July 16th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Federal Labor's crisis of identity

EDITORIAL: Decisive shift in US Supreme Court

LABOR PARTY: The lesson Labor still has to learn

WORKPLACE RELATIONS: No more hurdles for Howard's dismissal laws

RURAL AFFAIRS: Confronting the myths about agriculture

CENTRAL ASIA: China's march on central Asia

REPRODUCTIVE TECHNOLOGY: The dark downside of donor insemination

PARLIAMENTARY DEMOCRACY: Defending the role of parliament

STRAWS IN THE WIND: US fury at Israeli arms sales to China / Not helping the poor / Turn of the tide? / Government's embarrassment

OPINION: Free speech under attack in Victoria

Howard Government's attack on Australian workers (letter)

Why the silence over abortion? (letter)

Ignorance no excuse (letter)

High price of extra water (letter)

To rule or to govern is the question (letter)

Malaria worse than DDT (letter)

BOOKS: THE CUBE AND THE CATHEDRAL: Europe, America, and Politics without God, by George Weigel

BOOKS: MAO: THE UNKNOWN STORY, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

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The lesson Labor still has to learn

by Trevor Smith

News Weekly, July 16, 2005
Ditch the café-latte set and reach out to workers and their families, suggests trade union leader Trevor Smith.

Once upon a time, the federal Labor Party's unambiguous defence of workers' jobs and their livelihoods was seen as progressive. It was admired and respected. These days, the people running the party machine - the apparatchiks, advisers and politicians - are no longer attuned to the basic aspirations of honest working men and women but sing a completely misguided (and electorally wrong) tune.

They seek to appease the unappeasable. They place their faith not only in the free market, but also in the shallow and cheap propaganda of a wealthy, inner-city elite that has a barely concealed contempt for people from the outer suburbs or the bush. They have fallen for Green propaganda that has been consistently found to be embellished or inaccurate. Worst of all, they believe these policies are in the best interests of the country.

Today, Labor is paying the price. On economic policy, it seems to be torn between succumbing to free-market ideology or restoring the welfare state. On social and cultural issues it is trying to please inner-city metropolitan dwellers and university-educated professionals on the one hand, and traditional supporters living in the outer suburbs and regions on the other - constituencies with diverging, if not contradictory, views.

Pale imitation of the Liberals

The free market is no more acceptable to Australians living in the outer suburbs and the regions than the welfare state. However, commentators and many inner-metropolitan supporters are urging Labor to embrace the market. Being a pale imitation of the Liberals on economic policy is not the recipe for long-term political success, and there are not enough votes to be won by Labor being economic rationalists with a human face. While Labor sees its job as being to attack "Tories", we are constantly reminded that Australians are inherently conservative.

The fact is, cultural and social issues are increasingly influencing the way people vote. This development has exposed the gap between Labor's core constituencies. Their lifestyles and aspirations are so different as to appear irreconcilable.

Inner-metropolitan voters are attracted to a secular, socially progressive party and have been the biggest beneficiaries of privatisation and globalisation. In the regions and outer suburbs, there is scepticism, if not antagonism towards economic rationalism, and family and community are still important.

Labor's parliamentary representation reflects its dilemma. Of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives, 45 are classified as rural. Labor holds just four of these - one more than the independents - and appears to have given up on the rest. That means the party is giving itself the task of winning 72 out of the 105 non-rural seats, a formidable task but even more so when they include outer suburban seats over which the Coalition has secured a stranglehold.

Unless this situation changes, Labor can look forward to revisiting the 1950s and '60s when the party was in permanent opposition federally.

One mystifying question for Labor is this: how did it end up in the web of the café latte set, given that it had a leader who could contest the culture wars against John Howard?

Vast gulf

Last year Labor appeared to have a good chance of re-establishing itself in regional and outer suburban Australia. After all, Mark Latham came from western Sydney, had written extensively about the vast gulf between inner-metropolitan dwellers and residents in the outer suburbs and regions, and had sided with ordinary Australians against inner-city professionals who have the time and money to pontificate on issues that do not affect them personally.

Initially his performance was consistent with his cultural analysis. He talked about the need to involve people in politics, labelled the politicians' superannuation scheme a rort, responded to the Redfern riots by asking where the parents were, opposed recognition of gay marriages and pre-empted the Government's decision to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

However, it was all downhill from there. Recall that Latham imposed Peter Garrett, the epitome of the café latte set, on Labor in the eastern Sydney seat of Kingsford Smith. And who could forget the disastrous Tasmanian forest policy?

Since last October's election, there has been an attempt to rewrite history by claiming that Howard set Latham up on forest policy. The fact is that both leaders had the same information, the same pressures and the same choice. Howard got it right and Latham got it wrong.

Labor must learn the lesson. It can promise different groups different things, but it cannot promise them contradictory things. It must accept that there are times when it cannot satisfy both constituencies and has no choice but to identify either with the outer suburbs and regions or with the inner-metropolitan voter.

However, there are also times when it need not make such a choice. If Labor had focused on climate change and water instead of Tasmanian forests, it would have demonstrated its environmental credentials without alienating traditional supporters and delivering the vital last week of the election campaign to the Liberals.

At the moment, Labor's best prospects of winning appear to rest with a recession, a monumental mistake by the Coalition, or Howard's likely successor, Peter Costello, being extremely unpopular with voters.

Latte-sipping minority

But Labor has an opportunity. It needs to admit that its historical supporter base and its potential supporter base are culturally conservative. Labor must choose. It can continue the way it has in recent times, allowing itself to be dominated by an inner-metropolitan, latte-sipping minority and avoiding hard questions. Alternatively, it can seek to represent the mainstream.

  • This is an extract from The Brompton Report: A new approach for Labor, a discussion paper recently submitted to members of the ALP national executive. The author Trevor Smith is national secretary of the Forestry and Furnishing Products Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). This extract first appeared in The Australian (June 27, 2005).

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