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.