It’s a brave Labor Party parliamentarian and self-declared “progressive” who admits to being “on the same side of an argument as Alan Jones” — on occasions at least. But that’s what Clare O’Neil, the Labor MP for Hotham in southeast Melbourne, told the John Curtin Research Centre on Thursday.
O’Neil has not embraced the fan club of the Macquarie Radio (2GB in Sydney, 4BC in Brisbane) and Sky News presenter. It’s just that, in the wake of the Bill Shorten-led Labor defeat last May, O’Neil has recognised that she and her colleagues “need to take people with us”.
It’s not that O’Neil has become a convert to political conservatism. Rather her concern turns on tone. She recognises that many Australians regard themselves as being talked down to by progressives. And they resent it.
She added: “Not everyone with a concern about the immigration rate is a bigot; not everyone with a concern about changing gender roles is sexist; not every social change is inarguably a good one.”
There is no reference to the ABC in O’Neil’s speech. But the tone to which she refers inhabits the conservative-free zone, progressive hangout that is the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster. On the other hand, unlike the ABC, Labor has to win the support of conservatives.
The recently retired Melbourne ABC radio presenter Jon Faine went from being a left-wing activist at Monash University to a left-wing activist lawyer and then to more than two decades as an ABC presenter, of the leftist bent. In his much-hyped final show on Melbourne Radio 774 on October 11, Faine described those who regard the ABC as out of touch as “hypocrites”.
Faine seemed unaware that, earlier in the week, Gaven Morris (the director of ABC News) told The Australian that the ABC could definitely improve its coverage of suburban Australia. Morris asked: “Are we tuned in to what people are interested in in Bankstown (in Sydney’s west), or Ipswich in Brisbane, Frankston in Melbourne, the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast?”
He could well have added such areas as northern Tasmania and northern Queensland.
From a political perspective, O’Neil has recognised the problem of being out of touch with those who live outside the inner cities or suburbs close to the CBD.
In her John Curtin Research Centre speech, she specifically looked at the seat of Capricornia in central Queensland. She described it as “a blue-collar, regional electorate of Australians Labor strives to represent”.
O’Neil then reminded her audience that the primary vote swing against the Labor Party in the May election in Capricornia (which includes the city of Rockhampton) “was a full third of the electorate”.
She was polite enough not to remind the comrades at John Curtin Research Centre that much coalmining takes place in Capricornia — and that the electorate’s town of Collinsville was the target of Bob Brown’s ill-fated and counter-productive Green Left convoy to northern Queensland of recent memory.
In her address, O’Neil did not specifically focus on belief. This issue was addressed by Labor frontbencher Michelle Rowland last September. She told Nine newspapers that Labor “didn’t get it right with religious voters”. Rowland added: “I don’t think it’s lost on anyone that there was clearly an issue with Labor and people of faith at the last election.”
Rowland is the popular member for Greenway, in western Sydney. It is home to many recent migrants of numerous faiths. Greenway was one of the electorates that had a majority vote “No” in the 2017 same-sex marriage postal survey. Rowland clearly understands her electorate.
And then there is Joel Fitzgibbon’s speech from early October. He argued that the modern Labor Party needs to adapt to the reality that “Australians are inherently conservative”.
Fitzgibbon holds the seat of Hunter, north of Sydney, in which there are significant agricultural and mining industries. Fitzgibbon urged Labor to understand the interests of “coalminers and retired mine workers”.
In the past four decades, Labor has won a majority of seats in the elections of 1983, 1984, 1987 and 1990 (under Bob Hawke’s leadership), 1993 (under Paul Keating’s leadership) and 2007 (under Kevin Rudd’s leadership). All three leaders had an appeal to economic and social conservatives at the time of their victories.
The likes of O’Neil, Rowland and Fitzgibbon understand that, to win more elections than it loses, Labor needs to respect conservative views. Even if, like O’Neil, it calls itself progressive. The alternative position is offered by the left-wing faction operative senator Kim Carr. Carr told The Australian this week that Labor’s message at the May election was sound — but poorly communicated. That’s political denial.
The breakthrough in O’Neil’s speech is a recognition that, being identified with what are called “progressive” causes, Labor also identifies with those who call themselves progressives.
As she put it: “There is a culture developing in the progressive movement where membership is granted with a box of ideas. And if you don’t accept one of those ideas in the box, you do not merely have a different opinion, you are obviously wrong, probably stupid and possibly subhuman.”
Many in the electorate resent the condescending tone of the self-proclaimed progressive voice. The sneering secularists who mock religious believers. The born-again eco-catastrophists who rant against mining, agriculture and industry while living off the products of such enterprises. And the inner-city types who live close to work and benefit from subsidised public transport while berating those who rely on cars and who love their four-wheel drives.
On the eve of the May election, the oh-so-progressive Faine warned Josh Frydenberg that Shorten and Greens leader Richard Di Natale would soon address a Friends of the ABC rally protesting at cuts to ABC funding. Faine seemed to believe that this collection of inner-city progressives would cause the Coalition problems at the forthcoming election. They didn’t.
Labor’s immediate task is not to appeal to progressives but to win back as many economic and social conservatives as possible — quite a few of whom follow Jones.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog
can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au