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Circling the wagons

Another new year has brought another slough of op-eds about how the Australian Labor Party has lost its way in Canberra. Their consensus: soft on narrative, soft on the causes of narrative.

It’s not as though this directionlessness just happened over the summer holidays, more that commentariat nomenklatura have used the break for some too-rare moments of reflective thought, and emerged clearer than ever before that Labor is without a rudder.

The word ‘rudder’ is not leadership innuendo, by the way.

In their intellectually stuck, equally rudderless way, many journalists have reverted to reporting this as a question of leadership, by which they mean which person is the Party’s designated leader. But it’s not that at all, as Waleed Aly argued.

Equally stuck, intellectually rudderless, many pundits have managed to make opinion polls somehow the proof of Labor’s crisis of meaning.

Every corporate media outlet (including the ABC) avoids a critical fact about political statistics, because they think it’s too boring to dwell on. The polls don’t show Labor at a loss for a winning strategy, because opinion polls can’t ‘show’ anything of the sort. At their best-run (which is less common than we assume), at their most compelling, they can only suggest how people seem to feel.

In Canada, by contrast, every opinion poll is reported in the context of its reliability and interval: ‘19 times out of 20, these numbers should be accurate to within plus or minus 3%,’ as CBC radio newsreaders routinely remind their listeners. The closest we get in Australia is occasional mention of the misleadingly named ‘margin of error.’

But the reflective work has been truer and less superficial than the ordinary run of political commentary. The picture it paints is not just that Labor is bound to lose – we knew that at least a year ago – but that Labor deserves to lose the coming federal election, and that any Labor MP who holds her or his seat may still be on borrowed time in the parliament.

Labor deserves to lose because it has no coherent thread or ‘narrative’ that would explain what it does with government once it has gone to all the trouble of winning it. More than that, it has no real desire to get such a thread, to do the reflective work necessary to develop one.

Laborites are pretty sick of this line of criticism, understandably enough. They point to the National Disability Insurance Scheme and to Denticare as examples of the work their alternatives couldn’t do, and now to the ‘Gonski reforms’ as examples of the sort of work their alternatives just won’t do.

But that presumes the alternatives are only one alternative, namely the Liberal Party. Even then, it assumes the Liberal Party won’t do these reforms.

In any case, where does that leave us on all the policies where Australia deserves a genuine debate between alternative proposals, but the LibLab factions conspire not give us one? Foreign policy is a very strong example, more so under Gillard than any previous Labor leader.

If you worked in some of the Labor branches right now, you might remark that the policy discrepancy between parties is starker at a state level. Absent New South Wales, where the most conspicuous distinction between Labor and Liberal parties is the extent of criminality, these claims have some merit.

But still, none of it can detract from an essential problem, one that appears stronger and stronger the more that people give themselves time to think about it: there are so few inspiring reasons to vote for Labor.

For the first time in our lifetimes, Labor is unmistakably the least passionate, least idealistic party in the mix.

Midway through Rudd’s term as prime minister, one of his most senior advisers secretively called together a small group of academics to help the Party develop a new ‘narrative for Australia’. The exercise got nowhere, according to one of the academics, because they felt it was really the prime minister’s job to offer a narrative, and they were reluctant to engage in an exercise that seemed so artificial.

For politicians to bring in narrative-building expertise from experts the way they buy in market research or economic analysis is not unique. It happens very often in the USA. But it is anathema to the Australian party culture – and it seems remarkably desperate, given the weight of Rudd’s 2007 victory, the elation that surrounded the 2008 national apology, or the optimism that then surrounded the government’s moves to price carbon pollution.

The truth is, Labor was desperate. It was desperate to pull together strong reasons why people should again vote for the workers’ party after they had seen off Howard and his WorkChoices policy. In 2010, after Rudd’s removal, those fears proved well-founded when Australia returned a hung parliament.

And it is even more desperate now. When Labor loses government this year, it will lose a great many of the staff and MPs it might otherwise rely on to win back seats in three or six years’ time: hundreds of them.

Where do all those people go? If history is any guide, some will stay in the labour movement, but others will not. With few jobs to offer the opportunists, no clear sense of how to excite the amateurs, and little membership base to draw on, Labor will take a long time to recruit the clever young things who might replace those who leave.

So who will figure out what Labor stands for in the decade ahead? Will it be those same factional hacks who have organised so effectively against standing for anything – political professionals in the image of Graham Richardson, convinced that principles are only for losers? Maybe consultants will have to do it after all.

Meanwhile, as Labor edges towards its crisis – something deeper and harder to imagine than the mere election rout ahead of it – it has responded with a retreat ‘into protecting the very core of its political base,’ to quote Lenore Taylor, or ‘circling the wagons’ as Michael Gordon put it.

In Gillard’s widely reported words: ‘I’m not the leader of a party called The Progressive Party, I’m not the leader of a party called The Moderate Party, I’m not the leader of a party even called the Social Democratic Party, I am a leader of the party called the Labor Party deliberately because that is where we come from, that is what we believe in, that is who we are.’

Gillard and her team calculate that losing the blue collar vote would mean there’s no future for a party that calls itself ‘Labor.’ Hence the wretchedly insincere policy on asylum seekers. It’s the sort of strategy you might need to adopt if you thought Australia was on the way to becoming a multiparty democracy.

That fear may be well founded, but the cost of circling your wagons is that you cease reflection and thus stop looking for longer-term opportunities. Gillard exemplifies a party so confused and insecure about what it actually is that it has lost any confidence in discussing or wondering what it might become.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Tom Clark is a senior lecturer in the College of Arts at Victoria University, Melbourne, and is president of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association. He is the author of Stay on Message: Poetry and Truthfulness in Political Speech (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2012). He has previously worked as a speechwriter for several Labor politicians.

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