The Australian electorate has become increasingly attracted to non-economic issues. For Labor to again regain government, it will need to embrace new issues that amount to more than just confronting Howard on his own ground.
Australians rarely change their governments at the federal level, but when they do it is usually to come to terms with social, economic and political changes that have taken place in the intervening years. The victories of Menzies in 1949, Whitlam in 1972, Hawke in 1983 and Howard in 1996 were all a result of the Opposition doing its policy homework, articulating the changes that had taken place during the intervening period and confronting the new and emerging issues in Australian society.
In 1949 Menzies claimed to represent the ordinary people of middle Australia who had been forgotten by big business and the socialism of the unions. In 1972 Whitlam brought in a raft of new initiatives long overdue after 23 years of Coalition Government neglect. Bob Hawke “brought Australians together” in 1983 after the divisiveness of the Fraser years. In 1996, Howard was able to articulate voters’ angst over the fast pace of social and political change that had left them desiring a return to more recognisable values.
He won government ironically when the economy was already emerging strongly out of recession under Keating. Like the ALP in 1975-83 and the Liberals in 1983-96, if it is to again win government, Labor has to come to terms with the cultural changes that have occurred in Australian society over the intervening period since Keating’s defeat in 1996.
Particularly relevant at this current point in time is the retirement of baby boomers and the emergence of generations X and Y, who one day soon will make up a majority of the Australian electorate. This group does not share all the same dreams as the generations that came before them. Most have never even known economic disadvantage.
Moreover, the current buoyant economic conditions offer an interesting twist and a possible throwback to the last occasion when Australia enjoyed a prolonged economic upswing in the late 1960s. Being not so pressed financially paradoxically offers the electorate the luxury of being able to indulge in issues unrelated to the pursuit of pure economic advancement. Work-life balance has become the new buzzword. The recent grassroots public opposition to the sale of Snowy-Hydro offers a glimpse that Australians may find attraction in “cultural” or “social” issues that are often easily belittled by more orthodox political minds.
Another example of the electorate’s willingness to be swayed by new non-economic issues was the outcry over the punishment handed down to Schapelle Corby in May 2005. While this issue has now completely disappeared from political discourse, there is no doubting both the passion associated with that young woman’s plight - particularly among young people - and just as significantly, the steadfast refusal of formal political structures to become drawn on the issue.
This was such a quintessentially unorthodox, non-economic issue that Labor lost no time in refusing to back. Instead of seizing onto an issue where the government was vulnerable and on which the public and the media were looking for direction, Beazley chose instead at exactly the same time (May 2005) to put his full political weight behind a campaign to oppose the government’s tax reform agenda - even attempting to block it in the Senate.
This was taking on Howard on Howard’s own terms, and unsurprisingly, the Labor position was a failure. When the government was under pressure on a particular issue, Beazley chose instead to take on the government in respect of another issue where the government was dominant.
Similarly, there were expectations from this year’s federal budget that the deliverance of significant tax cuts and other financial benefits would result in boosted government poll numbers. However, the anticipated poll fillip never occurred. It is almost as if economic growth and sound fiscal management is taken for granted by the electorate and it is only on new non-economic issues that either party can make headway with voters.
Unfortunately for Labor, it is the government that has been putting in much of the hard yards, listening to the cultural messages from the electorate and allowing the opinion-formers and influencers among the shock-jocks to do a lot of the work for them. When asked what he would be doing during a visit to Far North Queensland in the wake of Cyclone Larry’s devastation earlier this year, Mr Howard said he would be “listening, listening, listening”. Indeed, this response basically explains why he is prime minister today and not Paul Keating.
Leaders that speak only in terms of putting bread and butter on the table (as Mr Beazley appeared until recently to be doing), and other language more suited to the era of Ben Chifley, are missing the point. Language that resonates with voters at the end of a prolonged period of economic upswing would more likely involve appeals to issues other than the generally competent economic management of the current government that has brought prosperity to many.
Labor is traditionally the party of innovation in Australia, but in recent years this has not been the case. Offering sensible economic management, sound national defence strategies and fairer industrial relations are important components of the party’s ability to sell itself. Mr Beazley’s recent conversion to a stance of opposition to Australian workplace agreements (as long as he can get the sums right) and his mocking of the government’s appeasement of Jakarta on immigration are important new directions for a Labor Party intent on policy differentiation.
An IR campaign focused on the potential threat to the work-life balance, one of the emerging issues of our times, and arguments as to the danger of giving too much ground to the Jakarta lobby are definitely issues on which Labor will win some traction. However, the problem for the Opposition is that these issues may be seen as merely opposing government initiatives rather than breaking new ground in the country’s political agenda.
For Labor to win in 2007 (or as is more likely in 2010), it will need to effectively re-invent itself as it did so magnificently in Opposition during the Fraser years. In each of the three occasions in the past 70 years when Labor has achieved government from Opposition - 1941, 1972 and 1983 - it was only able to do so by offering a new paradigm to voters. It is time for Labor to embrace change not just in its leadership but in the broader policy debate for an “Australia-centric” vision that wins the hearts and minds of a new generation.