27/03/2013 - 10:32

Class warfare rhetoric has to go

27/03/2013 - 10:32


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Labor needs to get with the times if it is to connect with the mainstream, and re-energise its traditional supporter base.

Labor needs to get with the times if it is to connect with the mainstream, and re-energise its traditional supporter base.

THE seeds of the federal Labor government’s disastrous lead up to the Easter break were sown three years ago when it attempted to introduce the ill-conceived super profits tax on the mining industry. 

The same mindset was evident in its recent abortive attempt to introduce new media industry laws. 

Sadly for the government, and Labor supporters, it has taken two of its most experienced and respected members to enunciate the issue at the heart of its embarrassing policy failures.

When Labor elders Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean held news conferences after leaving Julia Gillard’s cabinet last week, they covered a range of issues needing to be resolved if the government is to regain public confidence. Coincidentally, they both mentioned ‘class’. Their advice – Labor must forget the class warfare.

Australia has long prided itself on the egalitarian nature of its society and that it is a land of opportunity, where social mobility is a fact of life.

That is not to deny there are pockets in society where exploitation of the less privileged is common – that’s why workers united to form unions in self-defence, and some militant unions respond in kind.

Our major political parties have their origins in the competing interests of our mixed economy. Employers and the wealthy are generally attracted to the Liberals, while lower income earners gravitate towards Labor, as do many employed in the public sector. 

The Nationals have extended their appeal beyond primary producers to regional Australia generally. The Greens supporters are a mix of idealists and zealots.

The main parties tend to operate within those parameters, but occasionally go too far. Former Liberal prime minister John Howard scored a slashing win in the 2004 federal election, but overreached with his WorkChoices legislation, which caused the unions to unite in an effective act of self preservation.

The message from Mr Crean and Mr Ferguson was that Labor had gone too far in pursuing class warfare. The most obvious example was against the mining giants in 2010, and the most recent the disastrous campaign to ‘reform’ media laws. 

There has been plenty of debate about the merits of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, as it is now known. That the major companies were enjoying super profits at the time was undeniable, but the government failed to explain the rationale for the tax. It simply looked like a cash grab to curry favour among voters in Melbourne and Sydney at the expense of the resource-rich states of Western Australia and Queensland.

The attempt to sell the tax was a shambles and helped cost Kevin Rudd the prime ministership. The fact that Premier Colin Barnett conceded that the big miners could afford to pay more tax, possibly through a surcharge on their company tax, was little consolation.

Then, out of nowhere, Treasurer Wayne Swan decided to beat up on three Australians with big investments in mining operations. Gina Rinehart is a favourite target, partly due to some ill-advised public comments, and Queenslander Clive Palmer also enjoys provoking his critics. Andrew Forrest was the third target.

What they had in common was their criticism of the new mining tax. Mrs Rinehart was especially singled out as one of the world’s wealthiest women. 

The attempt to change the media laws, spearheaded by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, was doomed from the start. There was minimal justification and little support. 

Governments might not always like how their actions are reported, but most learn to roll with the punches. Senator Conroy took a mighty punch – on his own chin.

The message from Labor’s two elders is clear – forget the politics of envy. Try implementing good policy for a change. It might even strike a chord in the electorate.

Record margin

WHEN Geoff Gallop’s Labor government rushed legislation to introduce one vote, one value through state parliament in May 2005, it was vehemently opposed by both the Liberal and National parties.

Many conservatives believed that the removal of the ‘weighting’ in favour of country votes would wreck their chances of ever regaining power.

Labor, on the other hand, saw it as a matter of principle. Indeed senior minister Jim McGinty had been pushing the case for some years, even mounting a High Court challenge in Canberra.

The fact that Labor generally polled more votes than the Liberals in the metropolitan area was another factor, of course. But not all Labor supporters were convinced of the need for one vote, one value. They pointed to the party’s strong representation from the state’s main regional centres, where most voters were town residents, to back their case.

They felt that expanding these seats to include surrounding rural areas – and conservative voters – would be electorally risky.

Examples were Bunbury, Albany, Collie, Geraldton and Kalgoorlie, where Labor had generally polled well. The exceptions were the seats of Kimberley and to some extent Pilbara, which also included many Aboriginal people in isolated communities. Their votes tended to favour Labor.

The overriding principle had to be that, in a fair voting system, the party that won the majority of votes should also win the majority of seats.

A glance at recent state election voting statistics shows conservative voters who believed their parties were doomed under the electoral changes were being unnecessarily morose. In fact the Liberals and Nationals achieved the highest-ever combined two-party preferred voting figure – 58 per cent to Labor’s 42 per cent – in the recent poll.

Labor hung on to two regional seats due to strong local MPs – Peter Watson in Albany and Mick Murray in Collie-Preston – while newcomer Josie Farrer, in Kimberley, was helped by a big vote from outlying Aboriginal communities.

The Nationals were the surprise packet in the regions this time. The historic wins by Brendon Grylls in Pilbara and Wendy Duncan in Kalgoorlie have given the party seven of the 59 lower house members. That’s its best effort since the 1971 election, when it had eight out of 51 seats.  

In fact, of the five top two-party preferred scores in state elections, four have been linked with coalition victories. In addition to the recent win by the Barnett government, two were under Richard Court (1993 and 1996) and the other under his father, Sir Charles (1977). Labor’s biggest voting margin was when Brian Burke’s government was returned in 1986 with a two-party preferred figure of 54.1 per cent, and 45.9 per cent to the coalition. 

But Labor needn’t be too despondent over its current plight. Dr Gallop led the party back to power in 2001 with a huge swing, despite Richard Court’s big win in 1996.



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