Blogosphere has little to offer
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
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
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
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
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.
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