The Labor Party's poor showing at the WA half Senate by-election showed a party split into progressive and conservative sides, struggling to sell its positive policies, writes Professor Carol Johnson via The Conversation.
IF THE DISASTROUS results and campaign in the Western Australian Senate re-election are anything to go by, the Australian Labor Party seems to be losing the ability to brand itself and its policies as appealing to the public. It is struggling to justify creating broad electoral alliances between diverse social groups.
As a result, Labor is bleeding votes to the right and the left — to the Coalition and the Greens.
Real-world economic policy dilemmas, implementation problems, powerful vested business interests, demographic changes, pre-selection debacles and media bias have all contributed to Labor’s dire situation.
However, as the WA Senate election reveals, the willingness of ALP figures to make public statements trashing their own party certainly isn’t helping to restore the Labor brand.
The WA campaign
Labor Senate candidate Joe Bullock’s attack on his running mate, Louise Pratt, reinforced the Coalition’s branding of the Labor Party as dysfunctional and wracked by internal divisions and disunity.
The fact that Bullock had won Labor’s number one Senate spot as a result of backroom union deal-making also reinforced the Coalitions’ branding of the ALP as the plaything of “faceless men”.
Bullock’s attack on Pratt (and on the ALP membership) reveals how extraordinarily careless many Labor politicians and candidates have become about publicly making damaging comments. It shows just how much the party discipline for which Labor was once renowned has declined.
The Liberal Party has proved to be the most tightly disciplined major party in recent years, which has in no small part contributed to its electoral success.
Bullock’s attack also reveals ongoing ideological tensions in the Labor Party.
He argued that Labor was incapable:
"…of being trusted to look after the interests of working people and their families."
Only conservative unionists such as Bullock himself could be trusted to overcome the influence of both Labor’s “mad” members and politicians like Pratt, whom Bullock categorised as “a key spokesperson” for the lesbian “persuasion”. Without people like him, Labor would follow “every weird lefty trend that you can imagine”.
Bullock’s claim that there is a division in the party between ordinary working-class Australians and trendy lefties who espouse progressive causes is not a new argument. Its antecedents can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s. Former Labor leader Arthur Calwell had disputes with Gough Whitlam over Whitlam’s electoral courting of the new social movements and educated professionals.
Bullock’s arguments, made at a meeting of the Catholic, socially conservative Dawson Society, also resonates with religious conservatives.
In the 1980s, highly influential National Civic Council leader B. A. Santamaria claimed that Labor’s weakness lay in a split between the “family values” of its conventional working-class base and the promiscuous lifestyles of the middle-class professionals that Labor increasingly courted.
Santamaria urged the Liberals to exploit this potential split, just as Margaret Thatcher had in the case of the British Labour Party and Ronald Reagan had in the case of the Democrats in the US. The Santamaria-influenced Tony Abbott took that lesson to heart when he assisted John Howard in hiving off the socially conservative “Howard battlers” from Labor’s working-class base.
Significantly, Abbott was a friend of Bullock’s at the University of Sydney, and Bullock actually praised Abbott in his speech.
The problem for Labor is that whenever Labor figures publicly rehash old arguments such as Bullock’s they are not just undermining their own colleagues: they are also reinforcing how the conservatives frame the Labor Party rather than how Labor wishes to frame itself.
Public recriminations also fundamentally undermine the key argument that Labor has traditionally used to win elections. In 1972, in 1983 and in 2007, Labor won the election by successfully branding itself as the party that could govern on behalf of the vast majority of Australians.
Successful branding necessarily involves patching together electoral alliances between different sections of the population to attract the broadest possible vote.
As a result, one didn’t find Whitlam, Bob Hawke or Paul Keating arguing that socially progressive issues were alien to the working class. On the contrary, they emphasised the links – for example, by arguing that the lowest-paid workers were often women or recently arrived migrants. They also argued that equity and diversity would benefit everyone, including business, by contributing to Australia’s economic success.
Similarly, on same-sex issues, it is to Labor’s advantage to stress links rather than differences. Is Bullock seriously suggesting, for example, that his union – the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association (SDA) – has no gay or lesbian members?
Above all, supporting same-sex rights hasn’t prevented Labor from also spending (immeasurably more) time and energy on improving the wages and conditions of working families, some of whom also happen to be gay and lesbian. So, why did Bullock publicly damage Labor’s brand by focusing on differences and divisions?
The mining tax debacle
It isn’t just on progressive social issues that Labor has been undermined from within. Labor senator Mark Bishop, whom Bullock will replace in the Senate come July, also publicly criticised his party in the wake of the Senate election.
"In this state we speak a language that is either not understood by voters or, if understood, rejected."
In particular, Bishop argued that Labor should abandon its support for the mining tax, which wasn’t even delivering significant revenue.
Bishop’s comments have some merit. Labor members would no doubt have preferred them to have been made within caucus rather than publicly, though. There are ongoing issues about Labor’s long-standing failings in communication, including its failure to sell the mining tax. As a result, Labor made concessions to mining companies that drastically reduced revenue from the tax, at least for the immediate future.
But even in a resource-rich state such as Western Australia, it would not have been an impossible task for Labor to emphasise the common interests underlying the tax when it was first introduced. The tax was originally designed to redistribute the benefits of mining Australia’s resources to other sections of the economy that were not doing as well, or had actually suffered because of the mining boom.
Even in Western Australia, the mining boom was not a blessing for all sectors of the economy. It contributed to labour shortages, unrealistic wages in non-mining sectors and higher rents, as well as a higher Australian dollar that damaged some exporters.
Above all, the mining tax had been meant to provide revenue that would help sustain Australian government budgets after the mining boom. It was intended to help the economy transition to a more economically diverse and efficient future.
Not only did Labor fail to sell the mining tax initially, but federal ALP leader Bill Shorten failed to make any argument supporting it in his WA Senate campaign launch speech, presumably deciding that it was too late to garner support for the tax.
The mining tax debacle is just one more demonstration that Labor seems to have lost the ability to brand itself as the party that will best manage social and economic change, to the benefit of all Australians. And yet, that is central to how Labor wins elections.