Australian politics, society & culture

LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT

Does the Australian Parliamentary Left have a Future?

Prime Minister Julia Gillard reaches for a football during a visit to the Oval Office, 7 March 2011. © Pete Souza/The White House

The opinion poll results over the past eight months are as bad for an Australian government as any I can recall. As measured by Newspoll, Labor’s primary vote has been hovering around 30%. Between early July and late October it was consistently in the mid-to-high 20s. The two party-preferred vote is hardly better. Since July, Labor’s best two party-preferred poll result was 46%; its worst 41%. Julia Gillard would now die for poll numbers as good as those achieved by Kevin Rudd on the eve of his execution – a primary vote of 35% and a two party-preferred vote of 52%. If things go on as at present, the Gillard government will not be defeated but annihilated at the next federal election.

Almost certainly, however, things will not go on like this until the next election. Two years is a very long time in politics. I find it almost impossible to believe that Gillard could survive beyond the middle of next year if the polls for her government do not improve. If she does not survive, our next Prime Minister is likely to be Kevin Rudd. Even though, to put it mildly, he is not liked by his parliamentary colleagues, outside the political class, Rudd remains by far the most popular leader on the Labor side. The memory of his removal last year – in a sudden, silent, rather sinister caucus coup – still haunts the country. It was something the electorate neither understands nor thinks justified. This view is hardly surprising. During the entire 31 months of Rudd’s Prime Ministership there was only one poll (late April 2010) where Labor did not lead the Coalition, usually quite handsomely, in the two party-preferred vote.

Can Labor improve its position? There is at least one precedent in our recent history for a dramatic revival of a government’s fortunes. In March 2001 the Howard government had a primary vote of 35% to Labor’s 48%. In September, after Tampa and 9/11, it had a primary vote of 50% to Labor’s 35%. It seems to me unlikely but not altogether impossible that over the next two years either Gillard or Rudd might gradually improve their government’s position in the way John Howard did between March and September 2001.

The principal reason is straightforward. Tony Abbott is presently leading the Coalition eyes wide shut into altogether predictable future difficulties. What he is proposing to the Australian people if the Coalition is elected can be summarised like this. He promises to discover $70 billion of savings without causing anyone any real pain, a self-evident absurdity. He promises, in addition, that he will attempt to repeal the carbon and the mining taxes – one of which resolves a deadlock that has plagued Australian politics for a decade; the other of which is broadly popular and accepted as reasonable even by the thirty or so mining companies it will affect. Despite repealing these taxes, he promises moreover to retain many of the attractive measures the taxes are being set aside to fund, like support for an increase in compulsory superannuation from 9% to 12%. It is obvious that Labor and the Greens will not support the tax repeal. Abbott has acknowledged this and promised a double dissolution. In order to earn his double dissolution, legislation to repeal the carbon and mining taxes will have to be presented to both houses of parliament on two occasions separated by at least three months. Before the election is held, there will therefore be several months of economic uncertainty and political chaos. After it, the numbers to repeal the taxes at a joint sitting of the houses are not even guaranteed.

I cannot recall an occasion, since John Hewson’s Fightback package of 1991, when a Leader of the Opposition has contrived a more fanciful and unappealing prospect for the future than the one Abbott has now locked the Coalition into. If over the next two years the Gillard or perhaps Rudd government cannot take advantage of the ill thought-out absurdity of what Abbott is offering the Australian people, Labor truly does not deserve to govern.

Which brings me to the overwhelming question. The future of the parliamentary Left in Australia rests now not simply with the Labor Party but with the relationship between Labor and the Greens, in other words with what the Europeans call “the Red-Green alliance”. Political reality is extremely complicated. For this reason, political analysis involves the search for what might be called the least misleading set of generalisations. In regard to the reasons for the emergence in Australia in recent times of a two-party parliamentary Left and its implication for our political future – concerning which there has been surprisingly little discussion among the political commentariat – what follows is a very abbreviated personal interpretation.

From the time of Whitlam to the time of Keating, the Labor Party tried to hold together, as core voting constituencies on whose support it relied for electoral victory, two very different social classes – its traditional constituency, the manual working class and their families and a newly-won support base among the tertiary educated left-leaning professional middle class. As cultural issues advanced gradually but inexorably towards the centre of Australian politics, the balancing act between these core constituencies became increasingly difficult.

Hawke managed to appeal to enough of both these core constituencies to win four elections. Under Keating, however, the core constituencies parted company. In 1996, very many Howard “battlers”, that is to say low income workers or families, repelled by the cosmopolitan Keating cultural agenda – reconciliation, the republic, multiculturalism, close ties with Asia – sided with the Coalition. Over these cultural issues, to which Howard added the military repulsion of asylum seekers in 2001, a significant part of one of the core Labor constituencies, the “battlers” or “working families”, stayed with the Coalition during the Howard years.

To return to power, Labor needed to win a sizable number of this constituency back. It did so in 2007 in part because Howard lost faith with the battlers over WorkChoices and in part because Kevin Rudd had sufficiently internalised the spirit and the rhetoric of Howard’s deepest legacy, populist conservatism, not to cause alarm. Rudd sought to hold together the Labor core constituencies, on the one hand by repealing WorkChoices and on the other by liberalising asylum seeker policy and taking action on climate change, the issue which had by now become the most significant issue of all for the left-leaning professional middle class.

In 2010, a significant section of this group, who had supported Labor from Whitlam to Keating, but who had for some years since been drifting gradually towards the Greens, rather rapidly decamped. The process was seen most dramatically at the moment Rudd abandoned his climate change ambitions when support for the Greens moved from 12% to 16% in a single opinion poll. Even though these numbers were exaggerated, large numbers of inner city left-leaning professionals had indeed by now moved permanently in allegiance to the Greens. This situation did not change even during the period of Gillard’s honeymoon. At the election of August 2010 there were, for the first time in Australian political history, two significant left-of-centre parties in Australia. Labor received 38% of the primary vote; the Greens close to 12%.

Since that time Labor’s primary vote has steadily dropped. It is now inconceivable that Labor could win an election without a strong showing from the Greens and a very high proportion of their preferences flowing to Labor. The moral of all this is straightforward. The future of the Left in Australia now rests on two parliamentary parties and on their relations.

For the foreseeable future the Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate. Because of the bloody-minded obstructionist mood inside the Abbott-led Coalition – which is now willing to block even Labor legislation, like offshore processing of asylum seekers, with which it basically agrees – Labor for some time will rely on the support of the Greens for the passage of much of its reformist or contentious legislation. Moreover, without winning the overwhelming majority of Greens preferences, Labor cannot even dream of winning the next election.

For its part, the Greens are probably less reliant on Labor than Labor is on the Greens. If they can retain their present level of support – more than 10% of the national vote and something approaching that in all the separate states – the Greens will, in general, no longer be reliant on the flow of Labor preferences to win Senate seats. On the other hand, the Greens do rely on the existence of a Labor government if they are to realise part of their own reformist program. They can hope for nothing with an Abbott government and they know it.

In the relations between the parties there is also now a kind of separation of political tasks. Labor supplies the kind of administrative experience that is required if the parliamentary Left has any hope of continuing to govern Australia. At present very few Australians would feel confident about the Greens’ economic understanding and expertise. The moderation or caution of Labor is also needed at present to still the fears of the “battlers” or “working families” with regard to issues like asylum seeker policy or gay marriage or even radical climate change policy where the divisions between the views of ordinary Australians and of well-educated and well-heeled left-leaning elites run deep. On many issues, Australia has become a very conservative country. Greens and Labor parliamentarians and their voters will also probably remain divided on some issues – asylum seekers, gay marriage and the American alliance – and united on others – climate change, mental health, disability insurance and decent wages for lowest income Australians. In order to cobble together a majority of votes, this is no bad thing.

The most important story of the past 15 months of Australian politics has been the successes and the failures, the costs and the benefits, of the Labor-Greens relationship.

In their original and historic partnership deal of September 2010, Julia Gillard, for reasons that are far from clear, made major concessions to the Greens. Not only would the Greens be consulted regularly and given access to public service support. On the insistence of the Greens, a parliamentary committee was established for the purpose of finally breaking the deadlock over climate change legislation. The great question that was now raised was whether the Greens would be able to compromise. Over the negotiations leading to the carbon tax they have shown very definitively that they can. The unwritten story of the Gillard government is the final maturing of the Greens – their metamorphosis from protest movement to parliamentary party.

On the other hand, it seems altogether unrealistic to deny that at least a part of the reason for the abysmally poor performance of the Labor Party over the past six months has been the way the Abbott Coalition and the Murdoch press have used Gillard’s relations with the Greens, and especially their agreement over the carbon tax, to tarnish Labor and undermine the legitimacy of the Gillard government. The future of the parliamentary Left in Australia now depends on the struggle to combat the remorseless and rather vicious conservative propaganda campaign which is being waged daily by the supporters of the Coalition against the alliance of the Labor Party with the Greens.

In one way the position now facing Labor closely resembles the situation that faced the Liberal-Country Party at the time of Robert Menzies and his Liberal Party successors. In every election between 1955 and 1969 the Coalition relied for its success on the receipt of some 80% of the anticommunist Democratic Labor Party’s second preferences. In another way the situation now facing Labor is completely different. The DLP took votes from Labor and delivered them to the Coalition. The Greens take votes from Labor, especially in the urban electorates, and then deliver most back to Labor in the form of second preferences. The DLP was in a straightforward relationship of cooperation with the parties benefiting from its preferences. The Greens and Labor are required simultaneously to both cooperate effectively and to compete fiercely. The parties find themselves in a situation of mutual dependency and political combat. Such a situation is novel in Australian politics and fraught with greatest difficulty.

How both parties manage this relationship – even how they think about it – matters greatly. In my view, the ideological hostility to the Greens shown by many right-wingers once associated with the ALP  – like Michael Costa and Gary Johns – must be strongly resisted. For it is the complex political relationship between Labor and the Greens – of what one might call cooperative competition – which will determine, in the short and middle term, not merely the future of the parliamentary Left in Australia but, more radically, whether in fact the Left has any governing future.


Comments

Comments are moderated and will generally be posted if they are on topic and not abusive. View the full comments policy.