I have been thinking a lot about the behaviour of the ALP in recent weeks.
At a moment when they are dominating the polls and seemingly assured victory at the next election, the ALP have conceded ground on a range of issues. They voted through a bill that will stop migrants getting access to welfare for four years, they capitulated on the data encryption bill (#aabill), the left is now saying it wont force a debate on boat towbacks at the upcoming national conference, and despite increasing pressure they are still on the fence about Adani.
For the left they continue to disappoint, disappoint, and disappoint some more.
Why? Why not take some bold stances at a time when the Government is in disarray and victory looks almost inevitable. There’s two real answers I’ve come to as to why.
First, maybe the ALP actually just believes this stuff, and we should finally, once and for all, abandonen the idea that they are some bastion of social justice who just continually get wedged into positions they hate. If even at this moment the ALP cannot spend any political capital on bold left-wing policies, then maybe we should never expect it of them.
But second, I think it really shows what the ALP think of the voting population. It’s notable that the party continue to cave on issues such as migration and national security. It harks back to the Howard era, who dominated on these issues for many years, creating a narrative of a regressive voting population that turns on parties (primarily the ALP) if they are weak on these issues.
What recent moves by the ALP show is that they are still stuck in this era, seeing much the population as a group of ‘bigoted masses’ that they must continually appeal to through regressive social policies. They pass these policies out of fear of backlash. They view the population as a group of right-wing reactionaries, forcing them to take positions they just wish they wouldn’t have to do.
This reminds me a lot of the debate around the plebiscite on marriage equality. Again, in this instance, it was determined that the plebiscite must be opposed because the bigoted masses of the population simply should not have been trusted with a vote of this magnitute. There were fears for weeks leading up to the vote that there would be a huge no — that the real, bigoted, sentiment of the population would come out once given an opportunity. Only the elites in Parliament could be trusted with such a thing.
The problem with all of this though is that there is very little evidence that the population actually reacts in this way.
The huge vote in favour of marriage equality should be one indicator of this, but it’s true for other issues as well. While security questions certainly dominated political debate in the post-9/11 era, this is no longer true. It’s hard to remember that in 2007 for example the ALP, under the leadership of Kevin Rudd, took a radically different approach to asylum seekers than seen by the party in recent years. Rudd promised to shut down the Pacific solution and to bring asylum seekers back to Australia. He won easily.
The same can be said about other issues. Polling for example has frequently shown strong opposition to the Adani Coal Mine, alongside a continued desire from the general population for Governments to take action on climate change. Concern about the encryption bill was extremely strong during its passage — with big business, data experts and tech companies alike arguing against the bill. This would have easily been enough to back up the ALP in blocking the legislation.
In fact in each of these areas the ALP has the potential to wedge the Liberal Party quite strongly. The health and well being of asylum seekers, alongside climate change, has clearly become a concern for Liberals in more socially conscious and wealthy seats, highlighted both by the results in Wentworth the Victorian state election. Both events resulted in the loss of blue ribbon seats, with incumbent Liberals blaming the federal party’s positions on these issues, at least in part, for the results. On the #aabill, the Labor Party could have easily used the legislation to talk about civil liberties and freedom of speech, something that is notionally of concern for many more libertarian minded Liberals. The ALP could have easily used these issues to further the current splits between moderates and conservatives within the Liberals.
Yet in each case the ALP has wavered. It has done so out of old fears, ones based in an idea of a bigoted mass of the Australian public that could easily turn against them if they take any bold approaches. It has shown how weak the party is, but also how they perceive themselves, and the people who vote for them. Both portend to a worrying approach if and when they enter Government.