The Labor Party is under attack from both sides, writes La Trobe University professorial fellow Dennis Altman at Inside Story. Voters trust the Liberals more to manage the economy; progressives are increasingly turning to the Greens.
The Tasmanian Labor government is almost certain to lose power in March, so blame the Greens. That seems to be the current strategy of the Labor Party, and one that might well perpetuate the party’s losses. Interviewed on ABC’s 7.30 after calling next month’s state election, Premier Lara Giddings said her Labor-Green coalition had been a good government, but because her voters didn’t like the Greens she would promise no more coalitions.
I wish Leigh Sales had followed up by asking her whether she would countenance a “grand coalition” with the Liberals if the Greens happened to end up with the balance of power (though this is unlikely given that the polls suggest an outright Liberal victory). But Giddings’ constant refrain that she stood for Labor values, without any explanation of which of those values her Greens ministers had not accepted, is a microcosm of the confusion within Labor about where the party now stands.
Giddings did say the Greens were too wedded to environmental concerns, but this is an awkward argument to sustain when federal Labor is attacking the Abbott government over climate and the environment. She came across as yet another desperate Labor leader trying to position herself as a sound economic manager without acknowledging that this is precisely to yield the ground of “Labor values” to those of narrow neoliberal economic doctrines.
Labor seeks to be a progressive party while running away from any policies that might actually challenge the orthodoxy of the conservative press. This was typified by the reaction to the re-election of the Greens MP Adam Bandt in Melbourne in September last year, which created great bitterness among many in the Labor Party. Despite Labor’s uneasy relationship with the Murdoch press, one of its state MPs, Jane Garrett, used TheAustralian to attack the Greens for undermining progressive politics. Nowhere in her article did she mention asylum seekers or climate change; apparently they don’t fit her concept of “progressive” politics. Yet thousands of Australians do see these as key issues, just as did Kevin Rudd when he made them central to his campaign in 2007.
Rudd’s victory back then should remind us that Labor wins when it appears clearly more progressive than its opponents: think Gough Whitlam in 1972, Bob Hawke in 1983 and Paul Keating in 1993. Attempts by Labor to position itself as a better manager of the status quo — Kim Beazley’s tactic in 2001 — are less successful because the party can’t outbid the Liberals on that ground unless the Liberals overreach (as Howard did with WorkChoices) or run out of steam. What’s different now is that Labor no longer has a monopoly of progressive views.
Yes, there are elements within the Greens who appear wedded either to single issue environmentalism or, in the case of some in New South Wales, carry the legacy of an old authoritarian Left. But most of the current generation of Greens appear better social democrats than those in the Labor Party who support mild redistributive policies but are scared to acknowledge that these require major changes to taxation and an abandonment of the cult of the market and indiscriminate growth. Even former PM Julia Gillard was attacked by some of her own colleagues — one of whom seemed to think families with incomes of $150,000 were just scraping by — for promoting “class warfare”. The desire of the Labor Party to both reach out to the “aspirational middle class” and accept the need to provide a safety net for those worst off assumes that constant economic growth and low taxation can be maintained.
Labor has yet to find a convincing definition of progressive politics that is more than a wishlist of discrete policies. Any serious questioning of the mantra of growth and consumption is regarded as electoral suicide. The party is trapped in the legacy of economic rationalism, which leads to the contradictory position of its current leaders, who simultaneously talk about the need to focus on climate change while also increasing economic growth.
Because this is probably a necessary short term strategy for election, I doubt whether the Greens can seriously replace Labor as the alternative party of government in Australia. Indeed, the political commentariat seem agreed that the Greens are now insignificant; even as sensible a reporter as Jennifer Hewett has suggested that “we just politely ignore the Greens as irrelevant”. Like the Australian Democrats, it is argued, the Greens will dwindle away under the pressure of some apparently immutable need for a binary party divide.
I doubt, though, that Labor will ever again win a majority in its own right. The steady decline of both union members and a sense of working-class solidarity is eroding its base. More importantly, the language of social justice and egalitarianism is disappearing from the common language, to be replaced by a narrow conception of individual achievement.