COVER STORY: News Weekly
Federal Labor's crisis of identity
, July 16, 2005
With each successive federal election, increasing numbers of working-class and rural voters have been deserting Labor.It is the proverbial sign of madness to repeat the same mistakes expecting different results.
But that appears to be what the federal parliamentary Labor Party is doing in its now decade-long but fruitless search for the magic pill which will bring it back to office.
Rather than undertake a fundamental look at its philosophic foundation and structure, the party instead looks to superficial solutions such as changing leaders and to quick-fix policy solutions to convince the Australian electorate to vote it back into government.
The recent release of a new book on Mark Latham, entitled Loner: Inside a Labor Tragedy
by Bernard Lagan, unleashed a new round of infighting, blame-shifting as well as counter calls for "unity" and to "get on with the job" of attacking the Howard Government.
Kim Beazley, barely six months back in the Opposition Leader's seat, is also facing renewed threats from disgruntled backbenchers.
However, as Paul Kelly recently pointed out in The Australian
"Any student of politics might think that Labor's crisis was that Beazley was a windbag, or that Crean couldn't communicate or that Latham had too big a chip on his shoulder.Defects
"These defects are only too true, yet they are discrete personality problems that don't touch the bigger problem.
"This is a crisis of ideas and identity. It is about how Australian social democracy defines itself in the globalised age of a market economy amid a community demand for restoration of social order and greater personal responsibility." (Weekend Australian
, July 2 – 3, 2005.)
Ironically, it has taken a blue-collar, left wing union to lay out some of the home truths the federal Labor Party needs to come to terms with if it ever wants to regain office in Canberra.
Trevor Smith, secretary of the Forestry Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), recently commissioned a report into the last election and its aftermath (see article on next page).
The report, whose views are not necessarily those of the union, has been circulated widely in the Labor Party, according to news reports.
The Brompton Report - named after the union's Adelaide headquarters - is a surprising document in many ways and is arguably one of the most important and carefully researched papers produced by the Labor side of politics in the past 20 years.
In essence, it compellingly argues that Labor has no chance of winning office unless it confronts the economic and philosophic questions which have bedevilled the party since the early Hawke years.
It argues that the fall of the Berlin Wall necessitated this rethink, but that Labor is still divided between those who still support the welfare state and those who have become avid economic rationalists and globalists.Infatuation with free trade
It argues also that Labor must listen to its culturally and socially conservative base rather than what it calls the cosmopolitan and libertarian "latté set", and it must re-examine its recent total infatuation with the free trade at any cost, competition policy at any cost, and reform for reform's sake.
The Brompton Report shows that Labor's base constituency of working and lower middle-class voters has been bleeding with each successive election and that it is now virtually unrepresented in rural areas and becoming increasingly unrepresented in outer metropolitan seats.
It states that Labor has no chance of regaining office if it simply gives up on a third of the Parliament.
How the document will be received is uncertain.
Labor hard-heads would prefer the focus to remain on the mistakes and hubris of the Howard Government, the Howard-Costello transition, and on a possible severe downturn in the Australian economy.
But simply waiting for "something to turn up" is the worst possible route Labor could take at the present time.
If the world economy does nosedive at some point, Labor could find itself accidently back in office, but armed with yesterday's ideas on the "global" economy and without a clue how to deal with the current and future problems.