April 13, 2022

Federal politics

Will the drover’s dog have his day?

By Russell Marks
Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese preparing for morning TV interviews on day 1 of the 2022 federal election campaign, in Launceston. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese prepares for morning TV interviews on day 1 of the 2022 federal election campaign, in Launceston. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Without a spirit of reform, Labor under Anthony Albanese is little more than Liberal-lite

“I’m Anthony Albanese,” says the Labor leader in his first election ad of what is already gearing up to be an excruciating six-week campaign. “Graduating in economics from Sydney Uni and serving six years as infrastructure minister taught me what makes our economy tick.” We can see what Labor is shooting for here – Albanese needs to simultaneously introduce himself to an electorate that still doesn’t know much about him and convince it he’s experienced in the right areas – but the strategy is more transparent than a Peppa Pig plot. To demonstrate his economic credentials, he goes on to talk about the economy in exactly the same way that Liberals talk about the economy, complete with debt panic and tax hostility. Albanese tells us he’ll “get spending under control so we can keep taxes low”, while also “making childcare cheaper”, “reducing power bills”, improving Medicare and even making TAFE free.

Tony Abbott also won an election – in 2013 – promising to lower taxes and government debt without cutting spending. It was an impossible promise then and it remains impossible now. Waldo was a wizard, but Albo is no magician. And he doesn’t have the momentum of Bob Hawke’s leadership in 1983, when a bitter Bill Hayden – whom Hawke replaced on the eve of the election that year – famously quipped that “a drover’s dog could lead the Labor Party to victory, the way the country is”. Yet Labor’s 2022 election strategy amounts to a conjuring trick: pretend to be Liberals and hope nobody notices they’re not.

It’s a strategy that stems from the dark days of 2019, when Bill Shorten led the party to an election promising genuine reform. Labor’s plan involved what The Age called “a comprehensive review of taxation and spending priorities”. A Shorten Labor government would have begun the massive repair job on Australia’s social safety net and its sense of national cohesion, both damaged by decades of middle-class and corporate welfare, neoliberal attacks on the very notions of progressive taxation and public debt, and the erection of so many bureaucratic barriers to social security that it was frankly amazing that anyone was still able to access it.

By 2019, Australia had become a country in which it is practically impossible to climb out of poverty and hardship. Labor’s reformers had convinced the party’s executive to take a stand, beginning with negative gearing, capital gains tax concessions and franking credits: policies that make the wealthy wealthier, but which make no sense while more than 100,000 people are homeless on any given night.

Polls, betting markets and newspaper endorsements gave Labor every reason to believe it would be elected three years ago. When that didn’t happen, the party had a choice. It could have doubled down, insisting that its reforms, while challenging to a middle class that had become comfortable with its own sense of entitlement, were necessary for the health of society and the nation. A difficult sell, yes, but one that three more years of principled leadership – of the kind that appeals to the better angels of our nature, as one prime minister used to say – might have achieved.

Instead, Labor immediately adopted the narrative of its opponents. The only interpretation of Labor’s unexpected loss was that the electorate had unequivocally rejected its reform agenda. A devastated Shorten resigned. The executive announced a review of its failed 2019 campaign, led by Jay Weatherill (a Labor scion who, as premier, had continued South Australia’s privatisation program and presided over its disastrous Transforming Health initiative) and Craig Emerson (who, since resigning from parliament in 2013, has “consulted” to the supermarket and fossil-fuel giants).

The Weatherill-Emerson review was an exercise in killing the spirit of reform in the Labor Party. Which is to say that it was used by the anti-reformers within the party to kill Shorten’s plan, and his legacy. Three years later, it’s instructive to return to what that review actually found. “Labor’s tax policies did not cost the Party the election,” Weatherill and Emerson concluded. “There is no compelling evidence [that] the election loss was an adverse reflection on Labor’s core values: improving the job opportunities, security and conditions of working Australians, fairness, non-discrimination on the basis of race, religion and gender, and care for the environment.”

Rather, Weatherill and Emerson found, Labor lost the election because it “did not settle on a persuasive strategy for winning the election”, because it “did not craft a simple narrative that unified its many policies”, because it “failed to campaign sufficiently and consistently on reasons to vote against the Coalition”, and because Bill Shorten was an unpopular leader. Yikes. If Labor is now going to the 2022 election with a persuasive strategy, a simple narrative, a campaign full of reasons to vote against the government and a popular leader, forgive me for having failed to notice.

Despite its own review’s finding that its tax policies weren’t responsible for its 2019 loss, Labor has famously ditched its commitment to reform Australia’s culture of middle-class and top-end-of-town welfare. Under Albanese, remember, Labor in 2019 voted for the Morrison government’s generation-busting, welfare-state-destroying, society-depleting Stage Three tax cuts, which will cost the nation nearly $184 billion over the next decade. The mammoth spending cuts that must follow will lock Australia into the kind of two-tier social structure evident across the United States. Despite the Weatherill-Emerson review’s insistence that the party must maintain its commitment to its core values, Labor has more than occasionally tried to be more right-wing than the Liberals, including, breathtakingly, on immigration policy, as when Kristina Keneally memorably used some very Howardesque language to claim that Peter Dutton had lost control of Australia’s borders at its airports. Labor’s current defence policy looks pretty much identical to the Liberal Party’s current defence policy.

Secure borders, lower debt, lower taxes. Labor is choosing to fight the 2022 election on ground controlled by the Liberal Party. It’s an approach that typically doesn’t work. Oppositions generally need to shift the ground, to redefine the terms of battle, to get the electorate focused on different issues. Borders, taxes and public debt are tired old problems. The new problems are inequality, crumbling social and public systems, rising interest rates in the context of low wages growth, and Australia’s staggering levels of household debt. Post-2019 Labor has few answers to these. It will deliver a federal integrity commission. But in a political system that rewards the institutional crooks and cretins determined to convert Australia into a mini United States, corruption is not the main issue.

When Labor won from Opposition in 1972, 1983 and 2007, it did so each time with a genuinely popular leader (Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd, respectively). Each time it also promised renewal, at least in spirit, notwithstanding Rudd’s promise of fiscal conservatism. Labor in 2022 looks nothing like these earlier iterations. Rather, Labor in 2022 looks remarkably like Labor in 1998 and 2001, when it was led by a likeable, smart leader – Kim Beazley – who consistently failed to spark the electorate despite John Howard’s initial unpopularity. Labor under Albanese is like Labor under Beazley or Simon Crean: it’s a bit, well, meh. (And at least Beazley opposed the GST.)

Labor may yet get up, if Scott Morrison is deemed so on the nose that a drover’s dog could defeat the government. And perhaps, like Hawke, Albanese will emerge as a major reformer after he’s elected PM. But the signs aren’t good in the first week of campaigning, with Labor rehashing the worst of Rudd’s GP “super clinics” policy and confirming it won’t move any further on the JobSeeker rate. There’s a difference between expressing anger about a problematic government to a polling company between elections, and actually switching your vote on election day to an Opposition that seems bereft of solutions. As the switched-off begin to switch on to federal politics over the next month and a half, they’ll discover that Labor is offering not much more than the status quo, under a leader who – for all his claimed economic know-how – could recite neither the unemployment rate nor the cash rate during a press conference in Tasmania on day one of the election campaign.

There are plenty of excellent reasons to not vote for the Morrison government in six weeks’ time. But are there enough reasons to vote for Labor?

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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