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Who is supporting the rise of social conservatism?

By Daniel Donahoo - posted Friday, 22 December 2006

Is it possible that the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party is contributing more to the rise of socially conservative, family-driven politics than John Howard and the Liberals?

Recent election results in Victoria suggest that it is Labor who has been responsible for electing representatives of Family First and the Democratic Labor Party who have run anti-abortion, family-focused campaigns. And, former Labor premiers Cain and Kirner are expressing their disappointment.

The election of Family First’s Steve Fielding to the Senate in the 2004 Federal election and the recent results in Victoria where Peter Kavanagh of the DLP was elected to the Upper House demonstrates just how far the Australian Labor Party has moved to the right. Its members are stranded between a desire to support the idealism of the Greens and the need to appeal to comfortable, consumer-driven middle Australia.


The reality is, that in trying to present an alternative opposition and be competitive, they have been drifting right for more than a decade. The result, in this game of tug and war, is the Liberals are having the greater long-term political impact.

Paul Austin in The Age, (December 14, 2006) rightly pointed out that democracy is not in trouble just because the DLP have got a seat in the Victorian parliament after 20 years. But, we should be troubled by Labor parties who preside over significant surpluses and don’t use them to adequately improve the health and well-being of our society. So powerful has the pull of neo-capitalism been, Labor runs the economy more conservatively than the conservatives.

Labor’s shift is a result of chasing the Liberal’s tail, but that is more at a federal level. At a state level, particularly in Victoria it is driven by Labor’s fear of the Greens. This fear is what saw Peter Garrett parade through the inner-city seat of Melbourne only days prior to the election in Victoria - a seat that polls suggested was going to go to the Greens. This fear is what led Labor to undertake a campaign of misinformation suggesting the Greens were preferencing the Liberals, when the fact was they were simply distributing split tickets.

But, when it comes to preference deals it is Labor, not the Greens, who is supporting the conservatives. To reduce the opportunity of Greens taking vital Labor seats the Labor party organised preferencing in a way that has seen Green candidates lose out to those whose policies are more conservative than Labor would perhaps like.

Certainly, Steve Bracks is disappointed with not gaining a majority in Victoria’s Upper House. The Greens, who are furious about the results, are arguing that the inclusion of two DLP parliamentarians will change the Bracks Government’s legislative agenda during his third term. They believe Labor could stall introducing socially progressive legislation so those interested in socially progressive ideas like gay civil unions and decriminalised abortion in Victoria should keep a close eye on deals being made in the Upper House.

Despite the mess, Steve Bracks is still in the box seat, probably not the best seat (that would be a majority in both houses), but now, rather than having to deal only with the Greens he can deal with the DLP or the Nationals. Each of these parties has two Upper House seats, and any two of their votes could give Labor a majority.


All the ranting and concerns could be for nothing depending on how Labor in Victoria wants to play the game. With two Greens in the Upper House it could very well form a strong alliance that still sees a large majority of the Bracks Government’s plans go ahead, albeit with some changes that have a green tinge. But, if the animosity between the left-wing parties remains, and Labor is happy to keep moving to the right than a deal or two with the DLP or even the Nationals may not be out of the question. This all depends on each separate piece of legislation of course.

This shows that for state Labor parties the shift to the right has been a case of moving in the right direction. Labor has a strangled hold on the second tier of government in this country. It seems incapable of losing an election and it will be interesting to see how the Iemma Government chooses to distribute preferences in the upcoming New South Wales government elections. My bet would be: don’t be too surprised if socially conservative, family focused candidates get more preferences than they expected.

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About the Author

Journalist and columist with The Age, Sushi Das says he is ‘one of today’s young rebels’. Author and ethicist Leslie Cannold has referred to him as one of her ‘gorgeous men’.

Daniel Donahoo is fellow with OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank. He writes regularly for Australia's daily papers and consults on child and family issues. A father to two boys. Daniel's first book is called Idolising Children and explores our society’s obsession with childhood and youth. Updates on Daniel's work can be found at

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