Conceding Defeat: Labor Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, is forced to acknowledge the most decisive electoral defeat in Australian history. What lessons can New Zealand's Labour Party draw from Queensland's Labor "apocalypse"?
THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY was founded under a gum tree in Barcaldine, Queensland in 1891. But these historical roots offered scant protection against the electoral storm that swept the party from office on Saturday. Labor’s vote plummeted an astonishing 15 percentage points, from a winning tally of 42 percent in 2009, to a risible 27 percent just three years later. Its presence in the unicameral Queensland legislature has been slashed from 51 to 6 seats. No wonder the Australian newspapers are calling the result Labor’s “apocalypse”.
The outgoing Queensland premier, Anna Bligh, was the first woman ever elected to govern an Australian state, and Labor’s enemies have been quick to predict a similar “apocalyptic” fate for Australia’s first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. The federal Labor Party must test its popularity with the Australian electorate by the end of 2013. If the polls are correct, a defeat of similar proportions to the one just suffered by the Queensland party cannot be discounted.
So what lies behind these numbers? What has led the people of Queensland – and Australia – to fall out of love with Labor so comprehensively?
The simple answer would appear to be Labor’s bad faith. Anna Bligh went into the 2009 election without signalling the slightest intention of selling off the State’s publicly-owned assets and enterprises. Once elected, however, she proceeded to embark on a $15 billion clearance sale of those very same assets. That the overwhelming majority of her party’s members and supporters viscerally opposed Labor’s privatisation plans made no difference whatsoever. More than any other single factor, it was the Bligh Government’s decision to proceed with its un-mandated asset sales programme that cost it the 2012 election.
At the federal level, Julia Gillard’s loss of popular support may be traced to her broken pre-2010 election promise not to introduce a Carbon Tax. Tony Abbot, Leader of the Australian Liberal Party Opposition, is already making strenuous efforts to link Bligh’s and Gillard’s “dishonesty”. This theme of bad faith and broken promises looks set to dominate next year’s federal election campaign.
It is sobering to think that, in the General Election of 2011, only New Zealand’s MMP system prevented the New Zealand Labour Party from experiencing a drubbing as apocalyptic as Queensland’s. It’s Party Vote of 27.48 percent exceeded the QLP’s by just 0.53 percent. From its peak support (under MMP) of 41.26 percent, recorded at the 2002 election, the NZLP’s 13.78 percentage point slide, while slower, is almost as steep as Queensland’s precipitate decline.
What will it take for parties like the NZLP and Queensland Labor to claw their way back into political contention? What do they have to do to reclaim not only the trust, but also the deep affection and loyalty that kept the hopes of Labour/Labor supporters alive through long periods of conservative rule on both sides of the Tasman? The answer, I believe, can be summed up in a single word: immanence.
Political ideologies, and the movements they spawn, are at their most powerful when the actions they inspire are validated purely in terms of the precepts which underpin them: that is to say when their moral impetus is derived from internal, rather than external, sources. At the time of their formation the Australian and New Zealand labour parties conceived of themselves as the party of their respective working-classes, and felt no need to justify themselves in terms relating to anything else. Workers made the societies they inhabited, and it was only by dint of their skill and sweat that they continued to function. Improving the lot of workers, and improving society, were, therefore, one and the same. A better future for all humanity was immanent in both the working-class and its political flagbearer.
This perception of political immanence is clearly evident in the lyrics of the old trade union anthem “Solidarity Forever”:
In our hands we hold a power greater than their hoarded gold
Greater than the strength of armies multiplied a thousand fold
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
When the union makes us strong.
This passage also reveals one of the most important political corollaries to immanence: the notion of repression. If a better society is immanent in the skill and energy of ordinary working people, then there must be something preventing those ordinary people from bringing it forth: a repressive force which thwarts the full flowering of the human spirit. This is the “enemy”, the “other”, that working people must overcome. The “integument” that must be “burst asunder”: to quote Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto.
The opposite of “Labour”; the force that represses it and thwarts the emergence of the better society its free expression would create; is of course “Capital”. Here, then, is the essence of the socialist ideology: the idea that working people, released from the repressive power of capital, will be free to devote their skills and energy towards the creation of a more perfect world. When you were asked what Labour was about, and why you were a member, your explanation became your justification.
Quite obviously, this is not the case today. Contemporary labour parties no longer see a better society pulsing impatiently within its capitalist integument. Instead their members waffle ineffectually about “social justice” and “fairness” and giving people the chance to “get ahead”. Far from being the repressive enemy, Capital is characterised by modern labourites as a liberating force. There is nothing immanent in the modern labour movement, it has become an empty husk.
If you doubt this, just consider two famous photographs of Labour/Labor leaders from the 1970s. One shows Gough Whitlam, leader of the Australian Labor Party, taking the hand of an elderly woman at the launch of his party’s election campaign in 1972. There is in this photograph an almost religious quality of immanent power; of something good and powerful being transferred between the two human-beings.
Gough Whitlam's hand is seized by elderly supporter at the ALP's campaign launch 1972.
The other is of the New Zealand Labour leader, Norman Kirk, leading a little Maori boy across the Waitangi Treaty Ground on 6 February 1973. Once again, the photo is full of immanent power: a better future is wound in the bi-cultural bond like a tightly-coiled koru.
Norman Kirk and young Maori kapa haka performer, Waitangi 1973.
The saddest irony of all is that in the world of Twenty-First Century electoral politics, immanence has become the sole preserve of right-wing ideology. Where the creative power of the future was once coiled tightly in the working-class, it is now located in the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful Market. The mission of the modern right-winger, like the mission of left-wingers in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, is to do everything in his or her power to release History’s most creative force – and to let nothing stand in its way.
And that of course is the true triumph of Campbell Newman in Queensland, and John Key in New Zealand: to have transformed Labor/Labour from the prime political mechanism for the liberation of humanity and the creation of a better society, to the single biggest obstacle to achieving those objectives.
That being the case, the true wonder is not that Labour attracts so few votes, but that it still attracts so many.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.