Federal Politics


Labor zombies seek a new logo

You have to have a very thick hide to be a prime minister. Particularly an unpopular one. For Julia Gillard, the subtext of virtually every question she is asked is why voters do not like her and whether she can win the support of voters who seem to have already made up their minds.

She doesn't have much to sell back, other than her authority, such as it is, and a demand for respect. She says that if she has done anything unpopular, it has been by being responsible, administering medicine voters needed but didn't like.

''My job as prime minister is to get the big decisions right for our nation today and for the future,'' she told a Perth talkback program this week. ''Some of them aren't popular decisions. Some of them aren't easy decisions. But if they are the right decisions for the future then they have to be made.

''So what I'll be doing is continuing to lead our nation, to make sure we've got the benefits of a strong economy, that we are managing this huge resources boom and sharing its benefits across Western Australia [my emphasis] so people don't feel they are on the sidelines missing out. As well as continuing to improve our hospitals and the services people rely on, whilst we build the education system we need for the future, and very new and important instruments of fairness like the National Disability Insurance Scheme.''

That was in talking to people of a state notably discontent with Labor. On Sunday last, however, she was talking to people of her party (albeit of a state which had chewed and spat it out in only recent times.) The key audience was different, and those she had to impress - key union leaders - different too. Here she was saying that she and Labor had already delivered, particularly on the trade union agenda. And that the alternative was a return to WorkChoices, which she claims is back on the Abbott agenda.

''The fight's on, and we will fight and win it'', she told delegates to the NSW ALP conference. ''I am too proud of what we have achieved for working people to do anything else but fight.


''Safe rates for truckies - we've got it done. New protections for cleaners - done.

''New laws to stop the exploitation of outworkers - done. A fairer deal for decent workers in building and construction - done.'' (Presumably the hint that there might also be indecent workers is why she has not delivered on demands that she drop an agency designed to stop intimidation and bullying.)

''Reforms to Australian shipping to keep ships under the Australian flag - done. A Work Force Compact for those who care for our elderly loved ones - done.

''And, because of Labor, all workers can have security in retirement with our historic increase in super from 9 to 12 per cent.''

She spoke also of efforts to close the pay gap between men and women, and of efforts to get better rewards for workers in the welfare sector.

''Delegates, I know you are as proud of this great Labor fair work reform as I am.''

So this, apparently, is what it was all about. And is, perhaps the reason why the trade union movement, as much as the ALP, must dig deep into its resources to fight off the Abbott Coalition at the next election with a campaign particularly focused on warning of the spectre of a return to WorkChoices.

But she was not spruiking her industrial relations reforms as she campaigned around Western Australia. If one reads transcripts of her speeches and statements from her website, one sees that she was campaigning mostly on issues where - judging by the questions, and her defensive answers - she is on the back foot: on her leadership and the polls, on carbon taxes, on boat people, and on environmental impediments to mining developments, and even in attempting to face down Aboriginal opposition to Labor's model of development. Perhaps she personally disarmed some people with her nervous laugh: it's hard to see her having won any arguments, or many votes.

Perhaps not even at the Labor conference, which was distracting itself from reality with unimportant arguments about the destination of the ever-diminishing pile of Labor first preferences, where Gillard argued, unconvincingly, that Labor, under her, was not a brand

but a cause. At the conference, John Faulkner, Labor elder statesman and undertaker, again in self-imposed exile on the Gillard backbench, made some sardonic but unreported remarks:

''Comrades, we've been immersed in an argument about the distribution of preferences while ignoring the reality: you have to win primary votes to have preferences to give. And in case you haven't noticed our primary vote is low and getting lower.

''Our party is facing a crisis of organisation and a crisis of belief. Instead of grappling with these threats to our survival as a party of government - the only party of organised labour in Australia to have ever been able to put our policies into practice and fulfil our great aim of 'making and unmaking social conditions' - we are posturing about the minutiae of political tactics.

''With too many voters forming the opinion that our party believes in nothing but the pursuit of power, they are hardly likely to be reassured that we are a party of conviction and ideas by a public debate on just which backroom deal is most likely to deliver office!

''We cannot change views and votes by talking about tactics, and fixes, and preference deals. We cannot build a consensus behind our vision for reform by discussing slick electoral manoeuvres while remaining silent on our core values and beliefs.

''It's time to get real. The Greens are winning votes from us. They are winning seats from us - upper and lower house, state and federal.

''They have gained the loyalty of the best part of a generation of activists, and they will gain the loyalty of the best part of a generation of voters as well, if we don't stop talking about means and start talking about ends.

''We must give people a reason to vote for us. And there are reasons to vote Labor - the values we have always stood for. The Liberals argue we are too much like the Greens. The Greens assert we're too much like the Liberals. But, we are neither.

''We are the only political party that believes in a community defined by who it includes, not who it excludes - the only political party that doesn't judge Australians by their income, or education, or type of employment or where they live.

''Labor is the only political party that understands that people's lives are affected by circumstances beyond their control, and that the concerns of those in difficult circumstances deserve to be addressed.

''Ours is the only political party to stand for the equal value of all, and the equal rights of all to live with dignity, and without want or fear of want. We know no government should sacrifice the security and well-being of some Australians in the service of policy purity. We are the only political party to know that policies should be made to fit people, not people made to fit policies.

''Labor is the only political party to understand that economic rights are human rights: to understand that commitment to political freedoms is inadequate without that economic security that underpins all participation in our democracy as free and equal citizens.

''Of course, none of this should be a revelation. But the sad truth is that for many would-be and once-were Labor voters and supporters, it would be! When we choose to spend a week talking about our preferences, is it any wonder that more and more Australians are deciding that their preference isn't us?

''Sometimes it's what you don't talk about that makes the most noise, and our silence this week on belief and policy has been deafening. Tactics without strategy, policy without belief, victory without purpose, are the things we have always condemned in our political opponents. Our values, our beliefs, our principles and what we offer Australia are ignored when we are tub-thumping about preference deals.

''Those arguments are arguments over what voters can do for us, not, as it should be, about what we, the Labor Party, will do for them.''

It's perhaps symptomatic of the problem that most of the headlines about the party's debates were about something else Faulkner said, about the need for ALP noisemaker Paul Howes to ''put a sock in it''. And about some remarks from Gillard's environment minister, Tony Burke.

He said, ''John Faulkner's speech, I think I first heard it in 1989.

''It's a very good speech. It always tells us that the NSW branch of the Labor Party is very, very bad and John Faulkner is very, very good.''

A fabulous put-down, but from a man whose activities as a minister are neither winning votes for Labor, nor doing the difficult and unpopular, but necessary, steps to ensure the nation's future. Nine of 10 voters do not even know who he is; most would not like him better if they did. Nor could many of that nine enunciate any part of the government's schools or universities or skills policies, or what, if anything (hell, even I don't know) what Labor's health reforms are all about, or how they are changing people's lives. Or why our involvement in Afghanistan is making us more secure. Gillard's ministers are on holiday, and all that she herself is doing is exciting pity.

Heavens, this government cannot even make voters scared of Tony Abbott. It will struggle to prove he has a real WorkChoices agenda.

Was it J. G. Ballard who spoke of people sleepwalking ''to oblivion, thinking only of the corporate logos on its shroud''?