Despite the media’s classification of 2016 as a close run contest modern Labor is performing at an historically low level of popular support. But this is not a phenomena of the Rudd/Gillard turmoil. Labor’s election results and its style of campaigning betray an inherent weakness afflicting the party that has been present since it lost office in 1996. It has also contributed to its self-destructive co-dependent relationship with the Greens who are at once ally and enemy.
In the past series of elections the Labor model has been for the party to generate support by tracking to the left in order to preserve its base then rely on Greens preferences to get over the line. Whatever its faults this strategy is the only one available at present. In the 7 elections since 1993 the Labor primary vote has only gone above 40 percent twice, in the very narrow 1998 GST election and the 2007 Rudd victory. The remaining elections have seen primary votes for Labor in the high 30s but in 2013 it dropped to an historic low of 33 percent. Current polling suggests that the ALP will not perform much better in 2016 but that remains to be seen.
Conversely, between the 1949 defeat by Menzies and the Whitlam victory in 1972 the ALP primary vote only dropped below 40 percent once, in 1966. Even in defeat the old party still managed to perform at the mid to high 40 mark, something the modern ALP is desperate to replicate. Since the end of the Hawke-Keating era the ALP vote has been trending down and is becoming reliant on Greens preferences to clinch victory. The Liberal Party once relied on DLP preferences to get across the line against Labor. One dramatic example being Bill Sneddon’s rescue from a near certain defeat in 1961 on the back of DLP preferences. Whereas the Coalition/DLP arrangement was less contentious and resulted in the DLP’s eventual absorption into the Coalition fold, the Labor/Greens relationship is both more important to Labor and more antagonistic. The DLP after all never threatened to deprive their centre-right allies of any lower house seats. The Greens will preference Labor to ensure their victory in marginal seats but they want safe Labor seats like Melbourne, Batman, Sydney and Grayndler in return. For now, Labor has been willing to accommodate the Greens by preferencing them for the Senate elections on the basis that they can govern with their support. Julia Gillard’s minority government after all got much if not all of its legislative agenda through the Senate with Greens backing, invalidating claims of Coalition obstruction.
But this model might not be sustainable forever as the Greens are becoming increasingly effective at going after safe Labor seats both federally and especially at the state level. For all the resistance Labor mounts against the Green surge, given the reality of their low primary vote it may become necessary to cede inner-city seats to the Greens and establish a formal coalition. This has been the trajectory with social democratic parties across Europe be it in Norway, Sweden, France and Denmark. Unable to garner majorities in their own right they have built coalitions with green and radical leftist parties to secure government. New Zealand Labour, in a weaker position than its Australian counterpart, may also have to countenance a pact with the Greens if it is to return to government.
This situation may be explained by the outdated political model that Labor is operating from. Since the 1996 election the Australian electorate has changed remarkably in ways that earlier generations would not have foreseen. Immigration has altered the ethno-religious makeup of major cities, the transformation of the economy away from large industrial units into smaller self-employed enterprises has altered the shape of the workforce, unionization has declined, the number of university graduates seeking high-paid professional employment has dramatically increased. That is what has happened, but Labor has yet to restructure itself in order to better reflect this new Australia and compete in this new electorate.
Bill Shorten is counting on turning out (or simply retaining) enough voters by feverishly promising large scale egalitarian expenditure on education, infrastructure and health and then supplement a primary vote in the low to mid 30s with Green preferences to win a majority of seats. He may well be successful on July 2 but such a strategy does not answer the longer term problems faced by Labor. The Greens are biting down hard in socially liberal higher income electorates at the same time as the Coalition is competing aggressively in suburban and regional electorates where the ALP needs to win.
Labor’s problem is roughly analogous to those of the Republican Party. Both parties are playing to a shrinking portion of the population with an agenda that is clearly outdated and bereft of solutions to current problems. The GOP is over reliant on older white voters and Labor is too focused on retaining its union base to the exclusion of new supporters. Labor runs the risk of hitting an electoral ceiling and becoming reliant on the Greens to both win elections and form government. Assuming the Greens do not pull Labor too far from the centre (a big gamble) it may remain competitive.
The other option would be for the ALP to reform itself so that it might broaden its base to attract growing demographics and present a more economically responsible agenda as Hawke and Keating did in their successful era. But such an approach would require a fundamentally new structure for the party and that has proven impossible. Too many factional figures within Labor are content to ignore Paul Keating’s advice of appealing to the new Australia they helped to create through their reform agenda. Should Labor’s present strategy of a barely concealed alliance with the Greens fail to deliver government this time then there may be a reassessment that sees it go for reform and a broadening of its voter base. Otherwise Labor will continue its love-hate relationship with the Greens risking a partial green takeover of the party of Curtin, Whitlam, Hawke and Keating.