Witnessing the metamorphosis of his own party in the early 1970s, Kim Beazley Senior famously quipped: “When I joined the Labor Party, it contained the cream of the working class. But as I look about me now, all I see are the dregs of the middle class. When will you middle-class perverts stop using the Labor Party as a cultural spittoon?”
With much water under the bridge since the elder Beazley’s lament, it is heartening to see that some in Labor remain in touch with the party’s roots planted over a century ago by trade unionists inspired more by Methodism than Marxism. This Monday, The Australian reported that Senator Kimberley Kitching is attempting to launch a cross-party “Defence of Democratic Institutions” Parliamentary Friendship Group to champion “Judeo-Christian, liberal-democratic values”.
The Labor Senator for Victoria told The Australian she considered it part of her job to fight “smug elitism” and would seek to ensure the views of “inner-city elites” did not prevail over the “quiet wisdom of working people”. To Labor’s oft-forgotten blue-collar base in the outer suburbs and regions, this must be music to their ears. Senator Kitching understands that the concerns of this conservative working-class constituency for family, faith, community and a fair go in the workplace trump pre-occupations with identity politics and virtue-signalling on social media.
Historically, this conservative limb of the Labor Party has provided a welcome counterpoint to the socialist excesses of the Left during the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, in contrast to the radicalism besetting other state divisions, the dominance of the Catholic Right in NSW made the ALP eminently electable with Macquarie Street home to a succession of moderate Labor premiers during the Menzies years. Today, parliamentarians such as Kitching, Chris Ketter and Helen Polley – not to forget Senate deputy leader Don Farrell – can help neutralise the political correctness of inner-city technocrats with a reaffirmation of the down-to-earth working-class values that gave the Labor movement its inspiration and popular appeal.
Encouragingly, the awakening of centre-left parties to their historic base is not confined to Australia. In Britain, Lord Glasman has emerged as a champion of what is popularly known as “Blue Labour”, a socially conservative movement bearing the motto of “work, family, community”. Aiming to “put relationships and responsibility at the heart of British politics”, Blue Labour favours reliance on local communities over the centralised, bureaucratic welfare state for the provision of services.
In the United States, meanwhile, the “Blue Dog” Democrats pride themselves on being voices in Congress for fiscal restraint and social conservatism. In a party that they see as having drifted too far left, they remind their fellow Democrats of the need to keep faith with the aspirations and values of middle America.
With elements of the ALP and other centre-left parties pushing back against the march of the left, fresh opportunities for bipartisanship emerge as their interests converge with those of the centre-right. Despite obvious differences in philosophy and strategy, Labor and the Coalition alike draw historically from a common Judeo-Christian canon affirming the dignity and freedom of every individual, the importance of family and community, the limitations of state power, the intrinsic value of human labour, and compassion for the less fortunate.
Accordingly, the Labor Senator’s initiative to preserve such values has won plaudits from Liberals including Eric Abetz, Andrew Hastie and Craig Kelly with no doubt more to follow. In one sense, this should hardly be surprising as even the fiercest party loyalist would appreciate that the quest to recover the foundations of our society must transcend party lines. As The Australian editorialised, “there is far too little emphasis on issues and values that can unite our disparate political entities” in this era of hyper-partisanship.
While Australia’s major parties will have spirited disagreement on policies as diverse as taxation, public spending, social welfare and workplace reform, they can forge a remarkable degree of common ground when each appeal to their better angels. Senator Kitching’s welcome initiative appears to be attesting to this potential already.
David Furse-Roberts is a Research Fellow at the Menzies Research Centre.
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