Features Australia

Where to now for Labor?

Tony Abbott’s unusual agenda threatens its future

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

It’s not such a big deal. One term, maybe two, and Labor will be back in power. Abbott will prove to be a disaster, and as soon as a successful new Labor leader fixes the ‘disunity’ thing, purges the Ruddites and gets rid of the Gillardistas, then the ALP can get their act together and come roaring back into government. After all, such is the natural order of things.

Or maybe not. Despite all the spin, last weekend’s unprecedented loss is not, as many would try to pretend, a mere speed bump in the inevitable bicycle path to the next Labor government.

The great untold story of this election is the serious existential threat that Abbott’s unusual agenda poses to Labor: the party that has never missed an opportunity to underestimate his skills.

It’s a big call to write off a political party as formidable as Labor. Yet they’ve actually been in steady decline since the day Paul Keating uttered his ‘sweetest victory’ line, lauding the ‘true believers’ who believe in nothing at all other than power for the sake of their own sanctimonious self-gratification. After destroying Hawke, Keating had little to offer other than symbolic gestures for indigenous Australians and the vague hope of a Republic to back up the deluded claims to moral superiority that is the bedrock of contemporary Labor. With John Howard’s 1996 landslide win, the Liberals seized the safe centre where working families of Australia park their aspirations for a more prosperous future. Election victory after victory followed.

When Kevin Rudd defeated John Howard, many on the Left predicted the demise of the Coalition. They couldn’t have been more wrong. If anything, it is the Coalition rather than Labor who can lay claim to being the ‘natural’ party of government. Both Labor victories in 2007 and 2010 were not a ‘return to the norm’, but were aberrations based on fraudulence and good luck. Rudd surfed into the Lodge on the pretence of being a more modern version of Howard, a ‘fiscal conservative’ who would maintain core Howard philosophies (including ‘towing back boats’) but sprinkle them with inner-city icing sugar (‘sorry’, ‘Kyoto’ etc). It was a con, only made possible by a timely wave of public concern about climate change. Julia Gillard’s victory was a farce, a dysfunctional and unpopular minority government cobbled together through backroom deals reliant upon less than savoury characters.

So now we’re back where we left off, kind of. Or are we? Tony Abbott’s Coalition appears significantly closer to the centre left than Howard’s: dry on foreign affairs, border control and climate change, but dripping wet on entitlements, industrial relations and the budget; with an exciting new approach to indigenous affairs thrown in. It’s an unusual agenda that includes the world’s most generous middle-class welfare scheme (huh?), a possible tax on deposits (huh?), barely a dent in our debt (huh?), a decade to return to surplus (whaaaat??) and of course the NDIS, some form of NBN and a Gonski-lite thingummybob. Conservatives are scratching their heads with one hand whilst raising the champagne flutes with the other. But if the Coalition can successfully creep into and occupy this centre-left territory, where will Labor head?

At least the luvvies have somewhere else to go, which is to the Greens, assuming that party manages to find a telegenic leader they can pledge their undying loyalty to. Adam Bandt, perhaps? The unions are shackled to Labor, and despite the best efforts of Rudd and Mark Latham, have no intention of letting go.

Will Labor head to the right, finding common ground with the protectionist, agrarian instincts of the minor Senate parties, eager to ‘preserve’ unproductive jobs from foreigners clutching their nasty 457 visas? It was Labor, after all, who gave us White Australia.

The survivors of the Rudd/Gillard bloodbath will carry on their civil war with gusto and savagery. Wong, Plibersek, Albo et al may be adept at shifting loyalties and positions, but with zero economic credibility and the absence of any burning issue to hang their hats on, it is hard to see how the current Labor mob can win back the hearts of the public to gain a workable majority. Will being anti-Abbott be enough? No. Yet rather than being humbled by their defeat, ex-ministers are already behaving like sulking, spoilt brats who’ve been unfairly sent to their rooms before bedtime. It’s going to get a lot worse for Labor before it gets better.

Ultimately the party will have to agree what it stands for and why. No mean feat. It’s not about ‘disunity’, it’s about ‘dysfunction’. In order to function again, Labor must find a credible and clear identity with which to gain mass appeal, while proving it is no longer ‘incompetent’. That’s a big ask.

No leader, no matter how charismatic, is likely to be able to fool the public again, à la Rudd/Gillard/Swan, that the party can implement economic policies it doesn’t believe in. Yet taking a firm, principled stance on any of the key issues facing us risks further alienating the die-hards it needs to keep. Is it the party of a price on carbon or the party of productivity? Stopping the boats or ‘human rights’? Immigration or Australian jobs?

Tony Abbott, an experienced sportsman, is planning a long race, putting a timetable for his achievements in decades rather than three-year terms. Bar any global economic calamities or ‘events’, it’s hard to see why he shouldn’t succeed.

As the AWU and HSU chooks come home to roost, the union movement will continue to decline and Labor’s irrelevance to the vast majority of genuine working people (i.e. those not reliant on sucking from the government teat) will accelerate.

The inner-city elites, meanwhile, will look for their longed-for messiah elsewhere, or perhaps satisfy themselves with the generosities thrown to them by the wetter side of Abbott. Who knows? They may even get gay marriage from a Coalition-sponsored conscience-vote.

The 2013 election saw Labor’s first preference vote at its lowest in a hundred years; it’s a hell of a long way back. Nonetheless, most conservatives will warn that you write Labor off at your peril. Maybe. As the blood-letting and recriminations gather renewed vigour, there’s every chance that the Rudd/Gillard stoush is a mere curtain-raiser to the main act as Labor fights for its survival. To paraphrase Kris Kristofferson: ‘When you stand for nothing, you’ve got everything to lose.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rowan Dean is the author of Beyond Satire — Julia Gillard & the Kevin Sutra.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • michael gordon

    Saw you on The Drum tonight Rowan. I knew you were an Abbott apologist, but your towing the line on the so called carbon tax mandate was laughable. You really should try and take an objectivity pill. Classic liberal hypocrisy on display in spades. The worst of it is that you really seem to think that you’re so much smarter and more politically astute than any other commentator.

    You not.

    • Ben Atwell

      I had never heard of Rowan Dean before and seeing him on the Drum
      tonight convinced me that I was lucky. A preference is fine but this
      sort of angry bigotry is just a big switch off. As soon as someone
      writes off a government – by either party – as an unmitigated waste of
      time I write them off as dumb bigots, untainted by logic and blinded
      by irrationality.

      • RustyCardores

        “untainted by logic and blinded by irrationality” << Nailed it Ben 😉

    • RustyCardores

      Rowan was a total waste of a chair on the Drum tonight.

    • Kev Cooper

      You not?? Wow. Talk about spoiling the effect. What exactly would you call a large majority won off the back of the clear commitment stated many times to abolish the carbon tax if not a mandate?