Federal politics

The aftermath
What is the lesson of Labor’s cautionary tale?

AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Almost all of the takes written in the immediate aftermath of an election result are wrong. It is too early for commentators to know anything beyond their own preconceptions, but the hack’s need for speed exists for a reason: already the name “Bill Shorten” feels consigned to the past. Perhaps it always did. But before his memory is submerged, weighted by criticisms, we should add a bouquet to the wreaths: Bill Shorten did everything he was supposed to do.

Social democratic parties are ailing all over the world, and Shorten applied all of the recommended prescriptions to those ailments: pro-worker policies, awkward left-nationalism, hawkishness on migration. None of it did any good. Labor outlined worker-centric policies on wages, services and closing tax loopholes for the wealthy. The party’s immigration offering – offshore processing and boat turnbacks – was not just right-wing, it was to the right of most major right-wing parties in Europe and North America. In the rare moments that Labor ran on woke issues, it did so quietly. These positions polled well enough that they were studied all over the world: in the United Kingdom, the centre-left New Statesman said that by “combining radical economics with patriotism, the party has made itself the favourite to win this May’s general election”. That supposedly winning formula has wound up as a cautionary tale.

But what is the tale’s moral? In war, victory is supposed to be shared by all, while defeat belongs to one alone. In politics, it is defeat that has a thousand fathers, all readily identified after the fact, by the same commentators who missed them all en route. Even by the standards of a blame orgy, it’s striking that two of the reasons most frequently mentioned are so speculative. Sizeable swings in coal country put the word “Adani” on everyone’s lips, and yet the ALP’s stated policy was to support the mine, to the chagrin of its Left. “Religious freedom” types harp on about the sacking of Israel Folau from the Wallabies, but this had nothing to do with Labor (and was of uncertain cut-through in league land). Bob Brown’s convoy to Queensland may have had more effect, but why it would hurt Labor while assisting the Greens?

These may well be part of the picture, things to mark down as forced rather than unforced errors, but they are only of tactical importance. The real issue is strategic, in a phenomenon that is found nearly everywhere (The Guardian’s study of it runs to forty countries): the decline of traditional social democratic parties, and the rise of the populist right. This is not as simple as a one-for-one trade, and it is a process that began decades ago, but what began as a reshuffle has become an outright reordering.

Some of the description of this change has been reductive, and resulted in false positives – The New York Times’s effort to paint Scott Morrison as a populist didn’t get much further than his occasional baseball cap – but it is the decisive factor not just in Australia but in two more recent elections in Europe and India, where the rhetoric was sometimes interchangeable. Narendra Modi’s Hindutva ideology shares the slogan “one nation”.

Locally, it was most cutting in Queensland and the Hunter, where One Nation and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party peeled first-preference votes straight off Labor’s column. The lesson is that populism does not need policies to operate. The United Australia Party was frequently referred to as “far right” throughout the campaign, but not by anyone who had examined its platform. Apart from some vague pro-mining and anti-Labor stances, most of the positions it recommended would not be out of step for the Greens. These were an afterthought for protest voters.

It would make more sense to call them postures rather than policies. One Nation seemed harmed in some places by a media sting, but in Queensland and the regions, the party’s shaky efforts to press on must have registered as endearingly embattled. The natural means of attacking right-wing populism is to discredit and mock it, but this has backfired. One of the most entrenched features of Trumpism is how it gives meaning to pre-existing suffering: soy farmers hammered by tariffs do not desert the president, they cling to him, willing to do their part for the nation, whatever the cost.

Australia’s new order is different, but in its own way even more extreme. Alex Turnbull and Simon Holmes à Court, both scions of the Liberal establishment, have joined the pinko industrial complex, while a former ALP leader has turned his coat to become a One Nation state senator. It’s hard to think of a comparable set of defections internationally.

But elsewhere the shift is in the same direction. All over the world, from regional New South Wales to East Germany to the American South and Midwest, the new set of proposed prescriptions is to listen, to empathise, to understand these problems, which is fair enough. But when the proposed solution is to tar an Other – elites, foreigners, migrants, Muslims – as the source of genuine problems, while rewarding the forces that cause them, this empathy or understanding has it limits. It is not returned, and as for listening, that stopped some time ago. Even if it were heard, I am not sure what counteroffer would change their minds.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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