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A Party Divided: The Future of the Australian Labor Party

In Politics: Genral on September 7, 2011 by mjwill91

Like their revered Tree of Knowledge before them, the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party seems to be slowly withering away, marching solemnly to grim death. Unlike the tree however, we can be fairly certain that their current predicament wasn’t caused by some rowdy Young Liberals with a bottle of RoundUp weedkiller. Instead, the party has faced almost two decades where it’s core voter base, workers (or to be more specific: blue collar, unionised workers) has been shrinking and in response the party has began to go through  a painful metamorphosis. However the process has been cut short, the chrysalis torn open too soon. So instead of finding a beautiful butterfly inside, we’ve found some sort of horrific half-caterpillar, half-butterfly creature, completely confused, unsure of what it’s even meant to be anymore.

The Tree of Knowledge, Barcaldine (in healthier times)

The current structural and ideological mess than the ALP is in can be traced back to one root cause, the decline of unionised employees in the workforce. In the late 70s Labor Party apparatchiks began to become aware of the future problems re: declining unionisation that the party would face over the next 30 years, and it was decided that the party would need to become more than a “single issue” party, more than just a “worker’s party”. It would need to adopt socialist social policies, attract the “young, idealist, tertiary-educated” voter. This move sowed the seeds of deep division between the already existent left & right factions of the Labor caucus, and would eventually see the Labor Party become  “slave” to two distinct and disparate “masters”.

Without over-generalising, the adoption of left-leaning social policies such as multiculturalism, indigenous equality, equal pay for equal work and environmentalism essentially fractured the Labor Party’s support base into two disparate groups. The first being the “original” Labor voter, a working/lower-middle class (not necessarily a union member) Australian, whose key concerns were economic stability, jobs growth, workplace conditions and border security. The second group, a socially active group whose key concerns were environmentalism, equality and human rights. Neither group held the other’s key objectives in too high regard, but neither was willingly to openly criticise the other’s point of view (mostly).

Whilst Kevin Rudd’s resounding election success in ’07 was a “win” for all Labor Party voters and supporters, it was an especially “sweet” success for the “socially-active” voter base, with Rudd’s championing of social causes such as his promise to apologise over the Stolen Generations (something that most of the community had been calling for, for nearly a decade), his support for an Emissions Trading Scheme and his use of a ground-up, social media driven, socially-active election campaign. The “traditional” Labor voters didn’t go without though, with the removal of Howard’s reprehensible Work Choices legislations placating them.

Unfortunately for Rudd (and the party in general), the high expectations placed on him were to be a key party in his undoing (we must also take into account the power-hungriness of certain ‘faceless men’). When he was unable to get anything done re: his much touted Emissions Trading Scheme, he abandoned it all together. It would appear to some as if he was no longer listening to the group that saw itself as responsible for bringing him to power. In response the “socially active” voter group’s opinion of the Rudd Government began to sour. At the same time the “traditional” voter group saw the whole debacle as a waste of time and money spent “pandering” to “inner-city, latte-sipping intellectuals” and also began to “sour”.

party thought replacing Rudd with Gillard would placate both groups within it’s voter base, however hindsight shows that to have been a colossal mistake. The whole party lurched right under Gillard, with many in the socially-active group unhappy with her stance against marriage equality and unsure as to whether they could trust someone that the right-faction had essentially swept into power. The traditional group has also not come around to Gillard, unable to see past the word “tax”.

At the 2010 election, the Labor Party suffered a swing against it of −5.40%. Is it any surprise that the Australian Greens gained +3.97%?

The Labor Party needs to work out what it is, what it stands for soon. Very soon. It needs to either abandon the socially-active group, essentially giving those votes to the Australian Greens and become a single-purpose worker’s party again (a move which would probably mean they’d be unable to form a majority government for a good 2 decades at least- if ever again) OR it needs to work out how to balance fiscal responsibility with social progression, whilst moving closer to the ideological centre in order to try to attract centre-right voters who have been left feeling betrayed by the Liberal-National Coalition which seems hell-bent on continuing it’s march towards the far right of the ideological spectrum.

However, if things continue going the way they happen to be going, the party torn down the middle on issues such as offshore processing of asylum seekers, the best way to tackle climate change, marriage equality and fiscal policy in general, the schism might become too wide to bridge effectively.

– Matt. @mjwill90

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One Response to “A Party Divided: The Future of the Australian Labor Party”

  1. My Grandmother voted Labor because they brought Australia through the Depression. My father voted Labor because, unlike the Libs, they were on the side of the low income earners and fought for fair working conditions and free education and free medical services. I voted Labor because as an independent teen on a low wage under the Liberal Govt. I could not afford to go to the doctors. When Labor came in I could.
    I agree the ALP needs to regroup and think about what it stands for. It seems to me that there is no real distinct line between the ALP & the LNP any more. Whilst I appreciate the scrapping of Work Choices, I find that lately the ALP isn’t being very ‘ALPish’ any more.

    Labor needs to listen more to the people. What people want want and what they need.

    And I think the Liberals need to shut up and think about their own policies more than how they can degrade the ALP.

    Could be wrong!!

    As usual, great blog Matt.

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