Under pressure on every front, Australia’s oldest party is on its last legs
The dust from the Queensland election might have settled, but there is a lingering sense that something profound is happening to the national political landscape. Hanging on to only a handful of seats in the Queensland parliament, stripped to the staunchest seats in its bastion of New South Wales, facing the prospect of another demolition in Western Australia and confronted with opinion polls indicating not just defeat but disaster at the next national election, there is a real possibility that the Australian Labor Party could cease to exist as a viable political force.
Of course, predictions of the demise of one or another political party are not new. The ALP and its acolytes in the commentariat always loudly predict the end of the Liberal party after the Coalition is voted out of office, but at the moment that idea looks simply foolish. A better comparison might be the ALP’s crushing defeat at the 1975 election, when it lost so many seats and so much legitimacy that its future looked uncertain. Yet within a year it had taken power in New South Wales, and by 1983 it had come back to win government in Canberra.
But looking for a parallel here might be misleading. After all, at the 1975 election the ALP won 42.8 per cent of the primary vote and 44.3 per cent of the two-party vote. From the perspective of 2012, when the party struggles to win more than 30 per cent of the primary vote, the 1975 result looks like glory days.
There is, of course, the tyranny of the two-party system. The few ALP optimists left in Queensland have argued that eventually the LNP government will start to falter, its electoral luck will run out, and voters will seek an alternative — which can only mean the ALP. So really all they have to do is sit back and wait.
At one level, this seems like another example of self-delusion, not unlike the myth that the party’s poor performance at the 2010 Federal Election was due solely to internal leaks in the campaign, a view that many Labor people cling to. Sure, go on believing that.
Nevertheless, there is a certain historical consistency in the idea that office in Australia alternates between the ALP and the Coalition, even if the wheel sometimes takes a long time to turn. The complicating factor that the ALP has to confront is that it may no longer have the anti-conservative side of politics to itself.
The Greens have long proclaimed their strategic goal of winning a fair-sized piece of the Labor vote, and indeed have already done so. If, in the decade following the likely Coalition victory at the next Federal Election, the Greens can take and hold
a number of Labor seats, the ALP might find itself locked into the position of never again being able to form a government without Green support. This is currently the case in Tasmania (although the electoral system there has been an important element), with any prospect of a Labor-only government looking, at best, remote.
So far, the Greens have not been able to turn their electoral support into House of Representatives seats, with the exception of the seat of Melbourne (and the seat of Cunningham, won in a by-election in 2002 and subsequently lost).
Significantly, Melbourne was won with the help of Liberal preferences, and it is unlikely that the Greens could win any other Labor seats without conservative preferences. This raises a crucial question for the Liberals. Do they direct preferences to the Greens in selected seats, as a way of
hurting the ALP in their heartland? Certainly the idea of creating a permanent split on the anti-conservative side of politics is tempting. But the downside is letting the Greens establish themselves and perhaps one day become part of a national government. Is this something that the conservative parties would find acceptable? Or should the Liberals enter into a de facto alliance with the ALP to exclude the Greens?
This is a difficult question, and much depends on how the Greens evolve. They have their own questions of direction to resolve: whether to be a party chiefly concerned with environment issues but willing to seek the middle ground where necessary (what might be called the Nick McKim path, after the Tasmanian leader), whether they have a broader agenda built around social engineering (the Christine Milne path), or whether they are a socialist party using the Green label (the Lee Rhiannon path). Each of these paths constitutes a threat to the Labor vote, albeit different parts of it.
Labor is also heading for trouble in Western Australia. It gained a bounce in the polls due to the election of a new leader, but this is unlikely to last until the next election, due in March 2013. It is entirely possible that the ALP will not even come second in the number of seats but will be passed by the National party (which at present is in a parliamentary alliance, but not a government coalition, with the Liberals).
In other words, the state’s political centre would have moved rightwards, turning the Liberals into a centrist party and leaving the ALP stranded on an irrelevant margin. It is difficult to see how it could come back from that, especially if the party does as badly at the Federal Election in the state as the polls suggest.
This would leave the ALP in a parlous position in three states. True, it retains a level of residual strength in Victoria, Tasmania, the ACT and South Australia, but its future as a nationwide party would be dubious if it is permanently locked out of half of the country.
This might seem speculative, but those who see political systems as set in stone might consider that for seven decades the Soviet Union was thought to be a permanent fixture of the geopolitical picture. Once it began to totter, it fell remarkably quickly. It was revealed as not much more than a decrepit structure made rotten from within by corruption and the bankruptcy of its ideology. This epitaph might, in fact, fit the ALP. Perhaps the question is not whether the party can survive, but whether it should.
Derek Parker is a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia.