Metamorphosis of the ALP

Labor is at odds with its heartland

“What’s happening here in Canberra is not about who gets to form the government. It’s a battle for the heart and soul of Australia.”

By Gary Scarrabelotti*

The election is over at last. Labor will form a minority government propped up by the Greens and three Independent MPs. Labor has clawed its way back from the brink and back into power. But on the way, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Labor Party, Julia Gillard, has entered into an alliance with forces that will destroy what is left of Labor’s “working class” identity – and eat further into its already fragile primary vote.

The extraordinary thing about Labor’s success at putting together this alliance is not that two MPs representing conservative electorates – Rob Oakeshott (Lyne, NSW) and Tony Windsor (New England, NSW) – chose to work with Labor. That’s not surprising at all. Both men are quite disconnected from conservative politics: bitter experiences lie behind them. What is really astonishing is that, on the way to clinching the votes of the Independents, Julia Gillard, forged a formal alliance with the Australian Greens: all signed, sealed and delivered, on 1 September, over her signature and that of Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown.

Trying to grasp the meaning of this pact and its wholly unnecessary formality – unnecessary because the Greens were always going to vote with Labor – the Canberra press gallery’s wise man, Paul Kelly, wrote:

“Julia Gillard … has surrendered a prize beyond value: she has compromised the Labor brand. The once great Labor party passes into history with this deal to ride into government.” (The Australian, 2 September 2010.)

Well, is the Gillard-Brown agreement an act of self-destruction by Labor, or a natural evolution of the ALP into a new kind of political movement?

Candidates vs voters

A key to answering this question is an academic study written up in 2004 by Dr. Katherine Betts, Associate Professor of sociology at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. Entitled “People and Parliamentarians: the Great Divide”, the article was published in 2004 in the ournal People and Place. The abstract at the head of the article sums up the reality of politics in Australia.

“Most candidates for federal elections hold values on social and economic questions that are unlike those of most voters. However, Coalition candidates are much closer to the people who vote for them than Labor candidates are to Labor voters. Labor’s electoral base is divided between a relatively small number of new-class social professionals and a relatively large number of people in traditional working-class occupations. These two groups often hold different values on political questions, such as border control, the size of the immigration program, cultural pluralism and so on. Labor candidates in federal elections are more likely to sympathise with the social professionals’ values than with those of their traditional supporters.”

Bett’s study examines data collected by an ANU-based group of researchers who conducted the Australian Election Study covering the 1987, 1990, 1993, 1996, and 2001 elections. Her analysis led Betts to some striking conclusions. The following stand out:

“… not only are Labor candidates’ values very different from those of the electorate in general, they are even further removed from the traditional working class.” (p.74)

“Labor candidates … have more in common with candidates for the Greens Party (and with Green voters), than they did with voters for their own party.” (p.75)

“Labor candidates’ closeness to the Greens does not derive from a shared concern about the natural environment … The congruence between Labor candidates’ values and those of the Greens … is more likely to derive from a shared cosmopolitan ideology with its emphasis on minority rights and international social justice, a set of beliefs common among the new-class intelligentsia but less prevalent in other reaches of society.” (pp. 75 – 76)


What this paper tells us is that the alliance made by Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and Greens Leader, Bob Brown, is not a cynical marriage of convenience. It’s a natural fit. It’s less of a “second coalition”, as Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has called it, than a home-coming.

Bob Brown understands this and expects a favourable reception for green policies in ALP ranks, at least among a significant minority of Labor MPs. Gillard also knows the temper of her troops. That’s why, among other reasons, she has granted Brown and Bob Bandt, the new Green MP for the seat of Melbourne, unprecedented access to herself: once a week during each parliament sitting week and at least once a fortnight in non-sitting weeks.

Labor backbenchers do not have that kind of access and can never expect it. Gillard feels that she can get away with conceding exceptional rights to Brown and Bandt precisely because they represent a great body of opinion on Labor’s side. Brown and Bandt have been appointed, in effect, as permanent representatives of Labor’s “green” MPs to the Prime Minister’s Office.

This is why Brown has been bold enough to signal how he intends to use the new Green-ALP Agreement to reshape Labor policy. The plan is to bowl up private members bills accompanied by demands that Labor MPs be granted conscience votes on them. Reckless? Arrogant? No. Just well attuned to what a lot of Labor MPs want: a way to rewrite Labor’s official political agenda. Here’s a mechanism that could help Labor’s “green” MPs to achieve what otherwise would be beyond their powers: things like a tougher tax on miners, porous borders established on principle, and a legal sanction for so-called “gay marriage”.

Given that the Labor Right has bankrupted itself both politically and ideologically, there is now very little – except the political acumen of the Prime Minister —  to check the undisguised adoption by the ALP of an agenda that treats with contempt Labor’s traditional “working class” base and its conservative aspirations and social values.

As an old news hound and experienced judge of political horseflesh put it to me as Labor and the Coalition fought for the support of the independent MPs:

“What’s happening here in Canberra is not about who gets to form the government. It’s a battle for the heart and soul of Australia.”

*Gary Scarrabelotti is the Managing Director of Aequum: Political & Business Consulting. This article was orginally published on .

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