We're Not Dead Yet: Connecting With The Missing Middle
January 30, 2002
This is the full text of a speech by Wayne Swan MP, to the Australian Fabian Society. It is reproduced with permission.
Last year was one of
those years that people often say they'd like to forget.
For me personally and
for the Australian Labor Party there were a couple of massive setbacks
- in my case, a dice with cancer. In the Party's case, a loss in
one of the ugliest Federal Elections in our nation's history.
In both my own case and
the Party's, its not terminal.
It's not like the two
hunters I read about the other day who went for a weekend in the
bush only to have one of them keel over with a heart attack and
drop dead. The other hunter dialled "000" and told the
operator he thought his companion was dead and asked what he should
"First, make sure
he's dead," she said. So he told her to hold on and she heard
him put down the phone, then she heard his footsteps, a click and
a loud bang!
She heard his returning
footsteps, the phone being picked up and his voice saying, "ok
Well I'm here today to
tell you that unlike that unfortunate hunter we're not dead yet!
We have too much to offer.
The reason I joined the Australian Labor Party was a long tradition
of promoting and delivering fairness and justice for average working
people and a hand up for those who have fallen behind.
We have always offered
a positive, outward-looking vision for our country and the future.
Only a social democratic
party of vision could have been bold enough to build great Australian
institutions like Medicare, the ABC, free universal and compulsory
education, workers compensation, fair electoral systems and the
Snowy Mountain Scheme. Only a great social democratic party has
the vision and confidence to dream of a Knowledge Nation to ensure
our place in the new globalising world. Only an inward-looking Liberal
Party could be shortsighted enough to go about destroying these
kinds of visions.
Labor's visions and our
values are as relevant today as they were over a century ago when
Australia's labour movement first mobilised - and are even more
so after the divisive impact on Australia of the recent Federal
If anything the recent
election brought to a head what has been slowly corroding the Australian
Where previously we were
encouraged to find compassion in another's trouble, where 'a fair
go' and mateship were national symbols, now we are encouraged to
find fault and blame.
We need to remember that
callousness is not a virtue.
The type of politics
practised by the conservatives pressures Australians to give up
the notion of 'a fair go.'
Labor's way forward rests in being able to appeal to the Australian
people's hopes and aspirations, not to their fears. To convince
them we will stand up for the Australian ethos.
We all know its still
there - like the quiet courage of every volunteer fire-fighter,
in every Meals on Wheels kitchen and school P&C. It lives on
out of the media spotlight and the view from the Government's Cabinet
No, Labor and social
democracy in Australia are not dead yet but both are struggling.
While Labor is in power
in five out of six states, we have now lost three consecutive Federal
elections, the last in an environment that was, earlier last year,
so conducive to a Labor victory.
In this context, the
wide-ranging policy and party review Labor's new Parliamentary leader,
Simon Crean, has instituted, is an important first step if we are
As part of this process
the clear and concise analysis of why Labor lost the recent Federal
Election is a prerequisite for understanding how we win the next
Ironically, the narrowness
of Labor's loss tends to obscure a number of significant underlying
trends that have been with us in the Australian political system
since the early nineties.
While I don't for a moment
dismiss the growing diversity of the Australian electorate, I do
want to focus on two specific groups who were central to the election
In doing so I point to
the way in which I believe Labor can produce a winning campaign,
but just as importantly, a policy program that relates broadly to
modern Australia while remaining true to our social democratic tradition.
The 2001 Federal Election
The 2001 Federal Election
was a messy, even vicious event and apart from the result, one of
the worst things it did for the country was deepen the degree of
cynicism and alienation about the utility of politics.
Unhappily this was particularly
so for Labor supporters.
There's no point in trying
to ignore the widespread feeling across all social groups, all ages
and across the city and country, that politics has no relevance
for the future.
True, this alienation
from politics is common throughout the democratic world.
American Presidents for
a long time have been elected by minorities and many of you here
tonight will have last year heard the Secretary of the UK Fabian
Society, Michael Jacobs, make the salutary point that Tony Blair
won the second time around with the support of only 25% of the electorate.
In an environment like
this, wedge politics flourishes and in the Federal Election wedge
politics in the form of Tampa and the fear of terrorism ultimately
determined the outcome.
That is why Pauline Hanson
complained that John Howard had stolen her policies.
Pauline Hanson's lipstick
was all over John Howard's collar.
Howard used Tampa to
pull back some of the 'Battlers' - those predominantly blue collar
workers on modest incomes and struggling to make ends meet - who
were moving to the Labor Party or considering voting One Nation
(particularly in regional areas).
But it is not good enough
to delude ourselves that the Tampa fallout was limited to this particular
There were many Australians
from different groups and ages who were worried about queue jumping,
as they saw it, or simply frightened after September 11.
Even before Tampa, the
Coalition's second term was characterised by its neglect of the
social and working conditions of the 'Battlers' in favour of a remorseless
appeal to their deepest fears and prejudices - consistently setting
working Australians against the unemployed who were variously painted
as dole cheats and job snobs.
Put simply, the Howard
Government's aim was to convince the people it was hurting the most
to ignore their pain and vote on the basis of their fears.
But little did we realise
how ruthlessly John Howard would employ this tactic.
Tampa was what former
New York Governor, Mario Cuomo, describes as the ultimate wedge
- one designed to distil the bitterest juices of people's anger,
bottled as legislation, and offered back as a magical elixir.
This elixir - the Tampa
trap - was deployed the moment Labor voted down the first version
of the Government's Border Protection Bill. From that point on,
Labor faced the prospect of losing up to thirty seats.
We were seen as not standing
up for Australia.
When Kim Beazley communicated
Labor's tough border protection policy in the Election debate and
rammed home our anti-GST and health and education messages we were
able to claw back ground.
But John Howard retained
enough of the 'Battler' vote in key marginal electorates such as
Longman, Hinkler, Herbert, Richmond, Eden Monaro and McEwen to get
the Government over the line.
To those who brand the
'Battlers" who regard border security a high priority as racist
- I say they are not.
And to those who say
Labor could have prevailed if it had opposed the Government's revised
border protection bill (legislation we were successful in substantially
amending), I would respond politely "you are not in touch with
This much smaller group,
a segment who Anne Summers calls the 'Whitlamite Generation', shifted
their votes to the minor parties in response to what they saw as
an unprincipled stance by the Labor Party, leaving us trapped in
a classic wedge.
I want to be clear that
without Tampa and September 11, I believe Labor under Kim Beazley
would have prevailed in a hard fought campaign.
But we must also acknowledge
the fact that before Tampa and September 11 there was a certain
loss of impetus in our drive towards victory.
Our private polling in
April showed us ahead in the polls, but too much of the swing was
being driven by preferences from minor party voters, rather than
a groundswell of primary support.
While we were attracting
the 'Battlers' angry about the GST we had failed to convince enough
of what I would term the outer suburban middle classes.
This is a very diverse
group - some are teachers and nurses, some are sub-contractors and
small business owners who have done well in life and want their
children to do even better. The value of their home is important
and they will often have a second investment property. There is
a diversity of household incomes within this grouping.
They are the 'Westfield
Mallers' because the shopping centre is the hub of their social
interaction in the new and emerging suburbs. No longer is the town
hall or even the local church the centre of their universe.
Many of them share features
in common with the 'Battlers.' There is a lack of tolerance of welfare,
a feeling that the Government only provides benefits for the undeserving.
Like the 'Battlers' they
want the Government to stand up to vocal minorities, vested interests
and champion the view that rewards hard work. This means they are
easily aroused by any suggestion of welfare fraud or queue jumping,
accurate or not.
They view all levels of Government - federal, state and local -
in a negative light - just there to take their taxes without delivering
anything tangible to them in return.
Many have private health
insurance and private school fees to pay and don't readily see the
benefit to them of greater public investment in these areas.
This middle class suburban
voter is Labor's great challenge. Its no good thinking they will
come along for the ride out of curiosity - they have to be convinced.
Far too many of this
grouping stayed with Howard and not just because of Tampa.
Both the 'Battlers' and
the 'Westfield Mallers' are what US social policy expert Theda Skocpol
calls the 'missing middle' - families who live on modest wages or
wages made modest by the cost of their responsibilities to their
They work hard but find
themselves under financial pressure. They see themselves as struggling
in the middle.
Often, in standing up
for the weakest and most vulnerable, Labor is wrongly perceived
to have neglected both the 'Battlers' and the 'Westfield Mallers'
- the 'missing middle.'
So the challenges we
face are significant but I am optimistic that if we rise to meet
them during the next three years we will regain power. However,
we can't afford a slow start.
One of the critiques
doing the rounds is that our failure at the election was in part
due to our so-called "small target strategy." The perception
such a strategy existed arose in part from our inability to communicate
There were two periods
where this was crucial - after the August 2000 National Conference
and following Kim Beazley's well-crafted Budget reply speech of
On both occasions we
lost momentum because we failed to communicate our policy messages
to a broad enough audience and all involved, including myself, must
bear responsibility for that.
It might make us feel
better to blame the media for its short attention span to policy
and there's no doubt this is a problem.
But we must improve both
our policy formulation process and our communication of those ideas.
One of our real weaknesses
was our failure to repeat our core messages. We said things once
or twice and moved on assuming the public had digested them. This
was not the case and insufficient in the face of the Government's
unprecedented and political use of paid advertising to reinforce
its own themes.
It is a well-worn adage
that you must repeat and repeat your message until you feel if you
hear it any more you're going to throw up. Only then will the public
have registered the argument you're making.
So Labor's drive for
a national reform agenda lost its bite and momentum. In the vote-buying
climate that emerged after Ryan the big issues were swamped. In
such an environment, policy differentiation between the Government
and Labor was much harder to establish.
I passionately believe
we need to develop a bold, outward-looking, social democratic vision.
If we do, I am confident the Australian people will embrace us.
Australians can stand
tall and compete with any country in the world
I don't want my kids
to grow up in a country that is fearful of the world around them
- the sort of country John Howard is creating.
The Liberal's inward
looking 'blame someone else' approach thrives in an environment
It has traction in an
environment where there is a sense of malaise about the relevance
of politics and pessimism about the prospect of meaningful change
But people are sick of
the "business as usual" approach to politics where politicians
pay lip service to the concerns of the people and do what they want.
In my view there are a set of proposals that unite and re-engage
the 'missing middle' Labor must connect with.
In the last election
I think we failed to offer a broad enough suite of reforms - of
our whole system of government, in style and structure. And that's
before you get to a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses
of our policy positions.
We need a new agenda
for political, constitutional, parliamentary and party reform that
confronts people's distrust head on.
The first challenge for
us is to remind Australians that politics is a democracy and open
to everyone, and confers power to everyone. We must also remind
them that the Australian Labor Party is on their side.
A perfect example of
our lack of boldness was our approach to the republican referendum.
Just like the Tampa trap
he created, John Howard set a trap on constitutional reform.
People became sick of
the long drawn out fizzle of the campaign in which their popular
choice - a direct election republican model was sidelined by both
John Howard and elite opinion.
Labor came to the Consitutional
Convention, as did most others, with a belief that it was genuine
forum for debate. Instead, Howard treated the whole thing as a virtual
rehearsal for the Tampa game - with rigged debate and a rigged outcome.
He even went so far as
to set up a political campaign team that included Tony Abbott and
Nick Minchin - dedicated to selling the message "you can't
In my view, we should
have been absolutely clear from the beginning we would not participate
unless there was a balanced range of alternatives for the electorate
to choose from.
The direct election of
president ought to have been something that was offered to the people.
In confining ourselves to the minimalist option we stuck to the
'business as usual' approach to politics that the cynical and disaffected
are absolutely fed up with.
In addition to revisiting
the notion of a people's republic there are two other areas where
constitutional reform should be considered.
Firstly, we should examine
fixed four-year Parliamentary terms.
The 'business as usual'
approach to politics suggests we shouldn't even try to convince
people of the case for such a change. I think we must begin to be
more ambitious for our country.
Secondly, we need to
address scientific advances such as gene technology which were never
contemplated one hundred years ago yet demand a national policy
response. We need to ensure that in such cases the constitution
does not hinder Commonwealth action.
There can be no question
that the standing of Parliament and Members of Parliament in the
community has never been lower than it is today. This should be
of concern to both governments and oppositions alike.
But Parliament's accountability
to the people is being undermined by excessive partisanship. A 'blue'
on the floor of the Parliament can always be relied upon to distract
attention from more substantive issues.
I would like to suggest
four initial areas for reform, which the Government and the Opposition
should agree on - in the interests of democracy and good government.
First, we should strengthen
the Standing Orders to make Ministers actually answer the questions
they are asked in Parliament. We currently give them unlimited time
to say anything but what people want to hear. Time limits should
Second, the Government
should use the Parliament as the forum to announce and debate public
policy. All too often major policy is announced at a press conference
even when the Parliament is in session.
One way to achieve this
might be to create a new daily forum within the Parliamentary sitting
program where policy announcements are made and scrutinised by the
Third, the independence
of the Speaker should be increased. There are challenges in moving
to the British model given the small number of Members in the House
of Representatives, but we should examine the options.
Finally, we need to look
again at decisions such the one to ban press photographers from
capturing the detail of Parliamentary debate. In the 21st Century,
the current restrictions are quite absurd.
Labor's record in Government
was not often satisfactory in each of these four areas but three
elections later the issue is the future accountability of Parliament
to the people, not history.
Factionalism & Party Reform
We also have to look
at party reforms.
Some years ago in an
article I co-authored with the late Clem Lloyd on the development
of national factions in the ALP and its impact on the party we concluded
the top has been
strengthened while the base has been weakened, a circumstance
as fraught with danger in politics as it is in architecture.
Nothing could be more
We should change the
rules to make as much of Party activity and election campaigning
open to mass participation and that includes getting the rank and
file and affiliated trade unionists more involved.
There is a critique around
that argues the broader trade union movement have been an impediment
to a successful election outcome for Labor.
One of the early features
of the Howard Government's third term is Tony Abbott's whipping
of Australian trade unions. Like the GST last term, the workplace
will be the new battleground for a conservative assault on the living
standards of ordinary workers.
A significant number
of Australian workers belong to trade unions. These men and women
have a right to organise to protect their rights. Where would the
workers of Ansett be without the unions? On the street, locked out.
Labor should not back
away from its support via unionism for Australian workers and their
It is my contention that
some aspects of factionalism are a far bigger impediment than any
concerns about unions.
While factions are an
important management tool, rigid factionalism combined with declining
branch membership levels within the Labor Party to my way of thinking
presents more challenges for the connectedness of the Party with
its grassroots than shuffling numbers on the conference floor.
Rigid factionalism has
tended to make the party too inwardly focused - it has bureaucratised
and distanced the party from the community.
Too much of the Party's
precious talent and energy has been diverted away from electing
candidates and into just advancing factional interests.
Any senior member of
the Party, me included, who has been involved over time knows how
debilitating this can be.
In many of their public
actions the factions are not seen to be driven by altruism or ideas,
but just number crunching.
Factions are perceived
to have hijacked the ideas - intellectual debate and whole areas
of what were once fruitful areas of policy discussion are now simply
Many in the Party who
could have made a contribution, but don't belong to a faction feel
they are ignored and so drift away.
With new members joining
but quickly drifting away the outcome is as Lloyd and I have noted:
For more profound ideological
nourishment, factional members are thrust back on the resources
of the traditional ALP which seems to have lost any capability for
generating intellectual ferment, at least while the Party is predominant
in Australian Government.
Experience has shown
that nothing changes in opposition.
I would like to propose three ideas for restoring balance within
the Labor Party.
Firstly, in terms of
Party reform as others have suggested, why not embrace direct election
of some key organisational positions by Party members, like the
Party President and the branch component of the National Executive?
Secondly, Why not have fixed terms for some of these positions?
To my mind, part of the
alienation from politics is the lack of connection between voters
and their elected representatives.
In the longer term a
third suggestion is to attack this disenchantment by moving to a
primary system somewhat akin to that used in the United States but
with some unique Australian features. For example if we had a two-tiered
primary system, the Party could select a short list of potential
candidates and registered Labor supporters could then vote for their
preferred representative. Or why not give a weighting in the primary
system to Party and trade union members while also allowing registered
voters to participate? Such a proposal would require changes to
the electoral system and would not be easily achieved.
In a complicated globalising
world we need fresh input, fresh ideas and new perspectives.
In England for more than
a Century, the Fabian Society has been a crucial source of ideas
and policy. Significantly over all these years the Tories have vilified
and mocked this sustained effort.
The collapse of the Soviet
Union has assisted the broader conservative assault on social democratic
ideas. It has suffered from guilt by association. As a consequence,
the free market mantra espoused first by Thatcher and Reagan has
been given a reprieve.
Australia is no different.
At the core of the differences
between Labor and the Coalition is our belief that there is a strong
case for Government to buffer market forces.
The government has justified
its callous, market-based approach through sustained cuts to government,
and the attribution of blame for poverty and disadvantage at the
feet of the victims of the new economy and the free market.
People like Tony Abbott
do not attack elites or charities like St Vincent de Paul just for
sport. It's a calculated agenda to weaken people's faith in the
ability of Government and politicians to make a difference.
Like the Fabian's, one
of the Labor Party's strengths has been our concern with ideas.
However at present we
are in danger of thinking too little, and that is why our policy
review chaired by Jenny Macklin is so important.
I believe we need to
look beyond the ideological positions that have been staked out
in recent times.
This means finding a
way to synthesise modern realities with our labour tradition.
Our policy reform agenda
needs to build on what we propose on a Parliamentary, Party and
Our policies must be
bold to engage the electorate. Our policies must focus on opportunity
and help people to help themselves.
We need greater social
investment but also a commitment to economic policies that deliver
low interest rates - both ultimately determine what families can
afford to put on the dinner table and provide opportunity for their
While it is increasingly
difficult to formulate policies that meet the needs of the increasingly
disparate groups in the electorate we can meet their concerns with
a focus on:
- Investment in opportunities;
- Greater reward for
- New ways to assist
families make transitions.
I believe the unanswered
challenge for a reformist social democratic party like Labor is
how - in the new economy - to deliver security and opportunity to
It is simply not acceptable
to me that we have a permanent underclass without hope of work or
chances to improve their life.
The fact is too many
people live not only in material poverty but also a poverty of opportunity.
In this regard the growing gap between rich and poor should be condemned,
not denied by Government.
We shouldn't be content
with a minimalist welfare system for those who can't keep up rather
than helping them move forward.
Nor is it acceptable
that middle Australia - the missing middle - receive decreasing
value from their tax dollar while they are forced to abandon public
health and education.
But Labor's ideas which
have relied for so long on the positive power of Government to create
opportunities face an electorate filled with cynicism.
It has been said that
the so-called aspirational voter is more concerned about what's
in it for them. But aspiration is not just about individuals but
also about our society. I see our challenge is to convince both
the 'Battlers' and the 'Westfield Mallers' that social investments
An investment in our
social infrastructure makes us all the richer, without it we are
all the poorer.
The current lack of public
investment is giving rise to intractable problems that affect all
of us - drugs, crime, and an increasing reliance on welfare, just
to name a few.
I want Labor to argue
the case for social investment because if that doesn't take place
the Australia of a 'fair go' won't exist.
As a first step in providing
opportunity we must restore the public's faith in our ailing health
and education systems. We need to continue to argue that poor health
or sub-standard education makes it almost impossible for people
to move forward.
But we must go further
than decent schools and hospitals.
Labor needs to argue
the case for creating training and educational ladders into jobs
and fostering an environment for strong jobs growth.
At the last election
Labor put forward a range of well-crafted policies the centerpiece
of which were under the banner of the Knowledge Nation. This wasn't
just an education and training agenda it was a jobs agenda.
While the selling of
Knowledge Nation had its problems we all know in today's world there
are ever-diminishing opportunities for people who don't have access
to decent education and training opportunities.
As a nation if we want
to prosper in the new economy we must continue to argue for the
investments in training, education and industry that Knowledge Nation
If we do these things
we can confront the Howard Government on the nationalist ground
of not standing up for Australia and the idea of 'a fair go'.
reward for effort
Complementary to investing
in opportunity is to make sure that people are rewarded for their
With the GST, low and
middle-income earners in this country have had the tax burden shifted
decisively to their pockets. The situation is even more acute for
low-income families who may in fact be worse off the harder they
work due to the withdrawal of family payments, social security and
For those that call for
cuts in the top marginal rate of 47% it is worth keeping in mind
that most working families face marginal rates between 60-110%.
With this in mind it is about time that we put some decent financial
incentives into the system at the bottom and the middle to reward
hard work and effort.
families make transitions
Beyond this we must further
develop our thinking on the world of work, how it intersects with
family life and how we can support communities.
For example, we need
This calls for policies
that help families when parents leave the workforce to care for
children and when they choose to return to the workforce again.
One area where Labor
put forward some new ideas at the last election related to the capitalisation
of family tax benefits to assist families where a parent had withdrawn
from the workforce. The proposal was based on the notion that families
can and should have greater control over the resources that are
available to them.
Many families feel as
though they have a lack of control over their lives and where they
are heading. The current system does not help them make transitions
that they would like to make.
We need to look at ways that provide financial means to allow a
parent to study and upgrade their skills and knowledge to enter
a career that has greater prospects for them and their family.
There is also much to
do to assist parents as they exit and re-enter the workforce. The
Government's current family payment system imposes big financial
penalties on mothers if they have a baby or return to the workforce
part way through the financial year.
We also need to look
at ways to enable parents to save and invest wisely for things like
their children's education. Ideas from overseas like Opportunity
Accounts where the Government makes an up-front contribution on
the birth of a child followed by contributions from parents warrant
examination in the Australian context.
Understanding and responding
to the work and family nexus is vital to addressing our declining
Unless we lay out a pathway
through the work and family maze, the number of people opting to
start a family will continue to decline.
Labor must now re-build.
We must go back to the community.
And this means re-engaging
with the people who did not vote for us -the 'missing middle.'
Where the loss of a sense
of community is greatest and the dog eat dog notion of everyone
for themselves is strongest, politicians who practice divisive wedge
politics will prosper.
The only effective way
to counter the politics of division is to re-build community trust.
And a broad, well-communicated
agenda provides a bulwark against politicians offering division
rather than solutions.
For this reason Labor
can never be a one issue party.
The Labor Party must
say unambiguously that our policies spring from local community.
They must spring from and be pitched to families from Townsville
to Tuncurry, Penrith to Perth and Brisbane to Bendigo.
Our policies should recognise
we all live in a community, not a corporation.
In particular they must
be directed to families under financial pressure who are bringing
up the next generation of young Australians.
Their needs and aspirations
are the same wherever they live.
The crisis in our public
health and our public education systems and the increasing conflict
between work and family life means they are looking for a government
that is on their side and prepared to act in their interests.
They are all people who
want a decent, secure standard of living, want to save a bit to
get ahead and to educate their kids so they will get good jobs.
In short, they want wherever
they live, access to economic and social opportunity.
They want a plan for
the future - one that rewards their hard work and sacrifices, one
that recognises the tension between work on the one hand and family
life on the other.
They need us to acknowledge
their alienation from politics and politicians and to respond accordingly.
We must put the family
at the centre of political discussion wherever they might live and
produce a policy agenda that helps them meet the challenges they
face in the twenty-first Century.