A Narrative of ALP Decline

The recommendations of the Faulkner, Carr and Bracks review of the ALP were released yesterday.

There are a lot of interesting points to mull over regarding processes and procedures to get members, unionists and community supporters further involved within the party. What I’d like to open up discussion on first though is what the report did not discuss – the philosophy and values of the ALP. There has been a relative absence of any substantive analysis of deeper systemic problems and trends (except for a few notable exceptions) regarding the Australian Labor Party and its role in Australian society. Perhaps emblematic of the current crisis within the party is Troy Bramston’s call in The Australian today for Labor to abolish its “quixotic and irrelevant socialist objective”. However, maybe before getting all philosophical we should have a look at recent history.

First, let’s consider a set of numbers – the ALP primary vote has only peaked above 40% per cent in 3 federal elections since 1990 – in 1993, 1998 and 2007. The rest of the time has seen the primary vote languishing between 35-39%. In contrast, the Liberal-National Coalition has only seen it’s primary vote dip below 40% at one federal election since 1990 – in 1998. From a peak of 49.48% of the primary vote at the 1983 federal election, the ALP’s primary vote has been in a state of steady decline ever since, except of course for those three elections I mentioned earlier.

Let’s have a look at those three elections.

In 1993, the Keating Labor government won re-election by standing against John Hewson’s militant neoliberal platform entitled “Fightback”.

1998 saw the Labor Party fighting it out with the Howard government over the introduction of a regressive consumption tax, the GST.

Of course, who could forget 2007 as the WorkChoices election. Rudd’s team rode the wave of the Your Rights at Work campaign back into office through promising to replace WorkChoices with the Fair Work Act.

When circumstances push the ALP to campaign on the top economic priorities of the vast majority of Australians who depend on income earned through their labour or that of a family member (secure employment with decent wages and conditions backed by fair tax and welfare policies) then Labor bucks its generational decline. Aside from these three elections, Labor parliamentarians and advisors are following a political strategy that leads to electoral oblivion.

Let’s go back to 1983 for a moment to look at where that strategy has come from – it was a time of deep crisis for the Australian economic system. Profits were in free fall, growth was stagnating and inflation rising. It was a relatively poor environment for private firms to make a profit out of either production, exchange or consumption. Eight years of Liberal government produced no resolution and in 1983 the Hawke-Keating government won power in a sweeping mandate. The Australian public wanted an end to the stagnation.

The strategy of the Hawke Labor government was clear – it was to increase profits, boost growth and curb inflation through the wholesale adoption of the neoclassical economic policies of the Chicago Boys, while pursuing progressive social and cultural change to maintain the support of its base. This approach cobbled together enough votes for Labor to hold government for a historically long period – but it delivered increasingly diminishing returns.

Ultimately, the economic insecurity that the reforms delivered to an increasing number of Australians engendered hostility towards the progressive social and cultural changes the ALP was pursuing. Howard came up with a much more electorally successful strategy in 1996, to end “political correctness”. For an electorate tired of “reform” it was what they wanted to hear. Neoliberal economic policy was to be delivered with the comfort of conservative social and cultural policy. White was white, black was black and brown was to be detained. Eventually, this electoral strategy too ran out of steam as economic insecurity only grew. We’re at at a political impasse now though as both parties still riff off versions of the same earlier once successful electoral strategies.

This means the political heart and soul of the largest progressive political party in Australia is up for grabs. I’d argue that based on both principles and electoral results (despite what’s argued in the Murdoch press), the ALP needs to return to its base. There is nothing wrong with having a socialist objective. What needs reassessing though is how that objective can be made relevant for Australia today. What does a socialist objective mean in Australia in 2011? And to what extent can a parliamentary political party do anyway? How relevant is parliamentary reform to changing the way we live for the better? And how should progressive/radical activists relate to the ALP as compared with other parties like the Greens?

I would like to have a discussion with you over further blog posts about the merits of the review, what a progressive political platform should look like, and the scope for and limitations to parliamentary politics as a vehicle to creating a just and sustainable society.

Meanwhile, the soul of the ALP is up for grabs again. Where do you stand?

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2 thoughts on “A Narrative of ALP Decline

  1. I watched Greg Combet last night on Lateline. He was like a victim of a lobotomy. Was the Labor party responsible for stealing his soul?

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