Australian Labor: Winning By Rejecting Institutionalisation

Tim Dixon

What is the historic position of the Australian Labor Party within the country’s political system and where does it currently stand?

Australia’s got an interesting story on social democratic politics because it had the first national Labor government in the world, if I remember rightly from my days as a prime minister’s speechwriter. I think it was 1908, perhaps, but certainly the one to win outright (Ed: Chris Watson served four months as Labor premier in 1904). Its early origins go back to the 1890s and the trade union movement. If you think over the period of now its 120 years, it’s been in government less often than the Conservative parties, who’ve generally governed in coalition, but it has been the national government for around about a third of the time.

Its most successful time was the 1980s and 1990s. There was a national Labor government that’s regarded, really, by universal consent as a very successful reforming government. It had a shorter time in government more recently, from 2007 to 2013, but Australian politics has also got the same electoral contest at a state level, with six states.

In fact, Labor has governed more often at state level than the Conservative parties. Even in some of the quite Conservative states of Australia, like Queensland in the north, it’s essentially been in government almost unbroken for the last 30 years, with just a couple of short one-term governments in between.

It’s a story of being the major alternative government to Conservative parties, to having several periods in government, generally quite short. But, as I say, at the level of the states and even more regarding the service delivery that the states do, it’s actually been the dominant party.

Okay. If you look at the current situation of the Australian Labor Party in relation to, let’s say, other parties, maybe next door in New Zealand but also European counterparts, maybe also to the US Democrats, where do you see particularly its strengths and weaknesses?

It’s stronger than in most other countries. In European countries we see the decline of social democracy, but that’s partly because you’ve got multi-party systems and so votes leak in many directions to the Greens and similar left parties, but also to the populist parties.

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In Australia populism has not been as strong. It’s been much more clearly on the right, as well. The way Australian politics works, because it’s got the alternative vote or preferential system, we think in both the primary vote terms and so the Labor Party has gone from having the low-to-mid 40s to generally mid-to-high 30s in primary percentages. But, because it comes down to the final preference vote or alternative vote between two candidates at the individual electorate or seat level, in most cases those votes that go to independent or Green parties come back to the Labor Party.

As the overwhelming proportion of them do, then, even when you get a low primary vote, even if it’s only 30%, 32%, 34%, you still actually elect Labor candidates. As a result, it’s a much more dominant party. There are very few seats that are not held by either of the major parties. That’s obviously very different to the situation in most European countries.

It’s more similar to the US, although not the same, because there are minor parties and so there is a contest on the left. Nowadays it’s with the Greens. It’s been other parties in the past, and there are some insurgent parties on the right. Certainly, when a strong independent candidate stands in any seat these days, they stand a good chance because there’s the general disenchantment with the political system that we see throughout the world, but that has not translated into a decline in the position of the party in the way that it has elsewhere. I think that just comes down to the actual voting system. It just tends to because of preferential voting. It tends to direct the votes back to the major parties.

In terms of current polling, there’s a strong expectation that Labor will win government in the election, which is due in the middle of 2019 although could happen sooner. The conservative parties have been in power only for four years now, four-and-a-half years, but they’re really struggling with incredible internal tensions – really between the more liberal and more hard-right conservative forces.

New Zealand is a useful comparison point because the countries are quite similar in their position to European cultures in the Asia-Pacific region. They have just elected a Labour government, only in the last few months, in really what was a surprise election. A quite successful and relatively stable Conservative government had been in power there for quite some time, for about a decade, but they had had a change of leader. Their new leader wasn’t as popular. NZ Labour – very, very late in the electoral cycle – elected a young woman to lead the party at only 36 years old, not well known, and she just cut through very, very well to the population.

Again, I would say voting systems are important. The particular voting system – the multimember system they have in New Zealand – produces a different set of results because of its structure, but Labour have just got over the line to return to government.

This situation in Australia and New Zealand in that respect is quite different because it’s a story of strengthening Labour parties, but I would still say that the underlying forces of disenchantment with the overall political system and a willingness to try alternatives, that’s still there, but it’s been masked by those aspects of the system.

Also, I think the other thing is economic success. Australia in particular went through a really strong boom period – kind of similar to Canada, I guess, as the most comparable of Western democracies – during that period, the decade from 2003, 2004. So, there were really substantial increases in per capita income coming off that because of iron ore, and coal, and other exports.

That has just meant that the kind of pressures of austerity and the stagnation in wages have not been a part of the Australian experience, until recently. It’s just beginning to happen, I think, now in the last three, four, five years, but that has just meant there’s been less disenchantment than what you’ve seen in European countries.

Would you say that the underlying tensions that help propel populism in Europe and other places are there to the same extent, only masked by the electoral system, or do you think it’s different?

The interesting comparison, for instance, would be in terms of a country that does economically well. My own home country, Germany, has been doing well economically but recently has suffered a severe setback in the Bundestag’s elections when the AfD entered Parliament with a quite strong showing.

Obviously, it’s interesting to compare it also to the (British) Labour Party because, to an extent, the ‘First Past the Post’ system here in the UK also masks a lot of underlying currents that are going on. If you look at the Labour performance in Scotland when Ed Miliband was leader, the electoral system seemed to mask developments up to a certain point when there is really a tipping point. Then the whole thing falls over, as when Labour basically lost the whole of Scotland to the SNP. How would you judge what is going on in Australia against the comparison of those two cases?

Look, I think the differences are that… I think the research that I’ve been doing most recently, which has actually been – a lot of it has been – focused in Europe, is looking at the reasons for the appeal of authoritarian populism. There are obvious drivers: the combination of terrorism, the cultural and demographic changes taking place, especially high levels of immigration, economic factors in the decade since the financial crisis, and the rise of social media, the loss of trust in parties, all those factors.

I think that the best evidence says that the driving forces in what’s going on are actually cultural and identity-based, but economic factors make people a lot more vulnerable to divisive, populist, cultural, identity-based messages. The countries where you have like France, for example, Italy, where there’s been more economic stagnation – and I think specifically it’s not just stagnation, I actually think the bigger factor is people’s sense of confidence in the future and, “What jobs are my kids going to do? What’s my kids’ future?” – if people feel good about that, they have a very different resilience to go through periods of hardship.

In most Western countries now, people are asking that question and they don’t know what the answer is. It’s in that context when they feel an uncertainty and an insecurity about the future. They see the decline of services around them, the nature of work has become more insecure. Then they see high levels of immigration in that context and they say, “What on earth? Why are people coming in when we don’t even know what jobs our kids are going to do?”

I think that the bigger driver, though, in that story is actually the strength of cultural and identity issues. People are feeling more disconnected from each other, they’re perceiving more threats around them, and in that context that appeal that says, “There’s an ‘other’ that is threatening us that we need to be protected from,” and that “If we come together, and we draw the lines more strictly and we don’t let those people in, then we’ll be safer.” That kind of appeal around cultural identity works more in countries that have a stronger and more singular sense of cultural identity.

This is where Australia is different because Australia is an immigration society. 28% of the population was born overseas and 60% was either born overseas or one of their parents was, so it just is a very multicultural society. That’s really different to a lot of European societies, who are managing much more recent large flows of immigration. That, I think, challenges identity.

Most European societies don’t have a strong multicultural or multi-ethnic notion of identity. It feels like, “If you’re Turkish, then how can you be German as well?” or, “If you’re Syrian, how can you be Swedish as well?” etc. I think Australia is more like the United States in that respect. It’s just been an immigration country. It’s a younger country, very, very large numbers of new migrants coming in all the time.

I think that factor means that the kind of divisive cultural issues, debates, and immigration debates, while they’re there for sure in Australia, they’ve actually been channelled more into the issue of refugees. They actually haven’t challenged the overall context of a high-immigration society in Australia. They haven’t changed that. I think that means those cultural identity issues that drive populism in most European countries are just not there in the same way in Australia. They are there, but they just have not been as strong.

Maybe that’s also a question of time. After all, the number one immigration country in the world, the US, did elect Trump on the back of its own history of immigration. I agree with you that there is a combination of socioeconomic and cultural reasons for the rise of right-wing populism, but from your point of view how would you suggest social democratic parties should react to this very tricky landscape?

If you look, for instance, at the electoral map in Germany, large parts of Eastern Germany, the electoral patterns look much more akin to Poland and Hungary than to Western Germany. You seem to have a pattern that objection to immigration is located in the places where there are either, indeed, hotspots, where there are parallel societies or problems locally, and in the places where there are no immigrants whatsoever. It’s obviously very, very difficult to react to that kind of situation with one kind of uniform policy, but what would you suggest?

I think that the challenge that we’re facing is that the split between the city and regions – the regional split, which is another way of talking about the split in education outcomes – is increasingly shaping the electoral map in Western countries. I think understanding what’s driving that is the key to the future, probably more than anything else.

One insight that is very clear from the research that I’ve been doing, which is in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy – and we’re just launching a huge study in the United States at the moment, and we’ll be doing some other countries as well next year – most Western democracies have around 25% to 30% of their people who are essentially liberal and cosmopolitan in their bearings. They have more open values, they’re open to change, they embrace globalisation and its cultural dimensions. They have humanitarian instincts, generally quite strong liberal instincts.

On the other side, probably about 15% to 20% of the population have got strong, hard, more closed views, more fearful of change, resistant to change, and anxious about their country. They’re the kind of people who will say, “I feel like a stranger in my own country sometimes.” Then in the middle there are people who have got a set of anxieties about change, and cultural change, and immigration and those sorts of issues, but also have some liberal views and are certainly not closed-minded people.

I think this is the change in the way that the electoral map looks everywhere – that increasingly we’re talking about an identity split between more open and closed values, and not the same old spectrum of left to right. The insight from all of that is there just isn’t a majority of a population – really in any country – that is simply the cosmopolitans.

The danger for our social democratic parties is that because they’re mostly composed of the metropolitan, well educated, comfortable with change and globalisation, with those kinds of people, that they’re disconnected from an important part of what has always been the base of successful social democratic parties.

The answer has to be that we don’t become illiberal and abandon those people. In fact, that group is generally the largest group in any individual country, but, as has always been the case, you win government by appealing to a broader constituency than just the one.

I think that’s the key. We need to understand more of, and not look down on, the middle groups, the people in the middle groups… In all of the analysis of what happened in the United States in the 2016 election, I think one thing which emerges time and time again is the sense in which people in those middle groups – Midwestern states especially – felt looked down on, felt culturally and in terms of their identity disrespected or distant from the coastal elites of the Democrats.

I think that that story, which has played out, obviously, very strongly in the US, is at the heart of the challenge that all of the Western democracies face. I think Australia is actually probably a more mild version of that because of the stronger economic conditions that I described, and the fact that it has been a more multicultural society throughout its history.

These dynamics are being seen everywhere because they’re being driven by globalisation, by the changing nature of work, by all the increased levels of insecurity, terrorism, the sense of a cultural clash in our societies. All of those things are very similar. Social media is playing a role, too, because it tends to polarise and isolate us from the views of other people who don’t think like us, but I think that that comes back to this challenge of building broader constituencies.

If we come now to the final part, or opportunities and threats not just for the Australian Labor Party but social democracy more generally. What I find interesting about the analysis that you’ve just presented and you have referred elsewhere as well – the difference between the communitarians and the cosmopolitans – is it always raises the question in my mind: what has changed? Basically, what has driven the wedge between those two groups that used to be more united under the roof of social democracy?

It seems to me that you pinpointed a very key point, is that the ones in the middle, the ones who are neither strongly cosmopolitan nor strongly communitarian – or closed, as you put it – have anxieties about the future. They don’t feel confident. From your point of view, is that one of the key things that has changed that has basically helped to break this, maybe always, fragile coalition?

Social democracy tends to do well when there is a positive view, a positive narrative about the future. Our kids will have it just that little bit better than we do, but, if there’s a fundamental anxiety driven by the things that you mentioned – globalisation, digitisation, changing nature of work, immigration, crisis around the world, all those things – do you think that this is one of the key factors that has changed the dynamics of this coalition?

Yes, I think that’s right. I think there is a disconnection between the experience of globalisation of much of the leadership of social democratic parties, because they’re successful. They thrive in that environment. It’s often stated, but the analysis of the shrinking proportion of political representatives who actually have a manual work background or a mainstream technical qualification, technical experience rather than a more highly educated experience. I think that’s a really important factor.

I think also – I think especially true in European social democratic parties, but it’s true everywhere – we’ve become quite institutionalised. I think it’s the case where social democracy is fundamentally in crisis and its survival is at threat. Look at the Netherlands result, where the vote was under 10% this year.

I think in that context the challenge for us is go back to our roots. Social democracy in its essence is about the representation of the interests of the whole community, and especially of ordinary working people. Yet what’s happened is the parties, as they’ve institutionalised, they were for many generations successful, politically dominant, they’ve become institutions of power.

I think they particularly became too committed to a state-centred model and failed to realise that the institutions of the state were themselves often a cause of frustration for ordinary working people and weren’t necessarily delivering. We haven’t had the mechanisms to hear the frustrations of ordinary people, or we’ve dismissed them. There’s still too much of that happening and still too much dismissal of the anxieties of the middle groups.

I think there are obviously many other elements to it. I think that when you have a dominance of older leadership, the under-representation of women and minorities, for example, parties can look more like the past and less like the future. I think that’s a factor in many places. I think on that score Australia has actually done quite well.

The Cabinet, the various Cabinets I worked with in Australia, really the majority of their best ministers were women. While Julia Gillard, as Prime Minister in Australia, got subjected to really vicious misogyny from the hard-right groups, actually more broadly that masked the fact that a real strength of that government was that it looked more modern because of its composition.

I think there’s obviously a mix of factors there that play into its success or failure, but I think not being institutional, being adaptive to an environment where power no longer resides in the established entities, that social trust has declined, that we need to think about more participatory models of politics, we need to be more representative of the communities there we’re standing for, those are all really critical elements.

People are willing – the public is more willing – to embrace change, actually, than what the political order has been. I think that’s something that’s got to change. We have to be much more willing to be innovative, to try different models.

I think the last thing that I just touched on that’s important, as well, is regional policy. I think that we have to think more about location, so cities and regions, and how we address people’s lived experience in those communities. We’ve underinvested in the policy around that. I think that your best examples of progressive social democratic leaders in many countries now are emerging from city government. I think that’s a key indicator for where we might go in the future.

NB: For historical reasons, the Australian Labor Party is spelt without a ‘u’. This article reflects this convention when appropriate.

This is the eighth in a series of SWOT analyses on the future of social democratic parties promoted by SE and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

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