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"Were not dead yet": connecting with the missing middle

By Wayne Swan - posted Friday, 15 February 2002


The Australian Labor Party vision and our values are as relevant today as they were over a century ago when the labour movement first mobilised.

However, having lost three consecutive Federal elections, the last in an environment that was so conducive to a Labor victory, we must take stock. We’re not dead yet, but we have a lot of work to do.

The narrowness of Labor’s election loss tends to obscure a number of significant underlying trends that have been with us in the Australian political system since the early nineties. In particular, the widespread feeling across all social groups, all ages and across the city and country, that politics has no relevance for the future.

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This alienation from politics is common throughout the democratic world. American Presidents for a long time have been elected by minorities and in the United Kingdom Tony Blair won the second time around with the support of only 25% of the electorate.

In an environment like this, wedge politics flourishes and in the Federal Election wedge politics in the form of Tampa and the fear of terrorism ultimately determined the outcome.

I want to be clear that without Tampa and September 11, I believe Labor under Kim Beazley would have prevailed in a hard fought campaign.

Some of the ‘Battlers’ – those predominantly blue collar workers on modest incomes and struggling to make ends meet – who were moving to the Labor Party or considering voting One Nation stayed with the Coalition after the events of September 11 and Tampa.

That said, we must also acknowledge the fact that before Tampa and September 11 there was a certain loss of impetus in our drive towards victory.

While Labor was attracting the ‘Battlers’ angry about the GST we had failed to convince enough of what I would term the ‘outer suburban middle classes’ of our credentials.

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This is a very diverse group – some are teachers and nurses, some are sub-contractors and small business owners who have done well in life and want their children to do even better. The value of their home is important and they will often have a second investment property. There is a diversity of household incomes within this grouping.

They are the ‘Westfield Mallers’ because the shopping centre is the hub of their social interaction in the new and emerging suburbs. No longer is the town hall or even the local church the centre of their universe.

Like the ‘Battlers’ they want the Government to stand up to vocal minorities, vested interests and champion the view that rewards hard work. This means they are easily aroused by any suggestion of welfare fraud or queue jumping, accurate or not.

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This is an edited version of an address given to the Fabian Society in Melbourne, 30 January 2002. The full text of the speech is here.



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About the Author

Wayne Swan MP is the Member for Lilley (Qld). He is Federal Labor Shadow Treasurer and author of Postcode.

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