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Gillard Government is socially challenged


Sign points to WelfareLabor needs the strong support of social movement leaders if it is to win the coming election, not only because they reflect the views of their members but also because they influence them.

There are several stances towards the contestants that any group can choose from in a campaign: strongly either way; weakly either way; or pretty much even-handed.

Even-handed can still be an important stance. If a group that usually supports one side is unenthusiastic then the other side effectively wins.

This is true of support for Labor from social movement groups.

The last time a Labor government was facing likely defeat was in 1996 when John Howard was challenging an embattled Paul Keating. An important element of Howard's success was his ability to defuse the support for Keating from elements of the social movements.

This was the case for the environment movement for instance. Howard was able to claim at least a draw by coming closer to the leadership of groups like the Wilderness Society by offering spending on conservation projects and a moderately green approach.

Howard was also able to benefit from the inevitable dissatisfaction which builds up with an incumbent government. Labor allies in the environment movement had become disaffected when government couldn't satisfy their full agenda.

When Labor won back office under Kevin Rudd in 2007 it benefitted from a highly enthusiastic and well-funded 'Fair Work' union movement campaign and greater enthusiasm from social movement groups. But some of these groups still held back from pledging full support. They were not willing to be as enthusiastically pro-Labor again.

In particular the pro-asylum seeker and refugee movement was only hopeful rather than sure that Labor was worth supporting. This ambivalence has turned out to be justified by events.

We don't know yet how strong social movement support for Labor will be this time around. But group reactions to the Budget and some associated developments give some indication.

Public statements by feminist and long-term Women's Electoral Lobby member Eva Cox and Indigenous leader Warren Mundine may have softened social movement attitudes towards an Abbott government.

Cox has argued that Abbott's generous parental leave scheme is better than the Government's and therefore deserves more sympathetic consideration from the women's movement. Abbott has trouble within his own party over this scheme but he'd take support from Cox in exchange for that anytime.

Mundine, a former Labor president, has resigned his party membership and indicated his willingness to work for Abbott in government because Indigenous issues are more important to him than party politics. This only adds to the already fractured relationship between Labor and parts of the Aboriginal rights movement.

Responses to the Government's Budget also reveal only half-hearted support from sectors that are traditionally Labor-inclined. The cuts to single mothers benefits, the failure to reach foreign aid goals and the failure to increase the Newstart allowance for the unemployed has united groups like the churches sector, the Australian Council of Social Service and Caritas Australia.

Spokespersons for groups traditionally aligned with the centre-left gave the government not much more than a pass. When the Australian Union of Students (university cuts), the Australian Conservation Foundation (cuts to renewable energy research and commercialisation) and ACOSS (speaking for people on the lowest incomes) give the Budget only 6/10 then that is only a bare pass for the government.

Such scores should be considered in the context of the usual pattern of pressure group support for the contestants. Measured support for Labor doesn't necessarily mean any greater enthusiasm for the Coalition. But any suggestion, from influential group members like Cox and Mundine, that certain Coalition programs deserve sympathetic attention offers increased hope for the Opposition.

In terms of social movement support a draw is as good as a win for the Coalition. Labor needs to do better with this sector.

John Warhurst headshotJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Fair Work, unions



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Existing comments

Thanks John Best if I confine my remarks to one topic - Eva Cox. I believe it would be a big mistake to assume that Ms Cox is speaking for anything like a majority of the feminists in our community, let alone for a majority of women. Tony Abbot's PPL scheme discriminates against the vast majority of women (and their partners) - in fact all of those would-be mothers who are earning less than $150 a year will be paid less than the maximum rate of $75,000 for 6 months. A woman earning $30,000, although clearly having more need of the money, would receive only $15,000, while a stay-at-home mum would get nothing. The very idea that some women are 'of calibre' while others are not, based on their income is obnoxious and atrocious. I have written about this for Fair Media Alliance, if I may give the links. 'Paid Parental Leave: Desperately Spinning' and 'Eva Cox buggers it up. Again.' http://fairmediaalliance.wordpress.com/

Kate Ahearne | 02 June 2013  

The ALP, Greens and Independent coalition Government will be defeated at the forthcoming election for one reason and one only, the lack of integrity due to being a Government of nothing. "Come one, come all" is the call of the town crier but there must be something to unite the people when they gather. This coalition is the epitome of "by committee" where populist sentiment overrides fact and common sense. The divisions in the ALP are alone the stuff of defeat and the decline in integrity in the union movement show the source of such divisions. The small bit players of independents and Greens are akin to "teacher's pets" and everyone knows how despised that breed is.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 04 June 2013  

These are exactly the kind of arguments we heard before the election of the Howard government - things won't change much, some minor things will be better, this government is bad. Afterwards it was clearly untrue. It sounds like people trying to make themselves feel better about putting, Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne, Eric Abetz, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Sophie Mirabella etc. into power. Interest groups must lobby for their members. That is their job. They find fault with government policy all the time. It is not new.

Gabrielle Henry | 04 June 2013  

Hi John, It's the National Union of Students not the Australian union of students. AUS disbanded in the 1980's, and the name is now taken by an extremist individual or group who wants to terrorise 'politically correct Catholics' (it's true)!

Anne O'Brien | 04 June 2013  

It is clear that we have now a welfare industry, which is a very hungry beast with often leaves very little for the needy. As soon a welfare organisation starts to become political, public support often is reduced and rightly so. We have several so-called social and welfare organisations with top heavy management. The payments of some of their executives are now similar to the remunerations of large industrial enterprises. Most people want to support deserving charities and environmental organisations. Most people want the money going to a good cause, but don't want it to finance a luxury lifestyle of wealthy people.

Beat Odermatt | 04 June 2013  

Whilst I understand the welfare sector's disappointment to some extent, it would be a Pyrrhic victory if Abbott wins. Eva Cox is right that paid parental leave should be a normal work entitlement. HOWEVER her lack of concern for the broader economy at this point beggars belief. Even more staggering is her equanimity at the prospect of women being paid at discriminatory rates. "To those who have, much will be given," and as Kate Ahearne points out, those needing society's (taxpayer) support most will miss out. They who are disaffected with Labor should take care they do not excise their olfactory organ.

Patricia R | 04 June 2013  

Perhaps the best example of what you are talking about was the action Kevin Rudd took in support of affordable housing in 2007. His package of measures to provide social housing solutions ended uo costing some $6 billion. The national alliance of agencies, assisted by union knowhow, proved very successful and to his credit Rudd recognised the strength of the lobby and responded magnificantly. Housing security is still the biggest social issue facing the clients of most welfare agencies.

John | 04 June 2013  

The community has changed and it isn't only the ALP that has changed in ways we do not like. Sadly, many Catholics have changed to being so aloof and disengaged, even neo-conservative, that they are not joining the ALP so as to be that voice of genuine unionism and all the rest. So we get what we deserve.

Michael Webb | 07 June 2013  

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