Labor's Warring Factions

Ross McKibbin · Australia's Elections

After two weeks of negotiation Australia finally has a government: a Labor government with a majority of one as long as the Green MP and three of the independents continue to support it. All this contrasts strikingly with British experience where the present coalition was negotiated in a couple of days. One reason for this is that Labour was never a serious negotiator in Britain whereas in Australia both Labor and non-Labor were. Another is that three of the independents are former members of the rural wing of the conservative coalition who represent constituencies that would normally return MPs from that wing. (The two who declared for Labor earlier hold seats that would usually be Labor.) They all, however, are maverick figures who seriously quarrelled with the conservatives and have sympathies with some of Labor’s traditions. And they don’t simply want barrels of pork for their constituents. They could not, therefore, be expected to make up their minds quickly. How long such an arrangement can last and how stable it will be is almost impossible to say – though it would be surprising if the independents had not secured a guarantee that the prime minister, Julia Gillard, will not attempt an opportunist premature election.

Even if Labor does hang on with their support, Gillard’s is the first national Australian government since the Second World War to have lost its majority after only one term. Why it did so is difficult to explain since the election results were by no means uniform. Labor won majorities in four of the six states – including the two largest, New South Wales (surprisingly) and Victoria. Three of those states swung, if anything, to Labor. Gillard herself retained her Melbourne seat with a huge majority. The conservatives did not get an overall majority because they failed to take a number of Labor-held marginals in New South Wales which they should have won easily. The reasons for Labor’s ‘defeat’ are thus to some extent local and have to be seen primarily in local political cultures.

Labor really lost in two states – Queensland and Western Australia – and in Queensland the losses were crucial. The overthrow of Gillard’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, a Queensland MP, probably played some part in this, though there was no sign of a sympathy vote in his Brisbane constituency. But the real problem for Labor is Queensland’s political culture. The state has been the party’s Achilles heel since the Second World War. Labor has won majorities there only rarely, and never for long. Queensland lacks the urban-industrial base indispensable to the Labor Party elsewhere; it is the one Australian state where the majority of the population does not live in its metropole. Furthermore, it and Western Australia, dominated politically by the mining companies, are very susceptible to anti-Labor campaigns – particularly the campaign against the Labor government’s resources tax, the politics of which Rudd handled very clumsily. As a result Labor won only 8 of Queensland’s 30 seats (only one outside Brisbane) and only 3 of Western Australia’s 15. This is a real problem for Labor. These two states are the fastest growing and their representation in the Federal Parliament is steadily increasing.

To retain its majority the Labor Party had thus to do unusually well in the other states and this it just failed to do even though it won 61 seats to everyone else’s 44. It might have succeeded had its campaign been less wretched. The government made virtually no attempt to defend its economic record – one reason Australia sailed through the financial crisis – or its ‘stimulus’ programmes. It allowed the opposition to shout it down in the familiar and easily understood rhetoric of ‘waste’, ‘debt, ‘boat people’, endlessly repeated. The response was that of a timid government with little confidence in itself or the electorate. Gillard talked and acted like a zombie for much of the campaign.

Yet outside Queensland, only in New South Wales, and particularly in the multi-ethnic working-class suburbs of western Sydney, Labor’s old heartland, were the swings against the government really significant and, since these were safe Labor seats, Labor tended to hold on. Most of the seats lost in Sydney were, in any case, only technically Labor, having become so as a result of redistribution and unlikely to be retained. Various explanations have been given for the results in Sydney: that Asian voters were repelled by what happened to Rudd (who speaks Mandarin) or by Gillard’s atheism; or that the defectors were non-Asian voters worked-up against boat people. Any of these things might be true, but they were not to be found in similar constituencies in Melbourne.

A more likely explanation is to be found in the factionalism of the Australian Labor Party and especially of its New South Wales branch. Organised factionalism more than anything distinguishes the Australian Labor Party from its British cousin. These factions are rarely ideological. Gillard, for example, comes from the Victorian Left, though none of her political views can be regarded as left-wing, while the New South Wales Right, under pressure from its associated trade unions – most factions have trade union affiliations – killed a proposal to privatise electricity. It is exceptionally difficult to advance in the Labor Party without factional support. That was probably the main reason for Rudd’s fall. He belonged to no faction and conspicuously formed his government without regard to faction. When his popularity began to sag and the electoral prospects of his government looked grim he had no faction to support him. The New South Wales Right, with its eyes ever on the opinion polls, together with allies in the Victorian and South Australian Right and in the Federal Parliament, brought him down.

But the New South Wales factional system has now brought the state Labor Party to the point of collapse, which is the most likely reason for the swing away from Labor in those working-class seats in Sydney. As a system of extended Tammany and lines of patronage it has been remarkably successful: through it the Labor Party has dominated New South Wales politics for the last century. It successfully incorporated successive waves of the downtrodden of whatever nationality. It has, however, now so narrowed that it excludes as much as it includes. It is over-dependent on relations with property development and the drinking and betting interests. As it has lost any sense of purpose it has also become incompetent. In its attempts to prop up a version of the old system it has alienated many of its natural supporters who had reason to expect the benefits of its largesse. It seems, therefore, to be heading for disaster at next year’s state elections. The problem for Gillard is that she partly owes her premiership precisely to the factions that have landed the New South Wales Labor Party in such a mess.

The decay of the Labor vote has not only benefited the conservative coalition. The other conspicuous beneficiary has been the Greens. In a number of Sydney and Melbourne seats they have displaced the Liberals as the main opponents of Labour, and from next July they will hold the balance of power in the Senate. They’ve done this by turning themselves from a party created to try to save the Tasmanian rainforest into a party of the moderate left – one with a marked environmental bias but also with a broader programme which appeals to large numbers of disgruntled Labor voters. They are, for instance, now the only party that’s seriously concerned to protect the state school system. Their new power has been recognised by Labor – as it could hardly not be given their strength in the Senate. (It was, incidentally, the second preferences of Green voters that kept Labor in the hunt. Without AV the result would have been a disaster for it. British Labour take note.)

How Gillard is going to balance the Greens, the independents, Labor’s warring factions and her own obligations to those factions is anyone’s guess. She is a good negotiator and is certainly flexible, but she has not yet displayed the kind of political and rhetorical skills which will be necessary. Nor does she appear to have any clear idea of what a democratic society should look like.