The importance of strong and marketable narratives is being ignored by the Gillard Labor government in an election year. The ALP continues to be in a state of mismanagement and the lack of good governance is well reflective of that.
Many people believe that Labor’s problems are that of lack of good governance.
These are however symptoms that are the off-shoots of a more deep-rooted problem.
Labor’s real problem has been its lack of narratives. Other than the party’s campaign against WorkChoices, it has been carrying along without strongly marketable narratives since 1996, when Paul Keating lost power to John Howard.
The republic referendum, the Tampa affair, immigration reforms of the early 2000s and WorkChoices, were all matters that were clearly suggestive of the Howard government’s ideological narrative that helped it prepare policies that went well in line with the historically established narratives of the Coalition and the Nationals.
During the republic referendum, John Howard’s fierce defence of the monarchy was in line with his long held views on immigration that migrants had to integrate. His defence of the monarchy was also in line with the established Australian tradition of allying itself with an imperial power for ideological and geopolitical reasons.
Similarly, his dealing of the ‘Tampa’ and ‘children over the board’ affair was reflective of Australia’s long established narrative that it was for the Australian government to decide that who was allowed to enter Australia and who was not.
In his famous television address during the 2001 election campaign, he said, “we will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
With these words, and he repeated them time and again, Howard won the 2001 elections in a landslide victory over the ALP, at a time when the Australian media was widely depicting Mark Latham as an incompetent leader who had run out of narratives and ideas.
John Howard utilized the established narrative of the integration of migrants to skillfully restructure Australia’s skilled migration programme that allowed hundreds of thousands of international students already studying in Australian universities, to apply for permanent residency and Australian citizenship. These new citizens of the last decade have been the engines of Australia’s economic prosperity in an era of global uncertainty.
This new policy was based on the same fundamentals that were originally used by Australia’s first immigration minister, Arthur Calwell and the later governments of Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke.
Howard’s immigration policies were a clear vote winner because he based his policies on strong narratives in which he personally believed and he knew how to sell them to a pessimistic electorate.
WorkChoices was a major failure of the Howard government. Australians are against the idea of giving employers vested powers that could be used to hire and fire staff at will. The Australian people would have never fully accepted a system in which basic wage rates would be determined by market forces only.
Labor got its pitch against WorkChoices on track when the Australian Workers Union and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, ACTU, joined hands with the ALP in a unanimous bid to oust John Howard from power.
As opposition leaders, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard had pledged to replace Howard’s workplace laws with more flexible legislations. They delivered on their promise by setting up Fair Work Australia and introducing the Fair Work Act after assuming power in 2007.
But unfortunately, the successful anti-WorkChoices campaign was the first and last narrative embedded politics in which Labor leaders engaged themselves in.
Since coming into power, the governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have been engaged in the constant twisting, turning and changing of narratives that has come at a great political cost.
For the first two years in government, Prime Minister Rudd had backed the narrative of having a carbon tax and in his final months in power he reneged on that in support of a bigger emissions trading scheme. Similarly, Labor contested the 2007 elections on the platform for a ‘Big Australia,’ however that narrative today stands effectively rejected as over the last eighteen months, the Gillard government has sought to tighten immigration rules, mainly affecting Australia’s international students who remain the largest segment of the migrants applying for permanent residency to stay in the country.
Similarly, despite upholding the budgetary surplus narrative for over three years, citing weaker than expected tax receipts and the growing economic troubles at home and elsewhere, Wayne Swan announced late last year that the surplus dream was dead.
This again was a sharp shift that did not augur well with ordinary Australians, as many of them had been suffering previously because of continuous spending cuts in areas such as healthcare, education and public infrastructure.
The major difference between the successes of the Howard government and the failures of modern Labor is simply about the narratives. Howard was a passionate believer in Australia’s prosperity. He had learnt that how narratives and populist approaches should be used and imbibed with strong public policy making throughout his long political career.
The lack of successful narratives within the rank and file of the ALP is a direct outcome of the top level recruitments of lawyers, trade unionists and representatives of the ALP factions over the years. Their real insights and exposure into the art of policy making and good public relations practices has been minimal.
This ultimate reality could prove to be an important factor against the ALP at the ballot boxes in September.
The writer is the editor of an upcoming magazine, Australian Affairs, firstname.lastname@example.org