Thursday, November 12, 2015

Today by Richard Cooke

Making progress
A failure to differentiate itself from the Liberals has left the ALP with little to sell


“My fellow progressive Australians, it seems most of us have fallen in love with a guy who is going to break our hearts.” That’s former New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally, writing in the Guardian. Her article is called ‘Progressive Australia's infatuation with Malcolm Turnbull will only end in heartbreak’. It’s a familiar lament, joining ‘Why Malcolm Turnbull is no progressive hero’, ‘Dear progressives: Malcolm Turnbull, really?’ and ‘Progressives, don't be fooled. Turnbull will rule from and for the big end of town’. You know the you-should-know-better category by now.

Sure enough, Keneally’s piece is a greatest-hits compilation. Turnbull might ride the train and talk about renewable energy, but Eric Abetz is still there somewhere, hiding under the leather jacket. There is a twist though – revealing the policy wolf in the sheep’s clothing, Keneally offers a very unusual list:

While we’ve been smiling benignly and giving the pollsters a wink and a nod every time they call, this guy has been out there extolling “harsh but necessary” border protection polices, contemplating a 15% tax on everything, cutting family support payments, and hawking an unfunded and undefined child care package.

The GST hike is still a twinkle in the Treasurer’s eye. Unfunded child care packages aren’t exactly progressive kryptonite. And the other two are Labor policies. Policies, in fact, initiated by Labor. It was Julia Gillard who first cut welfare payments to single mothers, shifting them from the family pension to the dole. Kevin Rudd didn’t describe his Pacific Solution redux as harsh – but he did call it “very hard-line”.

So of all the possible policy reasons progressives should shun Turnbull, a former Labor premier chooses two that don’t yet exist, and two that come from her own party. What kind of sales pitch is that? “Ignore those harsh-but-fair policies – come back to our ‘very hard-line’ ones instead”.

Keneally isn’t the only one making this weak appeal. Shadow Minister for Immigration Richard Marles specialises in phrases that unintentionally sum up the non-difference – asked about the horrendous scenario on Christmas Island (another death, riots), he told PM Agenda “We would be far more open about this situation than the government.” Unlikely to staunch a bleeding heart.

The ALP probably doesn’t need progressives to win the election (especially now that preference deals mean Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese serve at the pleasure of the Greens). But when it tries to court the left by decrying parts of its own legacy, it is failing one of the most basic tests of politics: product differentiation. Labor has spent two years offering the electorate a moderated version of the Abbott government, with Bill Shorten at its head. The electorate has now been offered a moderated version of the Abbott government, with Malcolm Turnbull at its head.

Whatever the meagre scraps left for the ALP in the aftermath of this dire strategy, they are growing thinner still. The prime minister is systematically picking the eyes out of his opponent’s better policies. Take a look at the ALP’s platform – investment in STEM, domestic violence funding, better gender representation, infrastructure spending, closing multinational tax avoidance loopholes, ending super tax concessions for high earners, and a renewable energy target. It’s not hard to see where Turnbull is getting his agenda from.

That leaves Bill Shorten with Hail Mary plays: the renewable target should be 50%, cigarettes should cost $40 a pack, the voting age should be lowered to 16. They feel like exaggerations, over-emphasised points of difference. Only a few months ago, Serious Reform commentators were lamenting hyper-partisanship and a Star Wars bar-scene Senate; now the two major parties are suddenly very similar indeed. And Bill Shorten’s singular selling point, that he is not Tony Abbott, is no longer enough. Because he is not Malcolm Turnbull, either.

There’s only one reason that all these opinion pieces exist. It’s that Malcolm Turnbull is better at persuading progressives to vote conservative than Bill Shorten is at persuading progressives to vote progressive. That seems harsh, but fair.


Today’s links

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 



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