Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Time to Get Out.

This isn’t an easy post to write. It involves implicit criticism of people who I like a lot, but it needs to be said.

Yesterday I chanced upon a recruiting stall for Notre Dame University’s ALP club. The stall was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, there was no picture of Kevin Rudd or any other ALP figure and nothing promoting the present government’s achievements. The only prominent picture was of Tony Abbot and the recruiting pitch seemed entirely negative. There was no “join us because we stand for these values” or “join us because this government is good”. The message, so far as I can tell, was entirely “join us to stop the bad things Abbot will do if elected.”
I’m no stranger to negative campaigning; I was an active member of the ALP in 1996, when a large part of the campaign message was based on fear of a hidden agenda which, the ALP claimed, a Howard government would implement. (Most of this fear, I should add, turned out to be quite justified.) Even then, however, a typical ALP stall featured a prominent picture of Paul Keating and/or the local ALP candidate and would have some positive material about what the ALP was doing.
The second thing of note was that, among the warnings which this ALP stall was giving about Abbot, one concerns his views on abortion. This is significant; another of my memories of the 1996 election, in the debate between Keating and Howard, the compare, Ray Martin, asked a question about abortion. Both Keating and Howard responded with their personal positions but both were at pains to stress that this is not a party issue and that MPs in both their parties were free to vote as their individual consciences dictated. Both men struck me as being at pains to downplay the issue as one that any voter should consider in voting for or against the government.
Up until now, that has been the accepted pattern. The liberal party has no position on abortion, the ALP, officially has a “pro-choice” policy but also makes clear that this policy is not binding on any member. Traditionally, when the issue did come up, both sides were content to do what Keating and Howard did in 1996; stress that it was a personal matter for each member and downplay it as an election issue.

This seems, on the ALP side, at least, to be changing. When Julia Gillard launched the “Women for Gillard” group, her speech made a point of stressing Abbot’s supposed opposition to abortion as a reason to vote for her (or at least as a reason not to make Abbot P.M. which amounted to the same thing.)
This has, or ought to have, implications for those faithful Catholics and other social conservatives remaining within the ALP. As I noted above, I used to be an ALP member. I am well aware that there are faithful Catholics and other pro-life individuals within the party. Many of these are people I respect; a few of them are good friends of mine. I came to the conclusion a while back that remaining in the ALP just wasn’t a viable plan for a faithful Catholic. I was, and still am convinced that the party was moving in a direction which would eventually lead to the remaining conservative elements in the party being squeezed out. I could understand, however, why many of my brethren in Christ thought otherwise and I respect those who have stood and fought within the party in a consistent manner. As I said, I have good friends in that group.
This election, however, I think the situation has changed dramatically. When Gillard gave her “Women for Gillard” speech, for the first time in living memory, abortion was being urged, by a leader of one political party, as reason for voting for the return of that party to government. How all the pro-lifers in Gillard’s cabinet did not immediately resign is simply beyond me.
If you are an ALP member and a faithful Catholic, or a pro-life person of any other kind, you need to be clear about this. You are no longer simply a member of a party which, on paper, has a pro-choice policy but, in practice, treats the issue as a matter of conscience, you are a member of a party which is making this a campaign issue and you are on the wrong side.
I understand the reluctance of ALP members to leave. For one thing, where will they go? The Greens are even worse on this and other such issues and I fully understand why they can’t stomach the liberal side. I think the DLP has at least the potential to be a real alternative, but I can understand why many are skeptical. Surely, however, staying in the ALP has lost credibility as an option.
PS. I’m aware that there are those who have doubts as to whether Tony Abbot still is as opposed to abortion as the ALP portrays him as being. I’ve avoided direct comment on that because it doesn’t seem directly relevant to the point of this post.
PPS. Some might respond that I am being unfair in treating a speech by someone who isn’t leader anymore and one poster by one university club as representative of the whole party. In partial response to this, I’ll say that this poster was put out by Australian Young Labor and seems to be part of a national campaign.
PPPS. If any pro-choice individuals read this post, it’s obviously not really directed at you. That said, I’d be curious to know how you feel about the pro-life individuals within the Gillard and now Rudd ministries.


  1. Good post! Agree with you, but I hope (perhaps naively) that more talk about abortion can at least make it a viable moral "issue" again rather than treating like a personal opinion.

  2. It isn't an issue at all nor a breach of Church teaching. This is because it is an issue outside of our control due to the majority in the general community who support the evil of abortion.

    It is the usual and the typically unthinking fundamentalist Catholics amongst us who raise this issue and hone in on the ALP and ignore the fact that the Coalition are not going to stop abortion funding and outlaw the clinics.
    It was Liberal State governments in several States that actually introduced abortion.

    Fundamentalist Catholics seem to forget the fundamentals they claim to uphold. Ie when a moral evil is outside of your control, you go tell others about who to vote for and which party to belong to. What a load of humbug. The bishops have reiterated this year that Catholics are as free as they have ever been to vote for the party they prefer; end of story. There were in the past a few bishops who coyly inferred along with a few mad parish priests that it was a mortal sin to vote ALP because of its "socialism" ( another lie against the ALP). Now it is the life issues ( more fundamentalist nonsense) because whoever wins an election allows anti life things to happen.

  3. Fratternally, thanks for you comments. You are quite mistaken, however, to say that I hone in on the ALP while ignoring the coalition. As several people who know me could tell you, I actually have quite a bit to say about the failures of the libs on this question.

    As for people having the right to vote for the party of their choice, I agree with you. I've never suggested it's a sin to vote for or even belong to the ALP, what I argue above is that it is imprudent and a losing stratergy.

    As for there being nothing we can do about it because the majority of societ is against us, that's true up to a point, but supporting a party which is publicly making the case for the other side on this issue can only make that problem worse.

  4. Jason, my belated response to your post. Sorry to take so long.

    Jason’s point seems to be this: When PM, Gillard gave a speech to a personal fan club that attacked Abbott because of his faith & alleged views on abortion. This particular bent (Abbott’s views on abortion) was used by the Notre Dame ALP Club at its recruiting stall recently. This must represent a systemic organised campaign endorsed by the ALP officialdom. Therefore any Catholics in the ALP must resign.
    So in responding to Jason, I want to answer these questions:
    1. Was the speech moral/correct?
    2. Did the speech encapsulate what the ALP is all about, at least now?
    3. Does the Gillard argument’s use by the Notre Dame ALP Club mean there is a systemic endorsed campaign by the ALP to attack Abbott’s views on abortion or his faith generally?
    4. Should, as a result of this incident, Catholic ALP members resign their membership?
    5. Perhaps the real crux: should Catholics be in the ALP at all?

    My response to each of these.
    1. Was the speech moral/correct? Clearly not. It was immoral for attacking a man on the grounds of his faith, & because of his alleged opposition to abortion. It was factually inaccurate, since Abbott’s Chief of Staff has earlier this year publicly emphasized that Abbott has the Clinton position on abortion (i.e. it should be “safe, legal & rare”). It was politically stupid: the next opinion poll showed a drop of support for the ALP amongst men of 7 percentage points (c.1 in 5 of the males who supported the ALP in the preceding poll) with no significant increase in the already dismal support for the ALP amongst women.
    2. Did the speech encapsulate what the ALP is all about, at least now? Well, no. The “Women for Gillard” movement was a very specialized (and ill-conceived) campaign gimmick very likely conceived by a small number of individuals, and intended to target a specific audience. Many Labor MPs immediately distanced themselves from the speech, some very publicly e.g. Ed Husic – an act that would have incurred some form of disciplinary action had the speech content been part of the “official” policy. It is true that Catholic MPs did not respond by resigning from Gillard’s Cabinet; instead they overwhelmingly supported a spill for the leadership, and then, by a narrower margin, dumped her. By any measure, replacing her is a far stronger and more effective act than walking away. It killed off “Women for Gillard”, and anything to do with it, in the most emphatic way possible. It never was a seismic shift in the ALP’s approach to abortion opponents, and certainly didn’t turn out that way.

  5. 3. Does the Gillard gimmick’s use by the Notre Dame ALP Club mean there is a systemic endorsed campaign by the ALP to attack Abbott’s views on abortion or his faith generally? Firstly, not having seen the stall myself, it is hard for me to say how much material genuinely attacked Abbott because of his views on abortion, or whether the material was more broadly attacking Abbott because of just how bad a PM he would be. I’ll go out on a limb and speculate that it probably didn’t. As negative as it sounds, Abbott has failed to track much support as an alternate PM in polls. He is rightly perceived by many people as feckless, callous and/or naïve, and captured by big business interests that still don’t get that the days of waging war against unions so they can grab as much for themselves as possible are over. Indeed, his “backflip” on abortion through his chief of staff of itself says something about his character, and (to borrow words) goes directly to his unsuitability to be PM. The ALP sees this perception as a weak point for the Coalition and so has been targeting it in campaigns.
    I could be wrong about my speculation about the Notre Dame ALP Club’s material. I certainly saw some electronic material during the dying days of the Gillard leadership that went close to the wind on this point (and complained about it), so I admit its possible existence. If the Notre Dame ALP Club were using such material, it would suggest they didn’t get the memo saying that the leadership had changed. Moreover, the campus of a Catholic university seems like the worst possible place to be running this sort of campaign material. But you have to remember that university Labor students’ clubs are not formal units of the ALP, and are run almost entirely by people under 21. They will occasionally make errors of judgment that aren’t the official position of the party they support.

  6. 4. Should, as a result of this incident, Catholic ALP members resign their membership? To answer this, you have to ask if the reason a Catholic may have joined the ALP in the first place been invalidated by this incident? The answer to this of course is No. Good and bad campaign gimmicks come and go, and rarely have a life beyond one election campaign (especially if they are bad). The form of campaign gimmicks is decided by campaign professionals largely independently of the content (policy) they are intended to sell. Of themselves, they don’t represent a change in policy, either for government or operationally. But even if they did, you have to ask: 1) does a policy on one matter invalidate the entire reason for being a member, and 2) would resigning change the policy? The answer to both these question is No. And therefore, the answer to whether Catholic ALP members should resign their membership is No.
    I hope the basis for saying No to 2) is evident enough: ALP policy is decided a party conferences and caucus meetings, more or less democratically. As an ALP member you have some influence over these. Once you resign, you have none. Indeed, if you leave because you didn’t have the numbers for one position, the effect is always to ensure the numbers shift in favour of the position you opposed.
    The basis for saying no to 1) requires a bit more explanation, and I do so in my response below to point 5.

  7. 5. Should Catholics be in the ALP at all? Whole books could (& should) be written about this. Suffice for here to say that the reasons Catholics can & in some cases should be ALP members goes to the purpose of the ALP in the first place, the ALP’s historic role in national life, & whether the ALP continues to fill that purpose and role. When shearers gathered under the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine in 1890 and formed the ALP in the wake of the failure of the Great Strikes (if Jason will pardon poetic flourishes), it wasn’t in order to legalise abortion or gay marriage – nothing could have been further from their minds. Nor was it (for at least the vast majority of participants) aimed at bringing about violent socialist revolution or a new shot in some imagined ongoing war between monarchist Christendom and the French Revolution, as some conservatives would have it. Rather it was recognition that the real need for a fairer redistribution of wealth, from those who had it to those whose labour had generated it, could not be achieved by militant tactics, and that non-violent parliamentary means through the formation of a political party was the way forward. Early supporters of the Labor Party such as Patrick Cardinal Moran, the leader of Australia’s Catholics at the time, recognized in the Labor Party a potential tool for bringing about the class cooperation called for by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum. Coupled with the developing arbitration system, parliament could become a forum for the representatives of classes to meet and work out ways to work together in a just way. The ALP continues to have this role and purpose because of the affiliation to it of most of Australia’s trade unions, which still represent up to 2 million Australians. These unions still continue to exercise a profound influence over the ALP’s policy and direction, and Catholic wage-earners, through their involvement in the ALP and the unions that represent them & their fellow wage-earners, can – and must – continue to contribute to this influence. In this way they can keep this model of class peace and cooperation alive, to the benefit of themselves as workers made in the image of God, the families that they are obliged to provide for, their fellow wage-earners, and the community they live in.
    Many of these unions, moreover, represent wage-earners in some of the most marginal situations in the Australian workforce. Even if you are relatively well-off then, and/or not a wage-earner, membership of the ALP allows you to stand in solidarity with the poor. When the ALP was founded, of course, the poor were not Other People to most of those involved. In our day, the work of the ALP since 1890 has ensured the vast majority of our society has been lifted up from anything that could be described as poverty. Nonetheless, the ALP remains the only party with a formal link to bodies composed of the less well-off. This cannot be said of the Greens, the DLP or any other party that claims to speak “for” the marginalized. An idiotic gimmick spruiked by people having idiotic moments doesn’t change that. It never has and it never will.