Every time a new fiasco explodes out of Parliament House lately (press gallery journos just call them “Tuesdays” now), I have this pathetic urge to revisit some old photos. Call me a sentimental fool, but there’s one shot from 2007 that just kills me nowadays. Shot in the inner-city Brisbane suburb of Paddington, it shows around 40 of my friends and me gathered in front of the TV, right after the ABC called victory for Labor’s Kevin Rudd. In the photo, some of us pump our fists in the air. Others laugh so hard you can probably see our dental fillings and brains. Goddamn, we were all so hopeful.
And we were young too, a motley crew of 20 to 40-something nurses, writers, architects, artists, journalists, musicians, academics, students and public servants, all united in our desire to see the back of prime minister John Howard’s Coalition. Our reasons differed. They ranged from the practical (we were employed under WorkChoices), scientific (climate change), ideological (Iraq) and that small matter of – you know – deceptively persuading the public into believing asylum seekers had thrown their children into the ocean. And right before an election too!
Some of us loathed Howard on an emotional – almost cellular – level, but for what it’s worth, I felt Howard was capable of genuine courage and decency. Even now, the post-Port Arthur image of our short, slightly deaf PM in a bulletproof vest, spruiking gun laws to a sea of apoplectic rifle lovers, is undeniably kind of awesome. But as a young Chinese-Australian guy, seeing Howard turn multiculturalism into a dirty word and insisting we indefinitely detain asylum seekers – people who had travelled to the ends of the earth to find safety – left me cold. It was time.
By the time then Queensland premier Anna Bligh introduced Kevin Rudd on stage, everyone at the Paddington election party was beside themselves. Here was our first elected female premier, introducing our first Mandarin-speaking prime minister, along with his independent, modern, maiden name-keeping wife whose name sounded vaguely French. God, his family was attractive. No one was surprised Rudd had won. All polls had suggested Labor would win in a landslide; we just didn’t know the landslide would be one those freak ones that annihilates entire villages. Elated, we drank that evening until we merrily vomited in garden beds, and woke up the next day with hickies from people who weren’t our partners. After 12 long years, it felt cathartic.
Four and a half years on, the party is well and truly over. It has become an epic hangover that refuses to go away. In the sobering daylight, those people we took into our homes look far less attractive than we remembered. The idea of revisiting last night’s activities (voting) ever again again makes us want to barf. Rudd doesn’t have a portfolio, let alone the prime ministership. Watching stoushes between Rudd and Julia Gillard is torture. For all the policy wins – and we’ll get to them soon – the overarching narrative of Gillard’s government has been one of Malaysia Solution / Pokies-Wilkie / Slipper-and-Thomson-style blunders / and ad-hoc wound cauterising.
We now seem to have reached a point so low: a turncoat speaker of the House of Rrepresentatives accused of taxi misuse and sexual harassment, an MP who quite possibly misused half a million dollars worth of union funds – some of which may have gone to sex workers – and a prime minister deft with policy but not public relations, bamboozled by how to deal with the fallout. Instead of discussing policy, we’re caught up in allegations of paid sex and whispers of open bathroom doors. In late April, Labor’s primary vote hovered at just 27 per cent in the opinion polls. As newmatilda.com’s Ben Eltham recently pointed out, you’d have to go back to the Depression or the Liberal’s Billy McMahon to find similar levels of widespread public loathing. The once-laughable prospect of having Tony Abbott as prime minister isn’t just likely, it’s inevitable.
Up here in Queensland, we’ve felt this shift towards the right pretty sharply. Our state has become a sort of ground zero for progressive politics in Australia. Anna Bligh and almost all her state Labor colleagues have been so obliterated. I’m surprised there aren’t crows hovering over their spiked heads on George Street’s fences. Among Campbell Newman’s new LNP ranks are a 23-year-old who still lives with his parents (previous job – working at a Woolworths deli) and a Speaker of the Legislative Assembly who says Christian therapies can deliver people from homosexuality. Literary prizes were Newman’s first casualty; now it’s prison counselling services for largely indigenous and illiterate women. Fun times ahead, people! And to think, we’ve only just begun.
Queensland’s Labor opposition has been reduced to a pitiful team of seven. After the LNP booted them from the parliamentary grounds, they are now forced to work in exile from a Department of Housing and Public Works building across the road. If those Labor MPs find this humiliating, think about the people who actually voted for them, myself included. In Queensland, young progressive voters are starting to look elsewhere. Right now, the light on the hill feels more like that cheap torch you look for during a blackout, the one you know is hiding somewhere, only to find it with a dead battery inside. When you reach those kinds of lows, it’s time to reassess things.
It’s not difficult to guess my voting habits. I’m a relatively young (29) inner-city, tertiary-educated child of migrants. I’m a homosexual with an arts degree. Some would say this is enough reason to dismiss my politics as the views of a sickle-wielding red marching alongside Wayne Swan (come on: my ancestors fled the Communists), a member of the latte class (I’m lactose intolerant) or a champagne socialist (I drink beer). My father is an entrepreneur, so I strongly believe in robust capitalism and enterprise, coupled with fair regulations and taxes designed to meet shared needs and support the vulnerable. If any of this sounds like radical socialist boogedy-boo to you, then colour me red and put me on a commune already.
Honestly, I just don’t think my voting priorities are particularly niche. Sure, I’m not a Howard battler or part of Gillard’s working families, but I am one of the 40 per cent of Australians who live in households that don’t raise children. I’m also one of the 66 per cent of Australians under 30 who are permanently locked out of the housing market, which means we tend to care less about interest rates for our imaginary mortgages (which are, incidentally, lower than any of the Howard years) and prioritise other issues instead: environmental sustainability, same-sex marriage rights, indigenous welfare, green investments, public infrastructure, fair working conditions and the decent treatment of asylum seekers.
That the major parties consider most of these issues boutique or peripheral shows a depressing lack of imagination. Connect the dots. Environmental sustainability equates to economic sustainability, innovation and security. Supporting same-sex marriage is essentially a conservative, pro-family stance once you consider at least 20 per cent of lesbian couples and 5 per cent of gay couples are raising children (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005 census). And 53 per cent of Australian Christians are open to same-sex marriage, according to a 2011 Galaxy poll (commissioned by Australian Marriage Equality Forum). How we treat asylum seekers and indigenous Australians cements our international reputation, and after months of travelling overseas, I can tell you we’re still largely seen as a nation of racist drongos.
Labor might still champion some of these issues close to my heart, but they’re not doing great on many them. My friends and I are finding it difficult to vote for them any more. “I [still] vote Labor,” one friend recently told me, “but Christ, they make it hard.” Another said, “I used to be a staunch Labor supporter. I loved Hawke and Keating and the Creative Nation policy, but now Labor resembles nothing of that”. We’ve been burned too many times. It started when Rudd put a rain check on the great moral and economic challenge of our time. It continued when Gillard announced she was atheist, but still against same-sex marriage, alienating every Australian voter who respected logic.
It’s why many of us have turned to the Greens, not always because we expect – or even want – those candidates to win, but as a preferential protest vote to send Labor a message: You are failing us. “Not the Greens!” some might gasp. “You can’t vote for the Greens! They’re a party of abortion enthusiasts, communists and lesbians who have sexual relations with old growth forests!” And you’re right, of course. The Greens are clearly a party of catastrophe and anarchy. One only has to look at what happened to Melbourne after Adam Bandt won his seat, and how swiftly that city became a Stalinist basketcase, sort of like Pyongyang but with laneway cafés and street art.
Of course the Greens are attractive: they’ve never had to govern outright. It’s easier to remain ideologically pure when you’re a small party. But as much as people want to dismiss the Greens, you can’t ignore that, ideologically, Labor is now sitting further right than the Liberal Party of the 1980s. For voters like me, the Greens don’t seem radical any more: they’re simply occupying some of the political space Labor left vacant years ago. Plus the Greens have professionalised, filling their ranks with level-headed, media-savvy, intelligent MPs and candidates who have backgrounds in law, agriculture, design, social science, science, public health and medicine. They have become votable. Which is why I’ve voted for them, and probably will again. Looking at the voting data, I know I’m not alone.
Still, let’s give credit where it’s due. Labor has pulled off some acrobatic feats. There has been no more elegant, decent political act in my lifetime than Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations. Rudd mightn’t have championed same-sex marriage, but he did oversee – with Gillard by his side – the dismantling of roughly 100 laws that actively discriminated against me and my lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender friends. Under Gillard, we have the beginnings of a national disability insurance scheme and the foundations of a national broadband network. These are monumental achievements.
Plus, the ALP has damn fine talent in its ranks. Few people could complain about Tanya Plibersek as Health Minister, Nicola Roxon as Attorney-General, Penny Wong as Finance Minister or Bob Carr as Foreign Minister. Criticisms of Wayne Swan are valid but comically overblown. His relationship with big business is too adversarial, and his one decent shot at winning their love – a mining tax-produced tax break – was a bungle and then withdrawn.
Weirdly though, we willingly forget it was Swan’s all-guns-blazing response to the global financial crisis that allowed us to dodge an economic bullet that will haunt most developed nations for a generation. The Reserve Bank of Australia’s cash rate is 3.75 per cent, lower than it was at any time under the Coalition and former treasurer Peter Costello.
And yet, Labor is accused of economic mismanagement and is unable to communicate that not all debt is bad debt. The media is sensationally hostile and the public has clearly forgotten all about John Howard’s core and non-core promises. But all this shows how far Labor has lost control of its narrative. Labor needs to learn that good governance isn’t just about strong policy, but about having the ruthlessness to maim critics and the skills to communicate successes.
Maybe it’s more than that though. For all the criticism that Gillard is a bad communicator who speaks like a wound-up automaton, here’s a thought: remember how the former Greens leader Bob Brown spoke? Brown had the oratorial skills of a regional bank manager fumbling his way through a Powerpoint presentation on Windows 2000. On camera, the new leader, Christine Milne, has the sometimes unnerving look of a sedated calf caught in headlights. And yet, none of this matters to Greens voters, because the party itself inspires them.
No one can remember the last time Gillard or Labor actually inspired anyone, and for a sitting PM, that’s a deal breaker. Gillard is a brilliant facilitator. An incredible negotiator and deal broker. A brutal and often breathtaking warrior in question time. She concedes an issue like same-sex marriage is inevitable, but doesn’t want to align her name with it. This suggests a weird myopia I can’t even begin to understand.
Many of my friends have stopped voting for Labor and a few have stopped voting altogether. As young voters, we despair, primarily because we’re, well, young. Being young means we constantly think about our future, and it’s been a while since anyone has floated a long-term aspirational vision. Gillard doesn’t offer one. Abbott has somehow managed to achieve the remarkable feat of offering even less.
Still, we needn’t despair. Labor’s stocks are low right now. Anyone with keen investment instincts would know that’s a great time to buy stock. If you’re young and still believe in the party that gave us solid IR laws, allowed women control over their reproductive rights and gave indigenous people native title and an apology, now is the time to sign up. God knows, they need new blood and fresh eyes. For all we know, after a hopefully brief Abbott administration, you could very well be our next prime minister.