Essential Report

Holding centre ground can be war

Oct 12, 2010

First Published on The Drum 12/10/2010

Attempting to manage public confidence in the war in Afghanistan, the Labor Party is exposing its left flank in a way that calls into question three decades of political centrism.

These are challenging times for the ALP, with minority control in Canberra, hand-wringing election post mortems and flagging state administrations around the nation. A key theme appears to be ‘Labor has lost its way’.

But what is the ALP way? Since at least the Whitlam era, Labor orthodoxy has been that the occupation of the centre ground was a precondition for electoral success. Careers were built on the tough work of shifting Labor from ideological dogma to more pragmatic policies.

This involved Labor projecting out from its union and social justice bases to appeal to the uncommitted and often undecided voters, playing down some issues, stifling others to portray itself as a safe pair of hands for middle Australia.

Two recent examples of this were Kevin Rudd’s bellicose attacks on union leaders in the 2007 election campaign and Julia Gillard’s gunboat diplomacy to assure western Sydney voters Labor was tough on asylum seekers.

As long as there was a two-party system, these tactics met a cost benefit analysis, with the simple theory being that given the option to vote for the conservatives, Labor’s base would always stick despite the disquiet.

And to give credit the strategy has worked with Labor dominating in most states and federally, apart from the 11 years of Howard where traditional Labor battlers were seduced with direct payments and carefully crafted political wedges.

But the arrival of the Australian Greens as a Lower House party will challenge this thinking, providing a political alternative for Labor’s progressive base.

On issues as diverse as schools funding, climate change and workers rights, the Greens have policies that will provide its elected representatives the opportunity to make the sort of parliamentary speeches that Labor supporters yearn to hear from their own.

Add to this list the war in Afghanistan, as this week’s Essential Report shows.

Q. Thinking about the Australian troops in Afghanistan, do you think Australia should …

Total 11 Oct 10 Labor Liberal Greens 21 June 10 March 09
Increase the number of troops in Afghanistan 13% 10% 20% 6% 7% 14%
Keep the same number of troops in Afghanistan 24% 26% 29% 14% 24% 24%
Withdraw our troops from Afghanistan 49% 50% 41% 73% 61% 50%
Don’t know 14% 14% 10% 7% 8% 12%

Break these numbers along party lines and you see the danger for Labor, half of all Labor voters endorse the Greens policy; indeed 41 per cent of Coalition voters support it too.

It shows why the Greens were so keen to have a parliamentary debate on Afghanistan – an issue of national import where the solitary Greens representative, in a Parliament of 150, will voice the views of half the Australian public.

Of course, not all issues are life and death like the commitment to war, but the point is that with a functioning party to its left, managing the politics of power becomes a lot more complex for the ALP.

In the 2010 election Labor’s primary vote fell 5.4 per cent to 38 per cent – to put this into perspective that is about one in seven Labor voters shifted away.

The bulk of these votes did not go to the Coalition, they shifted to the Greens, whose primary rose from 7.7 per cent of the vote to 11.7 per cent. In other words an increase of nearly 50 per cent in its total vote from the previous election.

The operation of this Parliament will determine whether these shifts were a one-off or a re-alignment, but if Labor wants to command a primary vote of 40 per cent into the future it will need to re-engage its base, even at the expense of commanding the centre.

Otherwise, there is a very real prospect it will be outsourcing its entire left wing, and the heart and soul of so much of its activism, to another political party. And that is a war that no party would want to lose.

Peter Lewis, Director, EMC


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