The Problem of the Australian Labor Party


This analysis by HENRY ERGAS, in The Australian, July 23, 2012, is crucial reading. Here is his text:

AT the heart of Labor’s problems is its reaction to the 2010 election. In that election, voters swung to the Right, but thanks to Julia Gillard’s deal with the Greens, the government shifted sharply to the Left. Those opposing movements transformed a gap between Labor and the electorate into a chasm. And with voters sceptical of the Prime Minister’s trustworthiness from the outset, that chasm now threatens to swallow Labor whole.
To grasp the severity of Labor’s predicament, it is important to understand just how extraordinary Gillard’s move to the Left in 2010 was. Consider a scale going from zero to 10, where zero is furthest to the Left and 10 to the Right. For the advanced democracies, statistical analysis shows a one-point movement in the electorate’s positioning along that scale is generally associated with a two-point movement by the government in the same direction.
There is, in other words, an amplification effect, matching movements in the electorate’s positioning with even greater movements in the stance of government. This occurs as incumbent governments, if re-elected, respond to shifting public views. The amplification is even greater when governments change, as the leading parties tend to be considerably further from each other on the Left-Right scale than are voters.
But Labor broke that pattern in 2010. The Australian Election Study, which asks voters not only who they voted for but also the reasons for their choice, shows public opinion in that election veered Right on crucial issues.
In 2007, for example, 47 per cent of the electorate preferred more social spending to a decrease in taxes; by 2010, the share of the electorate preferring more spending had declined to 34 per cent.
At the same time, the proportion of the electorate believing unions have too much power increased from 37 per cent to 49 per cent, its highest level since 1996. And the proportion viewing climate change as a serious threat collapsed from 53 per cent to 19 per cent.
As for asylum-seekers, the proportion supporting a policy of turning back the boats remained above 50 per cent, with barely one in four voters disagreeing with it.
That shift to the Right drove a wedge in the coalition Labor had successfully forged in 2007 between its traditional base and the Left-leaning inner city constituencies. Faced with that wedge, Gillard struck an unprecedented agreement with the Greens. She did so knowing voters view the Greens as being significantly to the Left: taking the scale from zero on the Left to 10 on the Right, on average, voters place the Greens at about three, while they place Labor slightly above four and themselves smack on five.
To make matters worse, Labor voters in 2010 considered themselves as being to the Right of Labor itself, so that the distance between their preferred position and that of the Greens was all the greater. That this would end in tears should have been obvious.
There were other danger signs. Gillard had a lower approval rating in 2010 than any federal election winner since Paul Keating beat John Hewson in 1993. Moreover, the proportion regarding her as honest was well below John Howard’s and less than half Kevin Rudd’s. The subsequent broken promises therefore merely confirmed widely held fears, pushing hostility to Labor through the trapdoor that makes trends in public opinion so difficult to reverse.
Little wonder Labor’s tactical ploys have proven ineffective in stemming the government’s loss of support. Echoing Karl Rove’s advice that George W. Bush “dance with the ones that brung him”, the attack on the rich was intended to galvanise Labor’s core constituency. But it is one thing to adopt a “back to base” strategy when your heartland is close to a majority, as was Bush’s; it is entirely another in the circumstances Gillard faces, with barely 16 per cent of voters regarding themselves as “strongly committed” to Labor, down from 26 per cent in 2007 and nearly 40 per cent in 1979. Under those conditions, the rhetoric of “class against class” could only confirm Labor’s move to the Left, alienating the strongly centrist voters who make up fully 60 per cent of the Australian electorate.
As for turning on the Greens, it misses the point. It is not Bob Brown, who they have never voted for, the enraged sans-culottes of western Sydney despise; it is Gillard. Already perceived as the untrustworthy leader of a dysfunctional government, the main effect of the Labor Right’s assault on Gillard’s chosen coalition partner is to further undermine her authority.
Finally, the notion that Rudd could save Labor is scarcely credible. Labor’s man of destiny in 2007, his greatest skill lay in creating crises worthy of a talent as extraordinary as his own. But the fundamental difficulty is not Rudd’s record or character; it is that even were he the messiah, the bloodletting accompanying such a change would be fatal so close to an election.
The objective conditions for a change in Labor leader are consequently not ripe: they are rotten. But that need not condemn Gillard to inactivity. Instead of aimlessly wandering the country, a ghost who will not recognise it is a ghost, she could still shift Labor back towards the Right. That is what she promised voters in 2010; that is what she failed to deliver.
Adopting the Coalition’s asylum policy would be a good place to start. Whatever its symbolic costs, it would take the issue off the table. As for the carbon tax, she could seek an immediate move to an emissions trading scheme with permits available at the world price. She could show a genuine willingness to address the Fair Work Act’s most obvious defects.
But whether Gillard is capable of changing course is hardly certain. Kicking away the ladder takes more than the streak of granite she readily displays; it takes intellectual stringency and political judgment she shows no sign of possessing.
Rather, trapped in a world view dominated by unresolved anger over the injustices of the Welsh valleys of her birth, Gillard has lost the aspirational voters who should have been her mainstay. Ominously for the future, ALP support among the young is now weaker and less stable than in any previous postwar generation, while the party has failed to find a common language with the upwardly mobile Asian communities that are the most rapidly growing group in the population.
Labor therefore seems set to wait for the end flapping and flailing, like dying fish on a deck. For ultimately, what is special to democracy is its insistence that it be the people who decide the direction in which the nation moves. Gillard ignored that in 2010; the consequences could haunt Labor for years to come.
(Copyright material posted on this blog for further reading and assessment.)

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