It’s the second day post-introduction of Australia’s carbon pricing changes, and the hysteria has barely abated – if the right-wing dominant media’s to be believed, the world as we know it only continue because the devastation will be insidious, yet somehow instantaneous.
As Crikey writer Bernard Keane so trenchantly points out, the ALP’s problem is that they continue to believe, despite proof after proof, that the electorate is rational. The LNP, on the other hand, has taken the fact that the electorate is, by-and-large, able to be motivated by emotion, and run with it.
Though I studied politics in HSC, I came within a hairs’ breadth of failing and am not far from a neophyte on the topic. For the most part the areas of politics I’m strongest in are industrial relations and health care, particularly (unsurprisingly) nursing and politics. But since John Howard went for re-election I’ve been frustrated by the Labor Party’s willingness to allow the opposition to set the agenda when it comes to Federal politics. It was the first time I became aware of the fact that, instead of running on a platform that pointed out the distortions, broken promises and lies of the incumbent government (children not-so-much thrown overboard, the introduction of a “never ever” GST, the creation of the concept of “non-core promises“), the ALP went with the Liberal-orchestrated theme of fiscal responsibility. And lost.
It took the introduction of, and backlash to, WorkChoices to generate a strong reaction – and that took a lot of work for the trade union movement. ANF (Vic. branch) had the hardest fight of our EBA history in 2007, thanks to WorkChoices changes that made it not only harder to take action but allowed employers to dock nurses who were working but had closed beds – close a bed for a minute and lose four hours of pay; for four hours and one minute, lose eight hours pay. I kn ow my hospital was not alone in having unprecedented intimidation by line management – and the harder they pushed the more determined we were.
For those who comment that ANF only go hard when we’re negotiating with the Liberals, a reminder – this hardest campaign was fought against a Victorian Labor government. And the then-opposition leader was vocal in his disdain for the almost two weeks it took to resolve. Oh, what a difference four years makes, Premier…
As I wrote last week at the ANF (Vic. branch) delegates conference last week, I heard Jon Faine and Martin Flanagan – both principled men, they explicitly put their beliefs to one side in order to elicit information useful to allow the public to decide. Sadly other members of the media are less principled – of course Alan Jones comes quickly to mind (found to have plagiarised, incited racial violence and racially vilified Muslim youth, his program has been determined to be factually inaccurate and unbalanced, he recently said our Prime Minister should be thrown out to sea in a chaff bag), but John Law and Andrew Bolt come readily to mind too.
Though our PM has achieved many initiatives, passed robust legislation that benefits the country overall, and has achieved something no other Australian woman has thus far (not only a woman, she’s unmarried, has no children,a nd identified as atheist), the dialogue is so poisonous that right-wing broadcasters are comfortable referring to her as Ju-liar (in stark contrast to the actual lies of the LNP), and one prominent Liberal politician was so caught up in the metaphoric hostility he actually expressed surprised she hadn’t been “kicked to death” – and that not only wasn’t a story, he wasn’t significantly censured.
What our media focuses on is topics of fear-mongery, the latest of which is a relatively new upswing in boat-borne asylum seekers (which has launched a significant furore over border protection, on- versus off-shore processing, and heated debate over which of two undesirable countries off-shore processing should be conducted. This is in combination with the introduction, on July 1st, of a carbon pricing policy that’s designed to penalise corporate polluters, but which has been very successfully branded by the right as a carbon tax that will ruin the nation, virtually overnight.
I’ve written previously about the results of a swing to the right in NSW; the Liberal-National coalition trouncing of the Queensland Labor party left the former government with so small a number of seats that they’re not legally entitled to government funding for such trivialities as office space, public servant support, and salaries for key members. The massively majority government have ensured funding nonetheless, and were a little frightened at first by that much power, but that will quickly fade into entitlement supported by the undeniable mandate of the electorate.
A Federal Liberal win has far-reaching complications for every facet of Australian life – based on the past and the state-based present, this includes at the least: suppression of unions, defunding of education and health, reneging of agreed conditions, disabling of WorkCover, and an increasingly partisan media.
If the pattern of the past few years persists, and it’s hard to see why that would change, the right will continue to dominate the debate through insightful manipulation of the biases and fears of the general populace – xenophobia, poverty, suspicion, spin over substance (like the notion that politicians reversing their positions on anything is a trait unique to Ms Gillard), and the prominent branding of one thing as another – which is how we have the insistence that a carbon subsidy on industrial polluters is a tax on ordinary battlers.
I love the optimism that’s evident on the ALP’s part in Keane’s article, but it’s sadly misplaced. In an ideal world the lack of significant impact of the carbon levy on everyday Australians would be enough for the electorate to realise that they weren’t getting the unspun facts. What’s sadly more likely, though, is that some producers will boost prices (despite ACCC oversight), the LNP will find something else shiny to distract the public’s attention.
The only alternative is a better job on the part of the ALP – they have to concentrate on promotion of their achievements, the creation of pithy phrases that encapsulate the central concepts (ideally an explanation would be better received, but we’re increasingly becoming a sound bite society), and a willingness to buck the LNP agenda in favour of fighting on their own terms.
Conservative politics is supported by business, industry and lobbyists; small-l liberal politics depends on the workers, and that means a stronger union base. Across the first world, and Australia is no exception, union membership is falling; ANF is a rare exception bucking the trend. The reason for this is multifactorial, including a fragmentation of the workforce, increasing casualisation, and the creeping belief the lower and middle class have that they need to safeguard the wealthy because that could be them any day now.
But the reality hasn’t changed – the landscape is different, the battles are not the same, but the time for unions is not over. We need only to look at how willing right-wing governments are to take away entitlements that generations of union members have fought for to see that without a strong and ongoing defence the conditions many workers take for granted will be gone. The number of times employers have voluntarily handed over improved conditions is vanishingly small – for the most part there seems to be no such thing as too much profit, too little expenditure, too much to ask of workers.
Despite a multiplicity of evidence, the Baillieu government tried to take away ratios that have been demonstrated to improve patient outcomes, lower health care costs, and improve nursing quality of life and staff retention. Though the last time nurses in Victoria worked split shifts was the early sixties, the notion of one-sided flexibility overrode any impact of them on the lives and health of nurses, and the safety of patients – the more time you change the staff caring for patients the higher the risk of error and miscommunication. Though there is a forecast shortfall of thousands of nurses within fifteen years, the Baillieu government was happy to sacrifice the long-term safety of the Victorian public health system for short-term (and short-lived) surplus.
Education, at secondary, tertiary and vocational levels, is under threat, and this by a government that has a one-seat majority. We have to learn from the past, and from the present. At least as importantly, the ALP has to triumph in the battle to win the hearts, if not the minds, of the electorate. They have to be strategic, orchestrated, canny and clear, because there’s no question the other side is – and if Mr Abbott is policy-shy, he still gets good press even though he seems never to answer a question he doesn’t like. It will take work to beat that, and it has to start now – less that 18 months out from the Federal election, and two years, four months and a handful of days to the Victorian election.