ACTU President, Jennie George speaks on the 1996 federal election and why over half a million Australians changed their vote, what the lessons are for the movement and what needs to be done for the future.


The Hawke Keating era was the longest period of Labor in Government at a time when internationally conservative and right wing governments and ideologies were in ascendancy. That a social democratic Government survived as long as it did in a period of profound global change is something about which we should all be proud.


The Labor period of 1983 to 1993 carried with it two essential tenets. The economy was internationalizing – there was support for that and a belief that we needed domestically to ensure a greater degree of market sensitivity by such measures as competition and some privatisation. At the same time –


The social democratic tradition was not abandoned and was reflected in achievements like Medicare, Superannuation, Maternity Leave and allowances, family income support, active labour market programs, support for indigenous rights.


The irony of the last election was that while the editorialists were clamouring for greater and faster economic change, the public was looking for a change in Government precisely because they had experienced too much change.


The Labor Party lost the election essentially because :



  • we had been in power since 1983 and many thought ‘it was time’.




  • the 1993 election result had caused a false expectation and was against the trend.




  • the age of certainty was over.




  • the cumulative impact of economic restructuring and the growing inequalities finally caught up with the Labor Government.



In 1996 over half a million Australians changed their vote including a significant number of Labor’s traditional base, particularly among male voters.


We now have a situation where all 10 of the poorest electorates (based on the lowest median income) and 35 out of the 40 poorest electorates are held by the Coalition.


Why did this occur? What are the lessons for the movement? What needs to be done for the future?

Why The Backlash?

The post war consensus that underpinned our society, our economy and institutions and which provided citizens with a sense of security was put to the test as Australia became part of the globalised economy.


The world economy has undergone a dramatic transformation and in so doing globalisation has impeded the ability of national governments to manage their economy in the interests of their citizens without regard to these pressures.


The enormous mobility of capital around the world has promoted an international competition for business investment that has meant one nations policies are judged against the financial inducement and policy setting of other countries.


Global markets expect and promote a range of economic and social policy measures believed to be in their interests.


These include :



  • withdrawal of government from a range of activities traditionally undertaken by the public sector and the promotion of privatisation;




  • financial and trade liberalisation, with little regard for the structural adjustment costs that are borne by others;




  • cuts in public services;




  • deregulation of labour markets allowing so-called flexibility in wage setting;




  • microeconomic reform.



The ideological handmaiden of globalisation is economic rationalism – a doctrine which vests magical powers in private markets.


But of course the interests of those promoting the virtues of “the market” was too often at the expense of those needing protection from the impact of globalisation.


The post war security had gone, and no government and no society could stand aloof from the massive economic changes that came as a result of an increasingly globalised economy.


This process produced winners and losers. The losers in many cases unfortunately were from our own constituency.


Workers who lost jobs through downsizing, privatisation and tariff reductions.


Workers facing increasing job insecurity with many of them working longer hours or alternatively part of the secondary labour market in casual employment.


When working people looked around they saw growing inequality and unfairness. While criticised for pursuit of modest wage increases, the top end of town were becoming even more wealthy on their astronomical salary packages.


Despite the efforts of the Labor Government to ameliorate the negative impacts of the economic changes through social wage initiatives, the inequalities increased.


The worst excesses of economic rationalism were in fact pursued by conservative State Governments.


But in the general climate of economic insecurity, combined with changes in their communities and in society, peoples sense of security and well being was affected and was reflected in the voting at the election.


There was a perception that the Labor Government was out of touch with the consequences of its economic agenda.


Some of our people unfairly blamed the Government for changes that the Government alone could not withstand. But we must have got the balance wrong if we were seen as the promoters of change rather than as a movement protecting workers against the inequality and insecurity they were experiencing as the effects of globalisation took hold.


At the time of the 1996 election all the traditional economic indicators were looking good for Labor. Unemployment was falling, we were witnessing the longest period of sustained economic growth, productivity was high and low inflation had been locked in.


But the nature of economic growth was different to previous cycles of recovery and left too many feeling that they were not experiencing its benefits.


Why was this so?



  • the employment growth was predominantly in part time and casual work. Precarious forms of employment made people less secure.




  • youth unemployment remained very high and uncertainty about the future increased.




  • productivity increases led to job displacement in key sectors.




  • public sector employment was declining and with it a lot of career expectations were shattered.




  • the growing market income inequalities were more apparent and obvious.


What Are The Lessons That We Can Draw?

The electorate consists of a mass of citizens who vote in broad terms for the party which represents firstly their economic self interest and/or the party which reflects their transcendent personal values.


At the last election John Howard cleverly exploited the rhetoric of concern about “the battlers” and “the family” in a way which facilitated the realignment of the votes of many of our traditional constituents who were feeling economically insecure.


We must listen and act on their concerns.


However it will not be long before the Conservative’s real agenda becomes patently clear. The conservative assault on the pillars of the post war consensus goes much further, – as we are already witnessing in their systematic attack on the public sector, the award system, the social safety net, the promotion of individualism and the “blame the victims” mentality.


The pragmatism and dishonesty of their pre election policies are gradually unfolding.


In this climate we are well positioned to regain the confidence of workers but it has to be in the context of a Party that remains committed to fundamental beliefs and values.


It is more than ever important that the Labor Party reaffirms the basic principles and values that distinguish it as a social democratic party and not resile from “the big picture” approach.


Keating’s ‘big picture’ now as fashionably disparaged by some as it was once applauded, did provide a coherent and inspiring portrayal of social democracy in the 1990’s. None of Labor’s social policy achievements did us any harm and should never be abandoned.


The last thing we can afford is to be a movement or a Party whose ‘vision’ is based on whatever the opinion polls are saying.


Our policies need to blend the concerns of those who see material and physical security as their major priorities, with the concerns of the “post materialist generation” who currently look to the Greens and Democrats as parties representing their value systems and beliefs.


We should reject the view promoted by former ministers such as Gary Johns who suggest that Labor lost the election because it had been listening to “minorities” rather than the “mainstream”. It was not feminists nor Aboriginal advocates, nor environmentalists who were promoting the virtues of economic rationalism.


The campaign made little, if any effort to pursue women’s votes in 1996, unlike the 1993 campaign. And the coalition cleverly decided not to repeat John Hewson’s mistake of alienating community groups. Howard’s policies were dominated by reassurances that they would retain the structures and funding of programs put in place by former Labor Governments. The importance of these commitments appears to be confirmed by the findings of the 1996 Australian Election Study that over 80% of voters believe that equal opportunity policies for women were about right or had not gone far enough – almost twice as many thought such policies had not gone far enough as thought they had gone too far.


It was through the unions campaign that attention was focussed on the consequences of coalition industrial relations policy on women and warnings made about the shallow commitments in areas like childcare.


There is widespread concern and disillusionment among many women activists about Labor’s failure to promote female candidates in accordance with its stated policy objective that women should be preselected for 35% of winnable seats by 2002. The electorate does not have a difficulty in voting for female candidates as the two results in the Lindsay electorate clearly demonstrated. Furthermore, Cheryl Kernot almost doubled the national vote for the Australian Democrats. Four of the five Democrat Senators elected were women on platforms that promoted anti- privatisation and anti-competition policies and at the same time policies supportive of the rights of women and indigenous Australians.


In 1987 there was only a 4% percentage point difference in the proportions of men and women supporting Labor, less than half the comparable figure in 1967. At the time it appeared that the gender gap in voting would finally disappear, dropping to 2% in 1990. The gap has now opened up again. This poses a challenge for us next time around. If Labor had attracted the same proportion of support among women as it did among men in 1996, its first preference vote would have increased from 38.8% to 41.5%, which in a more closely-fought contest may have had a significant impact on the result.

Future Objectives

How do we draw strength from our fundamental values and beliefs in drawing up our vision for the future and in devising policies and programs that meet the needs of all citizens in a period of enormous technological, social and economic change? And how most importantly do we ameliorate the excesses of the market?


That is the essential challenge facing all activists, be they in the Party or the union movement.


Although our priorities and focus may diverge at different times in the period ahead, having a sense of a shared vision is to our mutual benefit.


The more people that are asked and involved, the more we debate and the more ideas that are tossed around, the more likely we are to come to collective solutions.


Here is my initial contribution to the formulation of our fundamental objectives.


1. To provide jobs and security in a period of profound economic and technological change and to guarantee all citizens a share of national economic gains.


2. To ensure decent living standards, fair wages and conditions together with appropriate industrial and social security safety nets. To support the rights of collective representation and collective bargaining.


4. To provide quality education for all and not access based on capacity to pay.


5. To support Medicare and a quality public health system.


6. To ensure governments maintain core responsibilities, including ownership where appropriate in areas with social impact (eg: communications, utilities, health and education).


7. To strengthen links between the individual and the community through the provision of public and community services, eg: childcare.


8. To promote national unity and tolerance while recognising and valuing our ethnic and cultural diversity and to foster the change to a Republic.


9. To protect the environment and ensure ecologically sustainable development.


10. To recognise and address the specific needs and problems of regional Australia through an appropriate application of industry policy and infrastructure programs.


11. To support decent retirement incomes and to also promote superannuation as an effective form of national savings that can be used in the national interest.


12. To support land rights and economic independence for indigenous Australians, programs aimed at redressing social disadvantage and reconciliation.


13. To ensure access and equity in civil and legal rights, the arts and leisure and information.


14. To promote a taxation system which is fair, progressive, based on wealth and which provides scope for hypothecated taxes.


These are exciting and challenging times for all of us in the Labour movement. In particular, it is a time in which young people like yourselves have a critical role to play in strengthening the base of our movement and in influencing the Labor Party’s future policies and directions. The changes in higher education are a case study in the real values and beliefs of the conservatives. Education only for those who can afford to pay! We can’t afford to have the clock turned back in a way which destroys the collective achievements of the Labour movement and the progressive reforms of Labor Governments since 1983.


We look to younger people to provide the energy, activism, enthusiasm and commitment which is so important to the future of the labour movement. We have to draw the lessons from the past, but most importantly plan and act for the future.