Boilermaker Bill generally only has time for Bertolt Brecht when his words are accompanied by Kurt Weill’s music. But one poem, The Solution,
written after a 1953 workers revolt in East Germany, neatly
encapsulates the ambiguity of the relationship that the unrepentant
Stalinist had with the DDR:
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

I was reminded of it as I waded through the torrent of ink in the
newspapers yesterday morning, albeit with my own amendment: Australian
voters seem to have forfeited the confidence of the media commentariat
– and the only solution it seems is for a new Australian constituency
to be elected by the likes of Alan Ramsey and Clive Hamilton.

Surely it cannot be too long before the Sydney Morning Herald refuses
to dedicate half a broadsheet page and a column a week to Ramsey’s
shrill, increasingly manic, fusillades against the forces of darkness:
the Howard Government and, now it seems, the manipulated millions of
comfortable idiots who dared to return it for a fourth term.

I remember Hawke once saying that reading Ramsey was just something you
had to do on a Saturday – that and mowing the lawn. Anyone under an
obligation to read Ramsey nowadays must have a deep appreciation of
what an American comic once suggested as the effect of m**turbating
with a cheese grater: slightly amusing but mostly painful.

Normally I’d dismiss the rantings and ravings of the disaffected and
disgruntled denizens of the fourth estate – but I fear that their
bitter beratings will quickly form part of the mythology that Labor was
betrayed by the battlers, whose first leg up on the ladder of
opportunity came from Hawke and Keating. These selfish ungrateful
wretches not only had the audacity to return Howard but compounded
their sin by giving him a seemingly compliant Senate.

A few points about the Senate vote. First, I’d be interested to find
out if there’s any exit polling to confirm my suspicion that at least
some of the Senate votes for the Coalition was a form of insurance by
people prepared to give Latham a go.

Second, it will be interesting to see what voters will make of an
unalloyed Howard agenda for his fourth term. I think there is at least
an arguable proposition that by curbing some of Howard’s more radical
proposals up to now, the Senate saved the Coalition from itself on a
number of issues – a GST on food, winding back Medicare and substantial
increases in the price of PBS prescriptions.

Third, there was some speculation by journos on Monday that the
Democrats might do a deal with the Coalition on the Senate legislative
logjam before the new Senate comes together next July to come across as
relevant. I thought aspirations to relevance was what wiped out this
batch of Senators; regardless of the merits of their support for
particular Howard initiatives, to their support base their
accommodations were found lacking in either principle or pragmatism –
they smacked more of blinking first. The Democrat’s membership and
constituency simply do not want their MPs to have any truck with Howard
and his agenda – I don’t think the remnants of the Democrats
Parliamentary party can afford any more “relevance”.

On the morning after the 2001 election I wrote a memo to a friend in
NSW Labor. Focussed on our failing fortunes in NSW, bitter
disappointment coursed through that memo. But even then, and definitely
since, I did not think we deserved to win that election. The small
target strategy meant that there was no reason for the electorate to
vote for Beazley’s Labor. On top of that we did not have the candidates
across the board in NSW capable of winning back the aspirationals. Much
of it dealt with specific candidates and campaigns in that election but
its general argument formed the basis of my first Crikey article on
Federal Labor – read it here.

At least at this election we were a more credible alternative. Latham’s
discipline was impressive (apart from that “muscling up” encounter with
Howard outside the radio booth last Friday – I’m sure that raised new
question marks for not a few voters) but it only underscored the sheer
indulgence of his previous behaviour. His performance merits him
retaining the leadership. But what he and the party have to do quick
smart is understand why we lost and why we are in no better position
today to win government than at any time in the past eight years. And
waiting and hoping for Costello to assume the leadership is not a
strategy!

What I fear more than the prospect of at least another two terms before
we are within striking distance of Government is that we have lost the
language to appeal to large swathes of the electorate in metropolitan
NSW: the aspirationals. Latham has some insights into this demographic
– but even he sometimes makes them sound like cultures in a petri dish
rather than voters with hopes and fears for themselves and their family.

Two maps tell the story http://www.smh.com.au/media/2004/10/11/1097406432235.html and
http://www.smh.com.au/media/2004/10/11/1097406432310.html . A Liberal
corridor starting from Dobell and Paterson in the north, running
through Macquarie, Lindsay and ending up in Hughes to the South. The
Liberals have a lock on these seats because of the local – and I mean
local – Members and their ability to articulate and represent the
ambitions of their voters. I was in Paterson during the campaign and I
was impressed by the television advertising for the Liberal’s Bob
Baldwin. Slick split screen advertisements featured community
representatives from all walks of life talking about how Baldwin had
delivered for them on local projects – and I mused that if I wanted to
put together an ad like that for a Labor MP I’d be hard pressed to find
one with the local standing of someone like Baldwin.

What’s worse for Labor is that seats like Greenway and Parramatta (I
think the loss of Parramatta is a blip for the Liberals) are likely to
become part of that corridor. And I suspect that the biggest barrier to
the Liberals going after seats like Chifley, Prospect and Werriwa is
the absence of a substantial party infrastructure in those seats.
Federally, the Labor heartland in and around Sydney risks being
squeezed to a rump that extends no further west than Bankstown, Auburn
and Punchbowl. Latham and Labor’s challenge is to ease that particular
squeeze.

The forestry policy will undoubtedly come in for scrutiny – but it’s
timber of another type that needs to be urgently addressed: Labor’s
dead wood in New South Wales. Although it would be quicker to nominate
who does not fall into that category, the guilty parties should be
named and shamed. I’m an equal opportunity logger – they come from all
factions: Laurie Ferguson, Jill Hall, Michael Hatton, Kelly Hoare and
Julia Irwin. Then there’s MPs who shone brightly once, like Jennie
George, Daryl Melham and Roger Price, but I don’t see them having
anything to contribute to the regeneration of Labor and its fortunes in
NSW. (Just to save time, incoming members like Sharon Bird in
Cunningham might as well be written off right now.) And finally, there
are the perennial Labor candidates who have nothing more going for them
than a lock on the numbers in their local branches – like Meg Oates in
Macarthur and Trish Moran in Robertson. Take the hint – those
electorates just don’t want you! It’s time – time to lift the tree
protection orders on this forest of failures.

There’s a lot more to be read out of our loss – but hey, we’ve got at least three years more to go through it, haven’t we …