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Rudd's victory for the true believers

By Carol Johnson - posted Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Among all the talk of me-tooism, inhumanly self-disciplined Ruddbots and an ALP campaign that stayed relentlessly (and boringly) on message, it can be easy to overlook that this was also a victory for the true believers.

This is not to deny either Rudd’s fiscal conservatism or his social conservatism (which I have critiqued in other On Line Opinion pieces here and here). However, it is to suggest that the forces contributing to a Labor victory were far broader than Rudd’s own narrow election message would suggest.

Writing in The Australian yesterday, David Burchell suggested Labor had won because it embraced the concerns of suburban “mainstream” Australia and rejected the agendas of “noisy minority interest groups” - presumably including the “politically correct” inner city cultural elites. That was also Howard’s analysis of why Labor had lost elections and one embraced too by many on the Labor right. It shaped Labor’s embrace of a small target strategy on social issues in the 1998, 2001 and 2004 elections as well as the current one.


However, the same issue of The Australian contains George Megalogenis’ far more complex analysis of the electoral demographics contributing to Howard’s defeat. Megalogenis points out that Howard was defeated partly by a broad coalition that included seats with a high proportion of blue collar workers, single mums and people from non English-speaking backgrounds.

This coalition seems almost Whitlamesque in its breadth. It also necessitates a deeper analysis of why Howard’s longstanding strategy of breaking up Labor’s broad support base by putting a wedge between the working class and marginalised racial, ethnic and gender groups (for example, the social movements) failed to work. After all, it was this broad based social democratic coalition of forces that had not only gained Whitlam office but also Hawke and Keating.

To begin with, the 2007 election victory suggests that Labor’s previous analysis of why it had lost so many working class battlers to Howard was flawed. Labor had largely lost them not so much because of Keating’s support for latte-loving cultural elites concerned about feminist, aboriginal and ethnic issues but because of Keating’s monetarist support for high interest rates (often higher than Treasury advocated) and his support for real wage cuts.

Indeed, New South Wales Labor’s own investigation into the 1996 election defeat had highlighted such factors, pointing out that workers had not understood that Labor had offered social wage offsets for real wage cuts. That is why Howard repeatedly argued in previous elections that his government had delivered both lower interest rates and higher wage outcomes than Labor. However, in 2007 WorkChoices’ attack on wages and conditions including penalty rates, combined with rising interest rates under Howard, effectively countered those issues and won blue-collar workers back to Labor. Labor once again seemed the workers’ best friend.

Furthermore, in so far as Howard’s wedging of part of Labor’s blue collar support base had succeeded, it had been on the basis of his own, longstanding, form of me-tooism, rather than because of an overwhelming racism or social conservatism in the working class (as some Labor politicians seem to imply). Basically, Howard had distortedly mimicked class politics, by using the common neo-liberal argument that ordinary voters’ taxes had been “ripped off” by government support for feminist, ethnic and aboriginal organisations and their politically correct, cultural elite advocates.

In other words, Howard suggested that exploitation of ordinary working Australians occurred via the distribution of state largesse to minorities and cultural elites not by unscrupulous bosses ripping off workers. In 2007, the ACTU and Labor campaign against WorkChoices undermined Howard’s arguments by highlighting a more traditional class understanding of the sources of exploitation and the consequent need to elect social Labor governments to regulate against it.


It was also much harder for Howard to argue in 2007 that workers were being ripped off by government support for “politically correct” elites given that his own government had been in office since 1996. Also, the new demonised group, Muslims, were hardly receiving large amounts of government funding (except possibly via the Liberals’ own increased funding for religious schools).

So for all the above reasons, Howard’s electoral wedge between workers and other social groups was no longer working effectively in 2007.

Second, we come to single mums. It was the Whitlam government that first introduced the feminist initiative of providing benefits to single mothers. While contemporary Labor supports single-mothers gaining the skills that will enable them to eventually re-enter the workforce, the Liberals’ vicious attacks on single mums’ benefits in their fourth term reflected a deep-seated misogynist moral conservatism. Indeed the Liberal policies were denounced not only by Labor’s Penny Wong but also by moderate Liberals such as Judi Moylan, the former women’s minister in the first Howard government who lost her position because she was seen as too feminist.

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About the Author

Carol Johnson is a Professor in Politics at the University of Adelaide and has written extensively on Labor governments and also on politics and gender. She has a particular interest in the politics of emotion. She is the author of The Labor Legacy: Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke (Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1989) and Governing Change: From Keating to Howard (Network Books, Nedlands WA, 2007).

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