Election review: There is no light on the hill for Labor

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Former Trade Minister Craig Emerson and former South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill have spent months investigating the ALP Election defeat (Screenshot via YouTube)

The ALP’s review of its 2019 Election loss falls short of providing any real political answers to the party’s problems. Dr Martin Hirst argues the problem is that Labor long ago abandoned its social democratic roots.

WHILE ITS CRITICISMS of the ALP’s campaign strategy may well be accurate along with its insights into policy problems (such as franking credits), the report signally fails to examine the vexing issues with Labor’s overall political positioning and messaging.

To fully understand why the Australian electorate refused to elect a Bill Shorten government – bearing in mind that Scott Morrison has a one-seat majority and does not have control of the Senate – the reviewers should really have examined Labor’s decline historically.

That former Trade Minister Craig Emerson and former South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill were incapable of this political insight is itself a symptom of the bigger malaise affecting the ALP’s electoral stocks.

Voters have disconnected from Labor. Once reliable middle-class inner-city types have begun shifting to the Greens in significant numbers. These voters are largely motivated by social concerns rather than economics and cannot stomach the ALP’s continuing support for the illegal incarceration of refugees and asylum seekers in offshore detention.

These voters are also motivated by environmental questions and Labor’s equivocation on the Adani mine gave them no reason to trust a Shorten-led government. The ALP’s dilemma over Adani – and coal mining in general – are perhaps greatest in Queensland where the Labor State Government is keen to give Adani the go-ahead because of some largely fictitious idea that it will create jobs and wealth (it won’t).

Shorten hid behind the hollow “due process” argument when pressed on Adani and the Greens used this effectively by describing the project as “Labor’s Adani coal mine”.

In the eyes of many voters, the modern ALP is difficult to distinguish from the conservatives. This is the result of several factors, including the Coalition’s ability to wedge Labor on some important issues such as refugee and energy (coal) policy as well as on philosophical issues where the ALP has lost its way.

This is apparent in Labor’s inability to recruit and hold young workers as it has done in previous generations. When I was becoming politically conscious at the beginning of the 1970s, it was clear to me that I had to vote Labor. There was a clear ideological demarcation between the Liberal Party and the ALP. Labor was the party of the trade union movement and the working class. The Liberals represented the upper class and the Country Party (Nationals) was for the graziers and broadacre farmers.

This is no longer true today. It is no more than a convenient myth that Labor parliamentarians pay lip service to, in order to cover their left flank in a dirty, torn and largely discredited red flag. In the 21st century ALP, the personal profiles of its parliamentary cadre are remarkably similar to those of the conservative parties. The only difference – and it is actually minor in the scheme of things – is that conservatives come up through the ranks of the Institute of Public Affairs and Labor’s best and brightest serve their apprenticeships in the union movement.

I call this a minor difference because both routes to the comfortable sinecure of a seat in the House or the Senate are via a well-entrenched system of privilege designed to test potential candidates for loyalty and to weed out the mavericks. Both are methods of producing trusted apparatchiks who owe their position to the party machine and who won’t stray too far from the ideological “centre”, which is actually way over on the right-hand side of any putative “middle” ground.

We only have to look at the outliers to make this point. In this year’s election, all the major parties (and, of course, the lunatic fringe) had to unceremoniously dump candidates who had not been properly vetted and subsequently embarrassed themselves and their party.

Gladys Liu is the paradigm example on the conservative side. She is in witness protection now because of her gaffes (not to mention her dubious loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party). On the Labor side, Emma Husar provides the obvious example. Her career, reputation and life were destroyed to bring her down after she proved to be unamenable to factional discipline.

This conveyor-belt system of preselecting “safe” representatives is indicative of the real problem the ALP faces today. It is no longer a true social democratic party and it no longer gives working-class electors any really solid reason to vote for it. Despite Bill Shorten’s links to the trade union movement, he was unable to persuade working-class voters in marginal Queensland seats that it would be in their interests to vote Labor.

This is where some sort of historical lens becomes useful for reviewing Labor’s failure in the election, but also for unpacking its longer-term demise as a genuine party of social democratic reform. Ben Chifley’s famous ”light on the hill” has been extinguished.

Social democracy was originally a term closely linked to the socialist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The organisations established by Marx and Engels were initially known as social-democratic. However, in 1914, the First World War caused the First International (founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels) to split into those who opposed and those who supported their respective nations.

This division was particularly destructive on the German Left and was a factor in the failure of the post-war uprisings that culminated in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht by off-duty soldiers in January 1919. It was the social-democratic government of the day that sanctioned the killing of the revolutionary leaders.

The ALP joined the reformist Second International and remains a member of the global grouping – the Progressive Alliance network – that inherited the real social democratic tradition and trashed it.

When the first Australian Labor Government was elected in 1914, it was one of the first social democratic parties to achieve this level of electoral success anywhere in the world. But it is telling that this electoral victory came off the back of a series of industrial defeats during a strike wave in the ports, the mining and the pastoralist industries a decade earlier.

The ALP was founded as a distinct and explicit party of the working class, but by the 1980s it had completely abandoned this approach in favour of broad cross-class alliances, which inevitably led to outcomes more favourable to capital than to the working class.

The Whitlam Government was perhaps the most obvious and recent expression of the Left face of Australian social democracy. But by the time of Bob Hawke’s ascendency and triumph over Malcolm Fraser in 1983, any semblance of working-class identity was almost entirely erased. By the end of Hawke’s leadership, Paul Keating’s pragmatic neoliberalism in an ALP suit put the final nail in the coffin of Australian social democracy.

Recently retired long-serving leftwing senator Doug Cameron wrote, in 2003, that the Labor Party was still at that time fighting over its position on social democracy.

I believe there is an underlying issue that needs to be resolved: that is whether the Australian Labor Party will continue to have democratic socialism as its foundation, or whether we will see a complete convergence of Labor policy with the dominant neoclassical economic policies of the conservative parties in this country.

Cameron was a staunch believer in the reformist social democratic agenda, but he was never going to be a Labor leader. Anthony Albanese was a protégé, but he has abandoned any adherence he might once have had to leftwing ideas.

In fact, I would argue that the Labor Party abandoned any real commitment to social democracy at least 20 years before Cameron’s speech to the 2003 ALP National Conference.

No amount of internal agonising and squabbling over the minutiae of the 2019 election loss is going to undo this history. Returning Bill Shorten to the leadership and dumping Albanese is certainly not going to refresh the ALP or rejuvenate its ageing and dwindling base.

As Doug Cameron argued in his 2003 Conference address, the contemporary ALP has replaced its commitment to the "traditional blue-collar working class" with a "new postmodern political platform and identity for Labor".

Cameron also asked some very pertinent questions:

Where is the courageous Australian Left Labor politician who is exposing the rorts and public waste in privatisation and public-private partnerships?


Where is the courage to expose the scandalous low taxation paid by the rich in this country?


Where is the courage to expose the low level of public investment in our health, education and training systems when compared to other advanced economies?


Where is the courage to set out a clear program to shift the funding away from the elite in education and health and to expand and properly fund a world-class public system?

The answers to these questions will not be found in the Weatherill/Emerson review. The Labor Party is incapable of lifting such a figure from its ranks today.

Activists on the Left who hold out any hope at all of a leftwing revival in the Labor Party need to wake up and smell the reek of betrayal and neoliberal pandering emanating from ALP HQ.

You can follow Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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