The ALP in opposition

Wednesday, October 16, 1996

By Peter Boyle

Australian Labor Party in governments in the 1980s and 1990s — state or federal — were decidedly conservative. Like all other old social democratic parties, the ALP has moved to the right and adopted the capitalists' neo-liberal "reform" program. Now the ALP is in opposition everywhere but in NSW.

Traditionally Labor has swung to the left in opposition, but we are seeing a break in this pattern. The ALP's perspective in "opposition" — like Tony Blair's New Labour in Britain — is to remain openly committed to a program that will retain the confidence of the ruling class.

Such a stance requires not a shift to the left, but a shift to the right: advances in the neo-liberal "reform" carried out by the ruling Coalition are quietly incorporated into Labor's program.

According to the party's official review of the federal election defeat, there was nothing wrong with Labor's policies; it just failed to communicate them to the public well enough.

But while there is no shift to the left in policy, there is room for a bit of leftish rhetoric, especially since the consensus in Labor circles seems to be that it is "out for two terms" at least.

Kim Beazley's budget response was ripe with rhetoric. It's a "budget of betrayal", he charged. The Coalition's budget would lead to a "two-tiered society".

"It's a government for elite opinion leaders who don't get meals on wheels or use community child-care, who can afford to pay for tertiary education, dental care and nursing home care ... The burden is borne by the battlers, the job seekers, the students, the elderly and middle income Australia."

No substance

Never mind the utter hypocrisy of this leader of a former Labor government that turned Australia into the most unequal of the industrialised countries (UNDP Human Development Report 1996). But remove the flourishes and there's little opposition of substance.

Because the ALP politicians agree with the basic neo-liberal premises of the budget, they were restricted to complaining about the scale or mix or timing of the cuts and to empty rhetoric. Certainly there was no call or support for a serious campaign of extra-parliamentary action.

Similarly, the ALP cannot credibly argue against Telstra privatisation because Keating wanted to privatise it. So Cheryl Kernot sounds like the real leader of the parliamentary opposition on these issues.

Even on Howard's draconian Workplace Relations Bill, the ALP is prepared to accept: the restoration of the secondary boycott provisions, sections 45 D & E of the Trade Practices Act; punitive measures for unions; individual contracts; the youth training wage.

On top of this, Bob McMullan the ALP's spokesperson on industrial relations, says that when Labor regains federal government, it will not seek to turn the industrial relations clock back to March 1996. (Canberra Times, August 11)

Neither are the ALP lefts challenging Beazley's tactics.

The most left of the ALP "lefts" — what once was the "Pledge Group" in Victoria (now Labor Left) — is demoralised after John Brumby shifted the state branch further to the right in the wake of his electoral defeat by Kennett. Frontline editor David Spratt told Green Left Weekly in August that lefts who have remained in the ALP for tactical reasons "will soon have to rejudge if it's worthwhile to continue the struggle in that organisational form".

At the moment "ALPers are resigning in scores each week", he said, and some MPs are talking of running as independents if Brumby has his way. Brumby did.

The NSW "Socialist Left" faction is equally at sea. Its publication, Challenge, is full of appeals to return to Keynesianism.

But are any of these ALP lefts publicly challenging Beazley's line? Or Bob Carr's line in NSW? No way.

On the economic debate, if you want to hear the neo-Keynesian argument (as developed by James Cook University academic John Quiggan) in federal parliament, you have to listen to Cheryl Kernot's speeches. It's the Democrats who speak for the Labor "lefts".

Finally, are the Labor "lefts" rushing to build united fronts for independent mass action against Howard's attacks? Hardly. In the student movement perhaps? With the exception of a couple of individuals, no. In the trade unions, they were tested on August 19, and by and large they joined the ACTU leaders in a witch-hunt against union militants, Aboriginal activists and socialists.


So far the best that has come out of the Labor left in analysis of what went wrong was done by Newcastle academic Roy Green. He describes quite accurately what happened under the Hawke and Keating Labor governments:

"Labor's traditional supporters suffered the effects of real wage restraint in the 1980s, only to see their efforts dissipated in a speculative binge, and massive downsizing and work intensification in the 1990s. The puzzle is not that they deserted Labor when they did but that, in the circumstances, they kept the faith for so long. They watched in dismay as their party sold off national assets to the private sector and restructured the tax and benefits system to advantage everyone, it seemed, but themselves ..."

Yet Green praises the Labor government for having been "competent" and for sometimes coming "close to greatness on the controversial 'big picture' issues". What were these big picture issues if not the furtherance of the neo-liberal program, deals with Suharto, APEC and the republic diversion?

And Green tries to persist with the lie that Labor delivered on its Accord promise to improve the social wage. What about the introduction of tertiary education fees, the tightening of welfare and the many cuts to public services delivered via cuts to state governments and the Hilmer competition report?

Green's strategy is a "new partnership" between the ALP and the unions. Not a return to the Accord, he says, but then goes on to sketch something that looks suspiciously familiar:

"One theme should emphasise Labor's commitment to industrial democracy ... Workers must have the opportunity, as they do in successful economies like Germany and Sweden, to influence not just wage bargaining but also the range of decisions on investment, training and the process of production and service delivery. They should be able to exercise this influence both within the enterprise and beyond it at sector and national levels through tripartite industry policy structures. A further theme should give renewed substance to the goal of a fair wages system and employment security with an expanded, more effective role for the IRC."

It's nothing but the slightly adapted building blocks of the old CPA and ALP left fantasy of what the Accord should have been like — if only the Labor leaders and the capitalists hadn't broken the rules!

Political space

Since the mid-1980s, a political space has emerged to the left of the Labor Party as it moved to the right and adopted the neo-liberal program. What's happened to this political space?

There has been no split to the left, no New Zealand NewLabour-type development. The ALP left is so timid and house-broken that none is likely. The recent announcement of the formation of a New Labor Party (in Newcastle) by Bob Leach and a handful of supporters is farcical.

The Democrats and Greens, while taking a little of the space, are so narrowly parliamentarist and middle-class in their orientation that they are not filling it. The Democrats have even shifted a bit more to the right in recent times.

Labor has lost a large section of its traditional base. Howard, Hanson, Campbell, the gun and logging lobbies are trying to win a section over to right-wing populism, but these layers haven't found new permanent loyalties. Indeed, a chronic crisis in mass confidence in politics seems a feature of late capitalism.

The limits of the influence of the organised left in this country are obvious. We can't fill the space to the left of the ALP simply by declaring ourselves the New Party of Labor or the Alliance or whatever. We need to grow and build our bases of political support in the trade unions and social movements.

One of the main reasons there was no break to the left from the ALP was the near total cooption of the trade union movement and other social movements by the Labor government. While the battle against ALP hegemony remains a big challenge for the genuine left in the unions, in other social movements the ALP's hegemony is a lot more tenuous, especially now that Labor's loss of office has severed many of the "golden threads" that secured cooption of these movements.