A different audience, a different tune

The front lead in today’s Sydney Morning Herald is “Rudd ready to backflip on AWAs”. In the Australian Financial Review it’s “Rudd holds hard line on IR reform”. Whatever.

So I tutor a course called ‘Economics as a Social Science’. Today the topic for discussion is ‘Power in the economy’, an introduction to the institutionalists. I could not have come up with a better hypothetical case study. My question: How (the hell), when at last count 59% of people oppose WorkChoices (24% support), and when the party’s standing in the polls is largely a product of that opposition, is the Australian Labor Party having so much trouble committing to getting rid of it?

I think Rick Kuhn and Tom Bramble give a pretty good answer over at MR Zine:

The megaphoned message about fairness is directed at white and blue collar workers who make up about two thirds of the labour force.  Most are worried by the Howard Government’s industrial relations regime.  The electoral explanation of this tune is valid, but insufficient.

The tune that puts union officials in their place was played on the dog whistle because it might have alienated too many workers if broadcast at a lower pitch.  But Rudd, Gillard and their advisers hope that its shrill notes can be heard, despite the competing megaphone message, by small business owners worried about changes to unfair dismissal rules and the abolition of individual workplace agreements.  The logic here is electoral, but it reveals something deeper about the forces acting on and in the ALP.

The majestic cadences that convey the contribution of Labor’s approach to industrial relations to the national interest contain the specifics of the policy.  It cannot be understood in purely electoral terms.  Despite its inclusion of the megaphone theme, Rudd’s policies on relations between employers and employees reduced the impact of Labor’s best issue and damaged the ALP’s electoral prospects.  The Party’s popularity fell in the poll immediately following the announcement of the policy because it is WorkChoices Lite.

The other dayRudd refused to repeat on the radio statements he had made at the anti-Work Choices rally. Different tunes for different audiences. Now it seems Gillard and Rudd are playing good cop-bad cop. One message per speaker so as to avoid that embarrassment. Thus the mixed messages from this morning’s papers.

Published in: on 14 May, 2007 at 3:00 pm  Comments (10)  

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Did you read my lengthy discussion of their Trot BS on stoush.net? Seriously, the ALP’s game now must be to stay as marginally to the left of the Tories as possible to make sure they have the broad support of industry, media and swing voters in key marginals to take power.

  2. Hey Mark,

    Didn’t see that until just now. I agree with you that there is no such thing as a ‘dog whistle’ in this instance, and Labor keeps getting embarrassed with different groups with what it has said to other audiences – Rudd refusing to repeat on air what he said at a union rally being a perfect example. It’s impossible to keep the messages separate when whatever they say will be reported.

    But I do think Kuhn and Bramble are basically right about the tensions different social pressures put on Labor. As an organisation with a real base in the unions, and whose jump in the polls has been based on popular opposition to WorkChoices, it has to put an alternative. But as the left hand of the capitalist state, (and I only say ‘left’ because it spoils the metaphor to have two right hands) it sees the core of WorkChoices as actually a step in the right direction.

    A large section of the Labor ALP, including these anonymous front-benchers who keep getting quoted in the press, would be quite happy to be rid of the unions, and in fact find the whole extra-parliamentary dimension of the ALP an inconvenience at best. They see the ALP’s future essentially to be somewhere between the US Democrats and the UK Blairites. They believe the hype about ‘the knowledge economy’, ‘public-private partnerships’ etc., etc., etc.

    So I agree with Kuhn and Bramble that it is not all about electoralism: “It is a mistake to interpret Labor’s three different industrial relations melodies in purely electoral terms. They are better understood as products and indexes of the Labor Party’s material constitution. Pressures from and its connections with business and workers determine the basic form and content of the ALP’s policies and actions.”

  3. How do we interpret the ALP’s ‘material constitution’ if not in electoral terms? All the organisation is is an electoral formation, a front for the unions that became a cartel for the disciplining of the working class.

  4. What I (and I presume Kuhn and Bramble) mean is that there are pressures on the state besides electoral ones. Winning elections is only one part of what the ALP has to do – it then has to govern as the ruling party of the capitalist state. I’m sure you would agree that the power of capital is not based on how many votes it can mobilise.

  5. The power of capital is all over the place. However, I believe capital exerts itself on the ALP in certain determinate ways, which are largely electoral. The ALP is not going to win without considerable corporate campaign donations, friendly media coverage and a lack of pronouncements by business leaders proclaiming that a Labor government will see you unemployed and losing your house. Beyond that, there is some individual, Bob Carr-style corruption by the largesse of business, but basically the influence on the ALP is all about what the ALP need to get elected. Now, if the ALP were to be elected on a program that business couldn’t countenance, they’d fund an extra-parliamentary opposition, i.e. we’d have a fascist coup. But obviously, that’s bad for business in itself, so the current arrangement suits everyone best.

  6. “…if the ALP were to be elected on a program that business couldn’t countenance” – now that really is a hypothetical.

    Seriously, though, I think the party has more room to move than its leaders seem to want it to have. I see no reason why WorkChoices couldn’t be totally repealed, AWAs gone, the ALP being entirely electable and business just having to live with it. It’s not that threatening. So what is happening is quite disappointing, even if we don’t really expect much from Labor.

  7. Yes, the ALP could do that, agreed. The reason it won’t has a lot to do with the (lack of) strength and strategy of the union movement, which I will address very soon in a stoush post. As a choice from the top, though, it’s little more than rational, given that the unions have given themselves to Labor on a plate without stringent conditions attached, allowing business to do all the running in leveraging Labor. Now, were the ideology at the top of Labor different, then we might see more resistance to this, but Labor simply does not have an ideological basis for resisting the demands of the bourgeoisie, since from its class-collaborationist ideological perspective, the bourgeoisie and the working class have ultimately the same interests.

  8. just have to hope that the “jihad on business” will actually come to light…

  9. What, from someone who is ‘deliberately barren’?

  10. It is also a jihad on fertility . . .


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