||Issue No. 124||15 February 2002|
Chickens Come Home
Unions: Winning the Heartland
Interview: Swan's Song
Corporate: Lessons from Enron
Politics: What We Did Last Summer
History: Solidarity in Song
International: A Tale of Two Cities
Poetry: Nobody Told Me
Review: Labor and the Rings
Satire: Rafter Named Bermudan Of The Year For Tax Purposes
The Locker Room
Week in Review
'International Labour's Year in Review' - A Re-View
Collins Gets Cryptic
Interview with Peter Lewis
In your recent speech to the Fabian Society you argue Labor had no choice but to follow Howard on Tampa at the last Federal Election. The weakness you say is that Knowledge Nation was not sold well enough. Is there a scenario where you think an issue like long term education infrastructure could ever override an emotive wedge issue like Tampa?
Well I believe that the Knowledge Nation did override in the minds of many if not all the attempts by Howard to create the wedges. I believe we won a lot of voters in the middle on that issue. But we didn't win enough because of the wedge politics he was playing with the Tampa issue.
We originally opposed the Tampa Legislation because it legalised murder, and that was what caused our political problem. Later on, when we voted for the revised legislation, we were voting for a Bill that took into account almost all of the objections that we had raised when the Bill first came into the House. The problem we had was that we were seen as being unsympathetic on border security as a result of voting down the very first Bill and it took us a long time to recover from that.
When Kim Beazley outlined our true position on Tampa, why we had voted down the first Bill and why we had passed the second Bill in the Leaders' Debate that was really the first time that we had successfully explained to most people in the community what we'd done. The problem was, there were many who weren't watching that Debate.
Were you broadly supportive of that line that you took on Tampa at the last election?
Well the line that we took was entirely reasonable, the problem we've had with this issue is the way in which the Government has exploited immigration and security issues, the language that it has used and the way that it has been very provocative in it's approach.
But Labor is always going to be very vulnerable to these sorts of wedge attacks isn't it?
Yes we are, which is why I argue in my speech that we needed a very broad and bold agenda, not just across the traditional areas of health and education and job security but also in the areas of constitutional and parliamentary reform.
You'd be aware of the emergence of Labor for Refugees. To what extent should the parliamentary wing follow the rank and file members even if at the least this may not maximise it's political success?
It's not a question of maximising political success...the question is what is the right policy in relation to border security and allowing asylum seekers into the Country. That's the question that we're debating, it's not the other.
Labor for Refugees is not fully representative of the ALP branch membership in my state, I'm not aware of what it's like in NSW, but they do have a legitimate opinion and it is their right to argue that opinion. That's why we are having a debate about border security and asylum seeker policy generally. It's a debate that I welcome. I don't question the motives of people who have those views. But what I do say is, have a look closely at what the Labor parliamentary wing has been saying, what it did when it voted down the first Bill, what it did when the second one went through. I don't believe that there has been an accurate communication of our position in either of those instances.
Going broader beyond just Tampa, do you see that there is a danger for Labor that the people that are active party members may end up having views as electorally popular as the people who stand for election would like them to be?
No ... it's not a question of every view we have having to be electorally popular, the question is what's the right policy for the country. That's what's at stake in the border protection/asylum seekers debate. We are not just responding in the parliamentary wing to what is the most electorally popular, hopefully we will be the government after the next election and we will have a policy which is soundly based and which can be implemented and we will be talking about this debate in those terms.
Moving on to other aspects of your Fabian Society Speech you identify the missing middle as the "political demographic that's now up for grabs". Which traditional Labor values do you see as being attractive to this group?
Well the missing middle is a very broad group, that's the first point to make, the second point is that, the electorate is more diverse than ever and, the values that these people have, I think, ARE the very traditional Labor values. The value of reward for hard work, the value of fairness at work and in family life, they are timeless values and they appeal to these people.
What of your own core constituency in your portfolio, the disadvantaged groups in society? What do you see in the Howard government agenda that appeals to these people?
Oh, well the Howard government is not attempting to appeal to that constituency at all, or to the constituency that wants to see them get a fair go. The Labor Party has always had the view that we represent not only the working people but also those people who need a hand up in life and it's our mission as a Party not to leave them behind, which is why we are extremely critical of the approach that the Government takes when the likes of Tony Abbott and others are out there vilifying the unemployed. What they are seeking to do is to say that those in the middle who are under financial pressure, 'you shouldn't take out your frustrations on those above you who are doing very well or the Government who is doing nothing, you should take it out on those below you.' That is why you've got the government constantly out there seeking to imply that anyone on benefits is potentially a cheat.
Well, unlike some of your colleagues, you've defended the influence of Unions in the ALP and you say that factions are part of the problem. But don't you personally have the best of both worlds coming from the AWU faction in Queensland?
Well I come from the right in Queensland, and the fact is we've all got to move on. We've got to have a look at where the Party is. The Party has always had factions, that's point number one. Point number two, factions do perform an important management role, but in an environment where the rank and file membership base is shrinking as the population grows then the structures of the Party have got to adapt to ensure that the Party is more firmly based in the wider community. And if you have 25 or 50 people voting at preselection for a State based seat, 100 to 150 at most for a Federal seat, then your Party is not firmly based in the community it's seeking to represent. And that's why I've made the point that we need to be looking at these policies, it's not a question of factions or something else, it's a question of where the Party's going in relation to the community it's seeking to represent. And that is as an important a question for the Party as it is for the Union Movement as a whole.
What's your general view on the quality of ALP candidates being served up?
My general view is that they are pretty good, but we could do better. I think in NSW for example, the last election we had some pretty good marginal seat candidates. Frankly, it was a shame that some of them went down. I won't start naming them cause I don't want to play favourites. But the question I'm raising is not so much now, or seeking to avoid debate about political issues now, it's where we're heading into the future.
One of your proposals to the future, which I note you don't say will be implemented overnight, is for primary style election. How would you see that working in an Australian context?
In relation to primaries, I was just trying to give another example of the sort of structure, which might broaden base of the Party in the community. The idea of some sort of primary style thing is only way you could achieve these ends. Obviously the are upsides and downsides to any reform in this area, but I think we need to have as our aim a process that delivers candidates who have the advantage of strong community support and we need to involve more in each community to have a say in the affairs of the Party.
Finally what's your expectation of the current review of the election loss? What would you like to see coming out of this?
I deliberately couched the things I had to say in the Fabian Society speech in very broad terms because I don't want to pre-empt either the views of members or anyone else who is making submissions.
What I did say was that our Party has a proud tradition as a social democratic force. I said that many of the ideas we took to the last election were consistent with this but might have been better communicated to a sceptical public. I suppose I'm saying there is a core message about social investment and about enabling opportunity that has broad appeal and that is consistent with our tradition. The real challenge is being as bold as we can be about this and other reforms such as constitutional and parliamentary reform to cut through to the people, particularly the missing middle who really need a Labor Government.
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