Monday, 26 March 2012

A Warning From Queensland

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.


barry said...

Chris - Im not sure I understand all the stuff that the 'Solidarity forever' contains except that it does sound particularly soviet era. However one thing it does exhibit is the religeous nature of many left leaning parties. Its the 'our belief is right and all we have to do is convert all you stupid voters' attitude that the Queensland labout party exhibits that was a major reason for their demise. The asset sales wasnt a problem of having no mandate - it was simply that Bligh etc 'knew' they were right and there was no need to gain a mandate.....
The same goes here in NZ. For some years Labour got by on the tail of various interest groups but even these groups finally realised that they were also getting the "we are right - you voters are wrong" treatment.
The more pragmatic approach that National usually follows (the exception recently being Brash with what many regarded as a similar attitude as labour normally show - ie" Im right ") at least takes note of what the general populance is thinking. Thats not to say it gives better governance - but it certainly has much less risk of really pissing off the voters.
You dont need loyalty and affection to be taken seriously - after all the Tongans say they love and respect their King - but they still think hes an idiot the way he runs the country.
The problem for labour is that they think they have to have a central theme, a mantra - and they still think its based around the concept that the unions gave them - some big group of support by right. But if you get it wrong - its going to be very wrong - to wit this last weekend in Queensland. I think the fault actually was the personal and nasty and seemingly totaly wrong attacks made on the leader of the LNP. The attacks were straight out of the religious manuals from northern Ireland - and the electorate didnt like them one little bit. After all the seat of the LNP leader was on a fine balance until the attacks started. I think thats a very salutory message.

jh said...

The context Labour governend in is also relevant. Queenslands biggest employer is the building industry (they sell the Queensland dream to more and more people - a ponzi scheme, (like a drug dealer, the last one worked let's try it again raher than stop. What can good Mummy and Daddy Labour do to trump the Mr Money's (a picture of Norman Kirk on every kitchen in every home)???
[p.s Sorry- just musing]

Brendan McNeill said...

Picking up on Barry's point, I agree that there is a strong religious element to be found in most political parties.

The Greens are 'on a mission' to save the planet.

Mana is on a mission to save Maoridom.

Labour is on a mission to save the workers.

National is on a mission to.... save the economy?

Act is on a mission to save the tax payer.

Interestingly, as peoples interest in formal religion has wained, so too has their interest in joining a political party. The possible exception may be the Greens given that their mission is so outrageous that the young are still able to be captured by it.

The net result is considerable indifference on behalf of the average voter regarding politics and the political process. They usually catch a few sound bites prior to the election, and then vote according to their historical preference.

The so called 'floating voter' now decides elections, and these are the ones who are the least informed, least ideological, least political, most easily swayed by looks, presentation, political bribes, and the superficial.

Who would have predicted that the decline of religious faith in the West, would have had such a debilitating affect upon the political process?

If we lose the transcendent, we also lose imminent.

Anonymous said...

I still can't see why I am supposed to care. One pointless neoliberal party gets ejected in favour of another that will do much the same thing. Whoever you vote for the song remains the same, because the voters who matter appear to want this sort of government. That it is insane is besides the point.

Democracy is now nothing more than mob rule, and that has transformed politics into an imposition rather than a instrument. Look at the number of people who don't vote and tell me I am wrong.

Anon. Y. Mouse said...

Perhaps all MP's should be charged with belonging to "Criminal Group?"

Let's get rid of Party Politics and go back to independents.

TB Ooi 黃定茂 said...

Socialism and capitalism by itself does not seem to have worked, going by the events and fortunes of nations in the past century. Russia imploded and is now barefacedly embracing capitalism. China belabors and wobbles under the peculiar mix of socialist-capitalism.

The lure for the average Joe, Ahmed or Ah Chong all over the world is still the proverbial pot of gold: living life on the fast lane, instant gratifications and all the things money can buy.

Why would the working class (at least some of them) sweat for the minimal wage if the hope is not that someday they too can live a better life: a better, bigger (more luxurious) house, annual overseas vacation (by business class, at least) and their children go to swanky private schools - in short the life of a capitalist?

Affluence is not the product of labor alone. One also needs some luck, a little scheming and good karma.

Wealth does not equate happiness as many living the good life will happily swap theirs for your simpler, stress-free ones. Some of them prove their failures at the top by taking their lives or going to prison.

China is promoting Confucian teachings of virtue and selfless benevolence, in the hope that a change of heart of the masses will result in more happiness and contentment and a more just and egalitarian society.

The journey should start from within, from the heart, the self. Unless we are able to reign in our desires, refine our character, wealth and material success alone will not add to our happiness, instead will increase our grief.

Both capitalism and socialism are useful tools in tandem. There is no one single ideology to harness life. And we should not let our obsession with ideology distance us from our true goal, which is happiness.

Robert Miles said...

Queensland is basically liberal-country party territory. The reactionary and criminal excess of the Bejeke Peterson regime, allowed Labour to rule Queensland for a while, but again partly only to the brilliance of such lawyers and politicians of Beattie, Swan and Rudd. The betrayal of local boy Kevin Rudd by the ALP faction of Rudd and Gillard will never be forgotten.Particulary because Rudd is a disadvataged poor boy from the sticks who made it on pure ability and effort. This is even more so because of the intrinsic conservatism of Queensland and the fact that much of New Zealand and Auckland has moved there. But it is average kiwis plus that move there. NSW and Vic are entirely different, Melbourne and Sydney are world class cities were real talent and beauty is valued.
In terms of asset sales there is no equivalence between the sale of the massively used, modern Queensland rail moving 100 million tons of coal a year and NZs decrepid, steeply graded, lightly laid railways which probably should have been phased out since the mid 1980s.
In the 1920s most intelligent people were doing working class, manual jobs, that is now rare. Repression is the cause of societies problem, but the real social evil and the cause of most social problems and mental illness and crime is sexual repression so Freud was partly right and Micheal Laws and the biological psychiatrists totaly wrong.

Anonymous said...

Exit polls indicated that the two biggest issues that influenced votes were:
1. "The rising cost of living" (61% ALP Supporters & 71% LNP Supporters)
2. "The delivery of state services" (58% ALP Supporters & 67% LNP Supports)

In the previous 12 months, the cost of essential services (housing, energy and transport) have been increasing but the opportunities for large wages and salaries outside of the Brisbane or mining areas has been limited. The swing against Labor increased proportionally by moving out from corporate Brisbane.

Former state run enterprises in energy and transportation have considerably increased consumer costs since privatisation reforms occurred. "Go cards" for rail usage in Brisbane cost city workers anywhere from $40 to $60 weekly whereas a one-way ticket can cost over $10(AUD) to travel across town. Energy costs are increasing, as are the costs of housing.

Many Labor voters have felt that their economic situation is stagnant, the state finances dreadful, and Labor completely out-of-ideas on anything to do with economics.


Danyl said...


If there's one idea the political left is well rid of, it's the notion that they're working to bring about the end of history and usher in a utopia. To paraphrase APJ Taylor, the 'workers' don't want revolution, they just want a nice life.

Chris Trotter said...

Take a look around the world, Danyl.

How's that "nice life" project coming along?

Thought not.

Robert Miles said...

In Politics winning politicians have to look good and feel good to the electorate. In my view Goff and Bill English lost about 12% of the electorate on personality alone. Jenny Shipley might have been the only leader with the ideas and vision that might have produced an advanced western society, but visually she was too unattractive to be elected here. The reverse applies just being a presentable 45 year female politician like Anna Bligh is no longer a novelty and dosen't guarantee any support, particulary as most don't want to vote for a female school teacher type inevitably a bossy with contempt for the average male- for the wrong reasons.
In relation to MMP, Helen Clark was always opposed and in my personal opinion, NZ would have been an far better freer society without giving Winston and Mark the thousands of extra police, police stations and gold passes they demanded. A Clark government without the Anderton- Winston-Donald hangers on might have been a much better long term centerist proposition.
So the Brisbane outer comutters are now forced to pay $60 a month . My, My. My suspicion if you were comutting the equivalent distance from Waikanae or Featherston to Wellington in Britain you would have to pay about $12,000 bucks a year. In seems to me the whole Wellington modernised rail network and the grandiose plans of Mike Lee in Auckland are ridiculously out of scale for a small nation,particularly as I don't believe the Auckland rail network serves much that an intelligent person or a tourist would want to see, other than Eden park which could easily have been served by bus, tram or foot. More than that the sort of low grade citizens and comutters, Mike Lee wants to put along the tracks seem likely to be of little value to an advanced society. Students can probably do the cafe and cleaning work in their spare time. In terms of bar work the sort I liked were the sort down Wells St and Coutenay Place with the barmaids tall beautiful young Californian and Nevadian ladies with a lot of very skillful plastic and tooth surgery.