Country Labor: a new direction?

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Country Labor: a new direction?

BY SUE BOLAND

Excited by the Victorian Labor Party's victory in the state Benalla by-election in May, federal Labor leader Kim Beazley announced that the ALP would register the name "Country Labor" federally. Is Country Labor simply a marketing ploy by the ALP leadership or does it represent something more?

With some Labor leaders and state party branches skeptical about the proposal, Beazley made it plain that it would be optional for state branches to use the Country Labor name.

The proposal to form Country Labor came from the New South Wales ALP branch's country conference last June. The impetus came from the fact that support for the National Party had been crumbling for some time.

Labor Party strategists saw that the ALP had an unprecedented opportunity to win seats from the Coalition in country areas if it took the initiative. Otherwise, disenchanted National Party votes would all be transferred to the One Nation party or independents, some of which have organised into the Country Summit Alliance.

Some NSW ALP country candidates ran under the Country Labor tag in the last state election, although Country Labor had not been formalised.

The ALP has always held annual country conferences, and rural and regional forums, so what does the formation of Country Labor mean in practice?

Special interest group

ALP officials are open about there being no organisational separation between Country Labor and the ALP. NSW ALP state secretary Eric Roozendahl is also the secretary of Country Labor.

ALP officials regard Country Labor as a special interest ginger group operating inside the ALP. Its relationship with the ALP is similar to that of Young Labor or Labor Women. Because of this, it won't give country ALP members any more say over Labor policy. It certainly won't give them any control over the actions of Premier Bob Carr's state government.

Country Labor is designed to convince country people that the Labor Party "really cares" about them. But will the ALP use the seeming independence of Country Labor to develop a more conservative and racist pitch to attract National Party and One Nation voters?

So far, there is no evidence of that. What is evident, however, is that opposition to electricity privatisation and competitive compulsory tendering (where local councils are forced to put local services to tender) has come from the country branches rather than branches in the city.

There is also anecdotal evidence that there was more support for the NSW Teachers' Federation in its long-running industrial dispute with the state government from country branches, than there was from city branches. This is because schools are the only remaining government service in many small towns.

In the federal arena, the ALP is trying to steer political debate away from issues of racism against Aborigines and refugees, and back to economic issues. The ALP wants to appear to be "all things to all people". It wants to attract political support from racists as well as anti-racists. It only wants to make the most general statements against racism, in the hope that it can evade advocating any concrete measures to eliminate racist policies.

This year, the ALP made statements in support of the rights of Aborigines and refugees only once it was obvious that there was widespread public concern. Alan Ramsay, writing in the March 18 Sydney Morning Herald, noted that it was 34 days after the death of Aboriginal youth Johnno in the Northern Territory when Beazley made a statement calling for mandatory jailing of juveniles to be "urgently" overturned.

ALP duplicity

The ALP has played a similar game on refugees. Just last year, the ALP joined the federal Coalition government to pass draconian and racist anti-refugee laws. This year, once it was evident that there was widespread public support for the right of the Kosovar refugees to remain in Australia, Beazley called on the immigration minister Philip Ruddock not to be so "mean-spirited" and let the refugees stay. Earlier however, Beazley had remained silent on the forced deportation of East Timorese refugees.

The ALP's ruse of pretending to oppose the discrimination against Aborigines, while refusing to commit a Labor government to taking measures to overcome that discrimination, was starkly revealed when Labor's indigenous affairs spokesperson, Daryl Melham, was interviewed on Channel Nine's Sunday program on April 9.

Melham called for an apology for the stolen generations, but refused to commit a Labor government to compensating them. He opposed mandatory sentencing but was evasive about whether a federal Labor government would overturn mandatory sentencing laws in Western Australia and the NT. Melham said that Prime Minister John Howard's Wik native title amendments were racially discriminatory, but refused to commit Labor to repealing them.

One of the few cards that the Coalition government has had going for it has been the ALP's duplicity. When federal treasurer Peter Costello challenged the ALP to promise to renationalise Telstra if it was serious about opposing the privatisation of Telstra, the ALP claimed that was not practical. The ALP has also declined to abolish the GST or abolish the health rebate for people on high incomes who take out private health insurance despite its criticism against those policies.

The use of the name Country Labor is already being regarded by many ALP members as cosmetic. Danny Stapleton, from the Cooma branch in rural NSW, wrote a letter to the NSW Labor Council's Workers Online: "All the lip service in the world, and face it Country Labor is just that, won't change the way we are treated. Country Labor is to be run by Sussex Street [NSW ALP headquarters] for the benefit of Sussex Street, and we in the country won't be treated any better."