Right across the nation, Labor faces tough times. This was brought home to me daily while campaigning in the recent Queensland state election.
As I waited for a constituent to answer my call, I would check their electoral roll entry, to give me a starting point for our conversation.
Disturbingly, I noticed a knot in my stomach each time the constituent’s occupation was noted as plumber, mechanic, or some other trade.
This was not due to any personal discomfort with blue-collar blokes. Rather, past experience told me it was likely that the bloke I was approaching would be, at best, disillusioned with and, at worst, angrily opposed to Labor.
My stomach churned further on election day, as I watched young voters pull up to vote, and accept only LNP how to vote cards.
Both groups – blue-collar blokes and younger voters – were once rusted-on Labor voters. For now, we have lost them, and this is emblematic of a broader problem facing Labor as we rebuild: for now, we have lost the suburbs.
There is no doubt that a key reason for the Bligh Government’s defeat was that people wanted change.
But the results show another factor at play: the further the electorate from the Brisbane CBD, the bigger the swing against Labor. We now hold only four suburban seats and, once you cross the Brisbane River from South Brisbane, the next Labor seat you’ll reach is Rockhampton – over 600 kilometres to the north.
Given the scale of the defeat, it is entirely appropriate that Labor revamp our campaign and internal structures. Reforms to better connect our leadership with our branch membership are long overdue.
But there is an even more pressing demand: to look outwards, and reconnect with the broader community, especially in the suburbs.
I offer four suggestions:
1. Rebuild trust.
Success in politics requires getting people to listen to your argument, and then convincing them of its merits. Without trust, people will not listen to your argument, let alone be convinced.
Queensland Labor’s failure to have the public trust us with their future was founded on earlier events. Following the last state election, we privatised a number of state-owned assets without an explicit mandate to do so, and people never forgave us.
In one of her first acts as the new Queensland Opposition Leader, Annastacia Palaszczuk apologised for this. It was a crucial first step to regaining the public’s trust, but more is needed. We will only win that trust by laying out certain markers by which our word can be measured, and by meeting them.
Suburban voters, busy getting their kids to school and paying the bills, don’t want to hear the nuanced justifications politicians offer for changing our positions on key issues. They just want to see us do what we promise.
2. Develop an agenda with the suburbs at its centre.
It is well documented that Labor must bridge two core constituencies – inner city progressives and suburban/regional workers. I believe we can put forward an agenda that meets the aspirations of both.
I still think a good starting point is the age-old Labor value of ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to get ahead in life, regardless of their background. This notion is broad enough to encompass the progressive concerns of the inner city, but it can also be given meaning in the suburbs through practical policies that meet daily concerns. Labor has done it before.
The Whitlam Government offered the opportunity of a decent neighbourhood by funding suburban amenities like sewerage, kerbs and guttering. The Hawke-Keating Governments offered workers the opportunity of a secure retirement by introducing compulsory superannuation. The Rudd and Gillard Governments have offered the suburbs the opportunity of better connectedness, through the NBN. The Bligh Government did it by making a prep year of school and kindergarten more widely available in the suburbs.
We must continue to offer suburban voters opportunity through progressive policies on bread and butter concerns, like education, health care, childcare, transport and cost of living.
And big picture agendas, like ensuring Australia capitalises on the Asian Century, must be broken down to demonstrate the opportunities they provide to suburban families.
Winning back the suburbs does not require us to abandon our longstanding commitment to the environment and marginalised groups. It does, however, mean that our story must have the interests of the suburbs front and centre.
3. Develop an agenda for the new middle class.
Labor’s historic mission, in advocating for the unionised working class, should always remain paramount. However, it is no longer enough.
Recent market research by Essential Media revealed that 50 percent of people now see themselves as middle class, with only 34 percent seeing themselves as working class. You can’t win an election with 34 percent of the vote.
Ironically, this change is due to the success of the Hawke-Keating Government’s economic reforms. People once employed as tradespeople are now self-employed, and see themselves as businesspeople rather than workers.
However, Keating himself has noted Labor’s failure to reach out to the new economic class that his own government created. In a recent interview, Keating said that Labor ‘has created a new society and it has to be the party of the new society’.
One part of that new society is suburban small business owners. Labor traditionally sees small business as a conservative constituency, but if we fail to offer something to those working for themselves, we ignore their electoral strength, and the fact that they are a large proportion of today’s working people.
Prime Minister Gillard has reached out to small business by appointing a Small Business Commissioner, and we can do more, by offering support for entrepreneurship, tax incentives for SMEs taking on unemployed workers, and by connecting small suppliers to our burgeoning resources industry.
Just as we can’t choose between the inner city and the suburbs, we can’t choose the traditional working class or Keating’s ‘new society’ – we need both.
4. Active participation in community life.
A weekend trip around any suburban sports ground puts the lie to Margaret Thatcher’s claim that there is no such thing as society. The suburbs are full of people actively involved in sports clubs, school-based groups and seniors organisations.
Labor needs to become far more connected to this form of community life. It allows us to get to know people and their concerns on their home turf, and allows people to see that we are a movement that cares about them, not just a cynical vote-buying machine that is rolled out every three years.
In my area, Labor has taken steps toward this by hosting Clean Up Australia Day activities in suburban creeks, participating in local ANZAC Day ceremonies, and by sponsoring an ALP Shield Junior Rugby League competition. We need to do more of this.
The mutual benefits that arise can be seen by observing the activities of a group more associated with the political right – evangelical Christians.
Over recent years in my area, evangelicals have become active in welfare, business and political groups. They have done some great work for our community, but they have also built political capital along the way.
This capital is now being drawn on by the LNP – these days most LNP candidates in my area are evangelical Christians.
As the party committed to collective good, it makes sense for Labor to get more involved in suburban life, in partnership with trade unions and other progressive groups. By putting our money where our mouth is, we will make our communities stronger, build goodwill, and may even attract new supporters along the way.
After recent defeats around the country, there is ample reason for pessimism about Labor’s future. But with every challenge comes opportunity. We now have a once-in-a-generation chance to re-examine what Labor stands for and how we operate as a movement.
On the campaign trail, I met plenty of suburban voters who didn’t want to kill us off forever, but did want us to take stock and start speaking to them about their concerns.
We have taken steps toward this, but there is much more we can do. The suburbs are full of low and middle-income earners – Labor’s traditional supporters – and we owe it to them to show we’re on their side.
Besides, that way we’ll avoid that knot in the stomach the next time one of us phones an unsuspecting tradie.
Author: Murray Watt
Murray Watt was the Labor State Member for Everton from 2009-2012. Prior to his election, he served as Premier Anna Bligh’s Chief of Staff for over five years. He has also practised as an industrial lawyer