What does the Labor Party stand for?

I mean, really stand for. What values are in its DNA?

While Julia Gillard is signalling shifts to the right on asylum seekers and population, preparing a comprehensive backdown on the RSPT and talking about starting from scratch on convincing the community of the need for an emissions trading scheme, the answer has been hard to answer in recent years, and really since 1996 when the party turned its back on the economic reform legacy of Hawke and Keating.

It got harder to answer under Kevin Rudd.

If you had to pick three core Labor beliefs, you’d go for support for trade unions and an employee-friendly IR framework, big government over small government and progressive social policy.

Rudd was a mixed bag on social policy. There was the apology — indeed, two of them. The loathsome legacy of Brian Harradine, our refusal to fund family planning programs as part of our overseas aid budget, was reversed. But the ACT was again subjected to federal intervention for daring to permit gay unions, and Rudd never shied away from indicating his own conservative social views.

Mixed on trade unions, as well. Workchoices was dismantled and the Fair Work system erected in its place by Julia Gillard, but Gillard made a virtue of picking fights with unions as diverse as teachers’ unions and the CFMEU, complementing Rudd’s own emphasis as Opposition Leader that he had minimal union connections.

Only on increasing the role of Government did Rudd hew closely to Labor tradition, and it’s not as simplistic as calling him “big government” anyway. His significant increase in the level of government spending per GDP was in response to the Global Financial Crisis and aimed at preserving jobs, and the Government has committed to returning to a lower level of spending, rather than maintaining a permanent increase.

The GFC momentarily restored to Australian politics the appearance of an ideological divide over the size of government, although whether a Howard Government would have been as reticent about stimulus as the Coalition pretended to be from Opposition is an intriguing question. It’s hard to see John Howard, whose profligacy reached historic levels even before he faced electoral defeat, somehow pulling back on the purse strings as the world economy teetered on the precipice.

Even so, Kevin Rudd left office with one major achievement — along with Glenn Stevens, he presided over a massive and successful attempt to keep Australians in work and businesses open. Hundreds of thousands of people have better lives as a consequence of Rudd and Stevens’ handling of the GFC. Neither will ever get the credit they fully deserve for avoiding even coming close to the lingering fate of Europe and the US.

Otherwise, Rudd’s Prime Ministership is a long catalogue of missed opportunities.

Most grievously for Labor in the long-term, he failed to grasp an historic opportunity to re-define his party, to brand it in the way Hawke and Keating branded it. Instead, he let the drift of Opposition years continue, embracing moderate, easy reforms, avoiding the hard stuff. With strong opinion polls and an economic crisis that set conservatives back on their ideological heels, he had the opportunity to establish Labor as synonymous with economic reform, the architect of sustainable prosperity, of government in the national interest.

Labor isn’t alone in this problem. The Liberals similarly have an identity problem. John Howard was a big-government Prime Minister, entirely at odds with the small-government rhetoric that forms a core part of the party’s brand. Far from the rugged individualism of conservative rhetoric, it was the Howard Government that relentlessly pandered to Australians’ obsessive reliance on the state, through middle-class welfare and regional pork-barrelling.

Tony Abbott is heir to this contradictory legacy. If Malcolm Turnbull was a poor fit for his party because he was perceived as so progressive, Abbott is an even poorer fit because he belongs in neither wing of the Liberals’ broad church. The pro-business party leader who wants to lift business taxes, the small-government man who wants to hand out billions as part of climate change programs, the centralist who wants to devolve health control to local hospitals but take over health funding, Abbott is a walking ideological contradiction, still firmly at home in Labor Right that provided his ideological schooling.

The electorate appears to have spent recent years in a deep funk, despite the economic boom and constant tax cuts. It turfed out John Howard despite historically strong economic performance, hailed Kevin Rudd as a new type of leader, then turned on him with a vengeance when it transpired he was an ordinary, flawed politician. Clearly they want something more from our current crop of politicians than they are getting, but quite what, no one knows.

The only politician now seen as genuinely standing for something is Malcolm Turnbull, purely on the basis that he wrecked his leadership supporting climate action — even if the reality was that the climate action he supported was Rudd’s ineffectual and costly CPRS.

Now Gillard has the same opportunity as Kevin Rudd had. It’s hard to see her losing to Tony Abbott, but even a comprehensive win won’t solve the problem that Labor is ideologically adrift. That’s Julia Gillard’s long-term challenge.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey