Under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, support for the ALP is at historically low levels. It is often argued that the hung parliament has precipitated this crisis; that by holding Labor to ransom the Greens have imposed a range of “extreme policies” on the Government and distanced it from “mainstream” Australia.
But rather than being too close to the Greens, it is Labor’s capitulation to the agenda of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that has alienated its base. In fact, Labor has lost 4 per cent of its primary vote to the Greens since it won office five years ago.
When Rudd was swept to power in 2007 he mobilised a broad coalition of voters; conservative working families (turned off by the Howard Government’s Work Choices agenda) on the one hand, and voters of the progressive left (disillusioned with Howard on a range of issues, including climate change) on the other.
While initially Rudd proved adept at balancing these competing constituencies, in 2010 he sought to neutralise Abbott’s scare campaigns on the issues of carbon pricing and immigration through a series of damaging policy backflips. Disillusioned Labor voters sought refuge in the Greens and Labor suffered in the polls.
The Gillard ascension presented Labor with a brief opportunity to win these voters back. Gillard, however, adopted a different approach. Rather than attempting to return Labor’s left-leaning constituency to the fold, she sought a continuation of Rudd’s failed strategy by competing even more aggressively with Tony Abbott for voters on the right. In so doing, the Prime Minister appears to have lost votes from all quarters.
Let us consider Gillard’s handling of some key policy issues:
On climate change during the 2010 election campaign, Gillard announced something akin to an electoral lead balloon in the form of the Citizens’ Assembly. Rather than learning from Rudd’s failure, Gillard seemed intent of replicating it, ruling out a carbon tax during the election campaign. Unfortunately for Gillard, her “carbon promise” negated any electoral gain for Labor once it finally changed course. Many voters already disillusioned by Labor’s manoeuvres on climate change saw the shift as another backflip. Voters passionate about climate action knew it had only come about because of the Greens.
On immigration, Gillard’s positioning has been equally as damaging. Early in her prime ministership she conceded that the Australian people had a right to be alarmed about immigration and that she would do something about the issue. In making this concession, Gillard agreed to fight Abbott on his turf; a battle on enemy territory that she could never win.
The ‘Malaysia Solution’ best illustrates the strategy. By being seen to be “tough” on refugees, Gillard no doubt assumed she could neutralise Abbott’s “stop the boats” attack. However, much like the Citizens Assembly of 2010, the Malaysia Solution succeeded in alienating all segments of the community.
On marriage reform, Gillard’s intervention trashed her party’s credentials. Over the last three years support for marriage equality has continued to build within the community and within the ALP. Here, Gillard had an opportunity to take action. Instead, she expressed personal opposition to the idea, manufacturing the awkward scenario whereby once the Labor platform was changed she was given the right to opt-out in order to save face. Once again, an opportunity for electoral gain was squandered as her party surrendered its moral authority (President Obama’s announcement last week provides a snap-shot of what might have been).
The backflip on pokies and the fixation with returning to surplus in last week’s budget are further examples of this strategy at work.
In her desperate attempt to neutralise Abbott, Gillard has seriously eroded her party’s electoral appeal. Conservative voters are locked in behind the Coalition and voters of the progressive left have found a new home with the Greens. Undecided voters have surely been turned off by a Government that seems more obsessed with what the other team is doing than playing its own game.
Gillard is fond of reminding us that she leads a Labor Government. If she is to lead a government that is Labor in more than just name, she must move outside of Abbott’s frame and clearly define her own party’s vision and values. This means reconnecting with the broad coalition of voters than propelled Labor into office in 2007.
Unfortunately for Gillard, it appears many of them have already “moved forward”.
This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on the 17th of May 2012.