Australia: Labor Loses the “Race to the Right”

The former Labor Prime Minister of Australia was right about one thing when he said on 23rd June 2010, that Labor should not and by implication could not, win a “Race to the Right” with Tony Abbott.

Rudd said:

“I've been very plain about what I said before and you've heard me say things about asylum-seeker policy recently, I believe it is absolutely wrong for this country to and absolutely wrong in terms of the values which we hold dear, to get engaged in some sort of race to the right in this country on the question of asylum-seekers. I don't think that's the right thing to do. That's the direction the Liberal Party would like to take us - under my leadership we will not be going in that direction”

Unfortunately Rudd and Julia Gillard have been involved in just such a “Race to the Right” with the Liberals from the very beginning and have now paid the ultimate price. In an historic defeat, a first term government has been thrashed at the polls for the first time since WWII.

As politicians on both sides horsetrade with Independents to come up with some kind of dirty deal, Australian workers face the likely prospect of a minority Liberal government with an agenda of savage attacks on terms and conditions particularly for those working in the public sector. There is a small chance that Labor could cobble together a coalition with the Greens and Independents but this would be unstable from day one and could fall apart at the first real crisis, an inevitability under the current economic circumstances.

Rudd came to power in December 2007 after eleven long years of repressive Liberal rule on a wave of enthusiasm and a hunger for real change. Above all Labor’s victory was based on the concerted Trades Union campaign against the hated WorkChoices. The “Kevin07” campaign seemed to encapsulate the mood of the times and Rudd was swept to power and soon rocketed to atmospheric heights in the opinion polls, as at last ordinary people believed that something was really going to happen. This massive wave of support was soon squandered however by the “Realists” of the Right and increasingly of the Left of the Labor Party who thought that they had won on a program of “Howard Lite” and economic conservatism.

When Rudd delivered his “Apology to the Stolen Generation” many Australians believed we were on the cusp of real change not just on our dealings with The First Australians but on those real issues that directly affected the lives of working class Australians.

The wheels however began to fall off, when Rudd started to back down on many of his election promises, especially to control the rising costs of living for working class Australians.

Rudd had promised to take action on these bread and butter issues during the election and the working class took him at his word, only to be sorely disappointed by his backdowns and backflips on key election policies.

Rudd said he would stop price rises in groceries and petrol but introduced the meager and tokenistic, Fuel Watch and Grocery Choice schemes that were supposed to control price rises by “monitoring and reporting” price changes. However, even these paltry and ineffective changes were ditched when the vested interested of the big grocery chains and petrol companies began to flex their muscles.

On 27th June 2009, The Age reported:

“Government scraps grocery price-watch scheme

"The Federal Government's $13 million election promise to force grocery prices down lies in tatters. The joint might of Woolworths and Coles has successfully blocked the Grocery Choice scheme, which had promised to impose unprecedented transparency upon the powerful supermarket duopoly.

"Following a heated meeting in Canberra yesterday morning, attended by Coles, Woolworths, Franklins, Aldi and Metcash executives, the Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs, Craig Emerson, made the decision to scrap the grocery price monitoring website, just six days before its scheduled launch.”

Then on 1st August 2008, The Herald Sun reported:

“Petrol watch chief Pat Walker resigns

"THE Rudd Government's FuelWatch scheme was in disarray last night after its architect, Pat Walker, quit as Petrol Commissioner. Mr Walker quit for family health reasons but his departure after just four months in the job comes at a critical time for the Government. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd created the Petrol Commissioner role in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to try to drive down prices. But critics say Mr Walker was restricted from day one by his inability to take tougher action against oil companies.

“The University of NSW's Frank Zumbo yesterday said the Petrol Commissioner needed power to direct oil companies to lower local petrol prices when world prices fell. 'At the moment the oil companies can ignore the Petrol Commissioner and simply refuse to put down petrol prices,' Assoc Prof Zumbo said."

By 13th November 2008 the Australian could report:

“The Government had found itself under pressure on fuel prices when a spike in the cost of oil pushed unleaded petrol to more than $1.70 a litre by June.”

By 4th February 2010 The Herald Sun was gloating:

“Kevin Rudd is yet to deliver on dozens of election commitments, leaving a trail of backflips and broken promises as he prepares to fight for a second term.

"A Herald Sun analysis of Labor's 2007 election commitments reveal many have been quietly axed or are far from being met. The Prime Minister apologised to the Stolen Generations and signed the Kyoto Protocol, but just one of 2650 promised trades training centres will accept students this semester. Of 260 childcare centres he pledged would be built in schools and TAFES, only one has opened its doors. And just two of Labor's 31 promised GP Super Clinics are fully operational. Promised Healthy Kids Checks have failed to make an impact on preschooler health, with GPs seeing just 62,823 children so far. Plans to attract retired nurses back into hospitals have also bombed, with just 752 accepting a $6000 return-to-work bonus. Labor hoped 7750 would take up the offer. And 52 of a promised 2500 new aged care beds have been opened within two years.

"Labor's election policies have been removed from the ALP website, but a copy of the website as it was on election day has been preserved by the National Library of Australia. Promised A-E grading of childcare centres, listed on the site, has been dumped. A replacement grading system will use terms such as 'unsatisfactory', 'operating level' and 'national quality standard' to assess childcare standards. The much-vaunted 'education revolution' is taking its time putting computers on desks - only 28 per cent of promised computers have been delivered halfway into a four-year program. The Government's biggest broken promise was largely outside its control as it pushed the Budget into deficit to fight-off recession. Other big ticket promises such as Grocerywatch and Fuelwatch have fallen by the wayside, while the Government is yet to take Japan to court to save the whales.”

After the most immediate effects of the Global Financial Crisis had passed, the Reserve Bank began again jacking back up interest rates and those who could least afford it were being forced yet again to pay the price of the crisis.

On 28th July 2010 The Daily Telegraph reported:

"Killer rate rise to hit marginal seats

"The odds are shortening on a mid-campaign rate rise. That would be a double-blow to the Government's bid for a second term. The RBA would be raising rates to contain price rises - the two issues Labor's internal polling has identified as being of critical importance in marginal seats. Rates are likely to increase for the seventh time in 10 months if there is a high reading on inflation this morning. With more voters already viewing Labor as the inferior economic manager, party sources fear another hit to household budgets could alter the outcome of the poll. The Government would only have itself to blame if a failure to contain the cost of living cost it power.

"In 2007, Labor promised to take pressure off household budgets through initiatives such as the Grocery Choice and Fuel Watch websites - both of which bombed. The Rudd-Gillard Government has not slowed the pace of price rises at all, new analysis reveals. The cost of living has been increasing at 3.1 per cent a year under Labor - no better than during the last term of the Howard government. 'Politicians are not going to change the broad direction of petrol prices - which are largely set globally - or grocery prices, which are largely set by the weather,' AMP chief economist Shane Oliver said yesterday. Grocery Choice and Fuel Watch were just 'fiddling at the edges', Dr Oliver said.

"NAB chief economist Alan Oster said: 'You can't say I am going to keep grocery prices down or petrol prices down. We don't have a command-control economy.' "

Interest rates didn’t go up for a seventh time during the election but it was too late, the damage had already been done and many families were suffering severe financial and emotional stress as they cut to the bone to meet overstretched budgets and soaring home loan payments.

The ABC reported on 30th June 2010 that:

"Homeowners 'living on rice' to pay mortgage

"There are claims that Australians suffering mortgage stress are living on rice so they can avoid the shame of losing the family home. In a study partly supported by the Reserve Bank, University of Western Sydney researchers interviewed people suffering mortgage distress. University spokesman Professor Phillip O'Neill says shame prevented many people taking part in the study. But he says of those who did participate, some had resorted to eating less so they could keep up with mortgage repayments. 'This is not in the past tense; people are literally eating the bare minimum - just rice - obviously looking after their children, but putting the repayment of the mortgage above every other thing that they could possibly devote an expenditure to,' he said. He says the Federal Government should be careful about overstating how easily Australia got through the crisis when so many people are still struggling."

While The Global Financial Crisis did not hit Australia anywhere near as severely as Europe and America, Australian workers still suffered an overall fall in income as wages were frozen and overtime and casual work were slashed. Many were and are just managing to keep their heads above water. These bread and butter issues above all else undermined Rudd’s and Labor’s support amongst the working class and middle class supporters that Rudd had mobilised to win his victory in 2007.

Rudd’s dumping of his Emissions Trading Scheme has been marked by the media as a pivotal point in Rudd’s decline. This was after Rudd had called climate change "the great moral and economic challenge of our time''. But this backdown was merely the icing on the cake after a series of backdowns and failures to address the rising cost of living for Rudd’s “Working Australians”

On 4th may 2010 The Australian reported:

"Climate shifting against Kevin Rudd:

"KEVIN Rudd's personal standing has taken a hammering after his decision to dump his climate change policy last week, and for the first time since 2006 the Coalition has an election-winning lead. The Prime Minister's personal satisfaction rating has dropped the most in the shortest time in the 20-year history of Newspoll surveys, and for the first time since the election Labor no longer has a clear lead over either the Coalition or the Greens on the issue of climate change. Mr Rudd's previous standing as being seen to be 'decisive and strong' also fell significantly, and for the first time since the election Labor lost its lead over allcomers as the preferred party to handle climate change.

"For the first time in Mr Rudd's prime ministership, an opposition leader is seen clearly as being stronger and more decisive than Mr Rudd, and Tony Abbott is considered almost equal with the Prime Minister in his grasp of major policy issues.

"After weeks of dramatic policy reversals and broken promises, culminating last week in Mr Rudd's decision to put off his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme until at least 2013, the government's primary vote has plunged eight percentage points to just 35 per cent. The Coalition's primary support has risen three points to 43 per cent."

Also dragging Federal Labor down were their State Labor colleagues in NSW and Queensland. As several commentators said “the baseball bats were out for Labor in NSW and Queensland”. Years of inaction, privatization, spending cuts and the stench of corruption has costs labor dearly.

On 25th June after Julia Gillard seized the Prime Ministership as Australia’s first female Prime Minister, we wrote:

"Julia Gillard has rolled Kevin Rudd as Australia’s Labor Party Prime Minister in a midnight coup that has swept Rudd from office and installed Australia’s first female Prime Minister to power.

"Gillard has been criticised for the way she came to power, turfing out Rudd, who was, until recently, one of Australia’s most popular leaders. Rudd was elected only two and a half years ago on a tide that swept the Liberal Prime Minister John Howard from the Prime Ministership and Parliament too. Howard is only the second Australian Prime Minister to suffer the ignominy of not only losing government but his parliamentary seat at the same time.

"When Rudd came to power he seemed to sweep all before him. Whatever he did he kept rising in the polls. He could do no wrong and ruled supreme. After all he had saved us from the Global Financial Crisis didn’t he?. His honeymoon with the Australian public seemed unending that was until he dumped the policy that he said addressed the most important issue facing us today, climate change. His ETS carbon trading scheme was ditched after an aggressive public campaign by big business and the Liberal’s and the collapse of the Copenhagen climate talks. This and a continuing stream of news of failed policy initiatives set people wondering if Rudd really was just a stream of undecipherable babble.

"Kevin07 had seemed to promise real change but voters began wondering if they really were getting a version of Howard lite. When Rudd launched his Super Profits Tax campaign most people especially the mining barons knew Rudd was a windbag and a pushover. They already knew from their ETS experience that the application of an appropriate amount of pressure via their paid hacks in the media and parliament and a bit of advertising would cause labor to buckle.

"A growing revulsion with Howard from the Australian working class after years of lies and deceit had been iced off by Howard attacks on their basic working conditions with his Workchoices legislation. A campaign led by the ACTU led to thousands of workers for the first time becoming politically active in the campaign against Workchoices. Hundreds of thousands attended the rallies against Workchoices and Howard and his government got that smell of death about them that they couldn’t shake off.

"Gillard has gone to work and quickly resolved the Resource Super profits Tax dispute by backing done on many of the issues in dispute with the mining barons but still achieving a $10 billion increase in taxes over three years. The mining barons had by acting as a bloc and dispersing millions in advertising dollars run a fear campaign against the tax. The not only saved themselves billions in tax but they also had a Prime minister’s head thrown into the bargain. They must be mightily pleased with themselves at the moment.

"Gillard has achieved the expected bump up in the polls for herself and Labor and Tony Abbott is beginning to sweat as Gillard is predicting an early Federal poll.

"The big question is though, what does she stand for? Will she be any different from Rudd? A continuation of Rudd’s policies wills soon enough put her back in the same trouble as Rudd. NSW is proof of this, where a merry-go-round of leaders but a continuation of the same failed policies has led to a government in crisis looking like it is heeding for a historically bad defeat at the upcoming election. Labor is currently polling just 25% of the vote. The recent Penrith by-election saw a 25% swing against labor (another record). NSW Labor’s 25% standing in the poll would reduce Labor’s seats in the NSW Parliament to between 15 -20 seats. This would be a defeat of truly historic proportions. You would have to dig back for a century in the history books to find an example of a defeat on this scale for Labor.

"The move to the right will only increase the green vote with no guarantee of a pay off in votes on the right. Tony Abbott will carve himself a stronghold on the right and try and wedge Labor on issues like asylum seekers. He will try and split the party and induce a fear based response from labor. A move to the right on asylum seekers will be seen in the electorate as weakness by labor and a confirmation that Abbott is right on the issue. Whatever labor does will be betrayed by Abbott as weakness on labors behalf and as not going far enough or being tough enough."

Recently Patrick Larsen and Alan Woods discussed how the middle classes move, in relation to the upcoming Venezuelan elections but with clear relevance to the Australian situation:

“However, the lower layers of the middle class are especially volatile and constantly swing between revolution and counterrevolution. These layers will tend to follow the class which shows a way forward. They can only be won by a consistent and firm policy. The reformists always call for moderation in the name of 'winning the middle classes'. But vacillation and restraint is exactly the way to lose the support of the middle class, and push it into the arms of reaction”.

Labor’s historic defeat at a Federal level and the looming defeats at a State level call for a fundamental reassessment of Labor’s direction and policy.

On 2nd August after the wheels really started to fall off the campaign, we wrote on the Labour Forum:

"It is time that the rank and file members and grassroots supporters of the Labor Party took back control of the direction of the Party. The 'Race to the Right' has failed and has undermined our support with Labor’s bedrock supporters. If the base is confused and demoralized, then how can the Party hope to mobilize them to campaign on the streets and in the lounge rooms and pubs of Australia for a Labor victory?

"Slick but meaningless ads and election patter won’t fill the gap. Win or lose this election, Labor needs to fully reassess its position and decide what it really stands for. Rudd was right about one thing we can’t win a “Race to the Right” with Tony Abbott. But that leaves only one other direction to go, and that’s to the left.

"After the election rank and file members, grassroots supporters and those that have quit the Labor Party in disgust over numerous past outrages should convene a public meeting to discuss 'The Way Forward for Labor'. A forum should be provided where ordinary workers, youth, unionists and Labor supporters can express and discuss the policies and direction that Labor should take.

About 70% of the population want real action on climate change and oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A change in policy and action on just these two issues could win massive support back to Labor. There are many other issues where Labor is currently afraid to fight and defend its corner. The collapse by Labor over refugee policy, the mining tax, the ETS and now immigration show that the current Labor leadership are incapable of taking on and defeating entrenched powerful interests and are prepared to scapegoat first refugees and now migrants in general for Australia’s problems. Rising interest rates, the lack of public transport, congested roads and poor infrastructure in Western Sydney are not the fault of refugees or migrants.

"We should put the blame where it belongs at the feet of the corporations and banks that really control the system and the economy. Too much time is spent listening too and catering to the needs of the big end of town.

"Labor needs to engage and listen to the community groups who know the real problems faced by ordinary Australians and have real solutions to these problems. Australia is a rich and wealthy country and can well afford to provide a job and decent life to all its residents. It can also afford to help other people around the world escape oppression and help improve the lives of the poor.

"Ben Chifley gave his famous 'Light on the Hill' speech in 1949 and it has come to epitomize Labor’s quest. 'I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, and greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labour movement would not be worth fighting for.' We could do no better than going back to these memorial words to find a way back for Labor to its true objective."

But if the next Labor leader is not to end up in the same predicament as Rudd and Gillard, Labor must adopt policies that go to the heart of the crisis facing Australian workers and their families. Capitalism is in crisis and can promise nothing but more cuts, privatization, calls for tax cuts for the wealthy and for the burden of the crisis to be borne by those least responsible for and least able to bear it , the poor and the working class. We must end Capitalism, if we are to cut short the misery that the bosses are determined to impose upon us.

Labor must go back to its Socialist Objective to see how our forbearers addressed the issue of a collapsing world capitalist system during the Great Depression.

Only socialist policies can address the fundamental crisis in the world economy, the imperialist wars and the environment.

Source: Fightback (Australia)

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