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.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!