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Down under: The challenges facing ALP

Less than one week after Bill Shorten was elected leader of the Australian Labor Party, the gravity of the situation is clear.  The brief period of excitement as members rejoiced in the modest serving of democracy that was rationed out,...


Less than one week after Bill Shorten was elected leader of the Australian Labor Party, the gravity of the situation is clear.  The brief period of excitement as members rejoiced in the modest serving of democracy that was rationed out, is now over.

The leadership of the ALP was for the first time decided by a process that involved two equally weighted ballots: the first for the party membership and a subsequent vote within the parliamentary party. Shorten lost the membership vote but won the vote within the parliamentary party, largely because members of the majority right faction voted as a disciplined bloc.

Shorten was a key figure in the Rudd-Gillard governments. He was as responsible as any for the lack of unity for which both governments will be forever remembered. An intelligent operator but without great charisma, Shorten is a son of the union movement. It is unlikely that his election as leader of the opposition will cause the incumbent conservative prime minister, Tony Abbott, to despair.

The solid mandate that Abbott achieved at the last election may not, ironically, be a good thing for Australian conservatives. Individual coalition MPs believe that the mandate bestowed upon the government is the opportunity to give life to their (often disparate) policy ambitions.

Australia’s conservative prime minister, Tony Abbott, is no longer a ‘conviction politician’ that many believed to be unelectable just a few years ago.  He has grown to be an astute politician, and will work hard to manage the philosophical tensions that exist within his own party room.

Abbott is ultra-conservative in terms of social policy but uncomfortable with the extreme approach to workplace relations and fiscal austerity many of his colleagues advocate. If he is forced to make concessions to the free-market ideologues in his party in exchange for support for his own socially conservative vision for the country, Australia may be left with the worst of both worlds.

The conservative mandate could not come at a more delicate moment in our nation’s history. Underneath the veneer prosperity in a country inhabited by a population of relaxed and healthy people, a range of problems have developed to a dangerous level.

The severe and growing income disparity in Australia threatens social cohesion. The level of depression and anxiety that exists in Australia today is deeply concerning, and rising. An increasingly insular outlook further threatens the fabric of a society that has an incredible ethnic and cultural diversity.

Our attitude to the environment is another issue that needs to be urgently addressed. The longer we fail to address our reliance on unclean energy, the harder it will be to achieve the necessary change when global consensus (driven by the consequences of climate change) demands a dramatic and immediate transition. Australia is one of the world’s largest polluters per capita.

The free-market ideology favoured by most Liberals (the major party in a two-party coalition formed with the Nationals) is thoroughly ill-equipped to address issues such as income inequality, mental health, threats to social cohesion, and environmental degradation.

Conservative strategists understand, however, that as a result of the confusion and frustration born of the previous minority government and the ongoing divisions within Federal Labor, a ‘competent, trustworthy government’ will all but guarantee a second term for the Coalition.

The Coalition will continue emphasise unity and competence as they insidiously move Australia further to the right. If allowed to implement their vision, Australia will soon be strangled of its egalitarian character.

To present a credible alternative, however, the Australian Labor Party will need to reverse a number of tendencies that have developed within the party over the past two decades. The professionalization of politics has not served progressive politics well. Labor’s parliamentary party no longer reflects the backgrounds of the people our MPs are elected to represent.

The broader movement has also been stripped of many smaller constituencies that once fought for the cause. Keating was the last prime minister to inspire the intellectual and artistic community to actively campaign for Labor. As the ALP narrowed its focus on the centre, the Labor movement was been stripped of much of its colour and life without actually addressing the growing tension between the competing outlooks of its inner city and working class constituencies.

Is Shorten capable of achieving a reversal of these unhelpful trends?  Can he bring together the industrial and cultural left? Will the man who personally benefitted from the current system of patronage support the process of democratisation necessary for Labor to renew itself?

If he cannot rise to these significant challenges, the conservative Coalition will achieve at least two terms in office. With the memory of the Howard years still vivid, the prospect of a further lurch to the right is a prospect that every Australian Fabian dreads.

Andrew Hunter is national chair of the Australian Fabian Society

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