After our discussion on Friday evening, I thought I would write to you about some of the issues that we discussed, and I have enclosed a copy of some thoughts I put on paper, going back to 1992.
The Labor Party is a vehicle for progressive people to translate their ideas into reality. It is not an end in itself. At its best it is an inclusive organisation, an umbrella organisation that enables disparate, progressive ideas to be articulated and policy implemented.
The Labor Party is supported by a wide spectrum of political opinion but is broadly composed of two voter orientations:
• One is the traditional Labor voter whose political commitment revolves around equity issues. These people still represent the largest element of Labor support.
• The other area of support is from those whose political commitment flows from their concerns about quality of life issues. These include, among many other things, concern for law reform, consumer issues and, of course, the environment.
In the past 30 years, we have had to come to grips with the emergence of the quality of life voter (the post materialist voter). Whitlam was the first to pick up on these issues and the electoral success of the last Federal Labor government was dependent on maintaining the support of this group, while retaining the allegiance of the traditional Labor voter.
The swing away from us at the last federal election was predominantly from our traditional voters who were of the belief that Federal Labor was no longer representing their interests.
The problem of keeping the post-materialists
In Tasmania the problem of keeping the post materialists with the traditional materialist voter has been around a long time, aggravated by our voting system. It first appeared with the emergence of the United Tasmania Group associated with the save Pedder campaign. At this stage the Labor Party was very much in the camp of catering to the needs of the traditional voter and avoiding dealing with quality of life issues.
During the 1980s, the Labor Party in Tasmania lost support from both these areas for a number of reasons, but mostly it was because of the debate about the environment. Fairness voters left us because we didn’t seem to be sufficiently committed to jobs, and the quality of life voters left us because we didn’t seem to have sufficient commitment to environmental issues.
With the Franklin campaign the Labor Party split, with middle class Party members supporting an alternative to the Franklin Scheme, and the traditional supporters backing the flooding. The continuing pressure on the PLP eventually caused the replacement of Doug Lowe as Premier and he and Mary Willey crossed the floor to bring us down.
After 1983, the cynical use of the Tasmanian environmental conflict by the Federal Labor government increased its post materialist vote elsewhere in Australia while preventing the regrouping of Labor in Tasmania. While politics in Tasmania was defined on an environment—development spectrum we were racked by internal conflict and lack of direction.
Labor in Tasmania didn’t regroup until 1992. The catalysts were the Burnie dispute, the Department of Construction sackings and the GST, allowing traditional Labor voters to return to us to such a degree that we had the highest Labor vote in Australia at the 1993 Federal Election.
The high watermark for the Greens was during the Wesley Vale dispute. The 1989 election was held soon after this controversy and the Greens received a vote of 17.8% giving them five seats. In 1992 they received 13.2% and in 1996, 11%, of the vote.
The Greens now are fighting for survival and we are fighting for majority. Only in one electorate at the last election, in 1996, did their vote exceed a quota (12.5%). In all the others they were well below a quota. Remember, with a swing of 13% away from the governing party in February, they received none of it. Remember too, how many people said that the 13.2% they received in 1992 was their base vote.
There has to be a stark choice
At the next election there has to be a stark choice: A Liberal—Green minority; or a Labor majority. If people want a change of government they must have no choice but to vote Labor. Generally, Green supporters would see themselves as being more radical than the Labor party, yet their party is supporting the most ideological right wing budget in Tasmania’s recent political history. This is also why they can’t support the Liberals for four years, without alienating most of their support base. They have to maintain stable government, but differentiate themselves from the Liberals. Eventually they will have to turn on the Liberals.
Patience is a quality that we have to maintain if we are to reach the objective we set ourselves in 1992. We have the opportunity to gain support from groups who have supported the Greens in the past, but only if we remain united and committed. Witness the dilemma of the teachers and the hospital workers. With the University, these two areas are the pockets of biggest Green support.
From my part our positioning goes beyond the Labor Party as an organisation. The fundamental issue is whether or not a fragmented progressive movement can give more than short-term unstable government in this State.
Is it possible for such a configuration to have any more than short periods in government followed by long periods of conservative government? My view is that we can’t because the relationship between Greens and Labor is inherently unstable. The Greens can’t have Labor doing well otherwise they lose their vote base.
An additional problem is that the Greens are anathema to many traditional Labor voters. These voters are very sensitive to a change of political focus away from their core concerns. Given Tasmania’s economic situation the socio-economic voter orientation is going to become stronger over the current election cycle.
For us to say that we would govern in minority would be letting the potential Green voter off the hook. They then wouldn’t have to make the choice between a Labor or a Liberal government. It would also have the effect of diminishing our vote in traditional areas. It is not smart politics. Any debate would be very divisive within the Labor Party generally, and in the PLP specifically and would guarantee a hung parliament.
We need a five percent swing in Bass
We have to achieve a situation where progressive politics in Tasmania is united under one umbrella. It is only in this way that a sustainable long term progressive government is possible in the state. That means we have to have an inclusive tolerant political structure and a united public front. It also means that we have to keep our present political position on minority government.
I disagree with those who say that it is impossible for us to win majority government. In Braddon, Denison and in Franklin we have only a small swing needed to get an extra seat; less than a one percent swing in Braddon, a one percent swing in Denison and about two percent in Franklin. We need about a five percent swing in Bass or Lyons to get the fourth seat. If we can manage to keep the line on the Greens and get a reasonable swing from the Liberals we will win. The underlying economic circumstances in Tasmania, combined with budget cuts and the reality of a national Liberal Government in Canberra, give me reason to feel optimistic.
I don’t suppose I need to point out the dangers in destructive division debilitating the Labor Party.
If you have a different analysis I would like to hear it. Discussion at this level has been quite common in the PLP but not common outside it.
PS: The following notes give some indication of my thinking since 1992
Notes on politicis for future use, 17-7-’92
The public’s view of our relationship with the Greens will be a critical factor in their view of us at the time of the next election. It is something that we will have to confront. While it is too close to the last election to deal with it now; in the next 18 months we are going to have to.
The ‘deal with the greens’ and the quest for stability were obviously key factors in the vote at the last election.
There is no doubt that many ‘traditional’ Labor voters will not vote for us if we are seen to be ‘in bed’ with the Greens. This in turn will always prevent us getting to a position of dominance in Tasmanian politics for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, to get a majority vote from our present position will be extremely difficult. Many more pragmatic people would urge us to come to some accommodation with the Greens as the Liberals are the common enemy and should be defeated at any price; even if this is making some arrangement with the Greens.
These two positions have to be examined in some detail:
1: No arrangement with the Greens:
The Labor Party has to decide whether it is going to be the umbrella progressive party for this state. We lost 20% of the vote in 1982 and we have not regained it since because of the focus of politics during this time. The context of the Groom Government (division, lack of direction, and the financial objectives it has set itself) give Labor the opportunity to make huge inroads at the next election. On the other hand ‘green’ issues are less likely to be dominant because of the community consensus in relation to the land issue and the improbability of there being major federal intervention on the question of environment.
This will mean a lack of self-definition for the Greens and their having to move into our issues for them to retain a political profile. This has been the case, with them trying to get involved in industrial relations particularly. The other observation we can make about the Greens’ position is that they are very vulnerable electorally. In three seats at the last election their vote was less than a quota. In fact the electoral position is that the first three seats we get back are Green seats unless the Greens get a swing towards them. Indications so far show that their position has further weakened since the election.
Ironically with a bigger swing to labor the Liberals lose a seat and the Greens hold theirs. This is because Labor would have a surplus of a quota and it would enable a Green to be closer to a quota than a Liberal and therefore survive. The next position would be a seat taken by the Labor Party from both the Liberals and the Greens.
Given our low vote, from today’s vantage point, a win in our own right would seem unlikely. Putting ourselves in a position where we can win in our own right will be determined to a large extent by how we handle the issue of the Greens. If the party organisation makes a clear policy not to govern in a minority situation. and this is reaffirmed by the PLP, then the electorate will be very clear on this at the election time. This will leave Green voters with no doubt about their vote contributing to the continuation of a Liberal minority Government; or another election.
A slogan of “A vote for the Greens is a vote for the Liberals” or alternatively “A vote for the Greens will be a vote to keep the Liberals in office” come to mind. It will also signal to our traditional supporters that it is safe to vote Labor again because there will be no deals. If the pattern is as it looks at present, then this will mean staying out of government and leaving a minority Liberal government to govern. Under these circumstances they wouldn’t last very long. Any arrangement between Liberals and Greens would be much less tenable than with us. If there was another election the public would have to decide if they wanted Labor or Liberal . In these circumstances many more Green votes would be likely to go to us because we would be closer to them philosophically than the Liberals. If the past is any guide 80% of Green preferences go to Labor.
If this strategy is the one to be adopted then we would have to work very hard at appealing to the ‘green’ voter while not alienating our traditional voter — a difficult proposition, but not an impossible one. Peter Patmore’s work on examining voter orientation can be particularly helpful in determining the strategy.
2: Having an arrangement with the Greens:
From this viewpoint another hung parliament after the next election is the most likely outcome. If the overriding objective of a political party is the exercise of power then coming to grips with what the people want in a ballot is something that has to be seriously considered. If this is to be the course of action then the party organisation and the PLP must clearly spell this out prior to the election. There is no way that we can go into election with there being any misunderstanding either within the Party or in the community at large.
If the decision is reached on the principle then the terms of any arrangement need to be worked out prior to the election. From my discussions with the Greens, prior to the last election, they would want Cabinet representatives in proportion to their numbers in the Parliament. If they are consistent with their attitudes expressed in the past, at the same time they would not be prepared to adhere to Cabinet solidarity. This of course would make government difficult. The decision would have to be carefully sold in the electorate — in the Northern electorates it would be very difficult given the view of the Greens.
At the present time my position is unequivocally for the first option. The Labor Party can set itself up for a generation if the present Government continues to act in the way that they are now.
Our challenge is to do the organisational work to make sure that we have community support at sufficient depth to be in a position to lead the Tasmanian community. This will not be possible if we are seen to be dealing with the Greens. I for one am not prepared to deal with the Greens in general, and Christine Milne in particular, with the past experience in mind. The experience of minority governments in Australia is not good. Tasmania has to have a government that can lead not being subject to the type of behaviour that we experienced during our last stint.
If we are to succeed in my suggested strategy then it would be a great advantage to be ahead of the Liberals in the opinion polls by the next election. If we achieve this it will mean that the stability vote will in all likelihood flow to us. This vote will be critical in getting in sight of the target of governing in our own right. Intelligent hard work, a clear sense of purpose and a unified party are pre-requisites for this happening.