Jul 202012

I wrote yesterday that I was disengaging from observation and commentary of the political process in Australia, until the next election, due in November 2013.That was before I had a chance discussion with – of all people – my GP last night on matters of ideological belief. Politics, if you will. It was an enlightening conversation; one I enjoyed immensely and frankly, I believe, so did Luke. It also gave me cause to pause & reflect. Disengaging from the simple process of observation won’t make the process any less painful when the time comes to re-engage. It – politics – isn’t going away any time soon, isn’t going to get any better any time soon, and could get a whole lot worse a lot sooner than people like me who believe in better social outcomes might anticipate.

I have to be honest with myself at the least, and admit that as much as the political scene in this country depresses me, as with all train wrecks, it’s impossible to look away. The truth is I don’t want to look away. The party of my social upbringing, the party in which I fervently believe, the one that espouses the culture and social structure I support and want to see furthered, has lost its way. Australian Labor is fast becoming a ring on the bathtub of Australian political life as the water of its substance gurgles down the political plughole. A high-tide mark with the water’s edge a long way down the beach, the beach goers more enamoured with the theme park on the shore than swimming in the social ocean.

Analogies. Analogies for how I feel about the once great political party of my youth. The party of Whitlam, Button, Hawke, Hayden, Keating. The party now despairingly berated by Senator John Faulkner at last weekend’s NSW Labor Conference.

A week before the NSW ALP Annual Conference we – the Labor Party – orchestrated a public debate on preferencing the Greens. We chased headlines. We got them!

We’ve been immersed in an argument about the distribution of preferences while ignoring the reality: you have to win primary votes to have preferences to give. And in case you haven’t noticed our primary vote is low and getting lower. Our Party is facing a crisis of organisation and a crisis of belief.  Instead of grappling with these threats to our survival as a party of Government  – the only Party of organised labour in Australia to have ever been able to put our policies into practice and fulfil our great aim of ‘making and unmaking social conditions’ – we are posturing about the minutiae of political tactics. 

With too many voters forming the opinion that our Party believes in nothing but the pursuit of power, they are hardly likely to be reassured that we are a Party of conviction and ideas by a public debate on just which backroom deal is most likely to deliver office! We cannot change views and votes by talking about tactics, and fixes, and preference deals. We cannot build a consensus behind our vision for reform by discussing slick electoral manoeuvres while remaining silent on our core values and beliefs. 

It’s time to get real. The Greens are winning votes from us. They are winning seats from us  – upper and lower house, state and federal. They have gained the loyalty of the best part of a generation of activists, and they will gain the loyalty of the best part of a generation of voters as well, if we don’t stop talking about means and start talking about ends. We must give people a reason to vote for us. 

And there are reasons to vote Labor – the values we have always stood for. The Liberals argue we are too much like the Greens. The Greens assert we’re too much like the Liberals.  But, we are neither. We are the only political party that believes in a community defined by who it includes, not who it excludes – the only political party that doesn’t judge Australians by their income, or education, or type of employment or where they live. Labor is the only political party that understands that people’s lives are affected by circumstances beyond their control, and that the concerns of those in difficult circumstances deserve to be addressed. Ours is the only political party to stand for the equal value of all, and the equal rights of all to live with dignity, and without want or fear of want. We know no government should sacrifice the security and well-being of some Australians in the service of policy purity. We are the only political party to know that policies should be made to fit people, not people made to fit policies. Labor is the only political party to understand that economic rights are human rights: to understand that commitment to political freedoms is inadequate without that economic security that underpins all participation in our democracy as free and equal citizens. 

Of course, none of this should be a revelation.  But the sad truth is that for many would-be and once-were Labor voters and supporters, it would be! When we choose to spend a week talking about our preferences, is it any wonder that more and more Australians are deciding that their preference isn’t us? Sometimes it’s what you don’t talk about that makes the most noise, and our silence this week on belief and policy has been deafening. Tactics without strategy, policy without belief, victory without purpose, are the things we have always condemned in our political opponents. Our values, our beliefs, our principles and what we offer Australia are ignored when we are tub-thumping about preference deals.  Those arguments, are arguments over what voters can do for us, not, as it should be, about what we, the Labor Party will do for them.

Senator Faulkner is among the last of his kind. Often labelled as the ‘elder statesman’ he speaks about Labor as it is…..and knows about Labor as it was. Labor was great thirty years ago. When consensus was a word that meant something. When the Union movement worked in concert with the parliamentary executive. When Sussex Street had the common sense to stay the hell out of the day-to-day social engineering and dealt solely with administration and liaison with the branch structure. Sussex Street today, the Union movement today and what passes for the parliamentary executive today all seem to want to ride the horse but no-one wants to hold the reins. No-one wants to take responsibility for the direction of the party. No-one wants to stand, or take a stand, and espouse the rationale for the current Labor ethos. As Laura Tingle points out very blatantly in today’s Financial Review, Labor fails miserably to accentuate the positive in order to eliminate the negative.

Remember all that talk in February about how hopeless Kevin Rudd was? How he couldn’t be trusted to run a competent government? (Or be nice to unions). Well, the arguments about who is more competent to run the country within Labor ranks now runs a distant second for many of those genius kingmakers and faceless men who are marching to the dull beat of the opinion polls alone, and consider changing a leader purely on personal popularity. There are no candidates in the field, no alternative policies being pushed. And not a belief in sight. The recognition that Gillard may have to go is still subject to the greater terror of an early election. Meanwhile, Labor attacks Tony Abbott for his negativity. Yet, after almost five years in government and a plethora of reforms it didn’t stuff up (along with some it did), Labor finds itself unable to articulate a positive message with which to define itself and seeks to fight the next election on the basis it will not be Abbott.

The party no longer knows what it is. The party has fallen victim to the ravening 24/7 media cycle, the incessant opinion polling often by vested interests, and it’s own foolishly futile navel gazing. We who believe in what Labor stands for want that party to look up and outward. Forget the navel. It will always be there, lint filled or not. The navel is the sign that we, the true believers, continue on. We cannot save the party, only the new generations can do that but they have to be taught about where we’ve come from. And why we have come. Political ‘friends’ and ‘foes’ are homogenous, all of one ilk. That ilk being the antithesis of the genuine Labor belief of true social change, egalitarianism, fair go for all and support for those who need it most. Preference deals and opinion polls come and go. Beliefs and ideals are everlasting. Labor has a covenant with the Australian people. It’s past time that covenant was honoured, espoused and backed up.

My message to Labor is simple. Forget about Abbott, he’s self-destructive. Forget about the Greens, they will always be there. Focus on the job at hand, the successes and the tasks yet to be successfully completed. Above all, focus on the people.

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