Labor’s bad year

Shaun Wilson, Macquarie University

Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn Labor's Conflict: Big Business, Workers and the Politics of Class, Port Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2010 (234 pp). ISBN 9-78052113-804-8 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

Barrie Cassidy The Party Thieves: The Real Story of the 2010 Election, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2010 (224 pp). ISBN 9-78052285-780-1 (paperback) RRP $34.99.

Paul Howes Confessions of a Faceless Man, Carlton, Melbourne University Press 2010 (256 pp). ISBN 9-78052285-833-4 (paperback) $24.99.

Sometimes voters are dragged out to adjudicate on a political mess with no clear winner the result. This is the essential story of the 2010 federal election. An extremely close election can mean many things, of which there are two leading explanations: that voters are evenly but passionately divided between two strong camps or that voters, bewildered by an unappealing choice at a personal and collective level, produce a non-result from what seems like twelve million coin tosses.

In the end, the political year 2010 had both its passionate divides and million coin tosses. By September, Australia’s first minority government since the Second World War had taken office. The new prime minister, Julia Gillard, returned to power with the consent of country independents mistrustful of the Nationals, former intelligence officer and whistleblower Andrew Wilkie, and stylish Green member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt. Lawyer Julia Gillard had negotiated her way to a critical advantage.

Reviewing books written about the 2010 election campaign might have been an impossible task in the final stretches of last year, after Gillard formed her unlikely government. Events were too traumatic, too disappointing or too inconclusive to retrace so soon. The task is marginally easier in 2011 as the government settles into place even if its immediate, let alone long-term, future is hard to see.

Labor’s bad year can be viewed and interpreted from different vantage points: the sudden collapse in Kevin Rudd’s leadership, the policy problems confronting Rudd’s government, and what social scientists call ‘background factors’ that subtly shape political events. Two books, by union leader Paul Howes and political commentator Barry Cassidy, offer insider accounts that swirl around first vantage point—the end to Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership and the campaign drama that ensued.

RUDD’S END

Paul Howes is a young AWU national leader with a strong interest in policy and politics. His political profile mixes a commitment to union influence in ALP politics with pragmatic Labor positions, affirming a pro-US foreign policy and ‘bread and butter’ domestic policy sceptical of activist versions of social democracy. Still, Howes is not a straightforward economic rationalist of the kind that dominated ALP thinking in the 1990s, people who were as comfortable with labour market deregulation as the advocates from free market think-tanks. For now, the struggle over WorkChoices has put an end to the more extreme versions of economic rationalism in Labor.

Howes’ account is entertaining, blending insights into his own rising influence in Labor with commentary on the campaign and policy. What is clear throughout his diary entries is his loss of confidence in the prime ministership of Kevin Rudd, and his belief that Rudd remaining as prime minister would have ended in Labor’s political humiliation.

Cassidy’s account has a different tilt, chronicling the close interplay between journalists and politicians in Rudd’s eventual fall and Labor’s electoral crash-landing on August 21. In the end, Cassidy’s post-mortem follows closely the official explanation offered by ALP national campaign manager, Karl Bitar: the leaks against Gillard during the election campaign destroyed the Party’s fragile lead in opinion polls, which Gillard had re-established with her quick containments of Rudd’s political bushfires. Cassidy is right to focus on the large shift in opinion polls during the middle of the campaign as confirmation of this impact. But a question nags—did these leaks only make plainly apparent an underlying reality Labor had to face? That reality was the unlikely prospect that Labor’s improved polling under Gillard could be sustained however much the leadership change prevented a larger disaster.

The political year 2010 had both its passionate divides and million coin tosses.

Both books reflect on the nerve-wracking consequences of Rudd’s removal on June 24, consequences which will be assessed and reassessed as 2010 passes into political history. What is apparent in both insider accounts is that pessimism about Rudd was widely shared by Labor politicians, present and former, as well as union leaders. Few Labor supporters—or even opponents—have since contradicted this judgment, even after such a poor election result. Naturally the delicate position of the present government has not allowed for a frank post-mortem. Curiously, one dissenting view about Rudd was that expressed by John Howard in his (otherwise) sturdy, predictable autobiography, Lazarus Rising, published at the end of the year. Howard is emphatic that Rudd would have retained office despite his sudden and sweeping collapse in the polls.

Howard’s assessment is difficult to sustain if his point of reference is his own situation in 1997–98. The collapse in support for Rudd and Labor was as deep as it was sudden: there was a crisis of confidence, both publicly and within the government. Rudd’s ability to resolve it was judged dimly. It was as if the government had not merely slipped on the political floorboards, but actually fallen right through them. As many have pointed out, Labor’s polling strength under Rudd had protected his leadership from critics within the Party. Howard’s poll deterioration in 1997–98 never exposed the same internal vulnerabilities, a crucial difference.

It is hard to look past the fact that Rudd, as prime minister, could not get anything like the votes in caucus to defend his leadership. This is key to both Howes’ and Cassidy’s accounts. This lack of support originated from Rudd’s construction of a government reliant on his own capacities and judgment. Indeed, when real political threats surfaced, particularly Abbott’s emergence as a feisty combatant, the government’s survival depended on Rudd’s response. And, when eventually his prime ministership was challenged, this self-reliance had turned into isolation. Much about this style has already been written, most forensically in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay called ‘Power Trip’ (2010), published a few months before the end. But Rudd’s approach depended on a political context that cannot be neglected. His government was an experiment in overcoming continual criticism of factional and union influence on Labor in office, which had kept an elaborate but awkward check on decisions and strategy. No new way of running a Labor government was devised to replace it.

Not all writers disagree with John Howard’s assessment of Rudd’s predicament and these views are worth further consideration. Peter Brent (blogger for The Australian’s Mumble) believes that Labor misjudged the benefits of incumbency (even of a struggling leader) against the risks of an untested new leader who appeared popular. Brent circles around this argument with various pieces of evidence. He points out that the swing against Rudd was smaller on August 21 than against neighbouring Labor politicians and concludes that the seat-heavy swing against Labor in Queensland would have been slighter without leadership change. This may be true. Queensland has bothered all governments at their first re-election—Whitlam, Hawke and Howard all lost seats in Queensland with no other state managing to consistently frustrate new incumbents. With a poor result in the north a near-inevitability, a majority built on 2007 electoral gains in Queensland by a newly-ousted leader from Brisbane would be especially fragile.

The collapse in support for Rudd and Labor was as deep as it was sudden.

Still, what is clear from Cassidy’s and Howes’ accounts is the necessity of leadership change, no matter how costly and dramatic its consequences. How did the 2010 result compare with past performances of first-term governments? Labor won office with its lowest share of the primary vote (38.0 per cent)—and the second worst two-party result at its first re-election (50.1 per cent)—since World War Two. Howard did worse in 1998 (a terrible 49 per cent) but held office largely due to what Peter Brent has called the sophomore performances of new MPs elected at the 1996 landslide who kept the marginal seats Liberal. Labor’s sophomores did well too; it was just that there were fewer of them to provide the ALP similar protection.

WHEN POLITICS REBALANCES

These leader-centred stories can be overlaid, even retold, with the help of a closer appreciation of background factors. One is the policy environment faced by Labor, to which I will return shortly, and the other is broader electoral conditions, particularly the poison of old and unpopular state Labor governments. Political observers make reference to the influence of ‘state factors’ on federal elections, speculating that voters (perhaps increasingly) set up a ‘balancing act’ between parties across the two levels of government. Surprisingly, this speculation has not been the subject of sustained analysis by political scientists. Here I propose a tentative analysis relevant to 2010.

This ‘balancing act’ by voters was particularly apparent during the Howard years. It was perhaps less obvious during the time of the Hawke Government when Labor ruled all mainland states except Queensland between 1983 and 1988. The restoration of Liberal fortunes brought the balance back, with three state Labor governments losing office during Keating’s short prime ministership.

The dynamics of this state-federal balance were particularly unfavourable to Rudd’s new Labor government in 2007. And, no first term government faced a situation like his leading into 2010: the cumulative age of state Labor governments was almost 60 years. The equivalent statistic for Hawke in 1984 was 15 years, and for Howard in 1998, 22 years (for Liberal state governments).

Do state governments have a general impact on the electoral successes of their federal counterparts? My own (unpublished) efforts looking at state swings and federal election results since 1972 suggests, at best, a weak relationship. What may be clearer is the impact of ‘terminal’ state governments on voter support for the federal party. Large swings in New South Wales and Queensland in 2010 fit this explanation, with both governments now facing difficult elections.

But exceptions are still easily found: Victoria’s Labor government lost later in the year even though federal Labor did exceptionally well there (thanks to Gillard’s home-state popularity).

But this balancing act has operated often enough in past elections for consideration. The 1990 federal election is the most dramatic case. Labor’s poor standing in Victoria and Western Australia that year led to the loss of a total of eleven seats, less than 50 per cent of the two-party vote, and a tight margin for a fading Hawke. Even in 1993, state influences go some way to explain Keating’s unlikely return to office—conservative state governments in New South Wales and Victoria (states carrying 60 per cent of the national vote) worked in Labor’s favour. The weight of so many old Labor administrations suggests that if ever state factors were to trouble a federal administration, it would be Rudd’s in 2010.

Neither book pays much attention to the problem of the states.

Of course, other factors also determine elections. The state of the economy and party leadership are central. Dominance by one side over the other in policy equally matters—think of WorkChoices for Labor and immigration for the Coalition. I don’t want to ignore these factors. But I want to highlight that the normally secondary factor of state politics emerged as a unique burden for Rudd and Labor after 2007.

What does the string of four state Labor losses, starting with Western Australia in 2008, continuing with Victoria in 2010, and likely to end with New South Wales in March 2011 and Queensland in the next year, mean for Gillard’s re-election federal elections scheduled for 2013? By then, federal Labor will face a remarkably altered situation at the state level. Punditry favours a change of power federally whether or not the Gillard Government lasts its full term. If three new majority right-wing governments take power on the east coast, then Australian voters will be governed by a power configuration not in place since 1976. Even if these governments remain popular, Gillard’s government has an opportunity for major political differentiation. The scenario most likely at present—a substantial Labor defeat in 2013—may be less certain as voters again consider the question of political balance.

Neither book pays much attention to the problem of the states; their focus is firmly on Rudd. Cassidy hints at one of Rudd’s judgments that appeared to ignore larger lessons of political history. His account chronicles the fuzzy thinking behind Rudd’s decision to ignore party pressure for an early February election, instead launching a children’s book with friend Rhys Muldoon. The decision would mean that the Prime Minister would venture close to a full-term, the point where escape routes from political mishaps sharply narrow. Menzies, Hawke, and Howard all went back to the people before time—Howard stayed longest at two years and five months. All three prime ministers did badly, and Howard very badly. In the end, Gillard had to take the ALP to the polls after two years and nine months and did worst of all.

THE PERILS OF CENTRE-LEFT GOVERNMENT

Howes and Cassidy give little attention to the policy constraints on Rudd, which I believe were serious. Labor’s Senate position was particularly frustrating, the legacy of Howard’s triumph in 2004 and victories by unco-operative Senators Xenophon and Fielding. Moreover, Labor had to contend with the long shadow cast by his predecessor’s popular interventions into policy areas as diverse as refugees, national security, welfare reform, and interest rates.

Given these constraints, it would be a shame if some of the Rudd Government’s achievements disappear from collective memory. Labor offered well-functioning government for most of its first term. It ended WorkChoices. It launched a successful Keynesian intervention that did what all labour governments should, stopping the haemorrhage of jobs seen in other countries. It made three important advances in social policy—increasing public spending on both the aged pension and social housing and ending the embarrassment of parental leave policy. Proposed initiatives for healthcare held promise. Labor took quiet steps away from the ‘Pacific solution’ under Chris Evans. It also kept the car industry in Australia viable. These small achievements remained out of reach in the lost decade of the Howard Government. As David McKnight and Robert Manne (2010) observe, Rudd remains the only leader who argued for the alternative of social democracy after the failings of free market capitalism were spectacularly demonstrated in 2008.

By design or circumstance, Rudd emerged as an activist social democrat. No doubt Rudd’s activism was part of his style—ambitious, confident in government, and vulnerable to self-incurred and external obstacles. By 2010, two major programs—the schools building program and home insulation scheme—were under massive attack. Critics seized on these failures to publicly discredit energetic reformism. ‘Worse than Whitlam’ was the punch line of one Sydney Morning Herald commentator (Sheehan 2010). As opposition leader, Tony Abbott knew how to exploit a situation in which a centre-left government’s inflated ambitions had overreached into disorganisation. He is a politician whose political morality is communicated with the tidiness and simplicity of bible stories. And Rudd was a fitting biblical character.

Labor offered well-functioning government for most of its first term.

Abbott’s precision, sustained media criticism, and a fumbling response from Rudd meant that policy failings blew up into a generalised crisis of confidence in the governing party’s competence. Such perceptions are broader than electoral misgivings over policy blunders and they are harder to shift. The confidence crisis reminded voters of Labor’s past—Whitlam’s troubled government in the 1970s and Keating’s high interest rates in the 1980s—and made plausible Abbott’s insistence voters would be better off to dump Labor early.

Journalistic accounts including Howes’ and Cassidy’s make much of the Rudd Government’s policy mistakes. But external obstacles that checked Rudd’s activism deserve equal attention—and these went beyond the difficulties of Senate obstruction. Although it’s unlikely that Rudd set out to alienate powerful interests, that’s exactly what he did. Most visibly, these interests were the Murdoch newspapers unsettled by Rudd’s ambitions, and the big mining companies (among the world’s largest corporations) opposed to the super-profits tax. A full account of the reasons for these hostilities and the extent to which they were genuinely mobilised against the Rudd Government would be interesting to read. Murdoch’s media businesses actively campaign against politicians and governments that break from the neoliberal governing approach—so much so that many observers could see nothing unusual in Labor’s critical press. Perhaps what was unusual was the vociferousness of News Limited’s attention to Rudd’s leadership.

When the super-profits tax was proposed, the mining corporations joined in the attack. And, they would have stayed in throughout any election campaign with Rudd as leader and the policy unchanged. Borrowing from the style and approach of the union campaign against WorkChoices, these companies stole a march on a distracted government in the struggle for public opinion. Perhaps the timing of the announcement of the super-profits tax was poorly judged, not just because it was risky to confront big business before an election, but because the government had no space to explain or defend it while also managing problems with insulation and school buildings. Remarkably, opinion polls suggested voters were still evenly divided and this was despite the standard populist claim that higher taxes mean less jobs and lower living standards. A government, more mindful of policy timing and less distracted, could have carried many more voters.

Rudd’s policy positions were judged harshly by many on the left. True, many involved timidity and conservatism, only extending Howard’s shadow over politics. Civil unions for gay and lesbian couples entailed only marginal risk as did humanising the Territory intervention. Lifting unemployment benefits—still set at a level that can’t be lived on—could have been defended as an anti-poverty measure. The government’s capitulation on climate change mightily assisted the Greens who jumped in the polls for the rest of the year, and won a record 11.7 per cent in the House of Representatives and a lower house seat in Melbourne. The Green’s success has signaled that Labor’s pragmatism, dismissive of its progressive middle class base, no longer works. My evidence, derived from findings available in the Australian Election Study (AES) series, shows why—Australia’s left-of-centre electorate has grown somewhere between five and ten per cent over the last two decades.

However, the argument that a timid government failed a left-leaning electorate is incomplete. Conservative attacks on government activism and taxes are still powerful. Early signs from the most recent AES conducted after the 2010 elections suggest many voters had already moved away from increased spending and generosity towards refugees and immigration levels to positions closer to those advocated by Abbott’s Coalition. Enough of the electorate has now turned away from left-of-centre positions for Gillard’s government to make easy progress on policy areas critical to Labor’s ability to offer a credible alternative.

LABOR AND THE TROUBLES OF SOCIAL DEMOCRACY

Cassidy’s account focuses on the political rumblings of 2010, but he ends with advice to the ALP to defend centre-left positions on gay marriage and refugees. Labor’s conservatism in these areas has opened the door to the Greens with real and lasting electoral consequences. Losing Lindsay, Cassidy remarks, may involve symbolic injury to the Party. But he believes a clearer centre-left program would aid victories in other seats like Aston, offsetting Labor losses in seats likely to move to the Coalition over ‘wedge issues’.

Rudd's policy positions were judged harshly by many on the left.

Cassidy belongs to the political centre, so his comments are especially interesting. They are a cue to a broader discussion of the current state of social democratic and labour parties across advanced democracies. There have been various commentaries from Perry Anderson’s (2009) to Tony Judt’s (2009) that discuss the fate of social democracy. To add to this collection is a timely book, called Labor’s Conflict, from socialist academics Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn, directed at Labor’s failures. It is a good time for the left to point out the failing state of social democracy, including the local versions administered by Labor governments. More to the point, progressives can highlight severe budget cuts in the United Kingdom under Cameron and new attacks on organised labour in the United States as reasons for new thinking and energy on the left.

For Bramble and Kuhn, Labor’s conflict keeps resurfacing in the historical narrative they construct about the party’s trials and breakthroughs over the last century. At best, Labor has achieved only modest reforms to local capitalism that favour workers. At worst, it has surpassed the Liberals as a ‘capitalist party’, assuming a leading role in economic rationalisation. While the authors respect Labor’s gains in welfare and industrial relations, conscious that working Australians still support Labor in most electoral contests, they conclude that the Party’s recent program of privatisation and deregulation is evidence of a conversion to neoliberal thinking. As such, Bramble and Kuhn believe Labor is politically spent, no longer a programmatic reformist party. Instead, it is part of neoliberal policy machinery, implementing pro-business reforms even if they come with some compensation for workers. But for the authors, current political alternatives to Labor will realise little more. The Greens in Australia or leftist parties in other countries (like the Brazilian Workers’ Party) all face the same end: capitulation to capitalist economics.

This is one understandable interpretation of current events, leading to the call for a revolutionary worker’s party to replace capitalism. Still, it avoids discussion of three problems with radical alternatives: the absence of a viable post-capitalist economic model; keeping the best of liberal democracy in a worker’s democracy; and convincing the working majority to back socialism proper.

Another interpretation would stop short of calling Labor a ‘capitalist party’, seeing its present problems as arising from weakened social forces below party politics. These weaknesses make it easy to portray official social democracy as empty, no longer ambitious for genuine reform. For genuine reform to be a serious prospect, the conditions for modern social democracy need to be re-established. Here is the serious problem for the broad left. Without employment growth, strong unions and the institutions for economic consensus, the core ingredients of the social democratic experiment are missing. While they are missing, social democratic parties will continue to disappoint, inventing governing strategies that lead to the demoralising politics of New Labour in its Australian and British variants.

This interpretation would hold also out hope that social democratic parties can return to programmatic reform that distinguishes social democracies from their neoliberal alternatives if some of the preconditions for social democratic revitalisation can be established. Party competition to Labor’s left in the Greens is a concrete reminder that Labor’s pragmatic turn away from social democracy has electoral and moral costs. But deeper changes are necessary. I am in solid agreement with Bramble and Kuhn about the continuing importance of active labour movements as a precondition. Without the labour movement, politics loses its focus on efforts to represent the livelihoods of the working majority.

A ‘left-liberal’ coalition of ALP, Greens and independent politicians might come to replace majority Labor governments, with this looser coalition providing new opportunities for the diffusion of social-democratic ideas into policy negotiations. But the loss of programmatic social democratic government, supported by a strong labour movement, no doubt imposes real losses. Union influence in politics is still the best means for achieving broad transformation of troubling threats to living standards, families, and communities. Better age pensions, free dental care, improved unemployment benefits, the protection of precarious workers, and low cost housing are all basics of a renewed ‘wage earners’ welfare state program that a stronger labour movement would bring to politics. These are not old-fashioned ideas but are reminders of the unfinished objectives of a reformist Labor party that can reconnect ordinary people to clear, decommodifying policies. This program is also a neglected but vital precondition for securing acceptance of the working majority for the transition required to an environmentally sustainable economy.

A bolder vision of social democracy will depend on the renewal unions in the workplace and in politics. For those on the left, critiques of Labor—and its bad year—must start here.

REFERENCES

Anderson, P. 2009, The New Old World, Verso, New York.

Judt, T. 2009, ‘What is living and what is dead in social democracy?’, The New York Review of Books, 17 December [Online], Available: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/dec/17/what-is-living-and-what-is-dead-in-social-democrac/ [2011, Mar 16].

Marr, D. 2010, ‘Power trip’, Quarterly Essay 38, June.

McKnight D. & Manne, R. (eds) 2010, Goodbye to All That?, Black Inc., Melbourne.

Sheehan, P. 2010, ‘How Rudd the dud dropped Australia in the alphabet soup’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 February [Online], Available: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/how-rudd-the-dud-dropped-australia-in-the-alphabet-soup-20100221-ontz.html [2011, Mar 16].

Dr Shaun Wilson is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University. His broad research interest lies in understanding the social and political dynamics of institutions that promote democratic inclusion—union membership in the workplace, social policy development in the state, and public participation in politics.