My father, who was both a loyal unionist and a staunch supporter of the Labor Party (and for a time a Labor Alderman in the local council), was quick to point out to me that the “Tories” (as he called the Liberal and the, then, Country Parties) were only interested in lining the pockets of the capitalists and ensuring “bosses” were able to lord it over downtrodden workers. Now it is debatable about whether that was the case or not, but one thing is for certain that the Labor party in those days was a champion of the working class. There was certainly strong justification for a blue collar worker to vote Labor.
Certainly, they were simpler days. Work, family and community were the pillars on which ordinary people’s lives were built. For those with limited wealth and opportunities, such things always take on so much more meaning. I know I am an idealist and perhaps I look at the past through rose-coloured glasses, but I have never considered that my family, living off a basic blue-collared labourer’s wage, was in any way impoverished. By and large, with a few minor privations, we lived largely contented lives.
But the Labor party of today would be unrecognisable to my late father.
To begin with, he would have found it difficult to have a sensible conversation with their representatives. Our local, Labor member would often come to our house to talk to my father. They would talk about the issues that concerned him and his peers. I remember him advocating for a woman whose husband had recently died and had meagre means to support her. Another workmate had a son with a potentially fatal disease but could not afford the prescribed treatment. They tried to find a way to help. They discussed child endowment and the old age pension.
But what might he be confronted with today? First and foremost of course there would be climate change. And this would be closely followed by a very “woke” agenda including transgender rights, addressing the gender pay gap, funding of the ABC, issues of diversity and identity politics, an indigenous “voice” to parliament and so on. I am sure my father would have found this quite bewildering.
This shift in the Labor agenda has been a disaster for the working class for it has shifted the focus from broad based issues to advance the cause of the working class as a whole according to the things that united them – a desire for a secure job, decent pay, pensions and housing – to narrow isolated issues concerning minorities. Rather than seeking to advance the working class they have diverted their attentions to minority struggles according to the biological characteristics, sexual orientation or religion of particular segments of society. And even when they condescend to make political gestures to appease the working class they often provide disproportionate benefits to the wealthy. (Their policy on childcare is a good example.)
This shift was shrewdly exploited by John Howard who deliberately targeted the traditional Labor supporters who had been abandoned by Labor. They became “Howard’s battlers”. To somewhat a lesser degree, these were also the “quiet Australians” that Scott Morrison attributed his victory to. But these quiet voices seem now to have been even further suppressed, particularly as a result of an increasing focus on climate change.
Tony Abbott led the coalition government to a landslide victory in 2013 by repudiating the narrative of the left that climate change posed an imminent existential threat. Scott Morrison won government in2019 by arguing that Australia could not afford Labor’s climate change policies. But Morrison subsequently rebutted this approach, which had successfully differentiated coalition policy from Labor. At COP 26 held in Glasgow in November 2021, Morrison abandoned his previous position and pledged to take Australia to net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, mirroring Labor’s policy commitment. I suspect this ill-advised move might cost the coalition government at the election.
So it is instructive to ask why the coalition would abandon a position that had won them a couple of elections.
Part of the traditional heartland of the Liberal party has been wealthy inner city electorates. In recent years, progressives, including the Greens, have made inroads into conservative support in these electorates. In response to this progressive threat the Liberal party has felt compelled to take a more “progressive” response itself. This has resulted in a change not only in its policies on climate change but also on quite a number of “woke” issues regarding such things as identity politics.
Now in the long term, I doubt these changes are going to save these inner city electorates for the Liberals. But they are doing great damage to their overall electoral prospects in pursuing such a strategy. In trying to prop up their inner city votes they are alienating their suburban and regional supporters. Moreover they are straining the relationship with their more conservative coalition party, the Nationals.
The future of the Liberal party will not be determined by how well it can engage inner city elites, but by how well it can engage with ordinary Australians who have been abandoned by the Labor party.
Their response to the climate change agenda is illustrative of their muddled thinking in this regard.
Journalist Chris Kenny recently wrote:
It is no accident that the most prominent voices in the climate change policy debate are millionaires and billionaires, nor is it surprising that they find their most receptive audiences for their prognostications in the wealthiest post codes. Think climate advocacy in Australia and we think of Simon Holmes a Court, Mike Cannon Brookes, Allegra Spender, Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd.
These are not people who have lost their jobs because of the expensive transition to renewable energy – well except for Turnbull and Rudd. Rather than fall victims to closed factories or skyrocketing power prices, these people have added to their wealth, thanks to the taxpayer subsidised renewable energy boom.
Meanwhile, while the cost and reliability of our electricity supply is being compromised by our rush to renewable technologies, those that can afford to, are installing solar panels on their roofs. This is forcing up the price of electricity for those, like pensioners, who cannot afford solar panels.
Now in addition to the Greens, Labor and the Liberals fighting over wealthy inner city seats, we also have the so-called Teal Independents. They are all educated women with no great policy ambitions except to take an even more extremist position on climate change and hopefully win traditional Liberal seats. They are also favouring the establishment of a national integrity commission. They are being sponsored by billionaire Simon Homes a Court who has considerable investments in renewable energy and will be financially advantaged by accelerating the renewables push. These irrational people are clamouring to have Australia take drastic measures to reduce its CO2 production even though Australia’s proportion of the world’s emissions is 1.2% (and falling) and consequently can have no perceptive impact on global warming!
Commenting on the paucity of the Teal policy agenda, journalist Janet Albrechtsen writes:
(Holmes a Court) has found policies whose appeal to affluent searchers for virtue is only matched by their vapidity and lack of rational analysis. You can have urgent climate action without significant cost, an integrity commission without defining corruption and gender pay equity without grappling with the reality of women’s preferences.
So in effect, because of the desperate efforts of politicians to win wealthy inner city seats, a disproportionate body of policy is devoted to win over wealthy voters. Surely in many ways ordinary voters in the suburbs and the regions are more deserving of political attention.
Both the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition have on various occasions promised to govern for all Australians. It is not that obvious how they can achieve this grand position by pandering so much to the inner city elites and neglecting ordinary people in the suburbs and the regions!