February 19, 2015

Labor must go boldly

By Nick Dyrenfurth
Bill Shorten can't expect a small target electoral strategy to prepare him for the challenges of government

What a difference 18 months make. The Coalition party-room is riven by permanent leadership speculation, and the mere mention of Malcolm Turnbull’s name provokes paroxysms of rage in the conservative commentariat. Policy is being made on the run. Tried and tested culture war sorties and national security chest-thumping have proved less effective than in the past. Did I mention that a Liberal backbencher proposed to replace “knights and dames” with “matehoods”? “One-term Tony” is no longer a tongue-in-cheek Labor catch-cry but a real possibility. And that’s assuming he lasts the distance.

Yet this is precisely the moment Labor ought to be most on notice. A change of leader or a sudden shift in political atmospherics, say, via a genuine national security event, may breathe fresh air into the electoral contest. Most importantly, now is the time to recognise that the Abbott government’s troubles, and those of the Rudd government, can be traced back to the wasted years both parties spent in opposition.

Even during the last days of Rome that were the Labor governments of 2013, it was clear that the hyper-partisan strategy and rhetoric employed by Tony Abbott to destroy two prime ministerships were fraught with risk. The effectiveness of his infamous three-word slogans belied a party that possessed no clear policy narrative – of what a Coalition government he led would look like in practice, apart from not the other mob. It is difficult to pinpoint a single piece of substantial Coalition policy work that was undertaken in nearly six years of opposition, or any serious critical reflection on the experiences of the Howard era.

Indeed, safe small-target strategies in opposition are an increasingly risky political proposition, with the potential to make incoming governments big targets. As Stephen Mills argues in his recent book, The Professionals: Strategy, Money and the Rise of the Political Campaigner in Australia: a successful head office campaign to win government is quite a different matter to successfully preparing to exercise power.

Not for a minute I am suggesting that Labor should pen an extensive big-target manifesto along the lines of Dr John Hewson’s infamous ‘Fightback’. The days of Gough Whitlam’s ‘The Program’ are long gone. Yet, for his own safety, Bill Shorten would be advised to run his own race rather than that of Labor HQ, and to go boldly.

Granted, Shorten began the year by calling for an Australian republic and indigenous constitutional recognition. Few votes, however, will be won on these issues. 

Rather, some time before the next election, Labor will need to talk about debt and deficits. Joe Hockey has recently discovered that addressing a structural deficit (created by his Liberal predecessor Peter Costello, rather than the Rudd/Gillard governments) requires more than mere rhetoric and folksy appearances on breakfast television. Yet because of its failure to explain Costello’s fiscal profligacy, and Rudd’s meek capitulation to Howard’s reckless tax cuts promised at the 2007 federal election, Labor is susceptible on the issue. This is to say nothing of Labor’s inability to explain the fiscal straitjacket of the post-GFC world or the previous government’s squandering of Australia’s once-in-a-generation resources boom. The example of Ed Miliband’s British Labour Party is instructive. For much of his tenure as opposition leader, Miliband studiously avoided the subject. In a crucial speech last September, Miliband failed to mention the £75 billion deficit whatsoever. Yet as the Tories edge closer to the lead in published opinion polls, it has become clear that British Labour’s lack of economic competence is a millstone around the party’s neck.

Ironically, Australian Labor is well placed to occupy the sensible middle-ground in this conversation. Vicious ideological budget measures masquerading as austerity are increasingly being rejected by electorates the world over. Fairness matters. Pretending that debt and deficits aren’t a problem in the public’s eye, however, is potentially fatal. Tough choices will confront whichever party fills the Treasury benches in coming years. A good start would be addressing superannuation tax concessions, which cost the budget bottom-line billions.

Silence now would almost certainly bedevil an incoming Labor government. The mantra “creating a fairer Australia” will not in and of itself cut it as Labor’s explanation of what it intends to do in government.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of 12 books spanning history, politics and children’s fiction, including Getting the BluesThe Write StuffA Little History of the Australian Labor PartyMateship: A Very Australian HistoryA New History of the AWU and All That’s Left


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