence and connection to the US, with a commitment to socialism and unionism. The result was a party that looked after the weak with health reforms, looked to the future with such nation-building projects as the Snowy Mountain River scheme and mass immigration, and attempted an ill-fated nationalisation of Australia’s banks.
The government which came after them, 16 years under Menzies from 1949-1966, was framed by a re-commitment to the Mother Country, Britain, as well as a focus on free enterprise and the stoic values of the middle class - the “forgotten people”. Then, in 1966, under the brief tenure of Harold Holt, we saw a shift again towards the US in foreign policy, but unfortunately Holt’s period of government, much like his followers Gorton and McMahon, was too short to develop a new intellectual framework for governance.
The next government, in contrast, was brimming with ideas. Gough Whitlam burst into office with “The Program” in place - a suite of policies aimed at modernising Australia, bringing greater strength, equity and independence.
The central conceptual framework was one of social democracy - the pursuit of universal social support in areas such as health, education, transport, even (humourously enough) sewerage - tied to a more independent middle power foreign policy and commitment to multiculturalism.
The fact that Whitlam’s government fell apart so quickly (relative to most parties in the post-war period) was not due to a dearth of ideas; it was an result of poor economic management in a time of global economic turmoil, a failure to sufficiently manage key Ministers and, perhaps, reform fatigue from implementing a series of policies too quickly .
In comparison, the next government, under the formidable Malcolm Fraser, suffered a clear lack of principled direction or structure. The ‘75 and ‘77 elections were won on the backlash against the Whitlam government; the ‘80 election saw significant gains by Labor; and the Fraser government is widely seen has having failed to take advantage of its ascendancy to implement serious reform.
It was the resurgent Labor, under Hayden, Hawke and Keating, that provides the strongest evidence that a clear intellectual structure can be used to help the electorate understand, accept and even come to support fundamental changes in the economy, foreign policy and domestic politics.
Hawke’s emphasis on consensus on economic reform, creative middle power diplomacy, enmeshment with Asia and Australian nationalism was a heady mix, and, with Keating’s explanations of the need for openness and competition in the economy helped fundamentally re-shape Australia into a sophisticated, confident and economically open nation. Keatings ideas of a resurgent Republic and further engagement with Asia may prove to be prescient.
In the meantime, the Coalition under Hewson had developed “Fightback” - a dense, though thorough, framework for economic reform into the 21st century. Although Hewson was undone in ‘96 largely on a GST scare campaign, the neoliberal economic agenda of Fightback became the intellectual structure of the majority of those in the Coalition.
Howard’s remarkable 4 term government was built on a framework of rational economic reform outlined in Fightback, continuing middle power diplomacy, and social conservatism (as well, perhaps, as dog-whistle politics). It was Howard’s failure to offer a sufficient political and conceptual defence of industrial relations reform that, in part, did him in.
Rudd won in ‘07, and Gillard (barely) in ‘10, but they have distanced themselves from the ideas of the last successful Labor government and languish. For the ALP, something must be done.
The question, of course, is what the ALP’s guiding framework should actually be? Perhaps they could draw nation-building policies like the NBN and facilitation of economic growth under the banner of “A Stronger Australia”. The Carbon Policy and international enmeshment within East and South-East Asia could suggest “Shaping Australia’s Future”. Perhaps Labor’s instinct for social justice and inclusion should dictate “A Stronger Australia for All Australians” (although this may have negative connotations of Howard’s 1996 slogan, “For All of Us”).
It is not easy to say which of these would be most suitable; that is not the task at hand, and certainly more experienced politicians and advertising gurus could create more powerful messages. In any case, these offerings are really slogans - the party must go deeper and wider. It must recognise the fundamental values that have defined Labor for 110 years, and adapt them intelligently to the world of Australia in the 21st century.
It must recognise changing international economic and geo-political conditions, changing family structures, the challenges of day-to-day living expenses for millions of Australians, the necessity for good environmental policy, sustainability and the realities of ongoing immigration and multiculturalism.
This is not an easy task. It will require intense thought, experience and debate. If the Federal Labor party is to win further elections, and position itself as the party of government and reform in the middle to long term, this process must begin now, and must continue into the foreseeable future.
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