The Canberra by-election
The establishment pundits regard by-elections as traditionally a way of letting off steam. But the result in the March 25 by-election for Ros Kelly's old seat of Canberra surprised everyone with its intensity. A swing of more than 16% allowed the Liberals to pick up a seat they had previously considered such an ALP stronghold (Kelly won with a 9.6% margin in the last election), they were not even going to stand a candidate.
Prime Minister Keating responded, "The disappointing result sends the government a message that has been received and will be acted on". He clarified this further: "The message the government needs to get across is that, even if it may not now be fully apparent, the economy is doing well and the recovery is entirely sustainable and not illusory".
In other words, Labor needs to convince people it isn't politically bankrupt. It's a PR exercise, made necessary because the voters have begun to show their outrage at Labor's 12-year record of giving to the rich and taking from the poor.
Since Labor has been in government, it has been pushing the message that it doesn't want to be too radical, it won't make the mistake Whitlam made of going "too fast", it needs to be "pragmatic" and take change slowly.
Aside from painting Whitlam as more left than he really was, this has been the veil behind which the Hawke-Keating government has hidden its real agenda of "reform" and restructuring to increase the profits of business at the expense of working people.
The ALP has been talking social justice while sticking knives in people's backs. It has been serving the interests of business while saying it cares for the average Australian.
The ALP "lefts" have sat and watched (and tried to "get the numbers") while the ALP has systematically carried out its "pragmatic" program of making the wealthy wealthier at our expense.
The "pragmatism" is looking rather impractical after March 25. Voters are delivering the message that they're fed up. They are looking for some way to make the ALP pay for its record. Faced with the lack of what they perceive as a realistic alternative, people can vote Liberal — not as a conscious right-wing alternative, but in a bid to express their outrage at Labor's record.
Sometimes they do vote for an alternative. In the NSW state elections held the same weekend, 25% of people did not vote for either of the two major parties in the upper house. The total "other" vote was bigger than ever.
Losing support with its current approach, is Labor going to change? Is it going to implement some of that social justice rhetoric that's trotted out at election time?
Don't hold your breath. An ABC radio interview with corporate leaders in NSW on March 30 made the issues clear. These corporate representatives pointed out that it doesn't matter to them which party governs NSW — there is no real difference between the ALP and the Liberals, they said. Business can work just as comfortably with Labor as with the Liberals.
It gets easier all the time for the Liberals to present themselves as more "caring" than Labor. They won't be foolish enough to reveal unpopular measures they plan before the next election. As Tasmanian Green MP Christine Milne pointed out recently that, "True believers have to have something to believe in." They won't get that from the Keating government.