Dear Labor – enough with the beige!

BillShortenMemeIt’s really hard to find someone who voted for Abbott’s Liberal government who is willing to justify their actions without mentioning the Labor Party. I also find Greens voters share this trait, in that they often position their support for the Greens as being ‘anti-Labor’, more so than they are ‘pro-Green’. When you also take into account the mainstream media’s obsession with Labor bashing, it’s clear why Labor is permanently on the counter-attack from a pincer movement of anti-Labor-for-this-reason-or-another-culture that dominates Australian political discourse. So when people like me try to defend my support for the Labor Party by explaining by deep attachment to the Labor Party’s values and policies that are intrinsically tied to these values, I get a constant barrage of criticism and abuse from the aforementioned pincer movement. It’s fair to say that being a Labor supporter in this country is a fairly unrewarding exercise.

So why does the Labor Party, whether in government or opposition, bear the brunt of so much disappointment, criticism and abuse? I think it’s because the party’s mission is such a difficult one that it’s seemingly impossible to live up to the huge weight of expectation placed on it through its promise to protect us all from the economy that we also rely on for the continuation of our society.

Put simply, in my view, the Labor Party exists to cushion the community from the negative side-effects of a capitalist economy. But just knowing this is not very helpful if you don’t acknowledge the difficulty in achieving this quest. Because there’s an added complication to the battle between labour and capital (workers and those they work for); the Labor Party has promised to be both saviour for the labour side, and defender and concierge for capital at the same time.

A perfect example of the dichotomy between defending labour and capital is the criticism Prime Minister Gillard received for moving single-mothers from the sole parent payment onto Newstart when their youngest child turned eight. It’s worth noting that Gillard didn’t in fact introduce the policy, but rather brought all sole parent payment recipients in line with the policy Howard introduced. Yet the criticism I saw about Gillard making this change was disproportionately fiercer when compared with the criticism the Liberal government received for making the policy change in the first place. This is because Labor is expected to look after the poor, and the Liberals don’t carry this expectation. It’s when those we trust let us down that we’re most upset, but those we expect to let us down just meet our expectation when they do.

But discounting this emotional reaction, when you look at how Gillard’s decision aligns to Labor’s promise to defend labour against capital, the policy change actually does make sense. Because Gillard was no doubt hoping that the change in their pension situation, once their children are at school, would encourage single mothers to go back to the workplace. Workers are better off than people on pensions. Families where a parent works have more money to provide their children with basic necessities. You might think I’m harsh and uncaring for saying this, but I won’t apologise for pointing out that there is dignity in work, and as a society, we should do everything we can to encourage and support those who can work to do so.

In actual fact I disagreed with Gillard’s decision to move single mothers onto Newstart for two reasons – one because the decision was not also coupled with an acknowledgement that the Newstart allowance is not enough to live on, even as a temporary stop-gap between jobs. And the other is because a smarter policy would have been to encourage and support single-mothers into training to prepare them for the workplace, where there is increasingly less opportunity for un-educated people to find work. Gillard could also have focused on the reasons single mothers often can’t work, such as lack of child-care and the availability of stable part-time work.

The mistake Gillard made was wrongly positioning the policy change as a cost-saving measure at a time when her government was receiving constant criticism about over-spending, budget deficits and waste. And here lies the problem for Labor. The party is expected to look after everyone, from the unemployed and single parents, to workers, to the rich business owners, to multi-national corporations and their shareholders by keeping the economy in tip-top-profit-making shape and the budget in balance and also providing all the government payments and services required to stop people falling behind, all at the same time. Talk about an impossible expectation to live up to!

The Labor Party is also expected by many left-leaning voters to live up to the unreasonable expectation of having a policy platform that perfectly aligns with every single left-leaning voter’s policy preferences, bar none. For instance, many ex-Labor supporters on the left, who mostly now support the Greens, seem to have withdrawn their support of Labor due to one or sometimes two Labor policies they don’t agree with. Whether it be single parents on Newstart, asylum seeker policy, gay marriage or environmental policy, it would seem that there are huge numbers of left voting Australians who hold Labor up to an unobtainable standard of perfection. They want a Labor policy platform where they agree uncompromisingly with each and every policy, and anything short of this turns them into Labor haters, blind to every Labor policy they actually support and blind to the fact their lack of Labor support assists the Liberal party to win power.

The community’s belief that Labor can be everything to everyone all at the same time is crushing the party, leaving many Labor politicians, and certainly Bill Shorten, so scared of doing anything to hurt one group over another that they would prefer to say and do nothing at all most of the time.

But if Labor is ever going to get back into government, they need to get over this fear. This beige must end. So what should Labor do?

First and foremost, Labor must be brave. Forget about the pincer movement. The Liberals and the Greens, and to some extent, the media, have a vested interest in attacking Labor whenever Labor opens its mouth. Get used to it and get over it. Bravery also means sticking to your values no matter what the opinion polls say. I don’t know this for sure, but I can bet Labor sided with Abbott to let through draconian ASIO powers last week because they didn’t want to appear soft on terror. But in doing this, they have just looked even softer. So it’s a self-perpetuating problem.

Secondly, Labor must build a stronger narrative. A narrative tied to their values, tied to their policies. Not a slogan. A narrative. Not a beige ‘fairness this’, ‘safety-net- that’ wet-lettuce-leaf-key-search-phrases-white-noise-dribble. A strong and meaningful narrative is what is needed.

For the past year, Labor promised to oppose Abbott. Abbott has given Shorten a dream-run of policies to oppose, and to be fair Shorten has been passionately against Abbott’s budget and the few policies Abbott has managed to get through parliament. However what’s lacking from these policy debates is the overarching story about why Labor opposes the policies. It’s not enough to jump from an anti-Medicare co-payment campaign, to a pro-climate change action campaign, to a pro-tertiary education campaign without a rock-solid chain linking all these micro-campaigns together. Shorten has told Michelle Grattan that the party is working on such a narrative. It’s good to hear him admit this, as Labor clearly don’t have one yet. If you’re interested in reading my thoughts on what this narrative could possibly look like, I wrote about this very subject here.

Labor has two years until the next election to work out how they are going to explain to the electorate that their party is the best option to tackle the problems our community face, whilst managing the high expectations of a broad range of people, all with competing priorities. Labor can’t fall into Abbott’s trap of believing they can win because people will vote against Abbott’s Liberals. Labor needs to be better than this. It doesn’t sound easy. It’s not easy. But if Labor can’t at least start to make some improvements, Abbott will win a second term. We all know what is at stake if that happens.


  1. Precisely which makes it imperative that Labor democratize the party, to a one vote, one value situation, especially for the leadership positions to encompass all members on an equal basis. We need a dynamic leader, not a meek and mild goody two shoes who wants the title of Leader of the Opposition. If every member had an equal input into the party on policy and administration matters we would soon arrive at policies that the overwhelming majority agreed with, as it is we have right wing office bearers making policy that doesn’t support the reality of most Australians, as seen from their narrow perspective of being fairly well off and not understanding the struggle of a large part of the electorate, the working poor and pensioners.

    • The biggest problem that the Labor party has is its longstanding tendency to over promise and then under-deliver. No matter how good an idea may be if you can’t do it in the time frame and at the cost you cite for it then you loose credibility. you need look no further than the debacle with the NBN or its ill conceived climate change policies. If you make more modest promises and then exceed them in delivery on the other hand you can be deservedly praised.

  2. ‘Enough with the beige’ indeed! Even the outrage over Liberal’s budget has faded, because Labour had nothing better to offer – which was my fear from the beginning. Not enough that Abbott had to go, there had to be a viable alternative, and at the moment, Labour isn’t it. I don’t read the Murcoch press, certainly, but I don’t hear Labour even mentioned, these days, to be bashed or anything else. Just a big void where the opposition should be.
    And cynic that i am, I’m not even sure that a strong narrative will be enough. They need a tough, charismatic leader who can convince voters that he keep the party in line and on track to deliver what he promises.

  3. Once again thank you Victoria for another great article and I hope you have passed this on to Bill Shorten. I couldn’t believe that the Labor bunch would allow the passing of these latest amendments and the introduction new standing order operational laws for ASIO. Like ASIO has over 140 odd laws which in the mainstream could cover the job ASIO had to do in the first place. But to give them more power one warrant without having the balance checks in place. Will let ASIO and other spy intelligence agencies associated in Australia be able to go overboard and kill someone in the future without being held responsible.

    Anyway I must be careful in what I write and post on-line just encase those Spooks don’t earmark me as a terrorist. Such as life I suppose now.

    Back to Bill. Yes Bill you have to pull your finger out of your arse and start to act like a leader in waiting instead of being sitting on the fence having a bet each way.

    My last comment is to those pincer movement trolls who come on here and spill their extreme right terrorist views about the Labor Party. Like they always will say Julia the backstabber and liar. Hell Abbott has broken 8 promises which intern are nothing but blatant lies full stop.

  4. I voted for the liberals as i like liberty, the government getting out of my life as much as possible, free speech. When business is going well, all of us share in the benefits, and the liberal party encourages business to expand and to grow. They are not perfect, but they encourage people to work hard and to look after themselves as much as they can rather than encouraging dependence on the government.

    If labor were only about balancing between labour and capital, it could be useful. However, all the “progressive” dreams that get hammered on are what makes it obnoxious to many who might otherwise see it as viable. Why should we take in anyone who pays off a people smuggler rather than taking those in the order of need established by the UN? Why should we have the absolute hubris to assume that every generation up until 10 years ago were dumb and bigotted regarding why we have marriage meaning what it means regarding who can enter into it?

    • when business is going well we all share the benefits, what a load of bull—t, we get paid starvation wages from which we pay at least 19% income tax, while business can claim the overwhelming majority of their expenses and pay very little taxation.

  5. Labor is struggling, IMHO, because:

    1 The union movement has (utterly regrettably) lost relevance with workers, but there no alternative has yet emerged to offset the power of capital.

    2 At the same time, the party has squibbed the enormously difficult but essential business of redefining and re-selling its values for the 21st century.

    3 By trying to be all things to all vested interests, the ALP ultimately appeals to no one but the anti-LNP, not-Green majority.

    In my view, there is considerable community support for redistributive policies but the party has failed to make the case for this approach.

    Thus they have left an ideological vacuum that’s ripe for exploitation by three-word sloganeers.

    • Redistributive policies : taking what one person earned by sweat and effort and giving it to others who “deserve” it more than the earner?
      Why does my tax need to bankroll intergenerational benefit leeches who show no inclination to provide for themselves?

      • Typical L-NP lover. I started paying taxes when I was fourteen years of age until I became one of those scrape heap jobless thanks to off shoring our workforce. Like my tax payments covered 46 years. So now I am retired on the age pension. So don’t call the likes of me a bludger on society. Oh by the way I joined the Australian Military services when I turned 17 years and did my service during the Vietnam war. What have you ever done for Australia, L-NP lover. Or should I label you one of those LNP trolls who come on here and stir shit.

      • no AndyM, TAKING THE PRODUCT OF A NATION AND SPREADING THE BENEFITS FAIRLY. This probably does not compute to you, have you seen the parasitic way multinational companies have dodged tax, with some not paying any tax, and most paying under 10%, while we working class who pay between 19%-46% are asked to fill the gap, don’t come on here with you right wing tory attitude unless you expect an answer, tax payers “deserve” much more than we are getting from these LNP governments who are currently trying to sell our public assets to these parasites, which will mean less government revenue and of course even less services for the “real’ taxpayers.

      • Old man: in what universe does working for 46 years qualify you as among multigenerational bludgers? I appreciate your service to your country.

        townsville: surely profit should belong to those who put their money and their talent into extracting the benefit.
        ensuring that people pay their tax is different to lobbying for redistributive policies – that people don’t deserve to keep the profits of their sweat. There is a world of difference between looking at corporate tax and looking at personal income tax. Differentiate the two if you want to, but none the less I see a decent chunk of my salary going to prop up a welfare system that doesn’t seem to really encourage people to use it as a short term prop.

  6. Shorten in opposition is beginning to look like Beazley – just fiddling around the edges while the government sets the agenda.

    The ALPs biggest mistake was not defining itself and what it stood for clearly at the start of their times in opposition and continually playing catch-up.

    While the LNP got away with being policy-free gainsaying reactionaries, at least the ALPs supporters tend to be a bit more discriminating but need something specific to fight for.

    It’s looking more and more like Albanese (wherever he is) would have been a better choice.

  7. Let’s see what Labor stands for….well, they voted for the war, twice now….they are entirely happy to see refugees tortured and even killed at enormous cost to the taxpayer….they’ve voted for budget cuts to education….and Shorten and Co don’t respond to correspondence….they’re entirely happy with the status quo….good God, they are Abbott lite! Only one party cares about the Australian people, and it isn’t Labor 😦

    • Yes Chris, Abbott lite is a pretty fair description. Both billygoat and tone are right wingers and have similar philosophies as demonstrated by their actions. Members need to reclaim their party from the SDA/AWU alliance or form a new party based upon the other 99% of us who are struggling to survive.

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