Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Turning 'Right' Off Of A Cliff

Speculation is rife that Kevin Rudd will attempt to retake the Prime Ministership from Julia Gillard in the foreseeable future. There is both a simple answer, and a complicated answer as to why this is high profile news. The ALP have not produced any policies and pushed forward anything of substance in the past two to three months. In the absence of anything substantial to report the media have had to full the vacuum with political news. In the absence of anything pressing, leadership contests are the easiest stories to create, whether they are real or imagined. The real story is not the lack of political leadership on offer in the government, but the wider ideological crisis that the ALP has been consumed with in the post Keating era.

Out of political necessity one of the political objectives of the Hawke-Keating era was to move the ALP further to the ‘political right’. This was done in order to move the Liberal Party opposition off the sensible ideological map, by forcing them to adopt ideological extremist positions that were unpalatable to electorate. No doubt this worked in both the short to medium terms, as it helped the ALP secure five successive election victories. However, it came at a significant long term cost.

Since Keating lost the 1996 Federal election the ALP has constantly waged an internal battle in order to determine its ideological identity. Despite impressive polling numbers throughout Beazley’s first term as leader, and winning the popular vote at the following election two years later, both Beazley’s first term as Opposition Leader and Crean's short tenure were characterised by a massive amount of discussion surrounding the party’s long term direction, with little substantive action behind the rhetoric. Given that trade union membership continued to experience a steady decline between 1996 and 2001, the ALP struggled to formulate a solid coalition that would see it return to government. Consequently much of the discussion concerned broadening its ‘working class’ electoral support, a significant number of which had withdrawn their support from the ALP in favour of the Liberal Party.

The most intellectually engaging analysis about the state of the ALP during the early stages of the 21st century came from former Hawke Government Minister, John Button. In 2002, Button published a Quarterly Essay titled Beyond Belief in which he argued that the ALP must undertake significant reform to guarantee its longevity. His most striking point was that previous attempts to achieve reform during other periods of Opposition had failed due to the lack of willingness from the party’s to break free from the ALP’s structure, which ensured their tight grip on power.
Some Labor leaders talk of “revitalising the relationship with the affiliated unions” or “conducting new membership campaigns”. These things have been suggested before and nothing has happened. Others look back and consider the circumstances in which Labor has won government from opposition in the last fifty years. This has happened only twice, under Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke. So it might be said the ALP has to wait for the right leader, to wait for its own Godot. But a political party that waits for the unlikely to happen is betraying its membership, its supporters and those who hope for a more democratic and fair society. The ALP can’t afford to wait. Waiting lets too many people down.
Much of the enduring party reform and electoral success has taken place only when the party leader has been charismatic enough to withstand both external and internal opposition.

The need to develop coherent economic policy rooted in free market ideology whilst being seen to appease its traditional working supporter base has also been a problem. The ALP made the conscious decision to jettison the legacy of the Hawke-Keating era as the party who led the push towards Australia’s economic deregulation. As a consequence, the ALP had no ideological narrative, which it could sell to both its blue collar constituency and to the swinging voters that were crucial to obtaining government. The Howard Government filled this void, therefore depriving the ALP of any distinctive identity. This in turn left both academics and voters alike whether there was any ideological difference between Australia’s two major parties.  This period also provided examples of the ALP operating under great extremes, because the needs of the party were often in direct conflict with the objectives being pursued by Beazley, Crean, Latham, Rudd and most recently Gillard.

Button emphasised the lack of ideological identity within the party and the problems it did create ten years ago, and little has changed since.
The ALP is seen as a pale alternative to the Coalition. It is incapable of embracing and speaking for the divergent progressive groups in the community. It has been unable to respond effectively to new aspirations. It no longer represents contemporary Australia. It may not even represent its members any more: its national body has become an offshore island adrift from the rest of the party, inaccessible to its rank and file, a barren and rocky outcrop untouched by new ideas.
The ALP is terminally stuck in the position it had created for itself over 25 years earlier Hawke and Keating had made a conscious decision to target new groups of voters who had never voted for the party before. But with their departures this process remained incomplete. When Beazley inherited the leadership from Keating, he lacked both the political capital and the vision to complete this transformation. The ALP remained paralysed during the middle of crucial institutional change, which would inhibit the party for a generation, and it still continues to this day.

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