The Australian Labor Party, the world's oldest political political party still in existence, is a contradictory organisation. With its record in Government, at the Federal and state levels, and in opposition, led by Kevin Rudd, with an ever-diminishing number of policy positions which distinguish it from the ruling Howard Liberal Government, it is all too easy for critics to the left of Labor to dismiss it as no better than the Liberal Party as indeed the Greens, the Democrats and some parties of the far left have maintained either implicitly or explicitly.
Yet there seems to be no other path out of the political rut in which this country has become stuck since the election of Howard in 1996, except through the election of Labor.
Labor's dismal record since 1983
Since at least the early 1980's the Labor Party has been dominated by leaders who have acted to represent the same kinds of powerful vested interests that the Labor Party was originally formed to oppose, that is large corporations, financiers, property developers and land speculators.
Every Labor Government that has come to office since 1983, at both the Federal and state level has shamelessly, and often corruptly, served those interests to the detriment of its own support base, the country as a whole, and the environment.
Both Bob Hawke and Paul Keating willingly adopted the agenda of the economic neoliberals to 'reform' the Australian economy to give more wealth and power back to the Australian elite. This entailed the deregulation of the Australian economy, including the rate of exchange of the Australian dollar and the banking and finance sector, allowing greater access by foreign investors to Australian companies, land and mineral wealth, and an increase in the rate of immigration.
In 1986, the Hawke Government privatised the pension system, adopting the model of that had been conceived by neoliberal economist Milton Friedman and had been previously implemented by the Chilean military dictatorship. They failed to even consider the more equitable and efficient system which had been proposed by Professor Keith Hancock for the previous Whitlam Government.
The result has been that millions of ordinary Australians, in an increasingly casualised labour market, often having been forced to join a new scheme for each new employer, have had much of their funds flow, as commissions and annual management fees, into the pockets of the fund managers. In spite of this abysmal outcome, the Labor Party still, almost unbelievably, hold this to be a proud achievement of the Hawke/Keating years.
Almost following to the letter John Howard's script presented to the public in the 1986 elections, the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments sold nine of the twelve public enterprises on John Howard's hit list, including the Commonwealth Bank, QANTAS, and the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories. They stopped short of privatising Telstra, but they nevertheless deregulated the telecommunications sector, paving the way for the Howard Government's eventual full privatisation of Telstra.
At the state level, Labor Governments have been no better. They, too, have sold off state owned banks and insurance companies and much publicly owned land and many publicly owned buildings. Most have harmed the environment by promoting population growth and property development and supporting ecologically destructive industries including woodchipping, coal and Uranium mining and aluminium smelting.
Even at the level of local government where they should be closer to the people, Labor councillors still poorly represent many communities. Brisbane City Council, whilst having a Liberal Lord Mayor Campbell Newman elected in 2004 still has a majority of Labor Councillors. However, Brisbane residents' hopes that Labor would use its majority to curb the excesses of Newman have been repeatedly dashed.
Today, much of Brisbane resembles a war-zone as Campbell Newman realises his engineer's dream of fixing up problems, caused by population growth and past planning failures, by building a parallel transport system underneath Brisbane. Tunnel projects include the North South Bypass Tunnel (NSBT), the Northern Link and the the Airport Link. All of these are to be operated by private consortiums and their use will incur tolls. In addition, all bus movements through the CBD are to be moved underground, to leave the streets above ground free for private motor vehicles.
Most of these projects have provoked heated community opposition and groups have been formed to oppose the NSBT and the Hale Street Bridge. In spite of the overwhleming cases against all of these projects and ovewhelming oppostion from at least the affected communities, the Labor majority has given into Mayor Lord Mayor Newman on each occasion.
Why Labor can nevertheless become a vehicle for change
However, the fact remains that the Labor has drawn, and continues to draw, into its ranks, people who have the best motivations and aim to work through the Labor Party to bring about goals similar to what the Labor Party originally stood for. It would be wrong to assume, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable corrupting influences that now exist within Labor, that such elements will never again prevail.
This happened in the years of the Whitlam Labor Government and happened, more recently, albeit very briefly and tenuously, when Mark Latham became Labor Party leader.
Mark Latham's diaries published in 2005, reveal that he had, indeed, joined the Labor Party, entered Parliament and worked his way up the ranks all the way to the Federal Labor Party leadership for the most laudable aims.
To be sure, many of Latham's political ideas, including his embrace of 'dry economics' were not good. He held out Tony Blair's Labor Government in the UK, which had left intact nearly all of Margaret Thatcher's program of privatisation, emasculation of the Trade Unions and cutbacks to social spending and which had followed George Bush into the Iraq war, as the model that an Australian Labor Government should follow.
Nevertheless, in spite of this, it is clear that Latham was genuinely offended by the corrupt power of Australia's elites as well as those within the trade union movement and the Labor Party and was resolved to end this. In his diaries, he stated that his goal was to take political power in order to give it back to communities and ordinary people. He also adopted 'politically incorrect' stances including opposition to high immigration and once referred to many Australians' fixation upon the rising value of their own homes (largely caused by the increased demand for property fueled by immigration) as 'the great Australian disease'.
He was resolved to begin to drastically reduce the scale of woodchipping in Tasmania and to end Australia's involvement in the Iraq war.
Having stood for such decent democratic principles also eventually proved to be Mark Latham's undoing, but the fact that he came so close to succeeding, shows that even the Labor Party is not entirely impervious to the influence of genuinely uncorrupted progressive political forces.
If the Labor Party, with a leader demonstrating the elements of idealism and altruism shown by Whitlam and Latham were ever to form Government, then that Labor Government could indeed be the vehicle for the changes which are necessary to establish a fair and decent society and also to confront the grave environmental threats that our society and our whole planet face.
Even given the questionable record of the existing Rudd-Gillard Federal Labor leadership, it can't be entirely ruled that either or both of them may yet prove to be such leaders.
However, this seems unlikely in the current political context. If Labor is elected the two more likely scenarios are:
- a monolithic Labor Government which will govern in the interests of the wealthy as those of Keating and Hawke have done before, or
- a less monolithic Labor Government, where those opposed to pro-business policies will be prepared to take a public stance.
An anti-Howard grass roots mass movement is needed
A non-monolithic Labor Government is more likely if a popular grass-roots movement in favour of progressive change is brought into existence.
Such a mass movement should be unambiguously in favour of the election of Federal Labor as the only feasible alternative to the continued rule of John Howard's unaccountable, anti-democratic and morally bankrupt Government.
This should not preclude it from from being strongly and openly critical of Labor's poor policy decisions: support for woodchipping and the pulp mill in Tasmania, support for Uranium mining, watering down of its opposition to 'WorkChoices', support for high immigration and population growth and the abandonment of opposition to privatisation of Telstra.
Also, this should not preclude such a movement advocating a primary vote for independents or smaller parties which have better policies than those of either Labor or Liberal.
However, it must be unflinchingly clear on the need to use Australia's preferential voting system to preference Labor candidates ahead of any Liberal or National candidates. This will ensure that where those minor candidates or independents fail to win office their votes will flow to a Labor candidate.
If it argues such a case clearly and logically it need not drive voters back into the arms of the Liberal Party.
If, upon winning Government, Federal Labor maintains its current pro-business agenda, then the grass-roots movement will be in a position to ensure that disaffection with the Government will cause Labor's base of support to change its allegiance to something better, rather than to simply drift back to the Liberal Party as has happened in the past. In such circumstances, the prospect of a party such as the Greens, or else, some other party formed through the likely ensuing political struggles being able to form Government, will become more achievable.
However, this scenario is unlikely to unfold if John Howard's Government retains office in 2007.
#fn1">1. "Australia's neoliberal path" by Kenneth Davidson in Dissent Magazine isue 23 Autumn?Winter 2007.