Australia's election 2010: Why did Labor lose?

Submitted by Janet on 5 September, 2010 - 2:42 Author: Janet Burstall

Labor won in 2007 because Labor promised to meet demands that had been rejected by the Howard government. There were four main issues.

    1. Repeal of Work Choices anti-union laws
    2. Action on climate change, specifically a carbon trading scheme
    3. Humane treatment of asylum seekers
    4. Indigenous rights, specifically an apology to the stolen generations

Labor lost in 2010 because Labor failed to stand up to the Liberal/ National Coalition on these and other issues. The stronger the criticism of Labor by the Coalition and employers, the weaker Labor and the unions were in taking a stand against them.

Repeal of Work Choices

Work Choices was replaced by “Fair Work Australia” which returned to awards and enterprise agreements, i.e. brought unions back into setting work conditions. But it retains penalties for industrial action and restricts organising on the job. Howard’s draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission is still pursuing trade unionists, including holding the threat of jail over Ark Tribe for refusing to testify at its hearings. Gillard, when Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, introduced legislation to replace the ABCC that would retain coercive powers against unions, because she said there needs to be “a tough cop on the beat”.

Gillard made sure to prove she is tough with other unions too. As Education Minister she talked the Australian Education Union into giving up its boycott of NAPLAN testing in return for nothing more than a ‘working party’ to examine possible misuse of student data to create school league tables.

Then the NSW Teachers Federation, part of the AEU and unaffiliated to the ALP, provided members a comparison of policies for the election as a basis for recommending a “best buy” vote for the Greens.

Labor’s attempt to reprise Work Choices as a danger posed by the Liberals in 2010 did not resonate either, even though the Liberals will find ways to restrict unions.

Climate change and carbon

Rudd’s carbon pollution reduction scheme was opposed by the Liberal/National coalition and by the Greens, whose votes could have got it through the Senate without the Coalition. Labor’s legislation was generous in compensating big polluters, and opposed by the Greens for being worse than no scheme at all.

Instead of arguing the case for Labor’s carbon pollution reduction scheme, Rudd taunted the Liberals for being divided over climate change when they blocked the legislation. By the time the Senate had rejected the legislation three times giving a possible double dissolution trigger, Rudd had failed to campaign for the public support that he would have needed to win an ensuing election on the issue.

Asylum seekers

When asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka started arriving by boat, the media and the Liberals beat up the threat of invasion. Rudd’s response was not to defend the rights of asylum seekers to flee persecution and land in Australia, but to argue that Labor’s less harsh policy was not the reason that boats were coming, and that ‘people smugglers’ would be targeted. Then Rudd suspended processing of refugees from those countries. When Gillard followed she added to this a plan to set up offshore processing in East Timor. This plan amounted to offshore immigration detention and lacked credibility even to those it was supposed to appease. The East Timor parliament voted against it.

Supporters of asylum seekers were portrayed as middle class inner-city wankers who don’t understand the hardships of suburban or rural life. It’s easy for the Right to dog whistle racist impulses when workers are dissatisfied with job security and their urban environment, traffic, transport, housing, hospitals. It’s easy to distract from the reasons for these problems (and to blame state Labor governments) by implying that refugees and immigration will make these problems worse. Labor had over-generalised from a small number of Sydney electorates where anti-refugee sentiments were an issue, but not an overwhelming one, given the overall greater swing to pro-refugee Greens, than to anti-boats Liberals.

It is quite possible to win an election with a policy of supporting asylum seekers. A party with credible commitment and record of action on the problems of working class communities would be in an even stronger position to stand up for the rights of asylum seekers.

Indigenous rights and apology

The day that PM Rudd made a formal apology to indigenous Australians was full of emotion and hope. PM John Howard’s trenchant refusal to make this symbolic gesture for 13 years invested it with stronger feeling. But the contemporary issue around which indigenous Australians and supporters hade been mobilising was the discriminatory Northern Territory Intervention, which Labor maintained and defended. To maintain the intervention regime and avoid allegations of discrimination, Labor planned to extend its system of vouchers that replace cash for proportions of welfare payments, to non-indigenous communities.

The biggest swing against Labor was recorded in the Northern Territory – nearly 14%, with over 1/3 of the swing going to the Greens, and the rest divided between 3 independents, and a slight swing against the Coalition as well.

This Northern Territory vote expresses opposition to Labor continuing the insult and injustice of Howard’s intervention.

Final fatal failure of Labor

The final failure of Rudd and Labor to fight the Liberal/Nationals, and capital, was over the “Mining Super Profits Tax”.

Why would an apparent ‘make the rich pay’ policy do more to damage than win support for Labor?

Rudd appeared to be taken completely by surprise at the strident opposition to the tax, and failed to stand up to it. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, speaking at the University of Queensland in July, said of Gillard’s coup against Rudd, that the mining companies had sacked the Prime Minister of Australia. Gillard thought she had negotiated a deal for a more modest “Mining Rent Tax”, but no sooner was it struck than the mining companies and the Coalition went back to advertising against Labor.

The mining unions produced advertisements on YouTube to support the mining tax, but reports were that on the job, workers were more persuaded by their employers than their unions. Even so in the mining states of Western Australia and Queensland the swing to the coalition was only 3%.

After decades of Labor advocating that keeping capital happy is the key to prosperity for all, Labor had no arguments to defend its new tax. Labor ran scared of the mining companies, Labor didn’t fight, and Labor lost.

Economic management fails as an issue

‘Economic management’ is the issue where the Labor right claim that demands from the left for redistribution will damage Labor’s electability.

Labor’s credentials as ‘fiscal conservatives’ and good economic managers did not save them despite Labor’s apparent successes in this area. An open letter signed by 50 academic economists credited Labor’s economic stimulus package (opposed by the Coalition) with playing a major part in making the impact of recession on employment in Australia much less severe than in the USA or Europe. Whatever the reasons for the economic crisis and role of Australia’s exports to China in sustaining employment, these plaudits did not save Labor.

Where did Labor’s voters go?

There was a nearly 5.5% swing against Labor nationally, and almost 4% swing to the Greens, whose policies and statements on the four main issues above, and the mining tax, have been stronger than Labor’s own. Further the Greens call for taking troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Labor was unable to make positive arguments even for the policies which got it elected. When faced with heavy flak, on either the mining tax or carbon emissions, Labor collapsed. And not just the Labor politicians. The unions were unable to formulate anything much in the way of a positive argument, let alone push for Labor to take it up.

Gillard is culpable for all of these failures.

What can unions do about Labor? The results of this election show that running scared and giving in to the Coalition and employers are not only NOT necessary to win an election, they can actually lead to defeat. The unions could develop and argue a strong case for the concerns of workers and the environment, campaign for these concerns and put forward a new leader to replace Gillard, who will stand up for them.

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