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 August 2006                                      

                                           Blogosphere has little to offer Labor

It took a while – going on a year – but The New City is finally being noticed by the ’blogs.

We developed the web journal for two intertwined reasons: our dismay at the federal Labor Party’s apparent renunciation of the economic and social responsibility that characterised the Hawke government for most of its period in office, and our despair at its receding prospects of a return to national office anytime soon.

We witnessed too the increasing dominance within party forums of the view that ideological purity took precedence over voter allegiance – a view that we thought had been marginalised with the collapse of Whitlamism.

We suspected all along that our targets in the party’s hard Left would seek to deny us the oxygen of debate, and for many months they succeeded. But as our website came increasingly to the notice of thoughtful commentators, here and overseas, this strategy became less and less tenable. The misrepresentations and ad hominem attacks are gathering pace.

Two issues in particular seem to enrage our critics: immigration and nuclear energy. Ironically, in both cases, we adopted a position of support for shadow federal ministers who happen to be on the party’s Left: Laurie Ferguson, the former shadow immigration minister, and his brother Martin, the shadow minister for energy and resources.

Laurie’s crime was to endeavour to position the party within the political mainstream on immigration – and in so doing give Labor the electoral space to honour our moral and legal obligations to people in true need: those who languish in their millions in wretched refugee camps in mostly desperately poor countries. Martin is simply seeking an honest party debate on uranium sales and nuclear power – something the hard Left, for all its self-proclaimed tolerance and libertarian pretensions, cannot abide.

Yet even among the tirades directed against us, those with common sense and clear heads can make themselves heard. We particularly appreciated two contributions to the Larvatus Prodeo ’blog, which labels us ‘Labor’s New Right fifth column’: ‘Razor’, who commented ‘That lot might attract a few votes – better kill them off quick’; and ‘Rob’, who observed ‘Looks like a pretty solid program to me. If Labor wants to get back into government, it has to take votes off Howard, not the Dems or the Greens. This could be the way to do it.’ Precisely.

What then is needed to ‘take votes off Howard’ – or more specifically to recapture the votes Howard took off the ALP? We have identified several other areas where we believe Labor can realign itself not just to enhance its electoral appeal, but equally to best serve the interests of those – ordinary working people and their families – that it purports to represent.

Our colleague Michael Thompson, author of Labor without class: The gentrification of the ALP (Pluto Press, 1999 ), argued forcefully that the ALP, by courting the interest groups and taking its working class heartland for granted, was not just betraying its origins; it was also pursuing electoral folly. The Howard era has conclusively shown (especially in outer suburban Sydney) that working class voters are no different from other people: they will vote according to their perceived interests – and increasing numbers of them no longer identify these interests with Labor. Further to this point, Michael demonstrated that ordinary workers – understood as those people with routine jobs as distinct from careers – constitute the same 70-odd per cent of the workforce that they have for decades. So much for the ‘shrinking core constituency’ argument.

Peter Walsh – Australia’s best-ever finance minister – finally convinced most of his parliamentary party in the 1980s that there is no necessary link between big spending on the one hand, and equity and ‘social justice’ on the other. This should fall into the ‘bleeding obvious’ category – after all, no one in ALP circles needs convincing that taxes can be progressive or regressive; why should it be so difficult to understand that this applies equally to spending programs?

Walsh’s period as finance minister also demonstrated that voters would support and re-elect governments that imposed economic stringency, so long as the need was honestly explained and the burden shared fairly. Prudent government, we have argued in our editorials, serves the interests above all of ordinary workers and families – something they understand all too well. It is their jobs, their assets and their welfare safety net that are placed at risk through reckless economic management and squandered development opportunities.

Labor could with effort and commitment establish itself as the party to be trusted with money – as it has done with reasonable success at the state level in NSW. The Howard government should be vulnerable on this score: many of its tax and spending initiatives (the 30 per cent health insurance rebate and public funding of mega-rich private schools are two conspicuous examples) represent money just frittered away. Our huge current account deficit and foreign debt levels should be causing deep alarm. But Labor has too much lead in its economic saddle bags to be taken seriously at present when (or indeed if) it takes issue with such excesses.

Our worry is that when the inevitable economic downturn occurs, either the voters won’t trust Labor to lead them through the difficult times, or – perhaps worse – they’ll throw the Coalition out and the ALP will stuff it up. It needn’t be this way, but it requires Labor to jettison a great deal of its economic and social policy baggage.

We have also taken up the issue of housing affordability, particularly the evidence that has been presented in the Demographia housing affordability surveys. Sydney, according to this analysis, has the seventh least affordable housing (measured as the multiple of the city’s average annual household earnings that a typical house costs) of all the cities in the six surveyed countries (Australia, NZ, Canada, the US, the UK and Ireland), with Melbourne, Adelaide and Hobart also in the top 20. Our houses cost three to four times as much, relative to earnings, as they do in many affluent and attractive US and Canadian cities. A substantial part of this unaffordability, we believe, can be traced to ‘the scarcity value created by urban planning and the imposts on developers of government regulations, many of them “environment friendly”’, aggravated by the efforts of inner-city NIMBY activists (cheered on as often as not by left-wing Labor ‘progressives’) to pull the ladder up after them. It’s hurting ordinary Australians. Labor can and should – but rarely does – make a stand on this crucial issue.

Finally, we argue that if the party is to change its policy spots, it needs first to look hard at its representative structure. ‘Rank-and-file preselection’, at least in NSW, is widely regarded (especially in the inner city) as a party member’s birthright. We are unconvinced that a few dozen overwhelmingly tertiary-educated social activists should effectively determine who gets what is often an extraordinarily cushy job for life. It’s not just wrong in principle; it tends to select the same types of people in these positions – graduates in the social sciences who move smoothly from university politics, to research jobs in unions or on MPs’ staffs, to a safe seat in parliament. Once there, they invariably push for the sorts of policies and programs that create plenty of jobs for others just like them. There must be a better way.


 TNC  15 August 2006                                                   Like to respond?                                              Top of page