Back to the people
Bill Shorten has held Labor together, but the party is still ignoring what voters want

Recent opinion polls make grim reading for Labor strategists. Assuming they are accurate, next year Labor will suffer a repeat of the 2013 federal election, when the party endured its worst defeat in 80 years. Tuesday’s Newspoll showed the Coalition leading 53% to Labor’s 47% on a two-party-preferred basis. Labor’s primary vote sits on a miserable 33%. Bill Shorten’s preferred prime minister rating of 15% is dwarfed by Malcom Turnbull’s 64%.

Digest such numbers with a substantial pinch of salt. To compare Shorten’s ratings with those of former Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, as some commentators are wont to do, ignores the benefits of incumbency. Turnbull is enjoying an expected honeymoon magnified by the outpouring of national relief that accompanied Tony Abbott’s departure from the top job. Much of the media class is not subjecting the new prime minister to proper scrutiny. Turnbull has made few decisions and he is may not even deliver a budget before seeking re-election. Then there is the spectre of the Paris terrorist attacks.

The default position of critics is to blame Shorten. Yet the Labor leader has ably held together a badly fractured party. It is sizeable achievement to have seen off a first-term prime minister elected with a substantial majority. This response also misses the bigger picture. It’s the party, stupid! Most centre-left parties are struggling to define themselves in a political climate defined by free-market economic globalisation, declining union density and technological disruption. Centre-right parties govern across most of Europe. British Labour is a basket case. Like its social democratic cousins, Labor increasingly relies on a highly-professionalised elite. “Progressive” catchphrases tend to stress equality, fairness, diversity, accessibility and inclusivity, which struggle to resonate emotionally with voters.

This is a collective malaise that can’t be solved by switching leaders (again). The challenge is to make the party more representative and more responsive to the problems facing Australians. Consult, for example, a survey published by the Labor Herald, the party’s official online newspaper. Of the issues members nominated for potential discussion with a shadow cabinet minister, the environment and climate change ranked first for 23% of survey respondents. Next, on 16%, came immigration and asylum seekers. The economy was seventh, attracting only 7%. The budget interested just 5%, and national security finished last with 1%. Clearly, the priorities of Labor’s progressive, middle-class inner-city membership and of many MPs are completely at odds with the sensibilities and voting habits of the Australians who will decide the next election on the basis of the economy, the budget deficit, jobs, job security and wages, unauthorised immigration and national security.

This disconnect was highlighted by Tuesday’s announcement that Labor would increase the cost of a packet of cigarettes to $40 by 2020. Granted, there is evidence that such a policy will increase revenue and generate savings estimated at around $50 billion. Some smokers will quit. Shorten’s plan has a personal edge: both his parents smoked, to their detriment. Strategically, however, the policy is perplexing. Labor opposes the vague plans signalled by the Turnbull government to increase the rate of GST from 10% to 15%, and ending exemptions on fresh food and medical costs, owing to its regressive nature. But Labor’s policy is also regressive, in that it will disproportionately impact lower-income Australians, many of whom delivered the largest swings against the party in 2013. It also gives cover for Turnbull to increase tobacco taxes, but at a milder, politically acceptable rate. Then there is the implicit message sent to working Australians, part of a broader policy trend in Labor’s ranks: because of our fetish for “nudge theory” and behavioural economics, you must be told what to do. By the way, we have little to say about the disappearance of manufacturing jobs or growing insecure work.

Last week, the ABS reported that the growth of private sector wages had fallen to its lowest rate in 17 years, with nary a response from Labor. This isn’t to say Labor hasn’t produced good policies – Turnbull has cherry-picked many of Shorten’s best ideas – but that it lacks a central narrative that engages with the real economy.

The unfolding tragedy here is that Turnbull is not the messiah or even much of a naughty boy. His solutions rely on conventional state-driven economic liberalism. In the manner of his predecessors, Turnbull seeks to control from the centre. A belief that we live in the “most exciting times” is high-risk rhetoric in an age of economic and national security anxiety. The honeymoon will end. Labor must be ready when it does. It would be a disaster for the ALP, and Australia, if it wastes the talents of an intelligent, consultative and resilient leader.

Writing here earlier this year, I warned that Labor was sleepwalking to electoral disaster through its abject neglect of the debt and deficit, and economic management more generally. A sudden shift in political atmospherics, such as changing prime ministers, would change everything. The party’s July national conference subsequently focussed its policy attentions on a binding parliamentary vote on gay marriage, asylum seekers, Israel–Palestine and party reform, rather than crafting a strategy to win office by targeting swinging voters. Now the Turnbull-effect has kicked in. Labor has a matter of months to change course.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of seven books, including A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Mateship: A Very Australian History, A New History of the AWU and All That’s Left. Nick is an adjunct research fellow in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.

@dyrenfurth

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