10 March 2006

The future of the Labor Party (yes, of course it has one) part I

Labor has a future as Australia's Whigs. It has no future as the political wing of trade unionism unless this aspect of its structure is gutted, stuffed and mounted like a dead pet. It will win Federal Government, just not while Beazley is leader (and while Howard is looking healthy and energetic: see earlier post below). It will lose a state/territory election one of these days too, but probably not this year.

There is no way of proving this but I reckon that a majority of members of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Union voted for the Coalition at the last federal election, and other unions would be in a similar situation. It is one thing for an employer to have a large and docile workforce, but when unions work toward a membership that is also large and docile, a century of trade unionism has lost its meaning. Why should this Trojan horse have a place in Labor's stables?

Why should Labor be the only political party to which money is donated? Scare campaigns against union domination will have more traction once it becomes more distant from people's lives, while any good they do just becomes part of the general do-gooder not-for-profit sector operating at the margins of society. a sector too little patronised by most Australians despite the range of growing and urgent needs.

With 17% of the private-sector workforce, the trade union movement can't be said to represent working Australians and there is no indication these numbers will turn around. Indeed, the very people who oversaw this decline are those Labor regards as its future. As in a bad marriage both parties will benefit from a separation.

Listening to Doug Cameron do some dog-whistling about "80c an hour in China" is a portent. Over the next few years one of the leading unions most threatened by cheap labour offshore (i.e. a victim of the success of the Australian trade union movement over the last century or so) will elect a leader in the mould of Pauline Hanson: someone who's not afraid to be here, be loud, be racist and be proud, and tap into the "White Australia" roots of the labour movement. Such a person would embarrass the ALP no end. The Australian will tut-tut about our regional neighbours/trading partners and their perceptions of Australia, and Kevin Rudd will go into a tizz that shows how little clout he has in the broader labour movement. For all that, the union leader(ship) will be beloved of their members, who will increase in number. Labor won't know where to look or know what to do. Neither, though, will the unionist: jobs will still go offshore regardless.

Political credibility is a combination of people and policies. Getting rid of dead wood is half the battle. Claims by wonks like John Roskam that policies matter more than people are also half right.

The wonk's dream is that any backslapping clown can go through all that pointless extrovert crap to get elected to Parliament, and soak up all the perks while the wonks get down to the real business of running the country. The fact is that poor parliamentary representatives are vulnerable to clever journalists and hungry political opponents, if any. Nobody believes policy prescriptions in toto: the minute one element of a program goes "on hold", "on the backburner" or "non-core", or is simply dumped in the face of sectional outrage, wonks lose the will to live.

Labor has as much talent at the federal level as is necessary to win office. Julia Gillard needs five years run-up to the Prime Ministership. It's about time Labor started doing things properly, and they should stick with her while she gets across the job. Howard has no idea how to handle her; he belled that cat Beazley a decade ago and has seen off two other "leaders". Any minute now, expect Tony Abbott to lose control in Parliament and make that one hard-hitting comment on Gillard that rebounds on him, that causes the women of Australia to rally behind her and never, never trust Abbott again no matter how much faux-penance he does.

Kevin Rudd is the only man in Australia who can make John Howard look warm and fuzzy, though he can master a brief. His sticking to the AWB scandal in the face of apathy is a credit to him; his attacks on tennis courts at Australian embassies is silly to the point of embarrassment. Stephen Conroy needs to mythologise himself like Graham Richardson did if he's to survive (same with Kim Carr). Smith and Swan should go into those big sprawling portfolios with plenty of scope for scandal, but which doesn't have political importance such that folk will change their votes over it (e.g. Defence).

Lindsay Tanner's recent appearance at CIS is further proof that he should be the next Labor Treasurer. He's not colourless and personality-free like Stephen Smith and nor would he be as scary as Latham. Tanner is potentially the ALP's best interface with business since John Button.