Heartland reduced to a battleground
9 September 2013
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine
Saturday's election loss is a watershed moment for the ALP. Labor's heartland in western Sydney has become its battleground.
People need to comprehend the magnitude of Labor losing in western Sydney. It would be a bit like the Liberals losing on Sydney's upper north shore or in Melbourne's northeastern suburbs.
The idea that seats such as Werriwa, McMahon, Reid and Banks would be hard fought in a federal election would have been hard to imagine 20 years ago.
Werriwa was Gough Whitlam's seat and, with one exception, has been held by Labor for nearly 100 years. Over the past two elections there has been a swing of about 12 per cent from Labor in Werriwa and at the next election it will be a marginal seat. McMahon, Reid and Banks had been Labor seats since their creation. Even allowing for redistributions, these seats have seen successive shifts away from Labor. Banks has been lost and Reid was on a knife edge. And it is extraordinary that Labor was so worried about even its safest seats in western Sydney that it replaced its leader just before an election.
The real issue in western Sydney is not whether the electorate ends up red or blue, but what sits beneath that. At both the state and federal levels, in its so-called heartland Labor increasingly has to work for votes, allocate sparse campaign resources and, in some cases, rely on candidates' personalities, even mudslinging, to get over the line. This trend has been emerging since the mid-1990s.The Labor heartland is turning away from the ALP. If the party does not change it will be very hard to win it back.
I'm from what's called the traditional base of the Labor Party. Raised in a working-class family, I grew up in South Grafton and, from primary school, in Auburn in western Sydney. Everyone I knew lived in poverty or just above it, were members of a union, and voted Labor. These were people with working-class values centred on God, family, work and community. They volunteered at their church and schools. Many sent their kids to Catholic schools even though they couldn't really afford it. They all worked long hours in low-paid jobs. As a young man I lived in Lidcombe, Minto and St Marys. I travelled four hours a day to and from work in a factory, and later to dig sewer lines. As a struggling young father in a low-paid job I often didn't have enough money to buy a train ticket, so I used to jump the tracks.
The labour movement emerged to help people like us. Its goal was to lift working-class people out of poverty and answer their aspirations in education, jobs, income, home ownership and retirement.
My father was a grader driver. My parents' first home was a humpy by the Clarence River. My parents wanted to buy a house, but they were struggling. As an Aboriginal man, my father earned a third of the income of other workers doing the same job. He joined the Australian Workers Union and they helped him secure equal pay. My parents would never have owned their own home if it were not for the AWU.
Working-class families couldn't afford to live on a single income so most mothers worked. It was the labour movement that first secured maternity leave for working women. The Whitlam government gave paid maternity leave to commonwealth public servants and the Australian Conciliation & Arbitration Commission brought in 12 months unpaid maternity leave in 1979. Labor also introduced compulsory superannuation: an important asset to working people who don't have generational wealth.
A funny thing happened over the past few decades. Working-class people actually did lift themselves out of poverty; people such as my family and my Auburn classmates. The people I grew up with no longer live in poverty. They bought their own homes. Some even bought a second property, encouraged by Keating's introduction of negative gearing. Women took advantage of education and the lifting of discriminatory work practices. Tradies became business owners and employers and many paid off their mortgage and took out private health insurance.
Working-class people also expected their children to get good education, and some were even sent to private schools if the local government school did not meet their expectations. Many of these children went to university or started their own businesses and some now have "white collar" jobs. In turn, their children are doing better than they were at the same age, something they are very happy about. After all, that is why they and their own parents worked so hard.
Most of the people I grew up with still live in the western suburbs, and their core values haven't really changed, centred around God, family, work and the community. Many are still in the same type of jobs they started when they left school. Many are still members of a union, but don't pay a lot of attention to the unions' calls to support Labor. I believe many would not have voted Labor on Saturday.
Over the past six years, I watched aghast as the Rudd-Gillard government attacked some of the country's biggest industries and employers and waged class warfare reminiscent of the 50s. In doing so it alienated the very people Labor claims to represent.
Too bad if your job relies on the mining or energy industries. Those industries are dirty vandals and Labor is going to tax them. Too bad if you've made enough money to deposit some savings. Banks are greedy and risky and Labor is going to tax their deposits. Too bad if you've put extra money into your superannuation. You must be rich and Labor is going to tax you, too. And, by the way, if you've worked your way up the income ladder you're on your own; don't expect a private health insurance rebate, even if the private health system does alleviate the burden on the public system.
Too bad if you're a nurse who gets a vehicle FBT concession. If you get a car through work you're probably rorting the system and Labor is going to stop it. Too bad if your daughter went to university to become a "pretty lady lawyer". Paid parental leave on her full wage would be unfair. She should get the minimum wage instead. If she wants full wage replacement she should go work for the commonwealth public service or the ABC.
Too bad if your business needs to hire workers from overseas because you can't find the people in Australia. You must be a cheat who wants to put Australians out of work. Labor is going to make it even harder for you to get the workers you need. And, by the way, we don't like The Daily Telegraph. Sure it is one of the biggest-selling newspapers in Australia and most of its readers live in western Sydney, but we think it's low brow and biased and its readers are so stupid they'll just vote how Rupert Murdoch tells them to.
The people who I grew up with in the Labor heartland are not interested in a class war. They are interested in keeping their jobs. They aren't being displaced by foreign workers, and many are the children of migrants. They don't regard their employer or major industries as sinister and greedy. They want their employer to make a profit. And they know that if it doesn't they will be out of work. Many of them are employers and business owners themselves.
They don't dislike the mining and energy industries. Many of them work for those industries. In fact, I rarely meet someone in the western suburbs who hasn't thought about getting a job in the mining industry. The only people who don't like mining are sitting in cafes in the inner-city.
Most of all, the people who I grew up with aren't stupid. They know that poor economic management, too much red and green tape and too many taxes on business put their employer's profit, and their jobs, at risk.
None of them chose their vote because of The Daily Telegraph. But you certainly don't win people's votes by telling them they are fools.
Labor doesn't know its heartland any more. It seems to think the defining characteristics of its traditional base are poverty and low education. Actually, the defining characteristics are hard work and aspiration.
Working-class people answered the call of the labour movement. They aspired to better lives and they moved ahead. The problem is that the Labor Party did not move with them.
Over the past 20 years, Labor stopped listening to its traditional base. Instead it put its faith in spin doctors, populist leaders and centralised control by the so-called "faceless men".
In the past Labor waited until its leaders had achieved something great before bestowing messiah status on them. Since the 90s, the party has been anointing people as messiahs before they've actually done anything to justify that label.
In 1991, NSW opposition leader Bob Carr unexpectedly came within four seats of winning the NSW election. Literally overnight, he became a potential saviour, a new messiah.
Carr was elected premier in 1995. His government presided over one of the most sophisticated and effective media machines I have ever seen in Australian politics. His two most senior advisers on winning office were spin doctors, including chief of staff Bruce Hawker. His office took media spin to a new level.
Unfortunately, the delivery did not match the spin. People had the general impression the government was stable and competent. Carr delivered successive budget surpluses. He also delivered a raft of new taxes. And while there were lots of announcements about new transport infrastructure, most never progressed beyond the glossy press release. Sometimes proposals were announced multiple times. All this time, the likes of Eddie Obeid held court in his NSW parliamentary office and dabbled in mining exploration.
Labor took the same populist approach in Queensland under Peter Beattie. Beattie was a brilliant media contortionist and won four elections despite lurching from one scandal and crisis to another. Through his media prowess, he turned Labor scandals into vote-winners by championing the anti-Labor position and effectively railing against himself or by creating helpful distractions like jumping into a shark tank.
Under Labor, in Queensland and NSW, governing became about winning elections at any cost. Instead of identifying the issues and policy solutions and galvanising the community to support them, the government rode the 24/7 news cycle. Instead of building things, the government released announcements about things they might build in the future. Both states were left in dire need of reform and investment. The NSW government's biggest legacy was a Sydney transport system that is woefully inadequate.
Media spin kept Labor in power in those states for more years than it deserved. But eventually the public wised up and Labor suffered record defeats in both states.
It is part of the Rudd legend that by replacing Kim Beazley as leader in 2006 Rudd saved the party from another defeat. That's not correct. Labor was well ahead in the two-party polling when Beazley was removed as leader and I have no doubt that he would have defeated Howard in 2007 had he remained.
However, Labor thought it would do better with a messiah figure than a steady and experienced campaigner with a track record in government, as a cabinet minister no less. First it tried Mark Latham, who roundly lost the 2004 election, his leadership imploding soon after. Later it put its faith in Kevin Rudd.
Rudd resoundingly won the 2007 election with an impressive campaign, once again led by Hawker. In his first term, Rudd achieved some of the highest popularity ratings of any Australian prime minister. However, it soon became clear that Rudd was not the messiah, just a very naughty boy with a very good media strategy.
Ultimately the Rudd/Gillard government was disastrous, with a chaotic three years under Rudd who, after being removed, spent the next three years undermining his successor.
Labor's shift to populism and spin suited a party that was increasingly dominated by its party headquarters.
During the 80s, the Right faction cemented control of NSW Labor, which is now the most powerful state branch, with considerable national influence. It was said that when the Right was successful, Labor was successful. There was some truth in this. The Right shifted Labor policy to the centre, a critical factor in its ability to maintain national government for 13 years under Hawke and Keating. Under the Right's control, NSW Labor become one of the most disciplined and effective organisations in politics.
However, its iron-clad discipline eventually led to an inner machine that wanted full control of what everyone else did to ensure they did it properly. Its public unity on policy led to a complete shutdown of dissent and debate, even behind closed doors. Policy development was displaced by factional deal-doing among party and union officials - the faceless men.
Many say Labor needs to break its nexus with the unions. Union dominance is certainly one of the reasons Labor has lost touch with its heartland, but the problem is far more complex than many understand.
Trade unions have 50 per cent of the votes at ALP conferences. The other 50 per cent is for member delegates, many of whom are also unionists. Something like two-thirds of the federal ALP caucus in the last parliament were former union officials or staffers. Party headquarters are riddled with unionists. More important, Labor has become dependent on union money to fund its election campaigns.
Over this period, union membership in Australia has collapsed to about 18 per cent of the workforce. This means that, more and more, Labor politicians come from a movement that represents a smaller and smaller section of the workforce. But there is another force at work. Union officials also resemble the union members less and less. Gone are the days when a union official would rise to the position from the factory floor. They are far more likely to be an industrial lawyer or economist from a middle-class family who studied at a top university. Many union officials have never had material, if any, experience working in the industries they represent.
When I was growing up, the Labor Party was run by people from all sorts of backgrounds. Before politics, Ben Chifley was a train driver; Gough Whitlam a RAAF flight lieutenant; Bill Hayden a Queensland police officer.
The upshot is that Labor is dominated by a union movement that no longer represents the majority of Australian workers and whose officials don't reflect the workers they were formed to represent. No wonder Labor has become estranged from its heartland.
Today, Labor's leadership is far more interested in factional power plays and political strategy than it is in policy or reform. They spend a lot of time naval gazing and looking inwards. If they want to be a relevant force in Australian politics they will have to re-introduce themselves to some real people. And not just when taking selfies.
In this last election campaign, Labor got the gang back together one more time: Rudd, Carr, Beattie, Hawker and the backroom boys. But reality has finally caught up with the NSW Labor Right's politics of centralised control, a straight-jacketed membership and government-by-media release. The whole thing has come crashing down like a giant Ponzi scheme.
Bob Hawke summed it up best on Saturday night on the Sky News channel - at this election Labor got its lowest primary vote in 100 years; the party needs to stop the hubris and reconnect with ordinary people.
* * *
Last year I decided not to renew my ALP and Australian Workers Union membership. Occasionally on social media people call me a traitor for leaving the party. In fact, I feel it is the Labor Party that has betrayed me and the people I grew up with. This was our party and over 20 years the faceless men, spin doctors and false messiahs have driven it into a brick wall. Labor is now in need of fundamental structural reform.
First, the party needs to better reflect the communities it represents. Candidates should be elected by rank-and-file members registered on the electoral rolls in that electorate.
This would make branch-stacking more difficult. The relevant national or state executive council should be able to override a rank-and-file vote only in exceptional circumstances.
Second, the party power base needs to embrace a genuine federation. At present the relevant state secretary officiates over candidate elections at the national and state levels. Candidate elections in federal electorates should be officiated over by the national secretary. This would broaden the power base and provide balance, while making it harder for a powerful state executive to gain disproportionate national power.
Union voting entitlement at state and national conferences needs to be reduced, but removing it altogether would be unrealistic - it could suck up a lot of oxygen without making many inroads into the root cause of Labor's problems.
The real problem is that Labor has become all talk and no substance, abandoning its core constituents after having lifted their aspirations. Political success requires substance and sticking to your core values, not populism and looking after your mates. It requires well-thought-out policy based on principles and pragmatism that is actually delivered, not just written on a glossy media release or tweeted on the run.
That was the approach of four of Australia's most successful leaders - Menzies, Hawke, Keating and Howard. It is also the approach of Tony Abbott.
This election and the six years before it left me seriously wondering if the Labor Party might become a spent force. I hope not. But it will need to re-acquaint itself with its heartland and implement some serious reforms.
Warren Mundine was the ALP's national president, 2005-07. This essay was first published in The Australian on 9th September 2013