Is Labor the true dynamo of Australian politics?

When I began to learn about Australian politics, in the 1950s, the great authority on the ALP was Professor L.F. Crisp of Canberra University College, later (to Crisp’s chagrin) rolled into the ANU. He wrote about Australian politics, and also on his hero, Ben Chifley. For Crisp, Labor was the real point of our representative democracy, and he described the rest as  the ‘anti-Labor parties’, as though their real purpose was simply to oppose Labor’s goals and strategies.

I grew up in the bush, and came to the study of politics with a background in the kind of ‘countrymindedness’  that was the emotional support of what was then the Country Party. For the people I knew in the country, Labor was just a distraction from the real problems of Australia, which had to do with the lack of infrastructure in the bush, and the costs that farmers and graziers suffered because of it. It wasn’t hard to believe in that point of view: I only had to go from my country town to my relatives in the big smoke of Sydney to see the great differences. There were many other differences I was too young to appreciate. For the Country Party, ‘NSW’ meant ‘Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong’. It had coined that little quip in the 1920s, and it is still current.

Crisp didn’t have it all his own way, but there was no doubt, at least to me, that most of the people I mixed with in academic circles saw Labor as the real driver of what was good in Australian politics. The Liberal Party was seen as the party of big business, and the Country Party as that of the wealthy graziers. Labor had all the ideas, the songs, the enthusiasm and the boozy parties. It was about a better life for everybody; the others were for protecting the status quo.

My parents were schoolteachers, and their parents were from the relatively unskilled working class. Our family perspective on all this was that there ought to a better life, and work was the honest way to get it; education was a must. My parents, my two brothers and I all benefited a great deal from the system of public education, and our story is no different to the rest of Australia. The great advance of education for all, at all levels, has transformed our country.

But I think it has also transformed the party system. Labor was once the party of the relatively unskilled and uneducated, and its mission was to get them out of that state. By the 1980s very many people had complete secondary education, and a sizeable proportion had degrees or diplomas. That trend has gone on. Yet, just as giving everyone the vote didn’t in fact produce socialism, let alone communism, educating everybody has not made us all more sensible.

Indeed, it has given Labor more expansionary visions than was characteristic of the party in the 1930s and 1940s. In those days decent housing, a proper pension on retirement, the forty-hour working week and workers’ compensation were high on the agenda. Now the vision is global: combatting ‘climate change’, another education revolution, universal support for the carers of disabled people, alternative energy sources, ‘the environment’, and so on.

It would have to be said that these visions do not spring from the aspirations of the working class, though those so described might nod at one or more of them. They are the concerns of well-educated, well-meaning, well-off humanitarians concerned about the future of humanity and the planet. I don’t think they are at all the central concerns of ordinary Australians.

I’m not sure that Fin Crisp would still see Labor as the essential dynamo of Australia were he alive today. In fact, I don’t think any of the parties has that status. ‘The economy’ is king, not the political parties. Moreover, we are living in a global world where external events, not our own aspirations, are crucially important.

More still, Australia is much wealthier than it was in 1950, and we have  much higher incomes than did our forbears in the 1950s (and that includes the ‘poor’, who are much better off than the ‘poor’ of 1950). Only 18 per cent of us belong to trade unions. My guess is that the great majority of Australians want less government, not more. In my view the Labor Party and its vision are increasingly irrelevant to the world of 2013. I accept that when it comes to the vote one major grouping or the other has to get the nod.

But the major parties don’t command the votes they once did. In 1910, the first modern election in Australia, the Labor and Liberal Parties won 95 per cent of the vote between them, and no one was elected to the House of Representatives who did not belong to one of them. Last Saturday they won 79 per cent of the vote, Labor less than 34 per cent. We are becoming a society of single-issue groups rather than a single society that has large common concerns.

My guess is, again, that the current task for those in power is to govern modestly, insist that people take more responsibility for themselves, help them  to do so, provide infrastructure, avoid foreign entanglements as far as they can, and avoid spending too much. It is never easy to be in power, as I wrote earlier this year. I wish the Abbott Government well, and of course hope that it follows the template I just set out!

But the notion that it, and what it does, will be somehow ‘anti-Labor’ simply doesn’t seem sensible any more. Labor has a great deal of rethinking to do. I hope that it uses the time in office profitably, if only because nobody would  want to see it come to power again as ill-prepared for office as it was in 2007.

(to be continued tomorrow)

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