Once-proud Labor now cast as little more than a political ATM
IN most independent, Catholic and other private schools across Australia you will find plaques that serve as testaments to the fundraising activities of those school communities.
The plaques, be they old or new, pay tribute to the generosity of parents or benefactors, or sometimes simply dedicate premises to the “glory of God”. One way or another, these plaques are windows into the values that underpin each school.
When Julia Gillard introduced the Building the Education Revolution program, she insisted that every hall or new building would have a plaque that recognised the contribution of the federal Labor government. Like all those other plaques, these too provide a telling insight into their sponsors’ values.
The then minister for education insisted that every plaque detail the exact amount provided by the federal government to build the hall. These plaques are so devoid of aspiration and inspiration that one wonders how even this government could see their benefit.
In their own way, they highlight the inherent weakness of the Gillard government. It hasn’t been a government built on values but one built on handouts.
Even now, the government argues its case for re-election not on improved outcomes or fundamental values but, rather, on the basis of the money it has spent or is about to spend.
A recent federal government brochure mailed to every household in every marginal seat in Australia highlighted tax cuts, schoolkids’ bonuses, teenagers’ bonuses, cash for training, pension increases, carbon tax compensation, dads’ leave, paid parental leave, income support, household assistance and so on. As the Greeks have discovered relatively recently, cash for all is a great strategy until the money runs out.
The Gillard government starts the year with its surplus promise in tatters and deep questions about what Labor truly stands for. The proud party of Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Beazley and even Rudd now sells itself as little more than a political ATM, offering cash withdrawals to what it considers to be the most useful voting groups.
By building a government based on handouts and promises of cash rather than on values, Labor has left itself vulnerable to a weakening economic climate and to a values politician such as Tony Abbott. The Opposition Leader has campaigned for 18 months on the carbon tax and that campaign has been as much about trust as about the impact of the tax.
The railway tracks Abbott will run on this election year are trust and the economy. The government’s failure to come clean about the state of the budget until a few days before Christmas is already being portrayed by Abbott as a moral failure as well as an economic one.
He has every right to put that case, as the federal Labor government had promised a surplus on more than 200 occasions, including saying it was “rolled gold”, “iron-clad”, and a “guarantee” that had already been delivered. Yet even after junking the surplus, the government refuses to utter the dreaded word “deficit”.
Like the Fonz in ‘Happy Days’, federal Labor has an aversion to admitting error. In the longer run, this just makes Labor’s predicament worse. By refusing to contemplate an apology, the government has compounded ineptitude with arrogance. Fair-minded people readily forgive mistakes, because we all make them, but an unconfessed, yet obvious, serious mistake engenders deep anger.
The decapitation of Kevin Rudd, the carbon tax betrayal, the protection of Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, and the scandal-plagued NSW branch have left the Labor brand toxic.
Federal Labor has eight months at most to repair the damage. It can do so only if it goes back to its foundations and becomes a party of values again. It means putting petty politics aside and acting like everyday Australians do.
It means you don’t attack the Leader of the Opposition for fighting a bushfire, or call him a misogynist because he thinks Slipper is no longer fit to be Speaker of the national parliament. Everyday people don’t do that.
Everyday people know that Thomson is hardly a model MP and that the former NSW and Queensland governments had become stinking patronage machines, and they can’t understand why federal Labor does not share their outrage.
Australians want to see a Labor Party that shares the values of ordinary citizens. That’s what Labor campaigned on in 2007: values that Australians could relate to, such as a fairer deal in the workplace, better education for children, apologising for past wrongs and keeping the economy and budget strong.
Instead, we have the “cash for you” strategy, devoid of values and bereft of hope.
Politics is as much about trust and affinity as it is about the economy, and this election will see Abbott enter the campaign with the upper hand on both issues.
Trust has always been a potent issue in elections held in the aftermath of a defining breach of promise. In 1980, Bill Hayden slashed Malcolm Fraser’s record majority by reminding Australians of the “fistful of dollars” Fraser had promised in 1977 but then had taken back.
In 1996, John Howard didn’t let a day pass without reminding Australians about Paul Keating’s “L-A-W law tax cuts”. And, having learned the lesson of 1996, Howard took his changed position on the GST to the 1998 election to receive a mandate.
Abbott has absorbed these lessons and will not miss with the Prime Minister’s broken promises on the carbon tax and budget surplus. Worse still for Labor, Abbott is deftly blending the issue of trust and the economy into one. Expect to hear the Coalition asking: Who do you trust to return the budget to surplus? Who do you trust to keep their promises on tax? Who do you trust to get spending under control? Who do you trust to run a strong and prosperous economy?
If public and private polls are any guide, Abbott already knows the answer and that’s why he will be asking these crucial questions.
The economy and trust will be the issues that will define the coming federal election campaign. Unless Labor can rediscover a compelling values narrative, Abbott will stay on the right side of these issues from now until polling day.
Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald has written 35 books, most recently ‘Fools’ Paradise’.
The Weekend Australian January 26 – 27, 2013 , Inquirer p 16.