What’s next for Australia’s Labor Party?

When looking back over the last few years of the Labor Party, it has looked less like a mainstream political party, and more like a Greek Tragedy, or better yet, a sad retelling of the fall of Caesar. First there was Rudd, a leader – like Caesar – who’d spent too long at the top, and was losing favour with the people, yet refused to abdicate. Enter Brutus – Julia Gillard – who stabbed him in the back and seized power for herself. In the little known extended version of the story of Caesar, Brutus kept power for himself, but both he and Gillard found themselves even more unpopular than their predecessors. In this rare myth, Caesar wasn’t actually killed, merely injured badly, and spent the months after uttering the words ‘et tu Julia’ regrouping. In predictable fashion, Caesar extolled his revenge, stabbing Brutus straight in the back in return, and stealing back his reign of power. His jubilation didn’t last long through, as before long he died of natural causes (an election) and was replaced by the younger Mark Anthony (Tony Abbott).

Now if you excuse my historical inaccuracies, I think you can come to appreciate the analogy. The Labor Party has gone through a period of betrayal, revenge, backlash and factionism, and what’s worse, it lost them the election. How can you vote for a man who usurps his own leader? That is an untrustworthy man and hence an untrustworthy Prime Minister. While the polls saw a bump up for Labor when Rudd took power, by Election Day, the full consequences of his actions became clear. Nevertheless, had he not done what he did, and left the calamitous Gillard in charge, Labor would have likely lost by an even wider margin!

This recent history of the party is well-documented, what is not so well discussed, is what lies ahead. Labor have been banished into the depths of opposition, but should not see this as a time to mourn and feel sorry for themselves, but as a chance to regroup and rebuild themselves as a united party. They now have the time to rebrand themselves and sell themselves to the population as a party to be trusted. They must cut ties with unpopular policies like the Carbon Tax, and refocus on their primary agenda; social justice. There is much that could be done to improve social security in Australia; enter the new Labor Party. What Labor should do is look to the Labour Party in Britain, which has used its time in opposition to cut all ties with their divisive time in power, and rebrand themselves as a party willing to stand up for the people, albeit drifting left in the process. Labor should learn from this example and use their time on the sidelines wisely, striking down Abbot when he lurches too far right, and standing up for traditional Labor voter values.

The 4 main areas they should target are healthcare, social security, education and immigration. First there is the issue of healthcare. There is free healthcare in Australia in the form of ‘Medicare’, and this commendable. However, the system is flawed. Hospitals are under-staffed, waiting lists are too long, and the level of care offered is questionable. For an OAP to get a public-funded heart operation, they are forced to wait up to 2 years, by which time it may be too late. The problems with Australian healthcare are costing lives, and it’s not like there isn’t the money around to fix them. Australia has a strong economy, and was perhaps the only western country not to be badly affected the economic crisis. Australia could afford to invest in their healthcare, to bring down waiting lists, to focus on prevention, and to improve care. A period of sustained health investment, reminiscent of Tony Blair’s second/third terms is necessary to solve the long term issues. Is Tony Abbot the man to do this? No. Would he ever do this? No. Enter the Labor Party. They could ride the wave of health care improvement into power, contrasting horror stories of the problems in the system with the potential utopia they would create.

Another area where there is major room for improvement is state-funded education. The issues there are large classrooms, low quality teaching, poor discipline and disappointing grades. Education requires an injection of state support, both financial and otherwise. Better teacher-training is required, smaller classrooms, and stricter punishments extolled on students and parents for absenteeism. Australia needs to use their impressive economic position to invest into public services and make the country a better place. And will Abbot do this? No. His only policy on education is to change the history curriculum from studying the atrocities the whites committed against the natives, to a look at white Australians European background. This would create a new generation of culturally narrow minded ignorant Australians. His policies still leave gaping holes where the system could be improved. Enter the Labor Party.

Next there is social security. One of the great things about the UK NHS is that it goes hand-in-hand with a caring social security culture in Britain, made up of free schooling for all, free school lunches for those who need it, state-funded pensions, unemployment benefits, disability benefits, parental benefits etc. Now in the UK you will hear lots of complaints of ‘dependency’, and there is no doubt that the system requires reform, but if you are an Aussie citizen in need, can you rely on the state to help you out? More to the point, can you rely on Abbot to help you out? No. This is where the sound-bite lies. ‘Abbot won’t help you, but we will’. Can you imagine the next Labor leader, whoever they may be, standing on a soapbox and exclaiming ‘Australia, we are here to help!’ Offer more benefits, offer more state assistance, and you will gain the favour of the people, Labor.

Finally, there is immigration. A major reason Abbot won the recent election was his strong stance on immigration. His policies of turning back illegal immigrants before the ships reached the shores made it seem like he prioritised the interests of Australians above foreigners, exactly what the people want. Now, turning immigrants away may be against historical Labor values, but with the rebrand focussing on social security, Labor could afford to tighten their grip on immigration, as it is a policy of populism, and necessary for electoral victory. Labor, do not feel that strict immigration is betraying your core voters, because if it goes hand-in-hand with investment in public services, it will be widely accepted and applauded.

All in all, Labor need to elect a strong social democrat as their next leader. They need to be both charismatic enough to challenge Abbot, and committed to improving public services and consequently Australian lives. If this is the case, we should see Labor return to power at the next election. That should be the future of the Australian Labor Party, but only time will tell.

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