Breakout at the un-OK corral

There is a well-established tradition of accusatory writing in this country in which a writer currently or previously associated with the Australian Labor Party explains to her or his readers what is wrong with that institution. Given the Party’s strong history of lapsed and lapsing Catholic involvement, curiously less developed has been a tradition of apostatic writing – in which a similarly qualified writer explains why he or she has felt compelled to repudiate the ALP.

Be that as it may, there are three overwhelming reasons why Labor deserves repudiation now.

The first reason has been clear since the Tampa tried to land in 2001. It is boat people.

When Kim Beazley caved in to John Howard’s demonisation campaign against asylum seekers, it was clearly the wrong choice. Peter Andren proved that it was an electorally unnecessary choice. But you could explain if not excuse it by reference to a momentary panic.

No such explanation can hold up for long, though. As the governing party, Labor is now the principal architect of a policy that rebrutalises those who flee for their lives. Labor introduced mandatory detention in 1993, and has competed with the Libs to tighten the screws ever since. Both parties have confected an outrage about ‘the drownings’ to distract from the outrage that is their refusal to let asylum seekers land in commercial aircraft at Australian airports.

If you believe the policy of deterrence is immoral – clearly, not everybody does – then you simply cannot give your vote or your money to federal candidates of the ALP. You can argue they are victims of history, naively caught in another prohibition folly; you can argue their approach is less appalling than the Liberals, although this is now a very hard claim to sustain; but I don’t see how you can admit Phillip Adams’ case that it is worth tolerating because Labor is doing good work in other areas. Unconscionable wrong is unconscionable wrong — or else it is not a moral question after all.

A second reason has been evident for longer. It is the way Labor corrals ‘mainstream’ Australians into believing the only way to achieve social democratic reform is to support ALP candidates for parliament.

This has been very toxic in Australia (as in several other countries), because it has enabled a two-party system to develop in which the putative Left party can always afford a latent contempt for its supporters. Labor is always free to cut to the Right, still claiming it is ‘the only party that can deliver for working families’.

Empty phrases belie empty politics. This is the party whose government removed pension support from single mothers, extended welfare quarantining to cover a broad range of welfare recipients, yet whose mining ‘super profits’ tax delivered almost no revenue to the public coffers. How would the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government have to treat its support base if Australia were not one of the world’s richest countries?

Labor supporters will point to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, to paid maternity leave, and to Denticare as evidence of how they ‘deliver.’ That is fair enough: these are impressive advances, but the Greens and the Liberal Party essentially support or exceed each of them. Good policies they are: politically brave they are not.

A third reason has been around far longer than the Labor Party has existed but it becomes more and more pressingly a Labor problem with each passing year: institutional corruption. In the absence of any clear sense of social purpose, Labor is now more prone to corrupt operatives than ever.

A party that works for victory, instead of winning in order to do its work, overtly rewards the cynical operators. It does not demand from its candidates and officials an account of what they will do with the powers of government; instead it demands they demonstrate their commitment to tactical advantage above all other considerations. That is the party of Arbib, of Bitar, of Richo, of ‘whatever it takes.’

When the Health Services Union affair broke, many voters apparently decided it was proof that Labor cannot be trusted to govern. Lest they forget that, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption has drawn a lot of attention to recent Labor ministers in that state.

But meanwhile, the Labor machine closes ranks and pretends the stench has passed. The same Labor faction that wrecked the HSU has subsequently used its network of delegates to hold onto power in that union. Many HSU members had no idea they were supporting the same old crew. And so the corrupt culture will persist: there will be some new rules about credit cards and prostitution to keep things out of the news, while members will keep leaving the union because they cannot see a way to fix it.

The greater point is that Labor deserves to lose government, and it is no good using Abbott’s policy agenda to argue otherwise. If an Abbott victory is the necessary consequence of a Labor defeat, that is also Labor’s fault for playing its own support base so cynically for so long.

If we as an electorate cannot break out of the LibLab duopoly, Labor will keep delivering us Liberal governments. Watch TV this month to see how that works.



Tom Clark

Tom Clark is a senior lecturer at Victoria University, 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).

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  1. Good article Tom. Agree entirely that we as a nation need to break out of the Lib/Lab duopoly. One thing that the Gillard parliament made clear is that we as a nation are better represented by a hung parliament than a party-line predicated voting bloc (which now seems assured). Democracy is all about compromise, is it not? Our would be media/corporate masters would have us believe that it’s too “messy” to have dissenting voices within government, or minority parties and independents holding the balance of power, because they cannot countenance politicians who allow their conscience to be their guide.

  2. It’s not necessarily possible, or likely, in our democracy, that a political party will be able to bring a narrative to the electorate that overturns the wedge.

    The “protected left flank” theory is not something that’s particular to the ALP tactically. It derives from the electoral model we have: 50%+1 preferential voting in each seat, and 50%+1 reps seats to form government.

    A two party dynamic emerges naturally from this model, since the nimblest power base to serve the interests of a particular social elite or set of rent-seekers is the one with the least possible responsibility to the electorate at large – ie the one elected by one half.

    This two party dynamic then creates the illusion of a single-axis political spectrum from left to right. Cognitive biases lead people to the idea that if they support a party, they must support its policies, and to the idea that if a party is “left” on one issue, it must be left on all.

    The scandal over WikiLeaks’ preferences shows how this idea is so deeply ingrained that, whatever its merits, a party that has an explicitly cross-cutting political concern that doesn’t align left-right creates dissonance and confusion in the political consciousness.

    Likewise, if voters turned away from the ALP in large numbers to the Greens, the systemic incentives in place, and the requirements to form government, would soon see an increasingly centrist Greens reaching out further to the ALP’s right base, and the Coalition’s left base for more votes. The Greens would be decried for being just as soulless as Labor.

    At the centre of it all there’s the wedge: the electoral trump card which hinges on a single issue, but relies for its current particularity on the balance of the broader political landscape. Some votes, we all see, can be controlled through a voter’s personal emphasis on a single issue. The problem is that those votes count for the whole of government, not just that one issue – and subsequently they can control who forms government.

    Pleasurable though it is, it’s mistaken to blame, in moralising tones, the Arbibs and Shortens of this world for the apparent careerist cynicism of the ALP. Yes, those operators have been hollowed out by the system, are corrupt and venal, and all that. But almost anyone in their place would either end up the same way or be set aside for their repeated defeats – including whoever your favourite progressive politician of the day may be.

    Because we vote once on many issues, the values exhibited by our governments under the present electoral system will always be shaped asymmetrically, and ultimately undemocratically, by the specific obsessions of those chunks of the electorate that can be controlled by switching positions on an issue marginal enough to allow the main policy program of some elite to be preserved regardless.

    Thus the Left and Right face each other dumbly, armies across the battlefield awaiting pointless mutual destruction, and at each poll a battalion of turncoats wins the day under the banner of Lord Wedge.

    These wedge issues only really become obvious when both parties move in the same direction, each trying to neutralise the other.

    There are a host of other, quiescent single issue voters out there that may account for some proportion of those electors referred to as “rusted on”. If the issue of asylum seekers moves out of the spotlight, the next tactical battleground will rapidly emerge.

    This bundling of hot button issues with neoliberalism at the vote (away from votes, they have little to do with one another) is what allows the GOP to form government in the US – without the abortion wedge, without the religious nuttery and the dog-whistle to racism and Islamophobia, they’d be as doomed as the Coalition would presently be without the asylum seeker remote control, which Rudd has desperately tried to wrest from its grip.

    That’s the circuit we have to break. It’s arguably nearly impossible to do so while the existing electoral system remains in place. We need to be able to vote on asylum seeker politics, and on same sex marriage, separate from how we vote on essential services and revenue measures.

  3. An thought provoking read Tom. I hadn’t thought of it like “A party that works for victory, instead of winning in order to do its work, overtly rewards the cynical operators” before – but I’ve felt like both parties just want to be the king, and not make a better place.

    Are there any prospects to break the duopoly on the horizon? All the other parties seem to be single issue or too fringe for the masses to take seriously.

    Perhaps first preference votes should be directed to those who will benefit from the funding and evolve into a real choice in future years?

  4. As good a piece of political analysis that I’ve read in a long time , from the tweet I was expecting something more along the line of LNP sloganeering … However what is one to do? Vote LNP? Can’t ! Lie dogo and wait for the Alp revolution to arrive ?
    You speak of things that every Labor voter would be feeling, and for a lot of us we’re just hoping for a bit of something good from our vote other than a lot of something bad, the true believers (such as myself) have long since forgone the luxury of idealism ….
    Ps. The NDIS for all it’s good intention will basically only provide funding the severely disabled with a cap , my partner is an Allied health executive .. Cheers

  5. Voting for the ALP is not even a choice. The true horror of the Thatcherite agenda of Abbott and his party is now clear. They have policies that inflict massive suffering on the working class so that the rich can become even richer. They are not only economically unsustainable, they are completely immoral and unjust. And when Saul Eslake is on Radio National fretting that the ‘moderates’ in the Coalition (Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb, for God’s sake) may have an unfortunate clash with Abbott over how best to dismantle social justice in this country then it’s pretty clear where Abbott intends to take us and even clearer exactly how radical he and his agenda are. If Hockey and Robb are moderates by comparison, Abbott is clearly now a fully paid up member of the Tea Party and unless you want the Tea Party running this country under the guidance of Uncle Rupert vote for anyone but Abbott..

  6. Hi Tom – thought provoking and amusing. I think you’re right about some of the ways in which the electoral system contributes to some of reasons people hate the political class at the moment. The problem with the analysis that you’ve presented, though, is that it is *timeless*. That system has been in place, give or take a few tweaks, since federation. Yet there has clearly been a change in the *extent* to which the circus put on for the battalion of turncoats dominate the electoral process, at least quantitatively, and so, at least in principle, it could change again without much change to the electoral system itself.

    I think what’s changed is politics itself. In 1983 independent working class politics, at least for a time, stopped. Virtually every part of the left accepted some version of the Accord’s political premises, and either disintegrated or moved rapidly to the right. That has radically changed official politics from one in which there was a sense of challenge on behalf of the working class majority, however muted and compromised, and a business perspective determined to restrain that ostensbly in the name of Queen and Country, but really in the name of the bottom line, to one of neo-liberal unanimity.

    But once the spectrum entirely consisted of pro-business neo-liberals, what reason do the rest of us have to support any of them? So we get a progressive disengagement from active support of either party, most spectacularly on the Labor side, and a political discourse that at some level *can only be* about ephemera (“everybody knows we there cannot be two views among educated politicians about balanced budgets …”). Combine that with the kickings their neo-liberalism mandates, and you get a growing population of people disenchanted with what’s on offer but not yet rallying around a single, more or less coherent, totalising world-view.

    This is an unstable and potentially dangerous situation – as the eruption of One-Nationism in the late ’90s demonstrates. Unless the left starts lifting its game, the way is open for the far right to appear like the only alternative to what we’re getting from Canberra.

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