Thursday, February 21, 2013

Labor has lost its way

Australia is globally competitive in three things, mining, agriculture and sport.

When the Labor government most likely loses office this year it will leave mining, agriculture and sport in a worse condition than they were in 2007, the year the party came to power.

There's actually a fourth thing Australians are very good at:  soldiering.  But the reasons why and how the defence forces have been politicised and the military capacity has been run down is a separate discussion.

How the Australian Labor Party under Kevin Rudd and then Julia Gillard have treated mining, agriculture and sport reveals a great deal about the modern Labor Party.

Since before federation, workers in mining and agriculture were the bedrock of the trade union movement and trade unions were the backbone of the ALP.  In years gone by, miners and farm workers had disputes, sometimes vicious and violent, with their employers but no one in the union movement or the Labor Party would honestly have believed that Australia would be better off without mining or agriculture.

At this week's national conference of the Australian Workers' Union, the country's ''oldest and largest blue-collar'' union, a seven-minute video was screened featuring the union's heritage among striking miners and shearers.

The problem for the union movement and for the Labor Party is that the pride they once both had in the resources and agriculture sectors is in the past.  And the political party that until this week was in an alliance with the Greens, is actively hostile to mining and farming.

Modern Labor treasurers don't see mining as generating wealth, employment and economic development.  Instead Wayne Swan regards the mining companies as a merely a source of taxation receipts and a convenient vehicle against which he can launch his rhetoric of class warfare.  With one or two notable exceptions, most Labor MPs, at best, take mining companies for granted.  At worst, they treat them with contempt.

Nothing sums up the current Labor Party's attitude to agriculture better than the ban on live cattle exports.  The ALP government put the feelings of a few participants in a focus group ahead of the national interest linked to Australia being regarded in the region as a secure source of food.

Numerous Labor ministers have talked up the prospects of being the ''food bowl of Asia'' but for fear of upsetting the Greens, they have shown no willingness to use more land and more water to grow more food.

Sport in Australia has always been political.  From Robert Menzies and his following of the Carlton Football Club in Melbourne, to Bob Hawke and the America's Cup, to John Howard at the Ashes, politicians and sport have been inseparable.

But Menzies, Hawke and Howard would never have attempted something so brazen and so partisan as when Labor ministers Kate Lundy and Jason Clare on the barest of pretexts relating to drugs in sport traduced the country's sporting reputation.

What those ministers did proved that to the Labor Party in 2013 there is no aspect of social activity that is not susceptible to political control.

There's many reasons why the attitudes of the Labor Party have changed.

For one thing, Labor MPs now predominately represent metropolitan areas on the eastern seaboard.  No MP in the Gillard cabinet has a seat that isn't in a capital city.  Mining and farming don't take place in capital cities.

Many jobs in mining and farming are manual and low or semi-skilled.  Again, the experiences of workers in those sectors are a world away from the clerical and professional background of Labor MPs and their staff.

At a more fundamental level, many in the ALP regard mining, agriculture, and sport as things Australians did in the 1950s.  They're things Australians have been good at for a long time.  There's nothing necessarily new or cosmopolitan about them.

If the county is going to be changed into a place where it is against the law to insult someone on the basis of their social origin (which is exactly what the Gillard government was attempting up until a few weeks ago) then the mainstays of our culture have to be changed or abandoned.

Hawke would not have treated mining, agriculture and sport the way Rudd and Gillard have.  But then again, Hawke was the old Labor Party.  Rudd and Gillard are the new Labor Party.  It's an open question as to which ALP Labor's next leader will belong.

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