Monday, June 27, 2005

The Problem with Federal Labor.

Posted by AmishThrasher at 5:05 pm
Kim Beazley
Is he competant?
Since the last Federal election - and even before it - there has been debate about why Labor isn't winning elections Federally. The ongoing debates have been re-fuelled by forthcomming biography about Mark Latham, as well as Beazley's inability to build popular support against Howard.

An example of this line of reasoning is an opinion editorial in The Australian, by Trevor Smith, which suggests that "While Labor sees its job as being to attack 'Tories', we are constantly reminded that Australians are inherently conservative." But as Kim Beazley has pointed out, Labor holds all 8 state and territory governments. Indeed, if Latham had (somehow) managed to win the last federal election, you would have had a sitatuation where nowhere in Australia (at state or federal level) there is a Liberal government. Indeed, the same conservative commentators who have been crowing about how it shows Australia as a nation of conservatives would themselves be under attack for being irrelevant. The obvious question to ask for Federal Labor is why the party has been so universally succesful at state level across Australia, yet such a failure federally?

And there are clearly lessons that federal Labor can learn from their state counter-parts. Take, for example, Bob Carr's handling of the media. Carr, a former journalist, has applied the skills he has learned in his previous life to his career as NSW premier. He employs those skills to control how his message is delivered to the media, and subsequently how it is handled by the media. Sydney based journalists often get SMSes simply announcing when and where Carr is going to deliver a press conference, with no further details. The journalists often have no time to prepare, and no information on what will be discussed (thus no opportunity to prepare themselves). Carr is thus able to deliver his message unchallenged to the waiting journalists.

I raise this as an example, because part of Labor's problem has been in getting its message across to voters. Federal Labor must effectively package its policy positions and deliver them to the general public - to point out the flaws in Liberal policy, and get convincing arguments in favor of their positions to the public. New technologies could help labor do this - beyond just getting its 60 second soundbytes and quotes out to the mainstream media, hows about presenting messages expalining policy - and providing details - to the left wing blogosphere? Similarly, setting up and funding think-tanks, policy lobby groups and policy institutes (and that means beyond the ACTU) is a worthwhile investment.

Of course, this assumes that Labor actually has some policies - some workable policy positions which help it to determine which liberal policies to attack, and what its positions are. Policy positions should not be something that gets wheeled out in the lead-up to an election, they are important in presenting a party which the public can be confident in serving as a real alternative. A long-term view in formulating these positions is a good thing: If Simon Crean had come out strongly against the Iraq War, it would have paid dividends to the ALP as the Weapons of Mass Destruction didn't materialize, and Labor plays the strong anti-Iraq War party now that Iraq is increasingly looking like a quagmire.

There is a central point to this that federal Labor needs to get: that most people don't give a flying fuck about politics. Many Australians would fail a basic test on current issues, or which MP's are responcible for what. But don't get this twisted: people who don't give a fuck about politics in general can get worked up about a particular issue, depeing on how it's framed. And this happens the easiest on the things which matter to people in their everyday lives. When you have children at school, their education matters to you. When you wait for a train running an hour late, public transport matters to you. When you pull in to Mobil, the price of petrol matters. At tax time, tax matters. Put people in these situations, and you'll see the most aepolitical people have opinions - either left wing or right wing. Exploit the issues that generate left wing responces.

Similarly, people who are aepolitical can, depending on the circumstances and how the issue is framed, get very passionate about issues which don't affect their everyday lives. Sometimes you can do this by tieing something abstract into the lives of everyday people. Sometimes you can ellicit a responce by framing an issue in terms of justice or compassion (think the Asian tsunami). Labor should keep this in mind both when it picks and frames its battles, and remember that popular policy is not necessarily good policy, and what by one measure is a good policy may be an abject failure by another. The question to be asked is whether the ALP wants to find a popular frame for good policy, or aim for populist policy regardless of who wins or loses as a result. And if people don't give a fuck, either give them a reason to, or move on to focus on something else.

I quoted Trevor Smith earlier, and the reason why I'm saying all this is because Smith, the national forestry secretary of the CFMEU, doesn't get it. Smith thinks in terms of stereotypical voters - the universally conservative suburbanites as opposed to the 'latte set' and writes - for example "One mystifying question for Labor is this: how did it end up in the web of the cafe latte set, given that it had a leader who could contest the culture wars against John Howard?"(ibid.) Creating an artificial divide in the left, creating two categories, and assigning to those groups various 'values' is not going to fix the problems of federal Labor. The label is also particularly stupid - you can get a latte in Footscray or Knox just like you can in South Yarra (and obviously someone drinks them).

In fact, Trevor Smith buys into a notion of a left-wing elite lock, stock and barrel - but presents nothing to back up his opinion. He wrotes "Inner-metropolitan voters are attracted to a secular, socially progressive party and have been the biggest beneficiaries of privatisation and globalisation. In the regions and outer suburbs, there is scepticism, if not antagonism towards economic rationalism, and family and community are still important."(ibid) The idea of a massive wealthy left-wing elite being the only people who support progressive policies, and that all suburbanites think alike is patently absurd. The real issue isn't in appealing to "suburban" or "latte" voters, it's in framing policy debate. Get a real, detailed breakdown of voters - by gender, by seat, by party or issue alliegiance, as well as by economics, and build policy stratergy around that.

But there is a deeper problem in the federal parliamentary party: their sheer, utter incompetance. The hardline refugee stance that led to Howard winning the 2001 election is coming back to haunt him. Petro Gerogiou, and a group of back-bench MPs have pushed Howard into a policy back-flip. In this situation, what was Beazley, and Federal Labor, doing? Were they sticking a crow-bar into the divide by pry apart dissenting Liberals from Howard? Perhaps offering sweetners to dissenting Liberals, such as a good preference deal from Labor (and the minor parties) if they run as independents - or automatic preselection to their seats as a Labor candidate - if they don't win Liberal preselection as a result of their views. Those dissenters will be the only thing potentially blocking Howards legislation and policies after July 1. Alternatively, Beazley could attack the Liberals over their in-fighting or that Howard's famed 2001 hard-line stance - by a very important measure (it has deported and illegally arrested Australian citizens) has failed. Instead, he's talking about blocking a tax cut which will become law as of July 1 regardless!

Take a look at the last federal election: John Howard pinned his political hopes on people trusting him. Yet the very notion of people trusting a politician is patently absurd - for good reason, people don't trust politicians. And, given Howard coined the phrase "non-core promise", and the little issue of weapons of mass destruction that never showed up, Howard is as untrustworthy as any. The mark of federal Labor's incompetance was that he got away with it. The question determining the future of federal Labor is what are they going to do about it?