One of the numerous ways in which Australia's mass media has cheapened, simplified and distorted our political process is by conceptualising political parties as 'brands'. It is sadly a rare occurrence to hear party members talk deeply about vision, values and political philosophy (even if they use those words in tired clichés). Instead politicians are encouraged to present themselves as ambassadors of a product and the public is coached into viewing the parties as different products in the marketplace. Reporters will not ask whether a policy is consistent with the party philosophy or if it signals a shift. Rather, they will ask if a certain policy has helped or damaged the party brand. If we are to accept this unfortunate new orthodoxy then we must concede the Labor brand is doing poorly.
Describing the Labor brand as being 'on the nose' has become so common it is amazing no one has thought to copyright the phrase. A quick google search reveals it is one of the most common catch cries doing the parliamentary rounds. Labor, of course, have gone out of their way to make this marvellous metaphor a success. Recently setting records in Queensland and New South Wales for crushing electoral defeats, the brand is clearly unpopular.
Federal Labor must shoulder the blame for the party's distinct unpopularity. The removal of a new prime minister after a landslide victory following a decade in opposition is absolute political hubris. They had 11 years of Howard government to get to know Kevin. To knife him in his first term claiming they had no idea he was such a dictatorial tyrant is simply ridiculous – and the public have been fittingly unforgiving. The public made their voice heard in the clearest possible terms during the recent leadership challenge and they were ignored. With a well-earned perception of instability and untrustworthiness, the Labor brand is indeed damaged goods at the moment.
It is times like these I need to remind myself that Labor is not a brand or a product, it is a philosophy and a set of values. It is a revolutionary ideal that shone out of the late nineteenth century boldly promoting the value and dignity of the working class. It is times like this that I remember the fight for the 8 hour work day, the great union strikes, the Harvester Judgement and all the other noble battles fought by the labour movement to achieve equality, dignity and a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. I remember with pride that Australia had the first Labor government in the world and I smile imagining the indignant tories who cried out to the Speaker in 1904 'what are these common men doing in our seats?' From Andrew Fisher's pioneering legislative program to Curtin and Chifley's heroic wartime protection and rebuilding of our country, from Whitlam hammering the final nail in White Australia to Hawke and Keating modernising the economy, Labor has a long, proud tradition of doing the right thing for average, working Australians.
Labor's leaders, of course, have made mistakes. Even the greatest of them have shown poor judgement at times but Labor is more than a brand and it is far more than the people who might be leading it at any one time. In football culture, fans, managers and players are regularly reminded that the club is more important than any individual. We need to think of Labor the same way. The party has been around for over a century and it will be around long after any of us are gone. The challenge for Labor members and supporters is to think of ourselves, not as the owners, but the custodians of a noble ideal – the light on the hill. In Chifley's immortal words, we exist as a movement, not simply to put a few extra bob in the workers' pay packet or to make someone prime minister but to elevate the status and dignity of working people everywhere.
Labor is far from perfect. The utopian left will say it does not go far enough on progressive issues and abandon it. The conservative right will condemn any socialist policies (no matter how watered down). Be that as it may, Labor's record speaks for itself. Of the major parties, Labor has consistently been the one to promote workers' rights, to seek social justice, to take a progressive stance and to champion the average Australian. It is a party I will always be proud to serve.
There can be little doubt that the Australian Labor Party desperately needs a serious period of self-reflection. Queensland and NSW Labor will not return to government seats soon and it is more than likely that a lengthy period of opposition will soon befall federal Labor also. When a brand or product loses public appeal, it is discontinued and abandoned but Labor is much more than this. It is a set of principles that encapsulate the essence of Australian egalitarianism. It is a noble ideal that proclaims the worker is worthy of his wages. The Labor Party can and will return from its political woes but it must remember and embrace the principles for which it has always stood; the protection of working Australians, the advancement of progressive, equitable policies and the enforcement of regulation to ensure national prosperity spreads to all, not just the elite. This is the soul of a party I always support. To any disgruntled Labor supporters, I urge you, do not abandon the party, take control of it. Join your local branch, go to the meetings and be the change you want to see. Let's demand our party back and be part of the solution not the problem.
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