Saturday 8 August 2009

Optimism in Oz

Most of us probably cheered when Kevin Rudd defeated John Howard in 2007. Who can deny the simple pleasure of watching a nasty and insular brand of conservatism crash and burn? But some on the British left were probably worried that Rudd was Blair-lite, another third-wayer, yet another politician too willing to have his ear bent by Alan Milburn.

Based on my experience of the Australian Labor Party's conference in Sydney last week most of these anxieties have proved misplaced, writes David Coats.

The ALP is riding high in the polls, Rudd’s approval rating is better that strong (although not quite stratospheric), the opposition is weak, divided and in a perpetual state of leadership crisis. Sound familiar? It is a lot like late1998 in the UK: a popular prime minister is enjoying an extended honeymoon. But there are big differences too, which offer the prospect of a prolonged and successful period in government.

First, the ALP has risen to the challenge of the economic crisis and is getting all of the credit for doing most of the right things; unlike the UK government, of course, which is getting none of the credit for doing some of the right things. Most importantly perhaps, the Aussie economy is not yet in recession, but the ALP has taken bold and decisive action to pre-empt the downturn. This year’s budget contained a big stimulus package (about twice the size of the measures taken in the UK) putting more money in the pockets of those most likely to spend it, supporting shovel ready construction projects and investing in medium term infrastructure development to boost the long-term growth potential of the economy. Efforts by the opposition Liberal Party to label the ALP as profligate spenders have so far come to nothing. The ALP’s story that “we’re all in this together” has proved to have much greater resonance with the electorate, although it helps that both the budget deficit and the overall level of public debt (13% of GDP) are much lower than in the UK.

Second, the ALP is self-confident and united, with a clear sense of purpose. Events have pushed Rudd and his colleagues to abandon a shallow centrist politics. They have transcended the seductions of triangulation and are making a real effort to maximise the opportunities of the crisis – to make this a decisively progressive moment in Australia.

The ALP is a highly factionalised party (you make a choice when you get your first party card whether to join the left or right faction) and decision making is a perpetual negotiation between two well organised wings. It’s also a more trade union based party (labourist from a British perspective) with many people in the parliamentary caucus having turned to politics after successful careers in the trade union movement.

The potential difficulties should be self-evident; disappointment turning to bitterness, to accusations of betrayal, to a crumbling of party unity followed by the inevitability of electoral defeat. So far there is little evidence that this syndrome has afflicted Rudd’s ALP. If anything my experience of points in the opposite direction. Trade unions may have been disappointed by the ALP’s employment law reforms (undoing the more unpleasant aspect of the Howard industrial relations package) but they are getting a lot out of the stimulus package (labour standards in public contracts) and have an innovative forward agenda to develop an Aussie approach to flexicurity, learning from the success of the Danish labour market model (relative ease of hire and fire, high unemployment benefits, serious investment in skills development for the unemployed). Both the ALP and the unions are beginning to answer the “what next?” question in a way that Labour and the unions in the UK found impossible once the 1997 manifesto commitments (the minimum wage, union recognition, signing the social chapter) had been implemented.

Journalists hated the conference simply because consensus and shared purpose are dull. “Will the real ALP stand up?” they kept asking. There were some public disagreements, but the only issues to hit the news were gay marriage, where a compromise was brokered to meet the expectations of the socially conservative elements in the right faction, climate change (where NGOs staged a protest in the conference hall) and industrial relations in the construction industry. On the big ticket items unity was the watchword – and unless I was totally misled this was a genuine phenomenon, not just window dressing.

Finally, this is a party that can laugh at itself. At an event organised by one of Australia’s leading pollsters, politicians, trade unionists and journalists debated the motion “who’s to blame?”. Charles Firth from The Chaser ( Aussie equivalent of Private Eye, but funnier) and Annabel Crabb of the Sydney Morning Herald (a woman so witty she must have absorbed genetic material from Dorothy Parker) challenged Ed Husic from the Communication Workers Union and Alan Griffin MP (veterans affairs minister) . They all said very indiscreet things, were outrageously rude about each other and their colleagues and spent a long time considering the minister’s recent encounter with a dog. It’s impossible to imagine a similar cast at Labour Party conference. Ian Hislop? Zoe Williams? Billy Hayes? Bob Ainsworth?

Are there any Aussie lessons for us as we confront a difficult party conference and the prospect of the general election next year? You could say that the electoral cycles are so out of synch that the Australian situation is interesting but not entirely relevant.

On the other hand, the importance of unity, self-confidence, a clear narrative, good communications, adapability in the face of unforeseen events, the willingness to act boldly and retention of a sense of humour are necessary conditions for electoral success. Maybe the task for the next six months is to recover what we have lost – and learn to laugh at ourselves again.

Guest post from David Coats of the Work Foundation - with thanks to Will Hutton "who had to finish the first draft of his new book and sent me to the Antipodes as an enthusiastic and very jet-lagged substitute", says David.

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