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Daily Media Quotation

Still Plenty Of Life In The Labor Party

March 21, 2006

by Gerard Henderson - Sydney Morning Herald

The strong ALP vote in Saturday's state elections in South Australia and Tasmania demonstrates that despite the self-induced controversies of recent weeks, Labor is not in a terminal condition. In Australia, all the main political parties are state-based. Consequently, success at a state level ensures the viability of the winning party.

At a federal level, Labor's problems are not dissimilar to those experienced by the Coalition in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For more than a decade the Liberal Party could not determine whether Andrew Peacock, John Howard, John Hewson or Alexander Downer was the appropriate leader - before deciding on Howard in January 1995.

However, this instability reflected the fact that, for most of its time in opposition after March 1983, the Coalition had to contend with a popular Labor leader in Bob Hawke and a relatively strong economy. It was only the replacement of Hawke by Keating, the return of Howard as Liberal leader and, most importantly, the impact of the international recession of 1991 that made it possible for the Coalition to win in 1996.

The system of preferential voting, which entails that a vote for a candidate finishing third or lower can only be valid if the elector expresses a choice between the two most successful candidates, benefits the major parties. Labor lost badly under Keating in 1996 and under Mark Latham in 2004, but its total vote was still 46 per cent and 47 per cent respectively. Kim Beazley scored 51 per cent in 1998 and 49 per cent (in a difficult electoral environment) in 2001. Right now, Labor is a long way from office in Canberra. But it is also a very long way from collapse, especially since it is in government in the six states and two territories.

In the early 1990s some critics of the performance of the Liberals even predicted the party's demise. For example, Judith Brett wrote that "the Liberal Party in the 1990s seems doomed". Now Dr Brett has become something of an expert on the party's success. Today similar forebodings can be heard about Labor. In his booklet What's Left?: The Death of Social Democracy ( Quarterly Essay, Issue 21), Clive Hamilton writes that the ALP "has served its historical purpose and will wither and die as the progressive force of Australian politics". He champions "the need for a new political party".

Clearly Hamilton has no idea of just how difficult it is to finance and maintain an extant political party, let alone establish a new one which, in its initial years at least, would not be eligible for public funding. It's just pie-in-the-skyism.

Much the same can be said of Hamilton's view that there is an opening for a new political party to accommodate his theory that "the people are still not happy". Hamilton wants us to believe that "most people would rather be poorer, provided others are poorer still". Really. And he asserts that "when consumers are at the point of making a purchase, they are subliminally asking themselves two questions: who am I? who do I want to be?". Rather than, say, "will the plasma TV fit on the wall?" or "will my behind look big in this?".

There is not much hope for Labor or, indeed for a new political entity, in Hamilton's thesis that the way of the (political) future is to convince the electorate of what he terms "the sickness of affluence". Little wonder, then, that Hamilton accuses Beazley of engaging in "reactionary politics". As Liberal leaders in the late 1980s were bagged by the right, today Beazley is criticised from the left. It's quite de-authorising.

What's Left? has some kind words for The Latham Diaries, where the former Labor leader referred to Australia's (alleged) "record levels of discontent and public angst" and mocked "the temporary escapism of material goods". Latham's diarised despair was so great that on January 9, 2002, he wrote that "democracy is rooted". Or did he?

Latham's friend and one-time colleague Julia Gillard discussed The Latham Diaries in the interview she did for the ABC TV Australian Story episode aired on March 6. In part of the interview which was not aired, but which is transcribed on the program's website, Gillard reveals that Latham's opus magnum "wasn't a full diary". Rather, he kept notes "of things he thought were important and then took that contemporaneous record and worked it into the diaries". She wonders "whether his recollection" at the time of writing his diary entries was engulfed "with more bitterness than at the actual time". Good question.

In any event, a majority of the electorate rejected Latham's solutions to their real or imagined problems. The fact that Latham led Labor to such a crushing defeat in 2004 (which made it possible for the Howard Government to obtain a Senate majority) was due not to the operation of the factions but rather to their collapse. In other words, Latham became leader despite the factions. And factions did not stop Mike Rann or Paul Lennon from winning at the weekend.

Federal Labor's contemporary problems are partly home grown and, as such, are capable of resolution. Then there are the difficulties imposed by the Howard Government's incumbency at a time of a strong economy and widespread concern about national security. The benefits of incumbency are enhanced by compulsory voting.

Labor's problems will not be resolved by electing a colourful leader or coming up with a big idea - both were tried in 2004. Sure, the ALP has its discontents. But it is wishful thinking to predict the destruction of Labor or to envisage the creation of a new mainstream party.


Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.

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