Dr Adrian Pabst is Reader in Politics at Kent University and author Story of Our Country: Labor’s vision for Australia.  In 2018, Adrian Pabst spent months in Australia researching Labor’s appeal, or lack of it, among middle Australia. Seeking to answer the questions that now plague the new Labor opposition, Pabst believes Labor has, over some years, lost its traditional base, those who saw Labor as the party of national renewal, the party that gave people reason to hope for a better future. On Wednesday 28 August 2019, Adrian Pabst addressed The Sydney Institute to argue his case.

AUSTRALIAN LABOR – LOOKING BACK AND THE WAY FORWARD

ADRIAN PABST

Story of Our Country is a book about the purpose and ethos of the Australian Labor Party. Central to the party’s purpose is its promise to offer people a “share in those things that make life worth living”. Labor’s vision for Australia is about the good life or the common good. But is not such talk hopelessly naïve and idealistic?

As the former premier of NSW and President of the Labor Party Neville Wran remarked about Bob Hawke’s “reconciliation” politics: “It’s all very well to go on with all that spiritual stuff, but if the greedy bastards out there wanted spiritualism they’d join the f—ing Hare Krishna.” In the superb ABC series Labor in Power, Wran however conceded that Hawke’s politics of hope was key in restoring popular trust in Labor after years in the political wilderness. After the 2019 election, the party would do well to remember its own best traditions and this is what I would like to talk about here tonight.

Wran however conceded that Hawke’s politics of hope was key in restoring popular trust in Labor after years in the political wilderness

Why Labor lost: “progressive dilemma with Queensland characteristics”

Muhammad Ali once said that “you never get knocked out by a punch you see coming”. It is a good rule in politics, too. After three years of having a commanding lead in the opinion polls, the Australian Labor Party, led by Bill Shorten, lost the 2019 federal election that had been billed as “unlosable”. Labor looked set to win but suffered a defeat that was technically narrow but felt shattering. The Coalition had recycled three prime ministers in as many years. Under Malcolm Turnbull it was divided and directionless. Surely Scott Morrison could do little more than limit the damage.

But Morrison ran a presidential leader’s campaign that exposed Shorten’s lack of popularity – a decent man who could not connect enough with the party’s previous working-class base of blue-collar and white-collar workers living precarious lives. The Liberals and Nationals held almost all their marginal seats and won five from Labor. Labor’s leadership never anticipated losing any seats to the Coalition – they never saw that punch coming.

Compared with the 2016 contest when it reduced the government’s majority to one, Labor went backward. The party’s poor performance is part of a wider trend. Since 1945, Labor has only won power from opposition on three occasions: in 1972 under Whitlam, in 1983 under Hawke and in 2007 under Rudd. It risks suffering the same fate as its social-democratic sister parties in the US and Europe – a minority force in politics that slides into electoral irrelevance.

Compared with the 2016 contest when it reduced the government’s majority to one, Labor went backward.

After the election result, many in Labor did not know what had hit them and they still don’t. Some attack former leader Bill Shorten, national secretary Noah Carroll and internal polling. Others attribute the defeat to a lacklustre campaign and unpopular policies, especially the so-called “Retiree Tax” or negative gearing reforms. Yet others accuse Clive Palmer’s big spending in Queensland, the Murdoch Press and the Coalition scare campaign. Blaming everyone else but yourself is a perhaps an inevitable instinct when dealing with loss. But it will distract Labor from understanding why it lost and how it can win again. A courageous confronting of the reasons for the 2019 election debacle is needed. Otherwise, Labor could be out for four terms or more – as was the in case during the premierships of Menzies and Howard.

Blaming everyone else but yourself is a perhaps an inevitable instinct when dealing with loss.

Labor’s defeat was perhaps unexpected but it was certainly unsurprising. The key reason is the party’s repeated failure to carry those voters who used to be its core supporters – Labor’s working-class base of blue-collar and white-collar workers living precarious lives. In 2019, Labor failed to secure the popular vote for the third election in a row. The party’s primary vote first fell below 40 percent in the 1990 elections and never really recovered. The exception was 1993 – a shock victory that few predicted and hardly anyone outside of die-hard Keating supporters expected. In 2019, the Liberals did to Labor what Labor did to them in 1993.

Apart from a comfortable victory in 2007 that would evaporate less than three years later, the long-term trend has been downward. From 2010 to 2019, the ALP’s popular vote was in the 30s. In three consecutive elections, Labor failed to take enough seats from the Liberals outside metropolitan middle-class areas. In 2019, the Coalition held virtually all the marginal seats and won seats from the ALP in Tasmania and New South Wales. Neither Western Australia nor South Australia delivered any seats that Labor needed to win.

From 2010 to 2019, the ALP’s popular vote was in the 30s.

But it was in Queensland where the 2019 contest was ultimately lost. The primary popular vote for the ALP was a paltry 26 per cent, and the swing to the Liberals ended Labor’s hope of becoming the largest party in parliament and forming government. Only one Senate seat (out of six) in Queensland was won by the ALP. In his first speech to the party caucus following the election, the new Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, acknowledged as much when he said, “we received the support of one in three Australians, as their first preference. In Queensland, that figure was one in four.”1

Anthony Albanese, acknowledged as much when he said, “we received the support of one in three Australians, as their first preference. In Queensland, that figure was one in four.”

Labor’s poor performance outside of urban, metropolitan areas highlights profound weaknesses that were papered over. The party does well enough among urban middle-class professionals but lacks support from its traditional base in Australia’s suburbs and rural regions. The English academic and former British Labour MP David Marquand conceptualised this tension within the centre-left as the “progressive dilemma” – the clash between working-class demands for radical economic change and a middle-class preference for cautious reform.2 This tension characterises all social democratic parties. And like the centre-left across Western countries, Australian Labor fails to convince a majority of voters – two-thirds of Australians, and no opposition wins without earning the people’s trust. Labor has not found a way to build alliances across social, cultural, and geographic boundaries in search of majority support.

In their book, Democracy for Realists, the American political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue that the most important bases of political commitments and behaviour are “group ties and social identities”.3 For the great majority of citizens, politics is not primarily about assessing the policies of one party against another or even the personality of their leaders. Rather, politics begins with the question, “Where do people like me fit in?”, and then, “Which party is for people like us?” Culture is interwoven with economics because people tend to vote for redistributive policies that benefit those to whom they have a connection, which is anchored in a shared sense of belonging and solidarity.

Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue that the most important bases of political commitments and behaviour are “group ties and social identities”

A majority of Australians are not primarily interested in policies or political personalities, but in the broadest sense care about family, friends, work, community, and country. Labor’s raft of policy ideas failed to convey a commitment to these fundamental values. Federal elections are not won on education and health spending alone. Fighting climate change and closing tax loopholes are important yet secondary concerns. The primary priorities are secure, meaningful jobs to feed one’s family and a sense of belonging to both people and place.

In short, Labor’s problem is not so much one of policy as one of attitude or disposition. And that goes to the heart of how Labor is perceived. The party’s election platform spoke to the problem of low wage growth but failed to address the wider economic insecurity of the less affluent middle class as well as the new working class in the service economy. Above all, Labor did not respond sympathetically to the deeper anxiety of both industrial and regional workers about the lack of secure meaningful jobs. Australian Labor put doctrine before politics and did not reflect the party’s best traditions of fusing a radical with a small-c conservative disposition reflecting a majority concern for economic justice and social cohesion.

Labor’s problem is not so much one of policy as one of attitude or disposition.

Labor’s best traditions

Since Labor was founded over 125 years, the party’s purpose has been to link the representation of the labour interest in national politics to a wider aspiration: enabling people to pursue the good life. After the 1890 Maritime Strike, Labor’s founders declared that only by securing representation in the federal parliament “can we . . . ensure to every man, by the opportunity of fairly remunerated labour, a share in those things that make life worth living”.4  The party considers rewarding work as a contribution to shared prosperity that is at the heart of a secure and meaningful life. Life worth living – the good life – that is Labor’s raison d’être.

the party’s purpose has been to link the representation of the labour interest in national politics to a wider aspiration: enabling people to pursue the good life.

The emphasis on rewarding work, which provides not just an income but also a sense of self-worth and meaning, is an example of how economic and socio-cultural concerns overlap and converge with ethical considerations. Linking them together is a certain conception of justice centred on the common good, which can be defined as an ordering of relationships in a way that holds in balance individual fulfilment with mutual flourishing, based on the dignity and equality of all people. Promoting the common good resonates strongly with the ALP’s founding traditions, such as the trade union movement, Christian and other faith traditions, including Catholic social teaching, Nonconformist religions, and intermediary institutions of working-class self-help.

Promoting the common good resonates strongly with the ALP’s founding traditions, such as the trade union movement, Christian and other faith traditions

From the outset Labor was a party of reconciling estranged interests – between Protestants and Catholics, between rural and urban workers as well as between the labour interest and the interest of capital owners.5 While sectarian divisions beset both Australia and the Labor Party for many decades, it is equally true that the social justice tradition of the churches was instrumental in helping the ALP and the wider labour movement to build bridges between different communities and groups. In other words, Catholic social teaching and comparable traditions in Anglicanism and the Nonconformist churches tempered the sectarian divisions, as well as the ideological clash or power battle between the party’s left and right factions.

Binary distinctions such as bushmen versus city-dwellers, ex-convicts versus free persons, pious versus irreverent, can be misleading. They fail to capture the people’s past experiences and their sense of shared identity, including a love of the land, an attachment to work and to the family, affection for mates, scepticism about authority, and opposition to privilege.6 Such and similar sentiments are as progressive and egalitarian as they are traditional and communitarian, and they shaped the early labour movement from which the ALP gradually emerged.

They fail to capture the people’s past experiences and their sense of shared identity, including a love of the land, an attachment to work and to the family

In turn, the birth and evolution of the Labor Party contributed to, and continues to mirror, Australia’s national story – a story of nation-building anchored in the lives of ordinary people rather than the privileged elites represented by other parties. Graham Freudenberg, a speechwriter for ALP leaders Arthur Calwell, Gough Whitlam, and Bob Hawke, said that “more than any other political party in the world, the Australian Labor Party reflects and represents the character of the nation which produced it”. 7 This is echoed by Paul Keating (whose speeches were not written by Freudenberg), who once declared about the ALP: “We are the people who make Australian history . . . our party sets the ethos of Australia.” 8 All very Keating, to be sure.

Labor prime ministers sought to embody this ethos and to lead by example. They commanded both party and popular support in ways that often transcend the binary opposites of Labor’s left and right factions. For example, Andrew Fisher, the first Labor prime minister to gain a popular majority in 1910, offered a certain brand of democratic socialism that was as economically egalitarian and internationalist as it was socially traditional and patriotic.

Andrew Fisher, the first Labor prime minister to gain a popular majority in 1910, offered a certain brand of democratic socialism that was as economically egalitarian and internationalist

Similarly, John Curtin personified Labor’s paradoxical disposition, evolving as he did from being a fervent champion of anti-militarist socialism to being a patriotic wartime leader. Even though he died too early to build the post-war national settlement, his leadership set Australia on its course to becoming a key pillar of the Western alliance. He also bequeathed a Labor Party that had overcome two major splits – over conscription during World War I and over Jack Lang’s economic plan during the Great Depression. Curtin’s politics combined patriotism with internationalism and economic radicalism with fiscal rectitude.

For Marxists, Labor is a bourgeois-liberal party while, for liberals, it is a form of state socialism. Both are right about each other, but wrong about the ALP. They fail to recognise the party’s historic transformative project of “civilising capitalism” and turning the capitalist system into a moral market economy.9 This was a key characteristic of the ALP’s ethical orientation in the post-1945 era, including the Chifley and Whitlam governments, as well as the commitment to the Accord and the implementation of a social wage during the Hawke-Keating years. As the 1907 Harvester case illustrates, the entire edifice of industrial relations draws on the social teaching of the Catholic Church, such as embedded cooperation between workers and employers, and the distributist tradition of giving more land or private property to workers.

As the 1907 Harvester case illustrates, the entire edifice of industrial relations draws on the social teaching of the Catholic Church

In short, Labor at its best seeks to balance rival values and interests. This commitment is reflected in the party’s path of “radical moderation”, which tries to fuse economic egalitarianism with social stability in order to command majority support. Any narrative on Australian Labor needs to appreciate a salient insight: for Labor to be successful, there is the need to command support from socially more conservative blue-collar workers and regional communities, who are always important to Labor gaining and retaining office.

How Labor can win again

Graham Freudenberg, speechwriter to various Labor leaders, once characterised his beloved party, saying: “The Australian Labor Party was born with a sense of history. That sense of its past has always been, and remains, one of its great sources of strength and its confidence about its future.” 10 As it learns the lessons of its defeat in 2019, the party needs to remember that Labor only wins when it represents both the labour interest and the national interest. That means representing the millions of Australians who care about family, work, community and country.

As it learns the lessons of its defeat in 2019, the party needs to remember that Labor only wins when it represents both the labour interest and the national interest. 

Labor must learn the hard lessons of its defeat in 2019, notably privileging progressive positions at the expense of a majority politics. Labor’s contemporary language of social liberalism plays well in Sydney’s and Melbourne’s metropolitan parts where the party competes against the Greens, but it fails to resonate with Australians in suburban and rural regions – including those Queensland seats the ALP needed to win in order to be the largest party. Labor has to listen to the people who do not presently trust it and engage in a genuine contest of ideas. Debate is vital. The formation of ideas is the lifeblood of political parties.

Some of the ALP’s present policies are the product of abstraction from the everyday existence of ordinary citizens. Unrooted in the experience of real people, such ideas can be toxic: for example, notions of diversity and inclusivity that privilege cultural liberation over economic justice, individualised identity over common culture, and private choice over shared agency. Leadership requires assessment of unintended consequences and the management of competing positions. The tension can be invigorating. But mismanaged and poorly articulated (usually a sign of confusion), they produce outcomes and practices that are remote and disconnected from the lives of those people the Labor Party purports to represent.

Leadership requires assessment of unintended consequences and the management of competing positions.

One implication of my argument is that Labor never was – and never should be – an exclusively progressive party in the contemporary sense of socio-economic liberalisation. Rather, the ethos of the ALP can best be understood as a paradoxical combination of radical and small-c conservative values in a Burkean sense: tackling injustice in the economy and renewing political institutions, while also conserving tradition and society. This outlook is key to a rich political and policy framework that can help the ALP not just to win office, but also to marry power with purpose – brokering a politics of the common good based on shared interests and a balance between individual rights and mutual obligations. Renewing all these traditions is relevant for the ALP’s approach to the main issues of public policy – equality, secure jobs, workplace participation, automation, healthcare, social care, education, climate change, and the rise of new foreign powers.

People in the Labor Party will not thank me for saying it, but Labor needs to speak to the “quiet Australians” who were repeatedly referenced by Scott Morrison in his victory speech. The party could also learn from the Danish Social Democrats who won the elections in June 2019. Its leader Mette Frederiksen appealed to the working class by saying “you didn’t leave us; we left you”. She won not by ditching core values but by returning to them: radical on the economy by promising higher wages and moderate on social issues by being tougher on economic immigration. Her politics speaks to a yearning for stability and a sense of belonging.

People in the Labor Party will not thank me for saying it, but Labor needs to speak to the “quiet Australians” who were repeatedly referenced by Scott Morrison in his victory speech.

Labor can win in 2022 if it offers a majority politics – a politics that combines economic justice with social cohesion. To do so, the party needs to remember its own best traditions. Labor’s proud record as a radically reforming government shows that a proper Labor settlement is anchored in a paradoxical politics that blends progressive with conservative principles; it fuses a radical with a traditional character; it combines romantic with rationalist dispositions; it binds together secular with religious values; it embodies a patriotic with an internationalist outlook. Such a paradoxical politics reflects the character of many Australians and suggest that the ALP can be the real national party of the people.

a proper Labor settlement is anchored in a paradoxical politics that blends progressive with conservative principles

ENDNOTES

  1. A. Albanese, address to Labor Caucus, 30 May 2019: <https://anthonyalbanese.com.au/address-to-labor-caucus-canberra-thursday-30-may-2019>.
  2. D. Marquand, The Progressive Dilemma: From Lloyd George to Blair, 2nd edn (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999).

  3. C. H. Achen and L. M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 319. See also G. L. Cohen, “Party Over Policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 85, no. 5 (2003), pp. 808–822.

  4. N. Dyrenfurth, “‘Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’:  the Australian Labor Party” in N. Lawson and A. Pabst (eds), What’s Left? The state of global social democracy (Labour Together, 2018), p. 37.

  5. B. McKinlay, The ALP – A Short History of the Australian Labor Party (Heinemann Publishing, 1981), pp. 1-17.

  6. Cf. R. Ward, The Australian Legend, 2nd edn (Oxford University Press, 1966); D. Horne, The Lucky Country (Penguin, 1964).

  7. Quoted in J. B. Hirst, Looking for Australia – Historical Essays (Griffin Press, 2010), p. 147.

  8. Ibid.

  9. B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism: The Beginnings of the Australian Labor Party (Melbourne University Press, 1989).

  10. G. Freudenberg, Cause for PowerThe Official History Of The New South Wales Branch of The Australian Labor Party (Pluto Press, 1991), p. 34.

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