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Feb 21, 2014

It's the end of the ALP as we know it (and Greens feel fine)

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 The Australian 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.

*Read the rest of this article at Inside Story


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25 thoughts on “It’s the end of the ALP as we know it (and Greens feel fine)

  1. klewso

    Labor can’t seem to remember, are they the hounds or the foxes?

  2. david hare

    I wish Dennis could apply his calm and clear ability to analyse Labor within the bigger picture of what we call OZ politics to the NSW ALP as well. It seems to me until the NSW party has rebirthed itself, and the Federal party has followed suit we are condemned to indefinite life under a frightening Neocon Coalition.

    I said “we” but I no longer live in Australia so I perhaps shouldn’t. The day Shorten, Arbib and the others knifed Rudd in 2010 and did their own masters’ bidding was the day Labor lost the plot for the foreseeable future. Now they aren’t even an audible opposition and they have yet to enunciate a change of heart on the appalling refugee tragedy.
    I regret to say I’m glad I no longer live there, actually. The physical distance becomes an emotional one as well and just as necessary.

  3. el tel

    The basic problem with this argument is that it is not borne out at all by recent election results, with a very small number of exceptions. Outside of the state of Victoria, the swings away from the Greens were quite large.

    In electorates where the Greens would expect to do well – like Sydney and Grayndler – they were swings back to Labor. In Denison, a long time Greens stronghold, their vote was decimated by independent Andrew Wilkie. In SA, three times as many people voted for Nick Xenophon as for Sarah Hanson Young.

    In Victoria, as the only state to buck the national trend, there were two extenuating factors: a very well resourced campaign for Adam Bandt to retain the seat of Melbourne, and resentment among Labor voters about the dumping of Julia Gillard from the Labor leadership.

    The article basically mistakes huffing and puffing on social media for substantive political trends.

  4. j.oneill

    The late Gore Vidal described the US system as one business party with two right wings. It is increasingly obvious that a similar tend has emerged here. On the odd issue there is the pretence of a fight; eg union power, but on the fundamental issues they are indistinguishable. That particularly applies in my own area of special interest, foreign affairs, but it is equally true on economic matters, the environment, taxation, health and education etc etc.

    The Green Party is the only major party offering a significant policy differential, but the stupidities of the existing electoral system will probably condemn them to the 10-12% share of the vote for the foreseeable future.

    As Dennis points out, it is a measure of Labor Party hypocrisy that they are happy to accept Green support to cling to power (eg Gillard; Giddings) but when the electorate punishes them for their timidity it is all the Green’s fault! The electorate is not so stupid that it cannot see the self-serving hypocrisy for what it is.

  5. Elbow Patches

    Huff, puff… This voter wants a coherent option combining elements of both greens and labor and no slagging each other off.

  6. el tel

    If storming around being morally outraged by everything was considered the key to good public policy, then Sarah Hanson Young would have stratospheric levels of public support. As that is clearly not the case, then much more must be at play.

  7. klewso

    SHY scares people away.

  8. linda

    el tel
    you confuse “good public policy” with “public support”. yet the 2 get further away from each other every day…..

  9. zac48

    SHY….The morally outraged fifteen year old who never managed to grow up. She likes horses too.

  10. Hamis Hill

    Certainly Labor could ignore The Greens altogether, but at the same time borrow the International Greens principle of Economic and Social Justice.
    That might stop ” egalitarianism and social justice disappearing from the common language” as the author rightly warns.
    Now the International Greens have had their principles of economic and social justice, and grass roots participatory democracy for the best part of four decades, almost two generations, without either of these principles entering the “common language” of any journalists at any time at all.
    Even the Australian Democrats borrowed them to no avail, calling them “common” rather than Greens’ principles.
    Perhaps a “major” party like Labor needs to adopt these principles for the political journalist class to wake up to them, and include them in the common language of politics? Yes? Then they will not be beneath notice, as they appear to be when they are merely Greens principles, never to be countenanced and certainly never ever mentioned on any article?
    Anyone remember the attempt, by the famous anti nuclear campaigner, Dr Helen Caldicott to start up Green Labor in 1988?
    “It’s never to late to start again, to find the people who caused the pain, and help them learn your name”.
    Green Labor.
    And there’s Malcolm Fraser’s “Green Liberals”?
    Imagine a government comprising a coalition of Green Labor and Green Liberals, what would we call them, The Greens?
    Anyone for democracy and justice?

  11. zac48

    I think the Australian “Greens” have destroyed the credibility of the “Green” name in this country. Don’t forget Pastor Bob Browns’ and SHYs’ declaration of the party’s ideology of “a world with no national borders and ruled over by a one world government”. These people are deluded, dangerous fantasy landers and have no credibility at all.

  12. supermundane

    While the modern Labor party is too far to the right for me, the belief that the Coalition are superior economic managers stems from an economically illiterate media sprouting the coalition’s economic nonsense verbatim and never taking them to task. The population is about to get a lesson disabusing them of this unfounded belief.

  13. Elvis

    A lot of flak for SHY on this page. I watched her today in Rundle Mall in Adelaide at a protest for the human rights of refugees. Her passion, conviction and genuine concern for the desperate innocent people we’ve locked in camps made me proud to be an Australian again.

  14. Carroll Frank

    Is that why the ALP is ahead in all the polls bar Nielsen?

  15. Hamis Hill

    In rely to Zac, those two people you mention are a very small proportion of The Greens around the globe, though of course Australian journalists seem to imagine that two people can define literally hundreds of thousands of “The Greens” around the globe.
    That sort of reporting does seem to rub off on the punters.
    Is it done deliberately?
    That sort of lazy reporting?

  16. CML

    Dennis – Better people than you have been predicting the demise of the Labor Party for over a century. We are still here!!
    As for the Greens, they will disintegrate just as other extreme parties of the left or right have done over the same time frame. I agree it may take a little longer than previously, but it will happen.
    People become weary of the fringe parties who bleat and carp from the sidelines, achieve nothing and worse still, stop the progress that a great party like Labor can provide. Labor has the runs on the board over many years of government. Ultimately, that is what people should remember.
    Does Labor need to change? Of course. And that also will happen over time. But your obituary is far, far too early. In fact, wishful thinking on your part, I believe.

  17. Simon Mansfield

    The Fitzroy Collective Afternoon Herald at its predictable best.

  18. Patriot

    The extreme Greens should be destroyed at the ballot box. They are nothing but Marxist traitors!

  19. CML

    Dennis, about the by-election in Qld, held yesterday. 16% swing to the ALP! Doesn’t sound like the death of the Labor Party to me!!

  20. el tel

    And the Greens vote fell to 4%, down 2.5% on the 2011 result, in the sort of beachside suburban electorate where you would expect there to be a bit of environmental consciousness

  21. klewso

    I think Redcliffe was more a concentrated one-issue judgement of Manuel’s (“This economy’s from Barcelona”) Limited News Party government.
    Roll on Ashgrove.

  22. CliffG

    Labor completely lost it when it allowed Rudd, desperate to save seats regardless of its principles, to open the PNG Solution. Now with a death on Manus Island and G4S attacks on asylum seekers, the LNP has a licence for whatever brutality it wishes to apply.
    Labor cuts its own throat with its leadership musical chairs. Then it threw away the drip in PNG.

  23. Observation

    The ALP has no conviction about it these days and the conservative seem strong in their stance because they dictate to the electorate. What is needed is some strong orators in the ALP that can send a clear and resilient message on good economic policy while still pertaining to humanitarian,environmental and social justice points of view.

    At the moment the ALP message is as weak as water while trying to flip flop on the day to day issues.

  24. klewso

    Unfortunately the ALP is riddled by trendy fuctions, trying to serve too many masters.
    They’d rather fight each other for party superiority than unite to serve the country and those that agree with the old party philosophy.

  25. fractious

    “blame the Greens”

    That seems to have been the default setting for many ALP faithful for a while now, despite how stupefyingly dim it is. Not only do the ALP appear to have run out of policies, spine and will, they also seem to have run out of people to blame for their own downfall.

    “the political commentariat seem agreed that the Greens are now insignificant”

    And we all know how perspicacious they are. The Greens will never become a ‘major’ party in the lower house in the way the LNP are and the ALP once were, since the way things are 10-12% of the vote gets them only one representative, and there is almost no likelihood that those who control how these things are arranged will want to change that. Nonetheless, a consistent 1/5th of the vote and many more besides who truly want a political party that goes some way to representing their wish for a proper progressive, social democratic outlook should not be ignored.


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