Abbott Chases Working Votes Even Menzies Forgot

There’s a certain irony when Tony Abbott conjures up the ghost of Robert Menzies for his “forgotten families”.
Menzies’ forgotten people were the middle class. Where the Labor Party was sectarian – the unpretentious political arm of the union movement – Menzies’ non-Labor politics would represent everybody else. (The rich and powerful, Menzies reasonably suggested, could look after themselves.)
But it’s obvious in 2011 Abbott has shifted his focus to the traditionally working class segments of the population – not just Howard’s aspirational battlers, but dyed-in-the-wool union members. In other words, those whose political power Menzies sought to counter.
Addressing the state council of the Victorian Liberal Party over the weekend, the Opposition Leader stated “Let the message go out to our country from here in Melbourne, the manufacturing heart of our country, that we must be a country that continues to make things.”
This of course recalls the claim by Kevin Rudd during the 2007 election campaign he didn’t want to be “Prime Minister of a country that doesn’t make things anymore.”
With that line, Rudd offered a sop to Labor’s union base. His Industry Minister Kim Carr spoke of thumping tables in Detroit and Beijing to get better deals for Australian manufacturers, and abandoning the doctrine of “market fundamentalism” to arrest job losses in Australian factories.
The desire for Australia to “make things” is evocative. Abbott obviously knows who said it first, and who the phrase is intended to appeal to.
The Opposition Leader claimed in his speech “there can be no first world economy without a manufacturing industry”.
Sure, the context was carbon pricing, which the Coalition maintains will hollow out Australian industry. Defending an industry against a tax increase is not the same as advocating it be propped up with subsidies. When the slogan “Helping Families, Protecting Jobs” – displayed prominently at state council – the Coalition is referring, in part, to the possible consequences of an emissions trading scheme on employment.
Australian Workers’ Union boss Paul Howes has made it abundantly clear some unions are willing to help the Coalition to stop, or at least defang, the carbon tax.
But there’s more going on than just the building of an anti-carbon tax alliance.
After all, opposition to the Government’s carbon scheme does not explain the peculiar pride in Abbott’s budget reply speech of his support for stronger anti-dumping measures which, the Opposition Leader claimed, would “protect Australian industries from way-below-cost imports”.
Anti-dumping laws are pure protectionism. Boosting anti-dumping laws has no economic justification. Their only rationale is psychological – so manufacturers feel like they have a legal defence against cheap foreign products.
The Productivity Commission has found anti-dumping laws benefit a small number of industrial firms at the expense of all consumers.
And the only other major group which supports the extension of anti-dumping laws is the Australian Workers’ Union. The union’s ‘Don’t Dump on Australia’ campaign makes them unlikely allies with the Coalition. The AWU is being consistent. The Coalition is being opportunistic.
Nobody imagines Tony Abbott is a doctrinaire free marketeer.
The Coalition’s ‘Action Contract’, released in June last year, was in many ways typically Liberal – full of Menziesian references to small businesses and schools.
But the Action Contract was produced at a time when the Labor government was not so hopeless. It still seemed possible in 2010 the ALP might retain many of those who gave it victory in 2007. A year later it’s clear the ALP has lost the progressive vote to the Greens, and (with the carbon price) its industrial support looks shaky.
Hence Abbott sees opportunity for the Coalition. His regime of factory tours and shift in rhetoric suggest that if an election was held today, the Action Contract could have a substantially different hue. The Opposition Leader appears to believe the Coalition could win the hearts of Labor’s industrial left in the very near future.
But you can’t be everything to everyone.
As Phillip Coorey pointed out in Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald, the Coalition’s approach has also meant industrial relations – one of the few areas where Abbott personally supports serious market-orientated reform – has been put even further back on the shelf.
It would not do to alienate the AWU by recalling the ghost of WorkChoices when you’re working so well together.
This seems to be what Nick Minchin was getting at when he distinguished last week between populism and policy principle.
Much has been made of the rootlessness of the contemporary Labor Party. And the Coalition is reshaping its image in response to problems in the federal ALP.
But by chasing the votes of the industrial left, the Coalition risks abandoning its own base, and the affinity to economic liberalism which makes it distinctive.