14/12/2004 - 21:00

State Scene: Joe Poprzeczny: Another valuable lesson for Labor

14/12/2004 - 21:00


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IT has been some time since I’ve read anything on America’s brutal Civil War, a conflict that so horrified Australia’s colonial politicians that they responded by enacting the White Australia policy once the colonies had federated.

IT has been some time since I’ve read anything on America’s brutal Civil War, a conflict that so horrified Australia’s colonial politicians that they responded by enacting the White Australia policy once the colonies had federated.

Its killing and mayhem so appalled Australia’s founding fathers in their adolescent years that they resolved, in adulthood, not to permit the emergence of racial differences across the new south land. That, more than anything, resulted in the White Australia policy.

But that 1860s conflict also gave rise to countless other minor outcomes.

One worth highlighting stems from an objective predisposition of Confederate Brigadier-General George E Pickett, who led a 12,400-man charge upon the Federal centre on day three of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Soon after the Confederate loss they debated intensely why the Unionists won this clash that had cost 51,000 lives.

Several explanations and excuses focusing on Confederate planning and execution were highlighted.

Pickett’s response, on hearing them, was simple and to the point: “I think the Unionists also had something to do with it”.

Indeed they did.

Many Confederate explanations were probably valid. But not everything they did – or didn’t do – explained the Unionist victory that, thankfully, eventuated in bringing the liberation of America’s slave class closer.

What Unionist officers and their soldiers had done most certainly played a role in the Union’s victory.

Today the thrust of Pickett’s point has so obviously been forgotten in so many of the discussions on why Latham-led Labor lost out to the Howard-led Coalition.

All explanations for Labor’s loss that I’ve encountered focus exclusively on what Labor’s strategists – from its leader down – did or didn’t do.

Although many are undoubtedly valid, they ignore the Coalition side.

Because there’s no-one of Pickett’s ilk available, one is compelled to emulate him, and say: “I think the Liberals and Nationals also had something to do with it”.

But with that said it’s worth asking what precisely it was that the Coalition did to ensure victory.

First and foremost, Prime Minister Howard leads what’s fairly described as a solid, if not perfect, government; one that’s performed moderately well, taken some difficult decisions, and moved steadily, very steadily, in a reformist direction.

Laborites will argue that Howard-Costello have reaped the benefits of the Hawke-Keating micro-economic reforms, and there’s some truth in that.

Notwithstanding this, the conservative duo’s record of economic management, including the substantial cut in unemployment, can’t be written off that easily.

Many voters understandably give them credit since they’re seen as deserving it.

Note also that the duo hasn’t agreed on everything.

They’ve differed, for instance, on whether Australia should be a republic or remain linked to Buckingham Palace. But such differences were amicably handled.

All this has given rise to a general sense of trust in the Coalition.

Underlying this is a similar feeling about how John Howard, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, and Defence Minister Hill oversee defence and foreign policy.

True, there hasn’t been unanimous nationwide agreement on all issues: assisting the liberation of Timor; intervention in the Solomons; and backing US-British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to hopefully ensure tolerance and something resembling democracy emerging in the longtime autocratic and ever-bloody Islamic world.

But, by and large, Australians have backed such moves and Canberra’s entry into freer trade agreements with Singapore, the US, Thailand and, in the pipeline, China and the ASEAN states.

There’ve been mistakes and failures, including: the appointment of Peter Hollingworth as vice-regal; enormous auditing problems within the costly defence establishment; the drawn-out and badly thought-out Telstra privatisation; and failure to identify and promptly neutralise French Islamic terrorist, Willi Brigitte, none of which should have happened.

But most Aussies know that Murphy’s Law is ever present, and so forgive governments for such lapses.

Over-arching all this has been the Coalition’s tolerant attitudes towards what could best be called ‘Australia’s traditional moral values and sensibilities’.

Unlike so many Labor MPs, those in Coalition ranks tend not to publicly engage or confront such sensibilities.

I can’t recall the last time a conservative MP publicly slammed religion or traditional sensibilities.

Yet so many Labor MPs, most of whom are lapsed Christians, do otherwise.

Labor’s Mark Latham has announced he’s an agnostic. Why?

His hero and predecessor, four times removed, Gough Whitlam, once publicly ranted against former Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen calling him “A Bible-bashing bastard”. Why?

Such unprovoked outbursts aren’t only unnecessary, they’re also electorally damaging.

They repel so many non-agnostics, who see Whitlam-style attacks as indicating something far worse than may be intended.

Like it or not, many Australian believers see Labor’s upper echelons not only as non-believers, but as opponents of traditional values and sensibilities.

Little wonder Coalition MPs moved promptly to enshrine that marriage was a union between a man and woman.

Although Labor eventually followed suit, those observing this can be forgiven for perceiving that Labor’s backing wasn’t entirely enthusiastic.

Labor constantly wrong-foots itself electorally on a range of values and moral issues, thereby alienating itself from many voters.

It’s worth noting that Australian Labor isn’t alone in positioning itself at the vanguard of attacks on such sensibilities.

America’s Democrats – the party of Bill and Hillary Clinton – share this proclivity.

Leading American-Jewish cultural commentator, Don Feder, recently wrote that Democrats, whose bedrock backers for so long were Catholics, can no longer take them for granted electorally.

Australian Labor is similarly placed.

“For the Democratic party church-going America is enemy territory,” Feder writes. “Likewise evangelicals. In that bygone era, born-again Christians helped to keep the south solidly Democratic.

“To the amazement of the New York Times, 22 per cent of voters told exit pollsters that they were motivated by ‘values’ or moral questions – more than those who based their votes on the economy or the war on terrorism.

“President Bush was endorsed by over 80 per cent of values-driven voters.”

These figures need highlighting here with Labor nationally attracting, on October 9, just 37.6 per cent to the Coalition’s 46.6 per cent, while Labor in WA scored 34.8 per cent to the Coalition’s 48.8 per cent.

Such huge disparities surely prompt one to again turn to Pickett.

I think the Liberals and Nationals also had something to do with it.


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