Essential Report

So where is the Left?

Oct 26, 2010

First Published on The Drum 26/10/2010

If political progressives want to stop the ALP from drifting to the Right, energetically backing the decision to move women and children out of immigration detention looks like a good place to start.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Immigration minister Chris Bowen took the new minority government’s first truly brave decision last week, yet all they got was a sullen acceptance from a Left still acting like jilted lovers after the disappointments of the election campaign.

As today’s Essential Report shows, Labor needs support on this issue. Badly. This is a decision that has the support of just one third of the general electorate, and even a minority of Labor voters, creating a ready-made rallying cry for the increasingly shrill Opposition fear conductor Scott Morrison

Q. Do you approve or disapprove of the Federal Government’s decision to move children and their families out of immigration detention centres and allow them to live in the community while their cases are being processed?

Total Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens
Total approve 33% 42% 24% 63%
Total disapprove 53% 45% 67% 28%
Strongly approve 11% 15% 4% 39%
Approve 22% 27% 20% 24%
Disapprove 24% 22% 29% 12%
Strongly disapprove 29% 23% 38% 16%
Don’t know 13% 13% 9% 8%

Worse for Labor, the number of people saying Labor is ‘too soft’ on asylum seekers is on the rise, feeding into the Opposition’s over-riding narrative that this is a weak government.

Q. Do you think the Federal Labor Government is too tough or too soft on asylum seekers or is it taking the right approach?

This week Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens 12 July 10 4 April 10
Too tough 7% 9% 3% 28% 10% 6%
Too soft 63% 49% 83% 33% 56% 65%
Taking the right approach 18% 31% 7% 30% 21% 18%
Don’t know 12% 10% 7% 9% 13% 11%

These findings illustrate the minefield that the government has willingly entered, but they also throw down the gauntlet to the broad Left to develop its own coherent strategy for managing its newfound influence.

I am not just talking about the Greens here, although they are key political beneficiaries of Labor’s move to the centre. I am also referring to the various unions, advocacy groups and NGOs who have drifted away from Labor – and continue to do so post-election.

If we are to assume that the broad objective of these players is a more progressive society, then surely they need to find a way to render support to Labor when it announces a policy that is totally consistent with their social justice agenda. After all if support can not be rallied for women and children in detention, what hope is there of a more humane and honest approach to the issue in general?

It’s fine to voice disappointment when action stalls on climate change or mining billionaires are let off the hook, but in this contested political environment the progressives have to be prepared to get behind the government when it is prepared to make a call and stare down majority prejudice.

Maybe a Labor Government standing on principle is such a novel concept, that no-one on the Left knows how to react anymore. But they better work out a play soon, or they will be creating their own reality, becoming a rump of the electorate dwelling on the fringes of political debate.

But this is not just charitable work for the ALP either. The nascent issue of racism remains at the core of the Australian political debate and the fundamental threat to the ALP in holding its base.

It colours issues as diverse as population, immigration, development and climate change – and since the Liberals chose to use it so effectively in 2001 Labor has struggled to find a place to go, drifting from Kevin Rudd’s ‘compassionate toughness’ to Julia Gillard’s gunboat diplomacy.

The Tea Party is showing in America how it is possible to mobilise a large groups of , white working class people to conservative politics through a gumbo of anti-elite, anti-state and anti-minority posturing. If the Australian left is to head off these forces before they take hold, they better start working together fast.

Peter Lewis, Director, EMC


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