Reports of Labor’s death are greatly exaggerated

Last weekend the SMH’s political editor, Peter Hartcher, made an extraordinary claim that “Labor’s looming death as a stand-alone political entity is the biggest story in contemporary Australian politics.”

Hartcher is an experienced and astute political analyst, having reported politics for the Herald not only from Canberra, but also Tokyo and Washington. However, his prediction seems disconnected from reality.

Hartcher’s thesis is that Labor has lost its progressive supporters to the Greens and has no chance of getting them back. He says that “Labor has yet to squarely confront the fact that it is on track to bring the two-party system to an end as Australia witnesses the rise of a three-party system,” and that “even if [the Prime Minister] can win passage of a carbon tax through the Parliament, it will not be enough to save her, and Labor, from oblivion.”

I don’t quibble with Hartcher’s contention that Labor has had a tactical tendency to lurch to the right on contentious issues to prevent voter leakage to the Coalition. Nor do I dispute that this has caused some progressive voters at the other end of the political spectrum to abandon the ALP for the Greens.

I can even agree that Labor’s low primary vote (37.99%) at the 2010 federal election was mostly attributable to “disillusioned and disgusted Labor voters going across to the Greens”.

But there is no evidence to suggest, as Hartcher does, that these voters are lost to Labor forever. To do so would be to fundamentally misread (or rewrite) what occurred.

The Greens garnered 11.76% of the primary vote at the 2010 election, a swing to them of 3.97%. However, nearly 80% of that vote went back to Labor in preferences, just as it did at the previous federal election.

Interestingly, 26% of Green voters said they did not make up their mind how to vote until 24 hours or less before casting their vote, compared with 17% for Labor and 9% for Coalition voters. This proportion of votes, decided so close to polling day, is unusually high compared with previous elections.

The combination of Green votes preferenced back to Labor, with the delayed decision to vote Green, suggests that many more potential voters wanted to vote Labor but couldn’t bring themselves to do so.

When voters are uncertain about which party to choose, they usually lean towards the devil they know (the incumbent). But on this occasion they were faced with two relatively unknown politicians, both of whose authenticity were in question. As a result, some voters ended up rejecting them both.

Unfulfilled expectations also played an important role in that rejection.

Kevin Rudd’s downfall was that he didn’t deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices.

While Rudd did apologise to the Stolen Generation he didn’t deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so because they knew voters were waiting to take out their anger on him, just as they had done to Keating in 1996.

Julia Gillard was also damaged by the mismanagement of expectations, but not in the irretrievable way suggested by Hartcher. She became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne illegal immigrants. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme.

Hartcher claims these actions were a grievous insult to the progressive side of the ALP and caused a permanent mass exodus of voters. In fact these actions were viewed much more simply, and by a broader range of Labor voters, as yet another PM welshing on their commitments.

While Hartcher seems to think the battle has been fought and won by the Greens, they should take no comfort from the fact that a chunk of their voter base is comprised of disaffected major party supporters.

The published opinion polls mean nothing this far out from an election: the Greens’ support is nothing more than soft and fickle at this point. It’s conditional upon two things: (1) continued voter antipathy towards the major parties and (2) the Greens’ capacity to deliver on the high expectations they’ve created for themselves.

The Greens shouldn’t lose sight of what happened to the Australian Democrats when placed in a similar position 30 years ago.

The Democrats held or shared the balance of power with other minor parties or independents in the Australian Senate for nearly 25 years (1981 to 2004). At their peak, they also held the balance of power in the upper houses of several state parliaments: NSW from 1988 to 1991, SA from 1979 for the following two decades and WA for one term following the 1996 election.

Today they hold no seats – in any Australian parliament.

There are both similarities and differences between the Democrats and the Greens. Perhaps the most significant similarity between the two is the amount of voter goodwill and accompanying high expectation that each party generated. It was the Democrats’ inability to fulfil this voter expectation that ultimately proved to be their undoing.
When the Greens attain the balance of power in July this year, they will discover, as did the Democrats, that it’s much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. The Greens will need to manage voter expectations better than the Democrats to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, on either side, but if the Prime Minister can find ways to wedge the Greens on their legislative wish-list it will be the minor party and not Labor that will face public opprobrium for unpopular decisions.

This dissatisfaction will then be played out at the ballot box.

Hartcher says Labor is finished as a major party and that it “cannot hope to govern in its own right any more.”

His prediction is a long way yet from being fulfilled.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

14 thoughts on “Reports of Labor’s death are greatly exaggerated”

  1. Seems to me that most Australians are a bit ambivalent about all politicians. Easier to take out your anger against the incumbents. I noted that Gillard got quite a warm reception from Q and A when she explained the basis of her climate change policy. I believe many Australians are receptive to the reality that something has to happen.

    Your point that it is early in the electoral cycle is also well taken. Lots of time to do something and enhance credibility and trust with the voters. I don’t see the Libs making much headway in that department.

  2. A good summing up, Dragonista. As a long time ALP activist over many decades who is now no longer a party member and who has frequently voted Greens 1 and Labor 2 I think your points are well made. I am not a Green and, having watched the Green hubris in the Victorian state election, am particularly wary of them. The Greens are not what I would call a mature political party – simply because they have never been in a position where they have had to make the hard decisions and be caught in the pincer movements of major lobbyists. Another reason that I consider the Greens an immature political party is that they have been there a long time – but their vote does not seem to increase awfully much and, from time to time, they literally shoot themselves in their collective feet. As you point out, when the chips are down there are Labor people who will revert to form.

  3. Sorry Dragonista, Hartcher is right. As one of those former Labor voters who as of the last election finally had enough of Labor’s pandering to the right I disagree with your thesis. To win back those progressive voters who have shifted to the Greens, Labor will have to start implementing progressive policy. If they don’t, having jumped ship to a party who better represents your views why would you move back? As Labor are somewhat on the nose both on the right and the left they would have to choose – right or left? Irrespective of the inevitable rhetoric to the contrary they will not move left for fear of further compromising their attractiveness to the swing voters in the key marginal seats. Their current stance on gay marriage and asylum seekers supports this. For the forseeable future they will continue to lean right and rely on preference swapping with the coalition to hold onto or (in the case of Melbourne) claw back progressive seats. Unable to move left they will not regain voters lost to the Greens even if they shore up the inner urban seats. The unfortunate consequence of this is that their primary vote will remain low – although if they start to display even slight competence they should regain some of the votes they are losing to the Coalition on the right. I think this is likely to mean that they will not govern in their own right for a long time. Someone in Labor had better subdue their overweening sense of entitlement, confront this probability and begin to think about how they can constructively ally their party with the Greens in some sort of left leaning coalition or they face a protracted stay in the political wilderness.

    I agree with Miss Eagle that currently the Greens do not constitute a mature political party. I was also a bit put off by Greg Barber’s unnecessary and unhelpful statements during the Victorian State election. That they are still learning is to be expected they are only just beginning to get elected members in State and Federal lower houses where the fight is largely conducted. The evidence of the current Federal parliament however suggests that they are learning fast.

    Also, the problems with ‘mature’ (read on the nose) political parties stretch further than their policies. In the case of Labor the corrupt, stinking mess that is Labor’s internal structures and administration will continue to discourage voters from returning in the same way it discourages new members. The recent wishy washy review and insipid set of recommendations from the trio of Labor luminaries gives no confidence that this is about to be addressed. Any self respecting AFL football club has more members than the ALP. Indeed the Australian Youth Climate Coalition has more members than the ALP and they are a whole lot more motivated.

  4. Nicely put Drag0nista.

    The Greens, whilst consistently growing their supporter base on a globally topical theme, are a long way off being considered a major political party.

    This is where Harther’s theory falls down.

    As noted by others, the Democrats are a most relevant case in point.

    Successful minor parties have two choices. Firstly, they can remain a minor party and continue to wield their power in the ‘balance’, or else they can aspire to become a major party in their own right.

    Whilst the Greens are currently very successful as a minor party, they are a significant distance away from being a major threat to either Labor or Liberal. They have not yet the maturity as a party, their structures are weak and they rely very heavily on the goodwill of their long time leader.

    When Bob Brown decides to hang up his boots, Labor will benefit, both nationally and at the State level.

    It is a shame though that the Australian electorate does not seek to support more minor parties. Whilst governments are generally more chaotic when formed as multi party coalitions, I believe they are far more democratic. The gamut of views of the Australian people would be then better represented in our parliaments. Not just the centrist policies developed by the ALP and Liberals that are designed for no other purpose than re election. It is this current situation that has caused such disillusionment with the two major parties and has led to growing support to ‘others’ (including independents). It does not represent a systemic changing of the political guard in Australia.

  5. Crikeys in my day you had ya Blue,Red n Greens, not forgetting Don “Keep the Bastards Honest” Chipp.Todays colour seems to be Grey.I think 1 point that was missed was the “Donkey Vote”,I’d be interested to see how many of those 4 legged buggers there were.(no direspect to Donkeys,nor were any harmed in this reply)

    Toodle Pip


  6. Well said about the voter preferences and placing the 2010 election within it’s own special context, a highly important factor for any discussion on the current political environment.

    I think another factor is the current leadership of the ALP. It seems that the Parliamentary wing of the party does not have strong, socially progressive leaders. This will not always be the case. Current asylum seeker policy is unsustainable as witnessed by events this past week and the ALP simply cannot introduce the same measures which the Howard Government did. This calls for a more nuanced policy position, something community detention is moving towards but currently a long way off. Strong parliamentary leadership on these issues from within caucus and cabinet can re-shape these issues. It just requires the next generation to find their feet.

    Both major political parties are sustainable over the long term because they adapt to existing political environments. Despite the screaming of many, they are dynamic parties that move with the times. Hawke and Keating showed this for progressive politics in Australia, as did John Howard for conservative politics. As an ALP member, I hope the the Labor party can continue this tradition. It from this hope that I don’t share Hartcher’s contention. Although at the moment, I’m yet to be convinced.

  7. Robert van Aast
    “It does not represent a systemic changing of the political guard in Australia.” I suggest that rather depends on whether the two major parties alter their policy making ways. Do you think that likely? I don’t.
    Henry Sherrell and Dragonista
    I suggest that an equally likely interpretation of the late decision on voting intentions by Greens voters might well be regret at being forced to abandon a prior allegiance to the ALP. But assuming they vote for policies for these people to return probably requires progressive action from Gillard Government. Any one think this is likely?

  8. A much greater proportion of the Greens’ voter base is disaffected Labor supporters rather than disaffected Liberal or “swinging” voters and i think Doug Evans makes a good point about late Green voters actually being reluctant former Labor voters. To me the best explanation for the largest body of Greens support is that it’s essentially the left faction(s) of the Labor party angling for more leverage over left/progressive governments. Until recently, internal Labor solidarity, along with the slogan of “the [non-Labor left whatever] will never hold government in their own right,” kept the left in check no matter how often the right won the battles. Now there is a viable alternative for the Left that allows them to disagree and debate the right more openly and probably achieve more of their goals, or so they imagine at least.

    See the “keep Carmel” and “keep Verity” campaigns in the NSW state seats of Marrickville and Balmain. To me that’s mainly about arguing to keep those individuals as members of the Left of Labor within the Labor caucus, advocating for progressive ideas and keeping the Labor-right in check i.e. “throw out Labor, but keep these two.” I believe those seats have a higher proportion of politically engaged voters than average, voters who understand that their vote works on a number of levels and is not just about deciding between Labor or coalition government.

    Drag0nista and others seem to be falling into what is a false assumption that a party is either a major party that has a hope of governing on its own right or it’s just a party for protest votes that isn’t a threat. While i don’t assume that Labor will never again govern in their own right (ATM, federally, that’s only the case if they win 72-75 seats, a pretty small window in a parliament of 150,) i do think there is a significant enough of a threat from the Greens in that politically engaged left-within-the-left types will be thinking much harder about whether it’s tactically better to be represented by a left wing member of Labor pissing inside a tent or member of the Greens pissing outside.

    A case study: Adam Bant would’ve won Melbourne off the votes of unhappy Labor left types and so now it’s about showing how effective he can be in representing their interests. Note that “representing their interests” and “getting government decisions they approve of” are two different things for a body of activists used to fighting the good fight within the ALP but frequently losing to people who, in their minds, would give away their own mother if it meant winning another election. The more he votes in the parliament and openly advocates along “left-within-the-left” lines, the more his engaged voter base will prefer hearing their views represented rather than feeling alienated by seeing their representative sprouting the talking points of Labor-right (or even worse, the ideologically hollow Labor-machine,) and the better his chance of holding onto the seat and the Greens being able to boast of having a role to play in the lower house(s).

  9. I agree with thewetmale (*tosses him a towel*): I’m a previously life-long Labor voter and previous ALP member who voted Greens last year, in both the SA state and the Federal elections.

    What is there left for a True Believer? Where is the social conscience of Labor? The only value espoused in politics nowadays is that of money: you can only argue to support disadvantaged groups if it somehow saves the government money or makes money for a corporation.

    Even then, Labor continues spending huge amounts of money on mandatory and illegal detention of asylum seekers, where community processing is extremely cheap, effective and integrates people positively (I was part of a community resettlement project, so I know). Apparently the political gain from abusing the world’s most vulnerable people is worth the huge cost to taxpayers.

    The specific issues which finally disillusioned me regarding Labor were their treatment of asylum seekers, their attempts to censor the Net (violating Article 19 of the UDHR) and Julia Gillard’s threat (as Education Minister) to gaol teachers protesting the harm public NAPLAN testing was doing to students.

    I cannot believe in a party which deliberately and systematically trashes the principles it claims to uphold.

    My daughter (now aged 20) voted for the first time last year. Her pressing issues were Internet censorship and the R18+ rating for video games. Gaining political choice for the first time, she was immediately disillusioned by Labor’s refusal to listen to the facts on Internet censorship (it doesn’t work, it makes life difficult for innocent people while not obstructing criminals in the least, it actually does not protect children in any way but endangers them more by creating an illusion of safety), Conroy’s offensive arrogance in the face of his evident complete ignorance of technology, and Labor ignoring the results of both the R18+ review and the committee for creating a Bill of Rights.

    “What is the point when they won’t listen?” she now says.

    She voted Greens, because they are the only party which has consistently opposed Internet censorship, and they continue to work for a Bill of Rights and the R18+ rating for video games.

  10. Clytie Siddall – I can understand your point of view, however it was the previous ALP government that introduced mandatory detention. It was a Labor opposition that acquiesced on Tampa and ‘Border Protection’. The ALP, for the past 20+ years has believed in the same set of asylum seeker policies. It is a real shame (and I too believe in a community solution) but I fail to understand how it can become a ‘tipping point’ for a wave of dissatisfied voters unless they did not know what they were voting for previously.

    The social conscience which you allude to has shifted from what it once was however I personally believe it is still present. The carbon tax is a step in the right direction. I think later on in the year a shift towards recognition of gay marriage will also occur, highlighting distinct differences between the major parties. However, as you point out, not everything is perfect – a trade off for governing within a large, broad-based political party.

  11. Great stuff.

    The Greens have more of a community base than the Dems ever had, but they are pulling swifties of their own (e.g. Green candidates around here and further to the north & northwest aren’t talking up gay marriage). I still back Labor to outflank the Greens at some point. The Green base is too thin to survive long periods out of power.

    The union movement is not a strong anchor point: it lacks genuine popular appeal (10% of private sector workforce) and money. The idea that an anonymous union leader should go up the Legislative Council ticket because his union has lotsa members is risible, and dare I say it unsustainable.

    Labor’s primary vote is about the same as the Liberal Party’s by itself: but people accept the Coalition. Labor will have to work itself out, get past all that anti-Langism stuff that keeps Bob Carr up at night.

  12. Henry
    You are right about the length of time over which Labor (formerly a social democratic party – more or less) have adhered to socially regressive policies. However your assessment of voters is too hasty. A vote is always an ‘on balance’ trade off of positives and negatives. As long as the perceived positives outweigh the perceived negatives in the mind of the voter he/she keeps voting for that party. There are many many voters of the generation that came of age politically around the time of the Vietnam moratorium who kept hoping that Labor would rediscover its principles for decades. It is they who are now decamping to the Greens and if I am any indicator of the feelings and intentions of that group (to which I belong) they won’t be coming back. I think that Dragonista’s suggestion that these votes are just parked for a while and will return to Labor when it enacts a bit of progressive policy overlooks the pressures on the party that makes a lurch to the left unlikely and (for my money) it undervalues the seriousness with which these former Labor voters place their vote.

    Worse than that for Labor over the next couple of decades a generation of young left leaning voters will emerge that has no historical ties to the ALP and will never give them a first preference. Labor’s voter base is just fading away. It won’t happen tomorrow but it won’t take too long.

    They may delay the process with the help of Greens preferences and by swapping their own preferences with the Coalition but the future looks grim.

    1. Doug, you and I seem to be coming from very similar places: I haven’t voted for Labor since Hawke’s first term, and I stopped voting for the Democrats when they facilitated the GST. I’m now a member of the Greens, and unlikely to put my first preference elsewhere.

      I think a number of commenters here are too ready to predict the Greens will have a similar trajectory to the Democrats, but I think that’s unlikely unless we’re as stupid as they were. I can’t see us ever passing anything like the GST, frankly.

  13. I actually do believe that many voters currently with the Greens will go back to Labor, because ultimately the Greens cannot deliver their agenda without making compromises. This is why I make the parallel with the Democrats. The Government will make passage of one Green policy contingent upon the Greens giving ground upon another. Such is the way of politics. This is when things will start to unravel.

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