Reclaiming Labor's lost soul


Kevin Rudd victoryIn 2006, when Kevin Rudd deposed Kim Beazley as Labor and Opposition Leader and Julia Gillard became his Deputy, I wrote an effusive email to them both. Looking back, I'm no longer sure how much of the enthusiasm was due to the prospect of John Howard finally being exited from politics.

The duo represented the strongest Labor contention in years, but also seemed to signal a way out of the wilderness. Many of the policies they undertook reinforced this sense of change. Rudd delivered the Apology to the Stolen Generations, signed the Kyoto Protocol, abolished Temporary Protection Visas, closed offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, repealed WorkChoices and began developing a climate change policy that sought to place Australia on the frontline.

I finally let myself consider applying for Australian citizenship — by then I had been eligible for six years and been living in Melbourne for eight. Here finally was a government that seemed to speak to my concerns. Here was a party that seemed to represent our better national aspirations.

In this context, you might get a sense of how despondent I've become over its current directions.

In his Wran Lecture last Thursday, former Labor senator John Faulkner was right in his assessment that Labor has come a long way from the party that attracted 'progressive, socially aware activists passionate about social and economic reform'. As a government, it has 'lost its way', to borrow — with great irony — Gillard's justification for unseating Rudd as Prime Minister.

This month marks a year since she wrested leadership from Rudd. She explained at the time that her decision was based on her view that it was the only way to get the government 'back on track'.

Yet one would be forgiven for thinking not much has really changed. In fact there has been severe regression, particularly with an immigration policy that is considered by refugee advocates to be worse than the Pacific Solution. Labor underestimates the disillusion that it has engendered in this area.

In his diagnosis of the overall malaise, Faulkner notes that the party has 'become so reliant on focus groups that it listens more to those who do not belong to it than to those who do'. I would add that it has alienated even those who do want to belong to it. After the demise of the Democrats, young voters who would otherwise position themselves between the conservative Liberals and the radical Greens have been left stranded.

They are looking for authentic, principled leadership that delivers. They are looking for leaders who would rather lose big on matters of principle than win by a margin on compromised policy. Labor ought to be the natural home for such leaders. Its own history has shown as much.

Indeed, if there's anything I've picked up from the decade that I've been living in Australia, it is that Labor best functions on principle. Whitlam. Hawke. Keating. They crashed and burned in their own way — but progressives have to in order to overcome self-interested inertia. Their vision intersected with their mettle. Rudd shared their qualities to some degree, including a tendency to be unlikeable.

Today, as Faulkner points out, party machinery is sidelining the activism that used to be Labor's lifeblood. In its preoccupation with electability, it is failing to engage with a community that is more concerned with what it stands for than whether it can win. 'People were attracted to the Labor Party because they wanted to make the world a better place,' says Faulkner. Such people still exist.

I hope that his statement is not taken as memorialising the past, but as signalling the way forward. With the next federal election still a couple years away, there are many opportunities to appeal to sections of the community who are looking for a good reason to vote Labor. I am one of these.

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer. She will be applying for Australian citizenship this month. She tweets as @foomeister

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, John Faulkner, Labor, Tony Abbott, Coalition, activism, electability



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Existing comments

While Fatima makes the point that some believe history has shown Labor to be the natural home for leaders in matters of principle, the reality is that while the lights may indeed be on -there's no one at home!

Undeniably, the federal parliamentary Labor Party has become the blight rather than the light on the hill with its heartless, so-called Malaysian solution for asylum seekers. And with the likelihood that it may not release details of the finished deal, it has made secrecy a synonym for ''transparency".
The Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, became a breathless Mr B on the ABC's Lateline programme recently, unleashing a torrent of words simply hoping to drown out real inquiry.

Sending unaccompanied vulnerable children, especially young girls, from Australia into Malaysian camps is a step too far, one the Australian people will not, could not, tolerate.It's been all downhill from there.
One must hope that there is surely at least one federal Labor MP with sufficient spine to move to the crossbenches as an independent Labor parliamentarian as a warning to the Gillard government that while legislation is not needed to push such a horrendous policy into reality, one member's willingness to make a stand for principle on this issue would be enough to kill it.This means leading...not from the paralysed front,but from the back bench.But who's bold enough for that?
To use a Labor slogan, it's (almost run out of) time.

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 15 June 2011  

Labor appears not only to have lost its way but is taking this great country of ours down a path of inhumane treatment of people seeking safety that should make us hang our heads in shame and sorrow. Concern ourselves with animal welfare certainly, but please put the same passion into ensuring that PEOPLE SEEKING SAFETY ON OUR SHORES ARE NOT TRADED OFF AGAINST ONE ANOTHER. WE HAVE ROOM FOR ALL IF WE BUT DESIRE .

Anna C North Avoca | 15 June 2011  

I completely agree, Fatima. I became an Australian citizen during the Howard years because I realised how much I loved Australia and how sad I was about what Howard and his government were doing to the nation's soul. Just the other day I wrote to Julia Gillard saying almost exactly what you have written here.

This could well be the end of the Labor Party if they cannot find purpose beyond themselves. If I was Bob Brown, I'd see this as the moment of my life. Those of us who are revolted by Tony and disillusioned by Labor have few places to go.

Stephen | 15 June 2011  

Labour's Malaysian solution and its attempts to resurrect the Manus Island detention centre under Gillard are a far cry from the promise of treating refugee boat people with compassion that we heard when Rudd became Prime Minister. Tony Abbot is right when he says they are a worse solution than the old Pacific Island solution. Its only problem, apart from the usual interminable delays in determining the refugee status of the boat people, was its isolation from the Australian community.

It appears that the fear of opposition to a humane policy which houses boat people on the Australian mainland not too far from population centres drives the government to the extreme of more cruel solutions.

Why can't we determine refugee status more quickly, with refugees housed in Australia. It is up to the boat people to prove they are genuine refugees. If they cannot do it within a reasonable time they can be sent back home, instead of having to wait on the government agencies to perform the task. If they destroy their identity papers that is their problem.

Tony Santospirito | 15 June 2011  

"young voters who would otherwise position themselves between the conservative Liberals and the radical Greens have been left stranded"

I'm fifty and I'm stranded as well!

Alec Clews | 15 June 2011  

Well written article Fatima. I agree totally with what you have said along with the comments from Anna and Stephen. It saddens me greatly, however, I also need to make mention of the racist and paternalistic policies (e.g. Northern Territory Intervention & suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act), and the demonisation of Australia's First Peoples by Howard which has continued with Rudd and now Gillard Governments. I am also horrified how we treat any vulnerable peoples. Let's just put ourselves in their shoes for a day, and then we may have a better insight, and see the need to seek justice and a fair go for all.

I'd prefer a Labor Party and more important an Australian Government, which genuinely tries "to make the world a better place", not one which we have at present, which seems to be narrowing the gap towards a more Liberal/Howard styled Government, with little regard for Humanity. I am appalled at the demonisation of vulnerable peoples, the mistruths and rhetoric of past and present Governments. I am also appalled at the lack of true accountability of the media.
Thank you Eureka for your balance.

Bernadette McPhee | 15 June 2011  

Young Rudd had a lot in mind to do. And he did in a very short time. And in his hurry, he found a lot of mistakes from too little thorough thought - IMHO.

It seems Gillard is stepping on his same footsteps.

I wish someone analysed that properly.

AZURE | 15 June 2011  

I totally agree with you .Like the yonger generation, and I am in my 60's, I also have nowhere to go.Last election I voted "Green" after always voting ALP. Apart from the inhumane policy on the "Boat Peoples", the lamentable lack of movement on Climate Change and return to the ordinary people by way of Resources Tax, of the rewards of the Mining Boom, are frustrating to say the least.Where has "the break on through or bust in the process" policies of Whitlam,Keeting and Hawke gone?

The current mob are so risk averse , it is frightening.I am very concerned for the future of my children and my grandson.What sort of planet will we leave them???

Gavin O'Brien | 15 June 2011  

Well said Fatima.

Though the Democrats haven't died, they just self-imploded when they ended Stott-Despoja's leadership. They're the moderate voice between the right-of-right Lib/Nats, left-of-right Labor and left-of-left Greens.

Stott-Despoja was a popular leader with the electorate - particularly the younger voters looking for some sort of moderate vote. But she wasn't in favour with those who matter least: the party insiders. Yes, those who matter least.

[Hey Labor Party: does this sound familiar?]

We have a fantastic system of voting in Australia. Our preferential voting is, from a scientific point-of-view, one of the fairest possible.

It gives us the ability to vote for the person who will most represent our views (which is why I still vote Democrat, despite being in a safe Labor seat) while still guiding the direction of the country by preferring Labor over LibNat or vice-versa.

I'm sure posting here on Eureka Street, I'm preaching to the converted, but please always make your vote reflect your views and not just put a [1] next to Labor or LibNats "because one of them is going to win, the others are pointless".

Josh Hillman | 15 June 2011  

Sadly, it is appropriate to criticise the current state of the Labor Party - and the Liberal Party - caused partly by the domination of factions. The other factor is the repeated denigration of politics, especially in the popular dailies, which is a discouragement from taking active part. The solution is simple but difficult. People of integrity should reject the assertion that 'politics is a nasty business best agnored' and join the party they prefer in sufficient numbers to overcome the domination of self-interested factional groups.

Bob Corcoran | 15 June 2011  

Dear Fatima, I am so glad you are taking up Australian Citizenship - we need you. Thank you for your clear thinking about the issues which trouble so many of us - especially for me the Refugee policy and detention centres. I was fortunate , yesterday , to listen to a fine man who has devoted his life to public service and is currently a Refugee Assessor. He told of how the government has increased the number of assessors from under 10 last year to 90 currently in order to process claims and hopefully release more people from the dreadful restrictions of detention. quicker. I say this because I know there are people working with integrity and compassionately within the system to help as much as possible . As I see it now our politicians need to be willing to take up the cries of decency and explain and explain to the populace until we all get it and enact some real humanitarian change. I have sadness but I have some hope too. Faulkner and Tanner are doing their bit to clarify issues for the Labor Party and your type of clear thinking helps a lot too. Again , thank you regards Faye Lawrence

Faye Lawrence | 15 June 2011  

At least PM Gillard IS seeking a solution to accommodate refugees. Mr. Abbott 'will stop the boats.' At least PM Gillard IS bringing in a carbon tax. Mr. Abbott does not believe in global warming.

Joyce | 15 June 2011  

Fatima, pity you know nothing of the old ALP, which existed before Evatt destroyed it in 1955 by falsely accused many stalwarts of being led by the Catholic church. I mean people who followed the traditions of Scullin, Curtin,Chifley and later McManus, the latter expelled because he fought to defeat Evatt's "Commo" mates in the then ALP. Those people led the "gap"party you are looking for.

Bill Barry | 15 June 2011  

A very sound article Fatima. But to label the Greens 'radical' is rather interesting.

I would prefer to see the Greens as the moderate party as the other two parties have gone so far to the right that what you call 'radical' is actually moderate. People who are disillusioned with Labor do have somewhere to go, and stay. Labor of old would sit well in the Green party of 2011. Maybe modern Labor might restore itself and join the Greens.

Tom Kingston | 15 June 2011  

I wonder if Fatima sees Tony Abbott as a "leader who would rather lsoe big on matters of principle than win by a margin on compromised policy", considering the fierce opposition within the Coalition to his revolutionary paid parental leave scheme - a scheme which Abbott is now fighting to retain.

Claude Rigney | 15 June 2011  

Very good article Fatima. I am an ALP member. I continue to support it and always will because of it's traditional focus on social justice and egalitarianism. John Faulkner's paper was spot on, as is yours. People tend to forget, or do not want to acknowledge, that Labor is a party of reform. Economic and social reform is difficult and challenging, for any party. A strong focussed leader, who is a team player too, is essential. Good luck, Labor.

LouW | 20 June 2011  

I am one of those people too, Fatima! let's hope and pray we shall find the leader we are looking for. I took out citizenship here many years ago and am sometimes a bit disappointed with the way this country has gone ( great climate, food, beaches etc but terrible media, ignorant and nasty politicians,etc) but most ordinary Australians I know, in all walks of life, are decent kind people just as those in other countries are. If a leader appeals to their decency and goodness, as opposed to their fear, ignorance and prejudice, he or she will succeed!

Ann | 21 June 2011  

Claude asks if Fatima would call Tony Abbott someone who would rather lose than depart from a principle...As someone who agrees with Fatima, I think that suggestion is laughable: everything Abbott has done since the election is designed to make the government unworkable so that he can get another election before the scheduled time: street demonstrations, even if it means nasty placards he 'wasn't aware of' half truths and scare campaigns and the list goes on.

He doesn't appear to have any positive policies at all and winning by any means possible is what is driving him. Bob Brown has principles, I think, but he is hated by many on the right and in the Murdoch media.

Ann | 23 June 2011  

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