The most powerful ad I created for David Cameron’s 2010 election campaign was a billboard featuring a still from a piece of BBC news footage. Incumbent PM Gordon Brown and Chancellor Alistair Darling had squabbled about something, so to allay suspicions of leadership disunity in the final stages of what had become a very close race, the two men co-hosted a press conference to show voters they were still in lockstep on the big stuff. But every talking heads TV moment is composed of hundreds of individual frames. And reviewed in isolation, some of those frames can record transitional facial expressions which are at odds with the sentiments expressed. And unfortunately for Mr Brown and Mr Darling, I found a frame in the coverage of that press conference which showed one of them glancing at the other with what looked like murderous intent. All I had to was add the headline ‘Division of Labour’ and append the Tory logo.
Papering over a minor dispute with an otherwise loyal lieutenant is all in a day’s work for a party leader. Limiting the damage caused by the criticism of a disappointed predecessor is a much bigger ask. And when that criticism appears in a well-publicised book – and is the only part of that book anybody wants to talk about – it must be hard not to take it personally. There are male pollies of every stripe in Australia who, if accused of having ‘a tiny agenda’, might accord the phrase a euphemistic dimension and invite their accuser to meet them behind the Canberra bike sheds for a spot of independently invigilated agenda comparing. But Anthony Albanese must be, in every sense, a bigger man than that, because when asked by reporters to comment on this and other Divisions of Labor evinced by Bill Shorten’s Dymock’s debut, he contented himself with saying that his predecessor’s opinions on every subject were welcome because ‘We are the party of ideas’.
The ALP was originally a party of just one idea: representing the material interests of Australian workers and their families. Basically, a fair wage, a degree of job security and state-funded health care. Finding they’d achieved all these goals long before the end of the last century, the ALP began looking around for other societal inequities to champion and continues to do so. But the problem with issues like sexual discrimination and constitutional recognition of first peoples is that they aren’t intrinsically working-class problems. And the problem with things like climate change and gender fluidity is that, as far as many working-class Australians are concerned, they aren’t even problems – not existential ones, anyway. So the problem which Mr Albanese has to address between now and the next election is that as far as a growing proportion of what should be the ALP’s base is concerned, Labor is now not so much the party of ideas as the party of ideologies.
If it fails to correct this impression (and it will take a more compelling slogan than ‘On your side’ to do that) it may go the way of the Anglican Church. Ever since its inception, the Church of England has distinguished itself from other Christian denominations by its tradition of tolerance. Thanks to the progenital obsession of its founder, it was the first to sanction divorce, and since then it has led the way in everything from female clergy to abortion to the promotion of inter-faith dialogue. For centuries this commitment to inclusivity – helped not a little by the expansion of the British Empire – did nothing but swell the congregation. Quite literally. But what percentage of Australians who identify as Christian on their Census forms today actually go to church? A much smaller one, I suspect, than the percentage of, for example, Australian Muslims who attend Friday prayers.
The biggest problem facing the Australian Labor party is the same as the biggest problem facing its UK and US counterparts. Inclusivity is a wonderful thing, but in politics, as in religion, it is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and it has a tipping point. Left unchecked it leads inevitably to division, and thence, eventually, to irrelevance. The broader the church, the emptier the pews.
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