May Day 2014 – fittingly the day of Neville Wran’s memorial service at Sydney Town Hall – may well turn out to be the day when the Labor Party began to see its way ahead. Not because of the event itself, although it certainly was a marvellous celebration of a great Labor era. But it was the day of the Shepherd Audit Report. It also happened to be the day when News Ltd bared its fangs and reminded the Abbott Government just who was calling the tune. I invite students of history to file away the Sydney Daily Telegraph on 1 May 2014 and its coverage of the Shepherd Audit next day. All its hatred of Labor was as feral as ever, but in page after page, the message to Abbott and Co was clear:
“It was us wot done it last year and we can do for you too if you don’t toe the line.”
But what is really important for Labor is that Abbott, Hockey and Murdoch, in fomenting this spurious crisis that is supposed to engulf Australia sometime in 2024 or 2034 have drawn up clear policy and political battle lines for the rest of the decade. They are surprisingly traditional lines along the distribution of wealth and the concentration of power, but they provide a basis for the restoration of a coherent two-party system, the mainstay of our parliamentary democracy. After the first week of May 2014, let us have none of this nonsense that there is no real difference between the major parties.
For the past eight months the whole operation has been designed to entrench three myths (1) that Labor wrecked the economy with a six-year spending spree, (2) that Australia is living wildly beyond its means because of outrageous extravagance in welfare, health and education, and (3) that the ‘productive’ sector is crippled by taxes and debt. There is a fourth myth behind all this – that the ruinous reality was covered up until the election and kept secret from everybody, including the international agencies who praised Australia’s recovery from the GFC, and even the editorial writer of the Australian Financial Review who as recently as 4 May wrote sensibly about the tasks and challenges facing ‘one of the world’s strongest economies’.
The Daily Telegraph on 1 May itself illustrates the hypocrisy in its page 3 story headed “Hey Joe, cut here instead of taxing us”. If any of the myths were true, why then did Abbott go into the campaign with his parental leave promise, when Labor’s fratricide had already guaranteed a huge coalition win? Since the election, the News Ltd commentators have portrayed the National Disability Scheme and Gonski on education as two glaring examples of Labor’s ‘mad’ excesses. In order to prevent these becoming election issues, Abbott signed up to them, while persisting with his parental leave proposal. Yet, the Daily Telegraph’s own list of cuts Joe should make costs NDIS at $1.563 billion in 2016-17 and Gonski at $1.120 billion in 2016-17. But the Abbott paid parental leave would cost, on the Daily Telegraph’s figures, $5.684 billion in 2016-17 – more than twice the NDIS and Gonski combined.
Of course you can do anything with figures. All these supposedly horrific projections are being bandied about without any context. What does it actually mean to predict that programs inherited from Labor would cost an extra $700 billion in 2050? The Federal Budget reached an astronomical 100 million pounds ($200 million) in 1939. Fighting the Second World War cost us a shocking one million pounds a day and today we are the children and grandchildren presumably burdened by Curtin and Chifley’s extravagance. By 1961 Arthur Calwell nearly won the election by calling for a deficit of 100 million pounds to end the intolerable unemployment level of less than 3%. Menzies denounced it as ‘wildly inflationary’ and ‘grossly irresponsible’. When he survived by one seat, Menzies promptly announced new spending measures costing 100 million pounds – the nominal figure for the entire Federal Budget barely thirty years previously!
The timing, circumstances and political intentions of the Shepherd Audit are guaranteed to nullify any objective economic merits it may have. Instead of a serious examination of the role of government in modern economies, it will be seen as a more sophisticated and therefore more menacing Australian version of the American Tea Party agenda. How far Hockey’s budget will follow News Ltd instructions and the Shepherd Audit Remains to be seen. But for years the Audit will stand as a blue-print for right wing aspirations for Australia – a kind of ‘black light on the hill’. If Labor can’t unite against this, around the development of new programs for growth and fair shares, and in defence of its fundamental achievements in health, welfare (including superannuation) and education, it won’t deserve to survive as the chief standard bearer of the progressive, liberal and egalitarian cause in Australia.
Graham Freudenberg AM (born 1934) is an Australian author and political speechwriter who worked in the Australian Labor Party for over forty years. He has written over a thousand speeches for several leaders of the Australian Labor Party at the NSW state and the federal level. These have included Arthur Calwell, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Neville Wran, Barrie Unsworth, Bob Carr and Simon Crean. In 1990 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of his service to journalism, to parliament and to politics. In 2005 he was inducted as a life member of the NSW ALP.
He is the author of four books to date: A Certain Grandeur – Gough Whitlam in Politics, Penguin 1977; A Cause for Power – the Centenary History of the NSW Labor Party, Australian Labor Party, 1991; A Figure of Speech (autobiography), John Wiley & Sons Australia, 2005; and Churchill and Australia, Pan Macmillan, 2008.