The arm wrestle over Labor’s future is on in earnest. Daniel McNamara and Lachlan Harris both made thoughtful and provocative contributions here. Both identified very real challenges; Labor’s declining primary vote, the further polarisation of the electorate, and the increasing difficulty Labor faces in satisfying both its traditional blue-collar base and the its more recently arrived progressive followers.
It’s important to note Labor is not alone. Under the pressures of a changing political landscape, the Liberals and Nationals are having a pretty willing fight of their own, as evidenced by the intervention of NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean who recently slammed his own Liberal Party for not acting more meaningfully on climate change. Barnaby Joyce has returned fire, posting a video rant about climate change which went viral yet surprised no one.
Occasionally I, too, feel fearful that Labor’s duelling support bases may have become irreconcilable. Maybe a new model will need to be found. Remember, the Liberals have rarely been in a position to govern in their own right. Rather, to form a government they rely on a secret deal with the National Party; the so-called “Coalition”.
But I refuse to accept that’s Labor’s inevitable fate and, for most in the Party, running up the white flag is never an option. But neither is a further creep to the left or an over-reliance on city votes. The Party must come back to the centre, broaden its appeal, and provide more reassurance and hope for its traditional blue-collar base.
Labor must never choose surrender, or retreat. It would be a mistake to hand over the less-progressive regional electorates to our political opponents, as Daniel McNamara has suggested, in order to pursue the fantasy we can ride to government on a wave of new capital city support. Surely the folly of chasing city seats at the expense of regional seats is the lesson of May 18, 2019, when resources were poured into Goldstein, Higgins and Kooyong without result.
Lachlan Harris is right, there may be times when, like the Liberal Party, Labor will rely on others to form a government. It’s happened before and the alternative is worse. But while it can be a means to an end it should never be the end-goal. Harris is also right to reject an arrangement with the Greens which is the key lesson from 2010, the last time Labor relied on others. Labor must avoid compromising on its principles.
Many people living in our regions wrongly believe Labor remains close to the Greens. It’s a suspicion our political opponents take very opportunity to entrench. To overcome this challenge, Labor must more clearly articulate its support for the oil, gas and coal export sectors and its appreciation of the benefits they deliver for all Australians. Turning our backs on resources-sector workers to win votes in the capital cities is not the Labor way. It would also be bad policy to forgo the significant export income they bring or to abandon the gas reserves so crucial to keeping Australia’s smelters and manufacturing plants competitive.
Labor was born to represent and protect the shearers of regional Queensland and the waterside workers of historic Balmain. Long ago it broadened its offerings by embracing global economic integration, environmental protection, the fight against discrimination, and the primacy of human rights. Hawke and Keating proved Labor can promote and defend these causes without walking away from our traditional base.
The electorates of Sydney and Lindsay in Sydney’s west are not the same thing. But many in the suburbs of our capital cities want much the same thing as their country cousins. Tradies in Blacktown hold the same aspirations and expectations of governments as do those in Bathurst. People of faith worshipping in Eltham expect the same respect and freedoms as those worshipping in Everton. Those living in Caboolture are just as concerned about energy prices as those who live in Cloncurry. Their shared aspirations offer Labor a path back to government.
Of course, there are key areas of policy that are of equal importance to most voters no matter where they live and regardless of their political leanings; a strong economy, a fair tax system, workers’ rights, a good education system, an affordable health system, and a healthy natural environment. These will always be a key focus for Labor.
Labor has the policy wit to remain a leader on climate change policy while also supporting our coal miners and those who work in the petroleum sector. Through strong leadership we can prevent discrimination without undermining religious rights and freedoms. We have the maturity to work with “the big end of town” to grow our economy and to deliver well-paid, secure and rewarding work. And we can do all of those things without abandoning country people.
Australia’s great regions provide most of our food and all the inputs needed for industrial production. Labor’s retreat would be someone else’s opportunity; country people would be left to decide between the likes of One Nation and the National Party. That would be a bad result for us all.