Misha Zelinsky on reconnecting with working-class Australians
In handing Labor one of its most heartbreaking electoral defeats, it is now clear that Australians have fallen out of love with modern Labor. While the party should debate the causes of our stinging defeat, a central question Labor people must ask ourselves is this: have we fallen out of love with Australians? While it’s been close on a twoparty basis, the truth is only one in three Australians choose to vote Labor at three consecutive federal elections. As a party, we must reckon with this truth. Part of that reckoning lies in our attitude to the people we represent.
After his passing, much was made of Bob Hawke’s love affair with his country. Australians adored Bob. And he adored them. This mutual affection meant voters were happy to buy into Hawke’s vision for Australia – even when it meant some pain along the way. While Labor’s policies contain much that would improve the lives of Australians, we’ve lost the emotional connection and sense of partnership that existed under Hawke. Trust – a crucial ingredient. A scan of my social media feed after the election confirms this trend. Shock and grief gave way to contempt for voters. Queenslanders, in particular, copped the blame for being naive, stupid – or both – in choosing to vote for the other side. Fingering Queenslanders isn’t just unfair – it’s counterproductive. Blaming the customer doesn’t work for business and it won’t work as a political strategy. If you want proof, look no further than Donald Trump’s supporter base. Mocking ‘deplorables’ only served to lock voters in behind their 2016 choice.
The fault must lie with Labor. We didn’t get it right – three elections in a row. What should really keep us up at night were the swings against the party in traditional heartlands. Many voters identifying as religious, on lower incomes, without university degrees or living in a regional mining community walked away from Labor. Coordinated scare campaigns against Labor policy worked as intended, as did the outrageous intervention of Clive Palmer’s millions. However we must also ask if many of these traditional Labor voters felt they were no longer welcome as part of the Labor family and voted accordingly. Labor’s passion for progress leads us to blindly focus on the benefits of change and ignore the real human cost. This can manifest itself in a tendency to lecture on the problems and race ahead with the answers. If you can’t keep up – well that’s just too bad. On climate change, the party of working people should know a one-sided bargain when we see one. Rather than prosecuting a false choice that demands mining communities ‘take one for team planet’, activists should address the legitimate anxieties of those asked to shoulder the economic burden of carbon reduction. A coal miner placing the immediate financial security of their children above collective environmental action is acting – and voting – rationally, and not out of some backward desire to kill the Great Barrier Reef.
We shouldn’t be surprised when Australians demand clear policies dealing with this economic dislocation – a genuine conversation – before voting to upend their communities. Listening and providing answers broadens support for action and takes the bite out of scare campaigns.
On social justice, Labor must find a language that connects with spirituality and tradition without abandoning our values. While falsely gratifying, collectively dismissing groups as ‘bigots’ only assists actual bigots to hide in plain sight and prosper. Focusing on messages of equality and love would allow common ground with religious teachings without alienating persuadable allies.
On economics, Labor can be wedded to elegant, technocratic policies that leave us flat-footed against hip pocket politics. For example, while Labor had superior policies benefiting tradies, none were as tangible as the $10,000 increase in the small business tax write-off. When focusing on the big picture we can sometimes forget how the little things can matter in a big way. In failing to explain or persuade, refusing to listen and – where appropriate – modify our policies to address genuine voter concerns we send Australians into the arms of false prophets peddling easy answers.
With social democratic parties in perpetual opposition globally, Labor must change tack. All is not lost. The Coalition’s win was narrow – a majority of one – and represents a half-hearted endorsement of Scott Morrison’s threadbare agenda. The big policy challenges remain: youth unemployment, rising household and government debt, wealth and income inequality, automated workplaces, gender inequality, stagnant wages, rising energy bills, falling school standards, urban congestion, regional malaise, housing affordability and climate change – to name a few.
To meet these challenges honestly and fairly, Australians need the Labor Party at its best. For Labor to win in 2022, we need to persuade one Australian in a hundred to switch their vote. It can be done, but it won’t be easy. In order to win the trust of Australians, we would be wise to remember that it is a lot easier to trust something that loves you back. Just ask Hawkie.