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With the ALP gradually losing the hearts and minds of many of its rusted-on faithful, the party must prove that it actually believes in something in order to survive. By Mike Seccombe.

ALP struggles for relevance as unions further wither

Michelle Grattan, most venerable of national political commentators, is not noted for her overstatement. So when she described Labor senator Sam Dastyari’s performance while he watched his party lose the New South Wales election last Saturday night as an “extraordinary outburst”, you knew it was.

Live on Sky News, where he was part of the election night panel, Dastyari had called for Martin Ferguson, former president of the ACTU, former senior Labor government minister, son of a Labor parliamentarian, brother of a Labor parliamentarian, to be expelled from the party.

“There is no place in the Labor party for Martin Ferguson,” said Dastyari. He accused Ferguson of committing “a bastard act” by criticising Labor’s campaign against electricity privatisation during the election.

It was indeed an extraordinary outburst. But what happened next was perhaps even more extraordinary. Dastyari scribbled a note to Sky News presenter David Speers.

It read: “Was the Martin thing too tough?”

We know this because the note was visible in photos uploaded to Dastyari’s private Facebook account later on Saturday night. The media site BuzzFeed got hold of the images and zoomed in on the piece of paper, lying face up on the desk.

The incident – the note as much as the spoken words – may be seen as a mini-metaphor for the whole sorry Labor election campaign.

Sam Dastyari talked tough, but did he really believe what he said? Had he really thought his position through, or was it a kneejerk response to the circumstances of the moment? Will there be action to match the words?

Who knows? The argument about what the party should do with Ferguson continues within Labor. As does the argument about what, more broadly, Labor stands for.

In the NSW election campaign, it was much clearer what Labor was against than what it was for. Electricity privatisation.

Or at least those Labor members still active in politics gave that impression. There is reason to suspect, on the basis of positions taken over the past couple of decades, that some in the caucus were biting their tongues.

And lots of senior Labor figures, since departed from elected office, such as former premiers Bob Carr and Morris Iemma, former state treasurer Michael Egan and ex-prime minister Paul Keating, were known to be in favour of selling off the network.

None of them, though, so overtly white-anted Labor as Ferguson, who featured in a Liberal Party ad during the campaign, saying Labor’s anti-privatisation argument was “a bald lie”.

True, Ferguson did not actually shoot the ad for the Libs; the vision was lifted from a speech he gave. On the other hand, he would have known his words, so strong and publicly uttered, would do immense damage to Labor’s campaign. He did not complain about their use.

Bob Carr, in contrast, told The Saturday Paper this week that he had been invited to speak publicly about issues in the weeks before the election and had declined. 

“Ferguson would have done better had he not agreed to that speaking engagement. I went out of my way to avoid comment on privatisation in the election context,” he said.

But then Ferguson has been generally outrageous since he left politics in August 2013. The former resources minister promptly took work as a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry, in defiance of the government code of conduct, which says no former minister should act as a lobbyist in any area related to their former ministerial role for at least 18 months after leaving office.

Since quitting parliament he has made comments unhelpful to his old party on a range of issues. Some of his pronouncements, particularly on industrial relations, might have come from a Liberal were it not for “Marn’s” working-man diction.

But Ferguson is utterly unapologetic: “I thought the ALP was a broad party,” he says.

Well, that’s an increasingly arguable proposition. The party’s base, the union movement, is withering, and has been for decades. At its peak in the mid-1950s, well over half of Australian workers were union members.

Back in 1983, at the start of the last great reforming Labor government, the Hawke-Keating government, unions still represented 50 per cent of workers. Then a precipitous decline began and, by the time Keating left the Lodge (and when Martin Ferguson was running the ACTU), union membership was somewhere in the 30s. By 2013 it had fallen to 17 per cent.

Sadly for Labor, some of its own reforms – deregulating the economy and freeing up the labour market – have contributed substantially to that decline.

“Labor is losing its natural constituency and is having a hard time finding a new one,” says John Wanna, professor of politics at the Australian National University.

The magnitude of Labor’s problems, he says, can be gauged by the number of Labor people who have produced manifestos on how to revive the party.

“There is a whole genre of books now on how to fix Labor,” he says.

“They’re tail-spinning. Unions are increasingly irrelevant in all but a few sections of the economy, but are still dominant in the Labor Party. Maybe even more dominant now.

“Particularly in NSW, the party is very tightly controlled by the factions and unions as to who gets nominated.”

To the extent that NSW Labor’s opposition to electricity privatisation was motivated by anything other than electoral expediency, it was by the fact that the electricity sector is one of the last holdouts of unionisation.

Which is not to say there were not good reasons to oppose the poles and wires selloff, principally relating to the continuing income stream the state would lose. But it is to say those concerns were not uppermost in Labor strategists’ minds.

Labor’s concerns were principally (a) that the unions didn’t like it, and (b) that the public didn’t like it.

As Bob Carr, an enthusiastic privatiser during his time as premier, told The Saturday Paper late last year, “they are never popular”.

Thus, he opined, they are best done as quickly and stealthily as possible, before opposition can mount. He boasted of the privatisations he had snuck through “that nobody is able to recall”.

He is proud, too, of the fact that he got top dollar for selling off such things as the state’s rail freight network and coalmines, and also managed to secure the conditions of the workers.

But Carr’s softly-softly approach was not Liberal premier Mike Baird’s approach.

Baird did something very unusual in modern politics. He determined to push for a highly contentious policy change in the context of an election campaign – indeed to make it the centrepiece of his pitch to voters.

This was brave. Poll after poll showed a majority of people opposed it, even when they considered it in association with Baird’s promises of massive infrastructure spending supported by the proceeds.

He did it in full knowledge that Australian political history is littered with the corpses of governments electrocuted by similar proposals, most recently in Queensland two months previously.

Yet Baird won, and won handsomely. He characterised the result as a triumph of hope over fear. More accurately, though, it was a triumph of belief over expediency.

He won because voters discerned his conviction on the issue. He believed in the rightness of his course, and even if voters doubted the policy itself, they believed in his belief.

Personality counts

This is the way it works with swing voters, says Tony Mitchelmore, managing director of research company Visibility, and a pollster for nine federal and state Labor campaigns. They are apt to make their voting decision as much on the person proposing the policy as on the policy itself.

“They short-form who to vote for in human terms. It’s a character response. They do it in the same way people sum others up in their day-to-day lives.”

We should say that Mitchelmore was speaking to The Saturday Paper just after the Queensland election, about the reasons the voters there rejected Premier Campbell Newman. But the observation holds true. The voters didn’t trust or like Newman. They did trust and like Baird.

As for Luke Foley, who came to the Labor leadership only in January, the punters just didn’t know him. He performed well, but he came in with the election strategy already determined.

No one really expected Labor to win. Not against the most popular politician in the country. Not given the fact that at the 2011 election Labor had suffered the biggest swing against it of any Australian government in at least 60 years.

But even given those low expectations, the result was poor for Labor. While the party benefited from a statewide average swing to it of close to 9 per cent, that amounts to just a little more than half the 16.4 per cent against it in 2011.

Final numbers of seats are yet to be determined, but Labor will likely have about 32, or about one-third of the total in the new parliament.

“I thought the campaign was just appalling and the conservative commentary is actually correct,” says one senior federal ALP figure.

“There was far too much emphasis on the privatisation and not enough on cuts to schools, hospitals, TAFE under the Libs. There was a wealth of issues that we could have fed off …

“We won back only the seats we were always going to win back, particularly after the ICAC revelations [that Liberal MPs, clustered on the Central Coast had accepted illegal political donations].

“The Libs lost 10 members of parliament over the last term,” he says. “We’d already won back two seats in byelections. If the best we can do is 10 seats, it’s not good enough.

“It has not got us to a truly competitive situation. What we failed to do was win back seats in Western Sydney.”

That last point is a huge concern for Labor, not just in NSW, but federally. The west, with its huge and fast-growing population of aspirational low- and middle-income households, should be Labor heartland. Yet it hardly moved.

“There is a threat posed by the NSW Labor Party to Labor nationally,” says the senior federal source.

“It’s Bob Carr politics, which is triangulation by talking to the media every morning. It’s letting issues of the day dictate what your government is doing. It provides no answer to the question, ‘What do you stand for?’

“I am very fearful that these people in NSW – Carr and the people around him who left NSW in the disastrous state that we saw – will do us great damage.”

It’s a bit rough to tie all NSW’s issues to Bob Carr, perhaps. Sure, a premier has to take responsibility for the party’s failings, but much should also be attributed to the machine men who let state Labor go bad.

That’s where former federal Labor leader Mark Latham put the blame, in a typically colourful piece for The Monthly a couple of years ago.

He singled out the legendary Sussex Street powerbroker turned Labor senator Graham Richardson.

“His famous ethos of ‘whatever it takes’ positions public life not as a contest between right and wrong, but as an exercise in short-term opportunism,” Latham wrote.

“The [NSW right] faction had a strong core of members interested in public policy – people like Bob Carr, Michael Easson, Stephen Loosley, John Della Bosca and, of course, Keating. Unfortunately, this was a minority grouping.”

The dominant force, wrote Latham, was Richardson, and his style became “an operational template for the next generation of apparatchiks – most notably, Eric Roozendaal, Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar, the NSW general secretaries from 1999 to 2008.”

It was during that period that the influence of the corrupt numbers man Eddie Obeid grew, said Latham.

The truth of the situation probably lies somewhere between the two views. Latham was probably too kind to Carr and his coterie of alleged policy purists. They watched it happen.

Greens a force

But let’s get back to last Saturday’s election, which was remarkable in another way, as well.

The Greens showed themselves as a force to be reckoned with not just in the inner city but in the regions.

They will likely win one NSW Northern Rivers seat, Ballina, and are a chance in a second, Lismore. They also won two inner-Sydney seats. We’re not talking about upper house seats here, where the Greens have long been a presence due to proportional representation, but lower house seats where they had to win a majority of the party-preferred vote.

And there is a parallel between the Greens’ Northern Rivers showing and Baird’s showing in the state as a whole. The Greens also won by standing for something they actually believed in. And Labor lost for the same reason, because voters could not be sure what the party really stood for.

There is one big difference, of course. The incumbent members in both those regional seats were National Party members.

But the relevant point is that those country voters, concerned about the threat posed to their land and water by coal seam gas (CSG) extraction, preferred to put their trust in the Greens’ promises that they would stop fracking, rather than Labor’s promises.

And no wonder. All the gas exploration licences covering the Northern Rivers region were issued by the previous Labor government.

The Greens were opposed from the start. But Labor’s position only evolved in response to its perception of electoral advantage. By election time it was promising a year-long statewide moratorium on CSG and a permanent ban over wide areas, including the Northern Rivers.

To be fair, we must note the conservatives’ position on CSG also shifted quite dramatically, but the example illustrates a problem that is – for now at least – greater for Labor than the conservatives.

John Wanna and other political scientists call it post-materialistic voting. 

Says Wanna: “These are people who don’t vote in their narrow sectional self-interest – it’s not a hip-pocket motivation – but for other things such as the environment or gender issues, gay rights or international peace. It’s a huge problem for Labor. The Greens are taking a large chunk of their base constituency.” 

And not only their constituency, as the following example shows.

Bandt's ascendance

He is a boy from a working-class background. His early memories of politics are of his father shouting at the television about the inequity of Liberal Party policy. He joined the Labor Party in high school. Later he worked for and eventually became a partner in the Labor-aligned law firm Slater and Gordon, former prime minister Julia Gillard’s old firm. He mostly did employment and industrial law, representing unions and low-paid workers.

It sounds like an impeccable Labor pedigree, but it’s actually that of Adam Bandt, deputy leader of the Greens in the federal parliament.

Bandt explains his shift by reworking an old maxim.

“If you’re not a socialist at 20, you haven’t got a heart, but if you’re not worried about global warming at 40, you haven’t got a head,” he says. 

It was more than that that drove him, of course. As he further elaborates:

“It was clear to me from the early 1980s that Labor had signed up to the basic principles of neoliberalism and wasn’t offering an alternative.

“Neoliberalism inverts the relationship between economy and society. It says the latter has to work in the interests of the former.

“I think that a very big section of the Australian public does not accept these fundamental principles, even after three decades of Labor and Liberal trying to sell it to them.”

To date the appeal of this kind of message – intellectual and altruistic – has been largely noted among a class that Wanna calls “cultural capital” people.

But it’s not limited to inner-city hipsters, artists, writers and students.

“There are a lot of radical self-funded retirees now,” says Wanna.

And it’s noteworthy that Greens candidates are doing increasingly well in what have traditionally been conservative seats. At the recent Victorian election, they took the seat of Prahran not from Labor but from the Liberals. In Saturday’s NSW election they outpolled Labor in a number of strongly conservative seats, including Mike Baird’s Manly, where they got nearly 17 per cent, compared with Labor’s 13.

Says Wanna: “I note an interesting comment made the other day by [Victorian Liberal powerbroker] Michael Kroger, to the effect that the Liberals were not getting the sort of quality candidates the Greens were selecting.”

It may be that in the future, as Greens voters mature, the party will become a problem for the Liberals, too. Ironically, post-materialist voters tend to be those who are materially comfortable themselves.

But right now it’s mostly Labor’s problem. In inner-city Newtown the Greens got almost 46 per cent of the primary vote, compared with Labor’s 31 and the Liberals’ 18. In Balmain, the numbers were 37 Green, 32 Labor, 25 Liberal.

But there aren’t many post-materialist voters in Western Sydney.

And there is Labor’s dilemma. The conservative parties are squeezing them from the right among their traditional heartland voters. The Greens are squeezing them from the other side on the intellectual left.

The party has been a bit lucky of late. It won against a particularly nasty conservative government in Queensland, and a rather inept one in Victoria. Federally, it is still in front of a conservative government that is widely seen as sharing both those characteristics.

But pretty soon Labor will have to start demonstrating that it stands for things. The hard part is identifying things that will appeal to its disparate bases.

Federally, it keeps promising it will, and there have been signs of hope. Bill Shorten will have a carbon pricing policy. They have made some worthy announcements on a few issues such as domestic violence, corporate tax avoidance and the inequity of the superannuation system.

But the NSW election result shows Labor can’t just keep riding its luck. 

It should have taught the federal Liberal Party something, too: how much can be achieved by a leader people like and trust.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2015 as "Stand for and deliver". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.