“It is very difficult for a voter who believes in fairness, equality and responsible government to see value in a Labor Party that seeks election by emulating its supposed opponents”, writes David Spry.
When considering the policies and track record of the LNP it should be surprising that in recent polls Labor are at only 50/50 with them in popularity. It is possible to blame the media, the lack of an informed electorate and the consequences of fear campaigns, but I suggest that Labor’s most significant impediment is its lack of an easily discernible identity.
The increasingly desperate efforts in recent years to identify with and claim succession from the Whitlam Government is really an admission that none of their governments since have achieved a similar status. Hawke, and particularly Keating played a significant role in changing Australia’s economy and forms of government, but unfortunately for Labor their changes have not all turned out to be for the benefit of the population at large – particularly from the perspective of the population at large. Like the LNP, recently Labor have had to fall back on gross figures and statistics to claim a benefit from their policies, while obfuscating the data that shows the erosion of the quality of life of many Australians.
Whitlam et al brought systems of certainty, responsibility and accountability that removed some significant pressures on all Australians, but particularly the poor.
Hawke, and particularly Keating, deliberately introduced risk into the lives of all Australians and eroded the concept of certainty from their lives.
The economic pros and cons of his policies are not the telling factors when considering Labor’s reputation, but rather that Mr Keating clearly showed that he was willing to impose hardship on the people, without adequate explanation and with no concern for the consequences for the people. His arrogance, his privatisations, his economic policies and his growing affiliations with the private sector all eroded any certainty that the electorate could feel about the Labor Party. He clearly believed in making money out of risk, so he decided that the lives of Australians should also embrace risk – whether they could cope with it or not.
Paul Keating alienated large sections of the electorate, including traditional Labor voters, lost the 1996 election and permanently changed the public’s image of the Labor Party.
The National Competition Policy, although vaunted as an extension of Whitlam’s Trade Practices Act, has in practice resulted in services ceasing to be maintained as essential, with the focus shifting from responsibility to deliver the service, to the taking of a profit from it. State governments have caught this infection and they sell off utilities and assets to prop up inefficient government practices in the short-term, or create government business enterprises the primary roles of which are the collection of general revenue, with no thought as to the future needs of the people they are meant to represent. Maintaining party loyalty is made difficult for any party that shows indifference to its supporters.
The internal transformation of Labor began as a result of the fall of the Whitlam Government. The lessons taken from their ousting focused upon the methods needed to prevent a repeat of the humiliation. Unfortunately the focus was on how to regain and maintain the party, its power brokers and elected members in new governments, while the traditional principles of the party were regarded as, at best, secondary.
One only has to look at the machinations of the parliamentary party in the late 70s and the 80s. Old fashioned members of principle were cast out and a new breed of seekers after personal power began filling the ranks. There had always been factional differences based primarily on principle, but these differences morphed into power based deals tied to personal advancement. Parliamentary Labor and the National Executive rapidly moved away from practices that supported fairness and equality, preferring to make deals with the private sector that would support their reign.
Nobody from the Whitlam era would have curried favour and support from someone as far right wing as Rupert Murdoch, or become the acolyte of such a controversial anti-labor figure as Peter Abeles, but Mr Hawke did both and his example has been followed by many Labor members since. People were left to ponder whether Mr Hawke had ever really been the workers’ champion, and even if they had believed, they had no choice but to conclude that his priorities had changed. What did it say about Labor? To what principles were they committed?
Mr Keating wanted to prove the viability of his economic theory and was not concerned with any resultant negative effects felt in Australian homes and workplaces. His recent claims that these continuing negative effects are the result of poor administration by his successors, overlooks the reality that he set in motion the landslide shift from government for the people to government with the business sector and provided no means to modify or control that shift. It was not very difficult for voters to conclude that Mr Keating was not a man of the people.
There were huge egos and personal ambition in the Whitlam Government, but what made them so different from the current crop, was that they were satisfying their egos by withdrawing Australia from an unjust war, ending Conscription that had served that war, providing medical care for everyone, removing the concept of the matrimonial offence from divorce law, introducing Trade Practices law and reforming government practices, all based upon principles of fairness and equality, and recognising that Australia and its resources belong to the Australian people. They were out there doing good for their electors and feeling good about it.
Too much time has passed for modern Labor to claim all but the most distant connection to its qualities in the early 70s. We haven’t seen a real leader since Hawke or Keating because the factions and the network deals mean that every ‘leader’ since is the product of compromise, and follows the weeding out of anyone committed to a particular cause or broadly based responsible philosophy. The executive and the power brokers want control, and it is a control directed towards the preservation of their personal positions and winning government in order to enhance their power. They employ and rely on advisors to find ways of winning government that will not compromise deals already done, which takes their focus far away from thoughts of the quality of life of the general public.
This is the age of selfishness and an excuse for everything, and these beliefs are used to justify the actions of so many within modern Labor. Unless they choose to change there will eventually be a groundswell of frustration either within the party, or in the community in spite of the party. I think it unlikely that we will sink into an undemocratic two-party swap-fest like the US system. It is far more likely that we will see a large number of Australians clamouring for change as has happened in Canada and the UK Labour Party. It should not be too great a leap for modern members to go from trying to bask in reflected glory to actually considering the substance that makes the Whitlam years so praiseworthy. The events in Canada and the UK show that policies of fairness and equality are not just historical myths but are attitudes alive and well among many people, including Australians. The LNP have always dismissed and sidelined the general public, but the tendency of Labor to follow a similar course will keep them rubbing shoulders with the LNP and see them neck and neck in the polls and elections, because in effect their policies are so similar and their networking is intermingled.
It is very difficult for a voter who believes in fairness, equality and responsible government to see value in a Labor Party that seeks election by emulating its supposed opponents. Like the LNP they are relying on a level of public stupidity that does not exist. A seriously ill citizen can read in 2015, in a Murdoch newspaper, that the old Repatriation Hospital in Hobart is filled with health department administrators doing unnecessary work costing millions of dollars while the waiting list for treatment for that citizen gets longer and longer. When they also hear Health described as an ‘Industry’ which makes substantial profits, and that both sides of government support profit making in Health and in Health Insurance, they know that they are being monumentally screwed. A party primarily committed to that citizen’s health will almost certainly get their vote. One that does factional deals to allow the health budget to be wasted will not.
Labor has come to share the belief that money is the measure of everything, but the provision of Health Services should primarily be about adequate delivery of those services to those who require them. As far as possible a budget needs to be arrived at that delivers those services as efficiently and economically as possible. But modern Labor supports the view that a Health Budget is there to be milked, by the already mentioned unnecessary administrators, but also by management methods primarily designed to maintain officials at the best pay-grade. Many people in the street know the truth about our inefficient and fractured Health System. Its problems are perpetuated by both major parties. Labor’s health policies, as practised, do not win it many more votes than the LNP.
I often feel sympathy for Bill Shorten when he is making public statements because the pressure he is clearly feeling comes, I am sure, not just from the journalists, but from his awareness of all the people behind him in the party, and in the ranks of those with whom the party has done deals, all of whom claim the right to judge and control him. He cannot proceed with confidence on the basis of representing a united party, simply because it is disunited. He tries to survive by taking the conciliatory approach, having watched Kevin Rudd arrogantly trying to publicly force policy upon his party and being thrown out.
Any party in which the majority of members are focused on personal advancement and power is not going to be seen as any more attractive than a coalition committed to the benefit of the privileged establishment.
The continuing resignation of members who have retained their principles clearly indicates that the party has lost its way. The explanation they give of their frustration at the negative effect of the selfish power wielded within the party is eroding confidence that Labor is a party committed to its traditional policies.
It is a mistake for 21st century Labor to hide behind assertions that the world is now different from that of 45 years ago to the extent that it precludes responsible government with the quality of life of its citizens as a primary commitment. This is particularly so when it has been the actions of Labor that have helped to shift government away from responsibility to and for the people.
Creating unnecessary jobs that deplete the budgets of essential services, agreeing to allow the continuation of Work Place Agreements so that rural workers have continued to be paid less than the minimum wage in order to prop up the overvalued parts of the rural sector, agreeing to every defence policy of the LNP without considering the merits and morals of Australia’s involvement, and immersing itself in the free trade mythology regardless of the proven negative results for our economy and the loss of Australian jobs, are all examples of Labor’s abandonment of the Australian people.
Such policies and practices make it difficult for modern Labor to emulate their past heroes because they have already painted themselves into a corner. Unfortunately a majority like that corner, or accept that there is no alternative, which forever precludes them from being a party for the people. In that corner power is more important than principle and the electorate has become something to be manipulated rather than represented.
I voted for the Whitlam Government and if a party of that calibre existed now I would vote for it again. Like the vast majority of the Australian population I was a beneficiary of the Whitlam legislation, not just in the delivery of a new focus of administration but in how it entrenched concepts of fairness and accountability in government and in business. Although not going as far as the LNP, Labor of the last 30 years has contributed to the erosion of the qualities given to us by Whitlam and Co. In their cosy deals with the business sector they have embraced secrecy in government in places where the only purpose is to hide information from the public. They have embraced economic policy based on the myth of ‘growth for ever’, even when Kevin Rudd had to leap to save Macquarie Bank and then the others when the GFC hit. Labor refused to look at the reality the GFC revealed; that the figures showing wealth and economic security, so heavily relied upon by Keating, his successors and others across the floor, were gross exaggerations of the true picture.
The GFC showed that, when the search had to be made for real money and real assets, much of the vaunted wealth was made up of ‘apparent money’ – money that only existed if they believed in all of the deals and all of the artificial financial instruments as being capable of realisation, and also if they thought they could rely upon the deliberately inflated value of real assets.
Unfortunately the GFC showed that much of Australian real estate was overvalued and many of those artificial creations had no substance at all – and the LNP and modern Labor are happy to pretend again that all the ‘apparent money’ created since the GFC is real and that market value will survive the next crisis. We are left to assume that, even though they know that it is coming, they are just trying not to think about the next bailout that they have helped to make unavoidable, or to admit that they will again expect the Australian people to take responsibility for it.
Labor’s support for current economic policy is support for continued economic inequality for most people. For all their protestations to the contrary, modern Labor has done nothing significant to reduce poverty since Mr Hawke’s promise to the poor, but they have supported the growth of wealth for the already privileged.
For all of the above, and unfortunately there are more reasons, modern Labor finds it impossible to show a cohesive identity to electors. They have spent so much time and effort in reaching internal compromises and in cementing relationships with business, industry and the media that their commitments are so diffuse that a single cohesive identity is impossible. When the role of the unions is added, and unfortunately for the party the beliefs within these unions vary so greatly, the public face of the party is too fractured to be easily recognised.
It could be argued that the lack of a respectable identity has persuaded some within the party to look to personal survival over responsible representation, but this choice does not help them to get elected as a principled alternative to the LNP.
The best that the Labor Party has been able to come up with in recent years is, while showing how similar they are to the LNP, they try to persuade voters that they are not as bad as the LNP – and that is not much in the way of persuasion.
It is my fervent hope that Labor does not morph into Australia’s version of the US Democrats, so that we have to live with both major parties representing the establishment ahead of the people. I suspect that some of the selfish survivalists within the Labor Party would be comfortable with that transition, but I hope that there are still enough people to prevent Labor’s history having only one government in 50 years that truly cared about the Australian people.
If Labor fails, then I hope that through social media and the internet, a groundswell of public opinion will come to demand recognition of the rights of the people and the need for responsibility in government.
To be a champion of rampant commercialism is not to reach the heights of human achievement, because such commercialism simplistically relies upon the selfish exercise of rights without the necessary balance of respect and responsibility, and therefore is not a basis for good government.
Modern Labor needs to discount the crude rhetoric that claims that competition is the essence of human success. Competition existed long before human evolution. Humanity, both as a philosophical concept and as a species, evolved to where we are now, by the use of our ability to reason to develop concepts and practises of cooperation, relying on values of respect, responsibility and compassion. Unbridled competition threatens and degrades our humanity, particularly when its aim is not just to win but to beat people into submission.
Unfortunately, for the time being, Labor cannot clearly show me or the electorate a clear commitment to humanity, or to what specific principles and policies they are truly committed.
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