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Will Labor be banished throughout the land?

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

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.


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