Tell us a story

When Labor marched to defeat in 2001, it is thought that more than half of the paid-up members of the party voted for the Greens, primarily at disgust at Kim Beazley’s shameful, if pragmatic, moral capitulation over refugees. At the 2004 election, the Labor primary vote increased by 0.3 per cent, to 38 per cent, one of the lowest of all time. The Green vote, at 6.9 per cent nationally, increased by about 2 per cent. The greater proportion of these increases came from the collapse of the Democrat vote (down 4.2 per cent to 1.2 per cent), since Labor’s vote, in two-party preferred terms, fell by 2.1 per cent. It does look quite unlikely that any of the Labor supporters who deserted their party in disgust to vote Green in 2001 found their way clear to return their first preference vote to the party.

For those who see politics in two-dimensional terms, the problem Labor has is not in recruiting support from its left, but from the centre. The primary aspect of Labor’s debacle, indeed, is that it was even less successful in filling the centre than last time, and is now a four per cent—two terms if it is lucky—swing away from regaining government.

Labor’s willingness to let as much as five per cent of its core vote go, by default, to the Greens, is at the centre of its disaster. Those core voters represent a big proportion of the old idealistic core of the party—those invested with notions that political Labor is something of a crusade—about better conditions for the workers, looking after others, extending human rights, and the organised power of people to make a difference in people’s lives. The sort of people who feel that supporting the party is a sort of crusade, and a positive duty of citizenship. People with passion, and not only passion to share the spoils of office.

By no means necessarily old-style trade union members, or the sort of people whose power in the party stems from their control of the votes that trade unions automatically accrue to themselves by affiliation with the party. The real people who represent an ever-declining, ever unreformed and ever less representative slice of the Australian workforce, now facing further assaults from the re-elected Howard Government. It is not the party machines which have deserted Labor, but the branch membership. The sort of people focused on issues such as Aborigines, or multiculturalism, or feminism rather than the bread-and-butter issues of more money in the battlers’ pocket.

Alas those now left in the party—all the more influential  for the desertion of the dreamers—are those who know all about the real aspirations of the middle ground. The ones who thought that a Labor campaign crafted on Medicare give-aways, education give-aways (with carefully focused class warfare thrown in), tax giveaways, child care giveaways and welfare restructure giveaways could compete in an auction against John Howard’s giveaways. And who think, in their hard of hearts (though, in the humility forced by defeat they cannot really say it) that John Howard ‘stole’ this election from them in just the same way as he did the last election, this time by a scare campaign on interest rates. By this theory, the electorate was conned, and the voters were stupid.

The evidence suggests that not one of the campaign promises—apart from Labor’s forest promises in Tasmania—moved a single voter. If some greybeard voted Labor because he was offered free quick hospital care for a hip replacement, another (probably of similar age) voted against him on the same grounds. Labor lost the election on the ground defined by Howard from the start: trust. It was not trust in Howard’s word—a somewhat debased article—but trust in Coalition financial management and mistrust of Labor’s economic credentials. It was not a ground on which Latham fought; he lost by default.

He did not campaign on Howard’s credibility, on Iraq, on the war against terror, on US-Australian relations, or on Australia’s international image. Nor on better welfare policies, on Aborigines, on refugees, on human dignity or on human rights. No fundamental reform of any of Australia’s chronic problems, least of all the infrastructure of health care, education or transport and communications.

Just more money. Howard obliged by not raising these issues either.

In adopting the image of the aspirational battler, himself with a mortgage and young family made good, Mark Latham oozed no sympathy for the underclasses: he reflected the contempt that the ‘haves’ hold for the ‘have-nots’: the idea that their disadvantage is their own fault, their lack of initiative,  lack of ambition and failure to climb the ladder of opportunity. Splendid tactic. Splendid result.

The man who had promised to be himself, allowed himself to be turned, by the party’s ‘professionals’, into a small target drone. He campaigned well. Yet he lost votes steadily through the campaign. Two of the party’s most professional campaign apparatchiks—Stephen Smith and Wayne Swan—were there to keep him on-message and to feed in the focus-group nonsense for the day. In keeping with Labor’s suicide drive, each is likely to be rewarded by having more senior positions on the front bench.

Was it ever winnable? The opinion polls showed Labor ahead over much of the past year. If Labor secretly thought the election unwinnable, John Howard campaigned at all times as if he feared he would lose it. But he must have blessed himself at the way in which Labor never sought to inspire, to light a beacon or to tell Australians a story about themselves they wanted to hear.   

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.



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