Much excitement yesterday — well, no, not really, but at least an attempt to generate excitement — for the launch of the Liberal Party’s new attack website, “Labor Watch“, with its startling discovery that ALP conference delegates are mostly union members. Who would have believed it?
Labor Watch actually has some interesting information, and its compilation of the backgrounds of Labor conference delegates is quite useful. And the main point it’s making is valid: that the lack of what one could call “occupational diversity” in Labor’s parliamentary and organisational ranks is a real problem.
But Labor has always been the political arm of the trade union movement
– that’s basically the first line of every textbook description of the party. It’s a bit rich to present it as a new and sinister discovery.
More interesting is the way this illustrates a key feature of the Howard government’s approach to politics: its relentless focus on the opposition.
I’ve been following Australian politics for more than three decades — long enough to get a bit of a sense of history. Usually, that inclines you to resist claims of novelty: when a commentator says, for example, that this is the most boring campaign ever, or that this election is especially “presidential”, you can call to mind the fact that they said the same things a few years earlier.
Just occasionally, however, novelty is real. I don’t believe any previous government, state or federal, has devoted so much of its energy to attacking its opposition.
Oppositions, of course, attack the government all the time; that’s their main tactic. But Howard has made the relationship reciprocal; he really seems to think that if an opposition’s duty is to oppose, a government’s duty is to oppose the opposition.
Other governments take pot shots at the opposition from time to time, especially in election campaigns. The attacks on opposition leader Peter Debnam in the recent NSW election are an example. Sometimes, oppositions draw the focus onto themselves by their own disarray, as the Coalition did under Howard’s leadership during the “Joh for Canberra” period.
But the sheer persistence of the federal government over the last decade is striking; even its positive messages almost invariably come with an accompanying spin about how Labor has no policies, or can’t be trusted, or would imperil the country’s well-being.
If the polls are right, the Howard strategy is no longer working. But the habit seems much too well-entrenched to be changed now.