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Greens funding threat

Greens issue threat over mining tax. Greens Senator Larissa Waters and Nationals Senator Fiona Nash discuss government instability.

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If you're inclined to take a long-term view of politics, the hand-wringing on whether Julia Gillard should stay or go is really just so much white noise.

Labor is in crisis, but not principally for the reasons that occupy the commentariat.

A party without a narrative is reduced to seeking your support as a lesser evil. Hence Labor's focus on Tony Abbott.  

It's not about a bitterly divided caucus, or political miscalculations such as the ham-fisted Nova Peris saga. It's not even simply about policy missteps such as the creation of an impotent mining tax.

<em>Illustration: Simon Letch</em>

Illustration: Simon Letch

Labor's problems are not nearly so managerial and technocratic. They are much, much bigger than that.

Labor's problem is ideological. It doesn't really mean anything any more, and probably hasn't since Paul Keating lost power in 1996. Sure, Labor has had its moments - most notably in its campaign against WorkChoices, which jolted its ideological memory and gave it a momentary reason to exist.

But this was no ideological revival. It was reactive: a political opportunity well taken rather than a world view reborn.

Only John Howard's pro-business, anti-union zeal, unencumbered by any resistance in the Senate, made this possible. After WorkChoices, much as before it, what then?

This isn't an optional, esoteric extra. Governments ultimately thrive on narrative. Voters are not merely electing a suite of set policies. They are electing a party that will respond to future, unforeseen policy questions. They therefore need to know what you're about. That's what a clear consistent story tells them.

A party without a narrative is reduced to seeking your support as a lesser evil. Hence Labor's focus on Tony Abbott.

Every successful government can be summarised in a phrase or two. Bob Hawke: a new, deregulated, globalised economy. Keating inherited that story, then added Asia, a growing economic power in our backyard we should embrace by shedding our British skin. Howard was about nationalism, security and capital's triumph over labour. Everything - asylum seeker policy, counterterrorism, foreign affairs, even unsolicited social commentary about minority groups - was tailored to fit the story.

Exactly what story has Labor told us since 2007? It began with something about ''Australian working families'', but that too was a relic of the WorkChoices campaign. After that, it has been mostly a blancmange of conflicting messages. Perhaps it started when Kevin Rudd wanted to be ''tough but humane'' on asylum seekers. It took Gillard only a matter of days as Prime Minister to continue the incoherence, declaring both that the number of boat people arriving in Australia was much smaller than many imagined, before swiftly going on to reassure those worried about invading hordes that their concerns were legitimate, and that they're ''certainly [not] racist''. We learn nothing from this about how Labor sees asylum seekers. We learn only that it's trying to please everyone.

The problem persists even in Labor-friendly policy areas. Take education, where the Rudd government announced a bold new focus on literacy and numeracy, much as Howard might have. More recently, it commissioned the Gonski review, but tied its hands on the question of private school funding so the panel couldn't even consider cutting it. Then it pledged a response it is yet to detail or fund.

Indeed, its only real response to date has been a bill it hailed as the most important of last year, but which had nothing in it at all. Explicitly. It has a section specifically saying the bill creates no rights or obligations on anyone - especially the government. To paraphrase, ''section 10: this legislation does not exist''.

Even Labor's most significant reform, the carbon tax, merely symbolises the party's ideological malaise. The government's heftiest achievement isn't even its own policy. Indeed, it was so infamously promised not to be its policy.

Remember the citizens' assembly? That was Gillard's pledge before the last election: a random gathering of ordinary people who would somehow reach a consensus on pricing carbon. That's a process, not a policy. It's the kind of thing you do when you want to announce something but you're not prepared to commit to a compelling vision of your own.

As the opposition hammers it on Labor's broken pledge to deliver a surplus this financial year, the government seems to have found some coherence. Confronted with falling corporate profit (and therefore falling tax revenue), it had a choice: either keep finding cuts that would make lots of people unemployed and deflate the economy, or prioritise jobs and growth. It's a nice line. It sounds like a Labor line. But it follows years of saying the opposite; of elevating the surplus to some inviolable standard of good economic management; of saying the main game was giving the Reserve Bank ''room to cut interest rates''. And this in the face of the ever-lengthening queue of economists advising to the contrary.

In short, Labor had bought wholly into the Coalition's narrative for no discernible reason. It conceded the philosophical debate, then lost the political fight. So now, when it has finally found a Labor story to tell, it sounds convenient and insincere. Labor has become a liberal party, so it isn't even convincing when it sounds like itself.

That's not about incompetent leadership; it is the flipside of the Hawke/Keating legacy. Once Labor embraced a deregulated, liberal economy, the political landscape was forever changed, leaving a diabolical question for subsequent Labor leaders: what exactly is the point of Labor politics? The compromise has been to talk about Labor's ''reforming tradition'', but reform is an act, not an ideology. WorkChoices was a reform, too.

Labor has been chasing its base ever since. Often it watched helplessly as workers became small business owners and turned into Howard's socially conservative battlers. Labor cannot offer them industrial protection, and desperately doesn't want to offend their cultural sensibilities, which is why it says things like ''tough but humane''.

The result is that Labor cannot even compete on social and cultural politics. Hence the flight to the Greens, the party Gillard so venomously dismissed this week as a ''party of protest''. To which the most devastating reply is surely: ''Fine. But what are you?''

Waleed Aly is the presenter of Drive on Radio National.

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