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Whither Labor?

When the hoary old phrase ‘fall on his sword’ is used to describe a resignation, in this case the end of the career of the ALP’s Noah Carrol, you know circumstances are dire.

I am not inclined to pick over the entrails of the ALP’s loss to Scott Morrison. Rather, I’m curious why the global electorate is shunning progressive, social democrat parties around the world.

I seek the observations of political scientists and commentators I admire, but even their well-crafted explanations fail to answer my questions.

I believe in human rights, equality, equal pay, peace, an end to climate change and a benign technological future devoted to the service of humanity. In short I am a product of my schoolboy and university studies of the Enlightenment, Karl Marx, and from my own era, the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes.

I am a child of the post-World War Two period; a legatee of Whitlam, Hawke and Keating. All three Labor prime ministers are like Marx, Keynes and the architects of the Enlightenment, luminaries of the 20th and earlier centuries.

But here’s the rub. The ALP of the 21st Century remains beholden to heroes whose Light on the Hill does not shine for half the voting population.

The author and orator of the Light on the Hill speech Prime Minister Ben Chifley lived in the former Labor stronghold of Bathurst. But in the 21st Century, with the exception of the regional NSW Federal seats of Gilmore and Eden-Monaro, plus one or two others, Labor is not the political party of choice.

Unless the ALP engages meaningfully with the Bush, with its unique challenges, national government remains beyond reach.

The new NSW ALP leader Jodi McKay recognised this conundrum when she chose Yasmin Catley, the MP for the State seat of Swansea in the Hunter, as her deputy.

In NSW Hunter and Illawarra seats, both state and federal, are critical paths to government.

I first met Ms McKay at the International Media Centre in Darling Harbour during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. She impressed me then, and continues to shine to this day.

If anyone can win back the Bush for the ALP it is politicians of the calibre of Jodi McKay and Fiona Phillips, the new MP for Gilmore which centres on the regional NSW city of Nowra in the Shoalhaven.

Gilmore, Eden-Monaro and the Federal seat of Macquarie, with its ramparts of the Blue Mountains, and which Labor held by its fingernails, are the equivalents of Minnesota, and Ohio in the United States and Manchester and Huddersfield in England.

Similar regional cities and communities across Europe and much of the Anglophone world are suspicious of human rights, equality, equal pay, peace, an end to climate change and a benign technological future. In short their citizens despise people like you and me.

Instead they hearken the violent, xenophobic rhetoric of Tommy Robinson and his ilk. Or vote for populists like Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. The more discerning among them swallow the gobbledegook of Jordan Peterson.

In Australia mornings and afternoons are wasted listening to shock jocks, or reading tabloid muck. Many pore over pseudo-science peddled by the likes of Malcolm Roberts or the so called ‘fellows’ of the Institute of Public Affairs.

This daily jibber-jabber is the equivalent of the outpourings of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in the novel 1984.

But it achieves nothing other than serving the purposes of a cohort of so called conservatives whose rhetoric seems the antithesis of conservatism.

So whither Labor?

I believe the ALP requires a devilish, two-fold strategy. First, win over urban Greens voters who are experiencing a similar sense of shock and loss as their Labor counterparts. Second, listen to and learn from the experiences of regional and rural Party members.

My local Federal Member for Grayndler and Leader of the Labor Opposition, Anthony Albanese claims the Unity Hall Hotel in Balmain as Labor’s birthplace.

Albo uses the Unity as a go-to venue for significant Labor announcements such as Kevin Rudd’s change to the ALP’s rules in 2013.

The problem with this is it cock’s-a-snook at regional Australia, in particular those nascent ALP supporters with a tattoo of the Southern Cross — emblem of the Eureka Stockade flag — on their bodies. And it ignores older ALP supporters who yearn for the story of a Labor Party founded beneath the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine, Queensland.

Track down the movie Sunday Too Far Away starring Jack Thompson in a fictional characterisation of ALP stalwart and designer of the It’s Time campaign, Mick Young. Watch it and you’ll get my gist.

If Albo can manage to reconcile the divergence of these two iconic Labor sites with their disparate traditions, he might reignite a light in the hearts of a demoralised ALP rank and file.

I believe Albo capable of this reconciliation. And while he is a much tougher character than John Setka of the CFMMEU, he cannot afford to alienate its membership.

Albo speaks in a vernacular which resonates with conservative, traditional ALP supporters, who since the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd years shifted their vote elsewhere.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews strikes me as a Labor politician admired in his rural heartland.

And Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s 2015 trouncing of the hapless Campbell Newman remains a warning to Scott Morrison and his Liberal cohort which is showing signs of behaviour not dissimilar to Tommy Robinson and his bully boys.

Premier Palaszczuk’s victory in Queensland proves this nation can get very angry, very quickly.

But now it is up to Anthony Albanese to find his voice and assure the citizens of a 21st Century nation that Australia, united, will never be defeated.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book, The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale here.

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  1. Keith Thomas Davis

    Good article!

    I am, by inclination, a man of the Left. An inclusive, currently retired, working-class man. I am a True Believer. The resonance of the meaning of the Light On The Hill informs my actions and my beliefs, it is not a candle for me, it is a beacon.

    The last election was always going to be a watershed moment for Australia. When one jumps over and above the piddling, over and above the appeals to wallets and venality, over and above the aspirations of selfish people, over and above the ability of fear to Trump heart (pun sadly intended), one is left trying to answer a hammer-blow of a question. Who are we, really, as a people?

    The answer on the 18th of May 2019 would seem to say that we are small minded, selfish, exclusive, fearful of any innovative breeze, embarrassingly parochial, amazingly suspect to believing lies that make no effort whatsoever to masquerade as truth, scared of anything or anyone who has the smell of the ‘other’ about it or them, and that a worrying proportion of us are prepared to support two minor parties who are led by two look at me look at me types who proudly parade their hate and brainlessness. The votes, and the truth of it, have been cast.

    All of which enthuses me. What we are fighting for, and against, has been clarified.

    To paraphrase JFK, or perhaps to paraphrase the gifted speech writer who actually thought-invented the lines, things are now about what we can do for our country, our Australia. They are not, and never should have been, about what our country can do for us, or those sadly aspirational wallets.

  2. Milton Armitage

    Just trying to give a picture why the ALP will never win seats in some parts of rural and regional Australia even though many of their policies would be very helpful and useful to the residents and economies of these communities…

    I live in New England … it used to be a Labour electorate way back in the day but as the urban Laborites needs and wants changed, and technology reduced the need for rural labour, it became ripe for the agrarian socialism type of the Country / National Party. When I first arrived here 20 years ago there were many people mostly public servants with at least a higher post school education who usually came and worked here until their kids were ready for high school then transferred back to bigger cities ….. these people had better wages and had some cosmopolitan cultural and social and economic influence in the cities… many public service cuts later not many of these people around…

    Local wages here are low, there are many tradies seeking the small pool of work although there is growth in people moving into the regions cities with new buildings and renovating houses and property… some tradies work on the mines but there are also many FIFO workers… the mine supply chain adds to the economy…. some smaller farmers haven’t got the critical mass or scale to survive modern conditions especially with climate change effects….big agribusiness has reduced the numbers of family farmers big and small, farm workers mostly low paid on irregular contracts, the abattoirs employ mostly overseas visa workers, a lot of small businesses are owned and operated by numerous religious groups, and there are many of these…they hold quite a powerful block of conservative Christian influence.

    Most voters don’t tune into national issues or even local issues they just want to get the job done and think of other stuff, its not very aspirational but there is a very strong identity to being rural and regional. Many people are climate change deniers. Its because its a Greens promoted issue and the Nats worked extremely hard to set up an inviolable wedge between Climate Change believing Greens and Climate Change Denying Nats. They hate the Greens and anyone who could be slightly Green… this is an article of faith with many of the current residents of New England… even though the Millennial drought knocked many about and this current drought is going to send many people broke… and some people are suggesting there could be a link many aren’t buying it… its the classic Donald Horne case of “second rate leaders and although its ordinary people are adaptable they live on other people’s ideas and so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”

    Barnaby Joyce works for them here because he’s a brand they know. They know here done some stupid things, some amoral things, been lazy and inept in his job but at least he’s not a Tony Windsor and committed the greatest sin of all, supporting a Labor government. Some will shake their heads about water theft and taxpayers gifts to agri business but it won’t stick. They’ll keep re-Joyceing…

    The National Party got 4.51% or 642,233 votes of the national vote in 2019.

  3. Bronte ALLAN

    Great article Henry! I also think that Keith & Milton’s comments are very valid. Sadly far too many ignorant, conservative “thinkers” (sic) agree with everything this useless bloody COALition mob say & do, in spite of probably 90% of what they sprouted were lies & “untruths”. I cannot believe that nobody from the Labor party seemed to never question any of the barrage of lies etc that the COALition mob sprouted from day one of the election campaign! If any of their pronouncements etc had been challenged by Labor, maybe they would have not won, especially if Labor had kept up challenging everything they said. Sadly, it seems Labor was too meek or scared etc to say much at all, especially when, it seemed, they just kept on telling lies, distorting facts etc. Why? It is plain that unless ALL the Labor lot do not question, prod, coax etc the COALition mob on everything they say, this country will just keep on going further down the gurgler, than it is now!

  4. wam

    . Rather, I’m curious why the global electorate is shunning progressive, social democrat parties around the world.”
    Ms Frederiksen’s victory is the third in nine months for centre-left parties in the Nordics after wins in Sweden and Finland.Jun 5, 2019. Plus on the Iberian peninsula?? As you said “I am not inclined to pick over the entrails of the ALP’s loss to Scott MorrisonLabor “Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s 2015 trouncing of the hapless Campbell Newman,” she won 44 seats to 42 in the state election and labor lost 23 to 6 in the federal election? Such figures suggest that it is not in your interests to pick over as you have probably been down the bobby’s caravan road before?

    well may you ask quo vadis because ego vadan illuc. but nullus queenslanders will sequentur until the trinity is wiped from their mind.
    I agree with your thought on the labor millstones that have to be eliminated:
    ‘labor and the greens’ is as toxic a slogan as any the lnp devised to attack labor and the ‘labor and the unions’ is barely less a rallying call to hatred.. The former must be eliminated and the latter explained.

    ps milton,
    I was taking an external course with Armidale CAE. 40 years ago, next month.
    At out welcome party there were many locals, students and staff, in a group of about a 100. Two, a retired railway worker’s son and I put a case for the irish and wow the hatred was scary. The unions and rail worker’s pride had disappeared under the conservative ‘tertiary’ revolution.
    Can new england vadan illuc? Triple electee barnaby puts the sword to that hope?

    ps good one keith and bronte:
    Please ignore any evidence that the labor party carried the polls everywhere except queensland.
    Please take no notice that the loonies took some $9m in AEC payments. Wonder what the party outlaid versus the cost to their candidates??

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