The Labor Identity Crisis

The thirteen years between 1983 and 1996, entailed the longest period of Labor government in federal parliamentary history. During this period, the ALP underwent unprecedented change not only in its structure, but also in its ethos and ideology. What these changes mean for the Labor party, as it heads into the 21st century, has been the source of much debate and conjecture amongst leading social and political commentators. It is clear from the literature that the Hawke Keating period saw a departure from traditional party practice in many areas and that this has been a source of controversy for the ALP rank and file, as well as habitual labor voters around Australia. So to answer this question, one must identify what the major changes have been under Keating and Hawke, and make a judgement, as to whether the ALP will benefit in the long term from these changes. Based on the evidence, it is doubtful that the ALP’s modern approach to politics will be healthy for the ALP’s long term political prospects. It is accepted that some change to the party was needed if it was to escape becoming the ‘naturalised opposition’, but the actual changes to party policy and direction were only of short term benefit and the ideological currency of “New Labor” under Hawke and Keating has become almost worthless to the Australian electorate.

In 1969, the Labor Party was out of office everywhere in Australia. Federally, the ALP had done poorly when up against its conservative opponents, ever since federation, gaining office only for a handful of years compared to the Liberal coalitions. This caused the Labor party to become introspective, in search of the appropirate changes needed, to ensure that Labor would no longer be the ‘natural opposition’ to government (Reynolds 1980 : 114). And from here on in, the focus of the Labor party, shifted away from standing for an ideology and towards the pragmatism of holding office for extended periods. As such, the Labor Party under Hawke underwent a “transformation of organisation style, tactics, and appeals,” (Jaensch :1989:155). Such a transformation, from Labor’s standpoint, was vital to the ALP remaining a relavent force in Australian politics. Such an argument, given the electoral history of the ALP and the shrinking number of working class Australians around (Warhurst and Parkin : 200 : 74), seems very pursuasive. Crosland argued that “because the working class was shrinking in size, the Labor party’s identification with that class should make way for more of national and less of a class identity.” (Crosland : 1962 : 150)

Crosland, all the way back in 1962, was to foreshadow the political strategy of national ‘consensus’ pursued by the ALP under Hawke in the 1980’s (Scott 2000 : 57). This policy is typified by Hawke himself in his 1987 policy statement : “The whole basis of our call to the Australian people at the election in 1983 and again in 1984 was an appeal to this great truth about the Australian community – the truth that the legitimate aspirations of the diverse groups and interests which go to make up the nation can best be achieved, not by fighting each other, not by setting group against group, Australians against Australians, but by working together, recognising and respecting each other’s rights, fair expectaions and fair hopes and aspirations.” (Johnson : 1989 : 110) Consensus politics is hard to pin down, and seems more like rhetoric rather than any real umbrella for actual policy. Nontheless, consensus politics could be described as a liberal-conservative affirmation of capitalistic profiteering for individual prosperity and gain, reconciliation between traditional rivals (workers and business), sound economic management, and middle class values.

The desired effect of this decidely ‘fence sitting’ rhetorical approach to political debate was thus: “If Labor steals enough Liberal policies it should be able to ‘hold the centre’, especially as the present Liberal leaders vacate it in their Thatcherish progress to the right. However much the traditional Labor supporters may the regressive policies, they’ve nowhere else to go. As the more conservative of the Labor leaders see it, it is in the nature of their situation that to hold office they must often defy the majority of their party members and supporters, and reach to the Right in order to hold the critical swinging voters, the press and business voices to whom those swingers listen.” (Stretton : 1987 : 7) This, in a nutshell is the symptom or tactic of a “catch all party”, which is neatly summarised by Andrew Parkin (Parkin 1983 : 27). The essential function of a “catch-all” party is to be responsive, not expressive. Hawke on many occasions admitted, this was the case, saying that he did not have an ideology that he stood by, but rather made decisions in the national interest as a whole (Jaensch : 1989 :166).

This “prostitutionalisation” of the ALP to the electorate, most especially the middle class, swinging voters, became possible with the rewriting of the party’s objective, to remove anything which might be construed as socialist. Thus armed with a lack of ideology, Hawke and Keating were free to become singularly focussed on electoral victory. As such, the policies adopted by the ALP under Hawke and Keating were such that would give Australia’s oldest political party victory at elections.

Far from Labor’s traditional policy of planning and governmental intervention, Keating and Hawke headed down the opposite path, with the hope that it would result in a more efficient economy: “The logic of our economic policies leads us to an expectation of smaller government … Properly functioning, the market mechanism is a powerful engine for economic growth … I hold a very healthy respect for the advantages of market processes, but that respect falls short of deification. Where they can be shown to assist in our central economic objective of sound, sustained economic growth, market-based arguments will receive a receptive audience. Where they represent mere propaganda, they will go the same as other dogmas which unnecessarily encumber our progress.” (Keating 1985) As can be seen from these statements, Keating and Hawke were adopting a minimalist, conservative government focused on sound economic management, decentralization and industrial reform.

What we mean of course by ‘sound economic management’ is the move away from traditional Keynesian economic measures, towards the in vogue economic rationalism. But was this unquestioning adoption of economic rationalism and all its vices wise, in respect to Labor’s long term political health? There exist many arguments that suggest that it isn’t. Firstly, Pusey’s findings suggests that Canberra’s top bureaucrats (or Senior Executive Servants : SES) more often than not come from priveledged social backgrounds, whom are typically “ungenerous, individualistic, tough and ‘anti-social’.”(Pusey : 1991 : 74). In addition, a large percentage of them have educations in economics, commerce or business management. In relation to their percieved ideal role of the state, “there is a vehement economic rationalism that is so clearly articulated and so sharply related to the central issues of national economic and social policy.” (Pusey : 1991 : 74) It is therefore not outrageous to suggest that economic rationalism is clearly an elitist notion, and if not tempered with equitable social policy, this approach to economic management could quickly be seen amongst the workers and underpriveledged as a Govenment selling out their social morality to the lures of big business and the almighty dollar.

The Labor Party in the 1980’s became almost singularly focussed on economic policy – an enourmous shift from previous Labor Governments whom were always more concerned with social policy and public outlays. Once again, the argument for this shift in policy direction, was one of electoral success, pointing out Labor’s poor record in the past with those traditional policy concerns. In 1980, with Labor looking to rejuvenate it’s image as a logical choice for Government, “Labor Essays” was published, to encapsulate, the “socialist objective for the 1980’s”. In this, Gareth Evans wrote that, “our dogma concentrates now overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, on economic relations.” (Evans 1980 : 174) This bears out in the fact that Labor during this period cite the Accord, the floating of the dollar, privatisation of public utilities (Ansett and the Commonwealth bank), and the reduction of inflation as their greatest achievements (Keating 1991 : 23-30). However, in 2001, with greater income inequality, poorer, more expensive service from our privatised utilities, a devaluation of the Australian economy from overseas market investment and a lower overall standard of living have put large question marks over the wisdom of this policy direction taken in the 1980’s and early 1990’s by the ALP under Keating and Hawke. The fact that Margaret Thatcher found Keating’s economic orthodoxy appealing is further cause for concern.

Don Dunston typified traditional Labor’s economic policy: “the capitalist system will not work unless there is a government determinied to intervene where necessary to see that the economy is still serving the social needs of the populace effectively. [Therefore there needs to] be selective intervention [and a] significant public sector which then affects the standard of behaiviour in the private sector.” (Scott 2000 : 87) This is clearly at odds with the minimal interventionist, economic rationalism adopted by Hawke and Keating. John Sutton attacked the ALP’s years of economic rationalism, saying “workers were deeply disillusioned with tariff reductions, deregulation, privatisation and labour market reform.” (Scott 2000 : 239) The vigorous nature in which Keating pursued enterprise bargaining wages policy also alienated many in the trade union movement and others, who saw the greater inequality of wages and insecurity of working conditions which the new model presented. This was a particularly bitter pill to swallow for the blue collar labor supporters, when the centralised, artbitration based approach to wage fixing had been such a keystone to Labor’s policy platform and had brought about , “ greater equality of incomes and standardisation of working conditions among wage and salary earners.” (Scott 2000 : 240)

This policy shift was particularly traumatic to the rank and file members for many reasons. Firstly it was so contrary to the ALP’s traditional working class values. Secondly, “much of the rethinking on economic policy and privatisation was not gradually worked through [during] opposition….but was suddenly imposed from the top down during the period in Government” (Scott 2000 : 82). Labor supporters were unprepared for such a jolt tot traditional Labor policies. The policy shift attracted many critics, and reflects the long term affect it will have onthe make-up of the Labor party. Wyndham described the shift as the “most disgraceful betrayal of ideas”. (Scott 2000 : 84) John Cain mae the comment that he could not understand why Hawke so “quickly embraced notions so foreign to basic Labor philosophy [which has caused] the hands of Labor voters to quiver when they vote at Federal elections.” (Cain 1994) John Ralston Saul develops a powerful argument that rationalism has gone too far (A Dictatorship of Reason as he calls it), in that unless you have a balanced policy approach based on all facets of human understanding, you only end up achieving the opposite to what you originally intended. Australia’s current economic fragility is evidence to suggest that a complete adoption of economic rationalism was a mistake.

Hawke and Keating’s rhetoric, focussed singularly on winning votes, may also have been damaging to ALP working class support long term. There are many examples of this. Hawke was the man who overturned Whitlam’s famous socially progressive policy of free tertiary education. Yet when, primarilly due to economic factors (ie- reduced job opportunities for young people), the school retention rate and university numbers increased, Hawke turned it into a cynical piece of political opportunism, “I have repeatedly stated my pride in our achievments in virtually doubling the school retention rate and expanding the number of tertiary places.” (Hawke : 1991 : 11) Of course in reality, the proportion of students from low income families decreased significantly, yet another knife in the back of a traditional labor ideal (equal educational opportunities for all Australians, regardless of social background or economic circumstances). Also, in 1985, Hawke made this statement to the Australian people, “ Our opponents would sell off institutions which have been built up for generations. They should be left to serveour children as well as they have served our parents.” (Hawke : 1985) This is yet another example of vote grabbing rhetoric (typical of a catch-all party) with absolutely no truth or substance to it, given the ALP’s privatisation policies. Finally and most glaringly, was the 1993 election campaign. Keating scathingly attacked Hewson’s proposed tax reform which included a GST, when in reality Keating, supported such reforms himself and had in the past attempted to implement them. While all they were trying to do was achieve the admirable aim getting elected, the opportunistic debasement of political integrity can only have lasting negative effects on Labor’s traditional supporter base.

So what of the ALP? Crisp was fairly prophetic onthis point when he said, “the stronger the current trend to ‘white collaring’ or middle classing’ of branch membership and of the ALP representation and leadership at the three levels of Government, the more vulnerable will become Australian blue collars to splinter groups and parties.” (Crisp : 1982 : 80) The 1996 election result is the best indication of the lasting effects Hawke and Keating will have on the long term evolution of the ALP. In 1996, Labor suffered a major slump of 15% in support from it’s traditional base ( the manual laboring class), however, at the same time in the aggregate middle class, part allegiences did not shift between 1993 and 1996. (Warhurst : 2000 : 76) This suggests an increasingly entrenched identification between the ALP and the middle class as opposed to the working class. Labor may have achieved what it set out to do in the early 1980’s, to become a logical and legitimate option for government in the eyes of the Australian population. But at a fairly high, moral, social, and ideological price, and has lead to a plummeting in public opinion of politicians in general, and has encouraged the emergence of anti-elite minor parties. As Scott says in summary, “being in Government is not enough – you have to fulfill the hopes of your core supporters if you are to sustain them. (Scott 2000 : 255) While Hawke and Keating were very good for the ALP in many ways, a serious revision and refinement of these changes need to be made if the ALP wishes to move forward into the 21st century without a serious limp.


1. Reynolds P (1980) “Homogenisation and Embourgeoisification : a consideration of Aspects of the Kemp Thesis” Politics 15(1).

2. Jaensch D (1989) The Hawke Keating Hijack, Allen and Unwin.

3. Warhust J and Parkin A (2000), The Machine : Labor Confronts the Future, Allen and Unwin.

4. Crosland C (1962) The Conservative Enemy : A program of radical reform fir the 1960’s, London.

5. Scott A (2000) Running on Empty, Pluto Press.

6. Johnson C (1989) The Labor Legacy : Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke, Allen and Unwin.

7. Stretton H (1987) Political Essays, Melbourne : Georgian House.

8. Parkin A (1983) Party Organisation and Machine Politics : the ALP in Perspective, Allen and Unwin.

9. Keating P (1985) “Labor’s Commitment to Smaller Government” , Institute of Public Affairs Review, 39(3).

10. Pusey M (1991) Economic Rationalism in Canberra, Cambridge University Press.

11. Evans G (1980) “A Socialist Objective for the 1980’s” Labor Essays, Drummond.

12. Keating P (1991) Building a Competitive Australia, Australian Government Publishing Service.

13. Hawke R (1991) Building a Competitive Australia, Australian Government Publishing Service.

14. Cain (1994) “The Hawke Memoirs”, The Sunday Age, 21 August, 1994.

15. Saul JR (1998) “Unconscious Civilization” Penguin.

16. Crisp LF (1982) “The Labor Party : Then and Now”, Labor Essays, Drummond pp 65-81.

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