CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
New guard Labor's two colossal mistakes
, April 13, 2013
As Wayne Swan puts the finishing touches to what will almost certainly be his last federal Budget, he is facing a revolt from his own backbench over proposed savings measures, particularly with regard to superannuation.
While the issue is ostensibly about whether super rules should be “left alone” or not taxed retrospectively, it actually underlines a more fundamental split in the Labor Party between its old guard and its new guard. The latter has pledged their unswerving allegiance to Julia Gillard despite the likely prospect of a debilitating defeat.
The list of well-regarded and experienced MPs who have now separated themselves from Julia Gillard’s leadership and brand of Labor is extraordinary. They include John Faulkner and Lindsay Tanner, who quit the very day Ms Gillard dislodged Kevin Rudd as prime minister, and, more recently, Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson, Chris Bowen and Kim Carr.
Former ACTU secretary and one of the architects of Australia’s super system Bill Kelty can be added to the list.
Labor’s modern-day split is complex, and as much to do with the cult of personality than with ideological questions; but one aspect of it is Gillard and Swan’s junking of the Hawke-Keating legacy.
Labor’s old guard holds that the Hawke-Keating period was a model for Labor, both ideologically and in practical terms, in the sense of showing how Labor could run a good stable and sensible government.
One is reminded of the famous line of former Democratic Labor Party Senator Frank McManus, quoted recently in the federal Parliament by the DLP’s current Victorian senator, John Madigan: “The best government for Australia is a good Labor government; the worst a bad Labor government.”
Whatever its faults, the Hawke-Keating Labor Government was a government of the middle ground, a pro-business, outwardly-looking administration that sought consensus, shunned extremism and sought always to be economically responsible.
It must be said that towards the end Paul Keating did not exactly adhere to the consensus model; but people such as Ferguson and Crean, who helped shift the thinking of a much larger and more militant union movement at the time, view his economic achievements as something Labor should be proud of rather than shun.
Gillard and Swan have chosen a different route — divide Australia along class lines, create a “gender war” and demonise foreign immigrants on short-term work visas.
Instead of staking out the middle ground, Gillard Labor has swung to the left, opportunistically seizing on disparate issues, from live-meat exports to drugs in sport, to parade its political stripes.
Mr Swan wants to rein in the super tax concessions available to high net worth individuals; but the rhetoric will be about getting Australia’s rich to pay their fair share and giving instead to those who are “doing it tough”, as the Treasurer often likes to describe it.
The Gillard-Swan strategy aims to recapture the Labor heartland by appealing to the less affluent’s basest fears about losing their jobs to foreign workers and being ripped off by the super rich, especially the mining magnates.
The problem is that erratic decision-making, a litany of failed promises, and the embrace of the radical Greens have already broken the nexus with the Labor heartland.
Watching Labor’s best men walk away from the government only reinforces the heartland’s instincts that Gillard Labor has lost its way.
Labor is paying a heavy price for two colossal mistakes — a failure during the Howard years and in government to agree on what it believed in and how it proposed to govern. It wasted too many years building up then cutting down messiahs who they hoped would lead them out of the wilderness: Beazley, Crean, Latham, Rudd.
The truth is Labor still doesn’t know which direction to take. Former leader Mark Latham recently recommended that Labor ditch its social democratic ideology and become a climate change party, because he believes this will be the great policy imperative of the next 100 years.
The second great mistake has been Labor’s inwardness, its failure to recruit outside the shrinking and increasingly inbred Labor family. This means recruiting from political staffers, branch-stackers and union officials, who have never been employed by any organisation other than the Labor Party or a union.
One has only to look at the first Hawke ministry, which included doctors, farmers, teachers and academics, a policeman, a shearer, a prisoner of war, a quiz champion, and people with business, accountancy and economic backgrounds.
Hawke ran his government properly, thrashing out decisions in Cabinet through proper Cabinet processes. He took unilateral decisions only occasionally and usually when required. Under Gillard the opposite appears to be the case.
On the surface, Labor’s old guard are asking: why are we messing with super when it is the greatest achievement of the last two decades?
Deeper down they are asking: do Labor’s new guard have any idea what they are doing?