Labor isn’t working

The party's historic machinery – its support from the trade union movement and its factional networks – is collapsing.

Julia Gillard. Photograph: Getty Images

It’s Monday morning and news radio and TV is playing the Pet Shop Boys’ 1993 hit “Go West” on repeat, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard unofficially launches the 2013 Australian election campaign with her five-day trip to Western Sydney.

This traffic-choked electoral battleground is as much an idea as a place; you won’t find it on a map. Western Sydney is a sprawling zone of jostling nationalities, soul-crushing city commutes and marginal seats. And it has become the kick-off point for the longest election campaign in federal Australia’s history. The Novotel Rooty Hill was never meant for this.

But Gillard’s visit masks a deeper truth. The venerable, 112-year-old Australian Labor Party, source of the world’s first elected socialist government and the party that Gillard leads, is currently in danger of falling apart.

A traditional campaign of, say, four to six weeks is unlikely to give the government time to make up the numbers, so badly is it polling. The long runup to the 14 September vote is at least in part designed to give Labor time to turn this around and to give the gaffe-prone opposition leader, Tony Abbott of the Liberal Party, space to make his own mistakes. Hardly a sign of confidence in Labor and its policies.

The reasons for this are many. In November last year the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) began hearings into the property and mining interests of the former Labor powerbroker and New South Wales state government minister Eddie Obeid. The role of the NSW factions as defining forces in the federal party’s character have become increasingly prominent and Obeid’s so-called Terrigal faction (after the town on the NSW coast where it was established) is at the centre of the ICAC investigations.

Then there are the graft allegations involving the former federal politician Craig Thomson (who now sits as an independent), which have been gnawing away at the government over the past year. Other, more direct political concerns abound: the carbon pricing scheme, the mineral resources rent tax and the failed budget surplus. But as well as these current challenges, Labor has its history to contend with as well.

The Australian Labor Party has shown a propensity to self-destruct while in power. For instance, a government loan scandal and the extramarital affair of a high-ranking minister undermined the Gough Whitlam government in the 1970s, and Kevin Rudd’s spell as prime minister, from 2007 to 2010, was ended abruptly by Gillard’s own palace coup. The right-wing Liberal- National Coalition simply hasn’t displayed the same lack of discipline in power.

Moreover, Labor’s old union-based foundations have all but caved in. According to a recent census, union membership for men has dropped from 43 per cent of the total workforce in 1992 to 18 per cent in 2011. For women, it dropped from 35 per cent to 18 per cent. Just 13 per cent of the private-sector workforce is unionised.

Labor’s historic machinery – its support from the trade union movement and its factional networks – is collapsing. When you factor in an ability to squander power when it’s won, the party looks increasingly unelectable.

Political weaknesses may lead to defeat at the September election, but these deeper problems may well leave the party itself struggling to recover.