Many on the left in response to Labor’s rightward shift on asylum-seekers have argued that Labor is engaging in unnecessary panic. Eva Cox:
Is this just apathy or are the issues on the agenda in this particular election so far from what really matters to most of us that people are not bothering to switch on? One odd marker of this disconnect is the emphasis given to asylum seeker/population/immigration dog whistle efforts by the politicos and media. Expert poll readers claim it is not a major vote changer but it has become a hot media issue and obliging interviewees are ready to express probably quite genuine fears and anxieties displaced from other sources.
The Labor Party’s beating up the immigration issue is an over-reaction. Recall opposition leader John Howard’s fate after he suggested lowering Asian immigration in 1988. Electoral politics is not just a sliding left-right scale but also involve attitudes to authority and incumbency versus opposition. (Sorry to repeat self.) Most Australians have long been anti-immigration but governments in the past had the confidence to move the ground to topics that suited them. That’s what incumbency is for.
I am doubtful just because an issue rates low when voters are asked to specify issues of concern does not prevent it having a major impact on voting behaviour. Taxation was an example in 2007. The Asian immigration controversy of the 1980s was rather different. Conservatives since David Kemp in the late 1970s have emphasised working-class conservatism, they have engaged in much exaggeration and incorrectly predicted a new conservative ascendancy based on an opposition of the conservative masses to liberal elites. This was a wild overstatement (although great for annoying their political opponents) and Labor enjoyed a record 13 years in office a few years after Kemp first proposed his model. However in 1996 working-class voters shifted strongly against Labor and although Labor’s vote recovered in 1998 and 2001 the conservatives did well among working-class voters in 2004. Ian Watson in his refutation of the conservative working-class hypothesis in part battle a straw man they argue that working-class voters became electorally volatile rather than uniformly conservative. Yes they have but this is a significant change from the 1980s. Labor MPs can be prone to panic but are they guilty of massive electoral irrationality? In the long-run political competition will favour those with an ability to read the electoral landscape. Interesting parallel to capitalists left reformism has frequently argued that capitalists are short-termist and irrational, labourist underconsumptionism as analysed by Ric Kuhn was a major expression of this belief, but the Marxist argument was not that individual capitalists were irrational but that there was a systematic gap between individual and collective rationality. There are many problems with the contemporary ALP but a failure to win elections is not one of them.