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Will Labor be banished throughout the land?

Date

Paul Strangio

Only once before has the ALP been exiled from office nationwide. This time the dry spell could be a lot more testing.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

With the exception of a small oasis in the Australian Capital Territory, as of this weekend it looks highly probable that the ALP will be consigned to opposition throughout the land. The likely defeat of Jay Weatherill's government in South Australia and Lara Giddings' government in Tasmania will leave Labor languishing out of office federally and in all of the states.

In a country with seven major political jurisdictions (Commonwealth and state) and relatively regular alternations of government, this is a rare phenomenon historically. Since Australia's party system settled down to a broadly Labor versus non-Labor contest around a century ago, the ALP has only once previously found itself exiled from office nationwide.

That was between late May 1969 and early June 1970, a period that began when the sole surviving Labor government, led by Eric ''Electric'' Reece, in Tasmania was defeated. The ALP's banishment ended when Don Dunstan entered his second highly reformist period in office in South Australia that then lasted for much of the 1970s.

Indeed, this impending governing drought looms as more testing for Labor than the dry spell of 1969-70. For, despite being out of office, the end of the 1960s was a period of resurgence and optimism within the ALP. The party was buoyed by organisational reform and policy renewal at the federal level spearheaded by its new leader Gough Whitlam. In a larger sense, the times were breaking for Labor as the Vietnam War soured for the conservative parties and a mood of change swept the nation.

In the midst of the ALP's governing famine, federal Labor achieved a 7 per cent swing against John Gorton's Liberal-Country Party Coalition government at the October 1969 election. That result poised the ALP for victory at the next federal ballot, held in December 1972. By contrast, Labor will enter this lean spell at genuinely low ebb. Rather than on an upswing federally, the ALP is still nursing the wounds of its September 2013 defeat and the related agonies of the Rudd-Gillard leadership civil war.

While Labor has maintained a brave public face of unity over the past six months and was briefly enlivened by its inaugural experience of a membership leadership ballot, the party still seems largely devoid of ideas for a sustained reinvigoration of its base. Nor does the fragmented and sullen national Zeitgeist hold out much promise for Labor even if the party had the wherewithal to galvanise a constituency for change through an eloquently expressed and coherent program for social reform.

There is also a risk that this governing drought will be prolonged. The travails of the Napthine Coalition government in Victoria do offer Labor hope that it will break as soon as this November. However, should the ALP fail to win regain control of Spring Street later this year - and defeat of a first-term government remains a steep challenge for Daniel Andrews and his team - there seems little prospect of an early return to power elsewhere.

The gargantuan defeats suffered by Labor governments in New South Wales and Queensland in 2011 and 2012 respectively make a resumption of office in either of those states in 2015 almost inconceivable.

Western Australia represents a better opportunity for Labor, especially since the Liberal Party will be seeking a third term when it next heads to the polls, but that election is not due until early 2017. While we would have had another federal election by then, the ALP can probably only realistically hope to get within striking distance of the Abbott Coalition government in 2016 and so make it competitive for office three years on.

What this emphasises is how high the stakes are likely to be for Labor at November's Victorian state election. Reclaiming office in a single state may be a poor consolation prize, yet history suggests it can be an important fillip for a struggling party and foundation for renewal. A past example was Neville Wran's victory in NSW in May 1976, which closely followed the dismissal and defeat of the Whitlam government at the end of 1975.

Wran's election was a shot in the arm of a traumatised ALP and a demonstration of the party's resilience. Moreover, although this only became apparent in hindsight, Wran's governing style provided something of a model for Labor when it returned to power federally in 1983 under Bob Hawke.

It is readily forgotten that state governments have the capacity to sow the ground for their federal counterparts - as Don Dunstan's socially progressive policies did in South Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which have been compared to an advance guard of Whitlamism.

At a more practical level, holding office in at least one of the larger states (NSW and Victoria) can provide a redoubt for a party in tough times. It can be a sanctuary and training ground for staffers and other partisans, who are then ready to be deployed when governing opportunities return elsewhere.

In short, it can become a haven within which to husband human as well as financial resources.

For now, though, the ALP appears to be facing a period of banishment from government. Once upon a time Labor had a psychological defence mechanism against barren electoral times: part of its self-identity was that of a political outsider; it had its own distinctive subculture and rituals; and it was imbued by a sense of purpose that was not exclusively derived from being in government.

Yet the progressive ''professionalisation'' of the party and broader transformations of the past half-century have drastically weakened that element of Labor's self-understanding. Now its raison d'etre is almost wholly focused on the winning and holding of executive power. Stripped of office federally and in the states, Labor will feel like it has no clothes.

Dr Paul Strangio is an associate professor of politics in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University.

42 comments

  • One more sleep and the ALP will be banished from the all the nation's governments (except ACT, unfortunately)! This is the greatest victory of all.

    How sweet it is!!!

    Commenter
    Simon
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    March 14, 2014, 7:45AM
    • Ain't that the truth. The fact that anyone would consider voting for the Labor party or their miserable Green acolytes, says a lot about that national IQ.

      Commenter
      nemises
      Location
      lalor
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 8:46AM
    • Yes sweet if you want to see the destruction of our great country.

      Commenter
      BEWILDERED
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 9:11AM
    • It's great to see that you're more interested in your "team" achieving victory, while the current government ruins the country with their policies that benefit only the mega-rich at the expense of the rest of us, turning us into a third world country. Maybe one day you will wake up to the damage caused by blind loyalty.

      Commenter
      James
      Location
      Cranbourne
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 9:14AM
    • I cannot believe people are so "one sided" in their politics in 2014....wow....sounds like its 1970

      Commenter
      shemp
      Location
      melb
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 10:00AM
    • Maybe this confirms or reinforces a theory of mine. That there are those that will support a political party like a footy team. It matters not how bad they play, or that they play the man rather than the ball, they will still barrack for them till the day they die.

      And if things don't go their way, there's always the umpire or the weather to blame.

      Oh just read James reference to "team". Maybe I should not post this. What the hell, I spent the time writing it.

      Commenter
      Rover the dog
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 10:02AM
    • James - you are the reason why the ALP is unelectable. Making ridiculous claims that the Coalition's policies only benefit the 'mega rich' (whatever that is) just prove that the ALP and its few supporters are completely irrelevant in modern society. The fact remains that the Coalition has MASSIVE support in the community because they have policies which support working people, unlike the trade union ruled ALP.

      Commenter
      Simon
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 10:10AM
    • Ahhh simon time to take the blinkers off and get out and see the real world, your knowledge on politics must be very profound on zilch . So if you call that a victory you don't know anything about balance of power. Not a smart man at all...

      Commenter
      Supa350
      Location
      Wodonga
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 10:48AM
    • Hi Simon,
      I build things for a living. Most of my parts suppliers were heavily reliant on the order volumes of the auto industry to afford the skill and high tech machinery required to build the parts I need for my business. Unfortunately I have been told many of them are now in various stages of making their staff redundant with a view to cease operations in the near future which will likely spell the end of my business too which is not automotive related.

      I have no education in banking, financial services or coffee making.

      Please tell me how as a hands on working person I am now better off under you government.

      Thanks

      Commenter
      Amazed
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 11:36AM
    • What Simon? The unions are actually a minuscule part of the workforce. This government is accelerating attacks on all workers, both skilled and non-skilled. You can't tell me all the skilled job losses are anything to do with the unions!

      And as for the newly introduce amendment to Industrial Relations Act Amendment 2014, that is to allow employers to use their power over employees so they can force employees to take less conditions and pay, regardless of the environmental conditions. It was a core part of WorkChoices. How does that help the workers?

      Commenter
      James
      Location
      Cranbourne
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 12:41PM

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