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Gillard Government is socially challenged

  • 04 June 2013

Labor 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