The Guardian’s political editor, Katherine Murphy, recently observed that Scott Morrison and his band of merry ministers were recklessly ignoring the most pressing policy issues while making a pretence of being in opposition. Labor, the Morrisettes insist, is responsible for all the country’s woes, giving the impression that somehow Labor is still in power.
The issues that Morrison et al are ignoring include energy policy and climate change, water policy, the faltering domestic economy, the storm clouds gathering over the global economy, and mounting security threats as China asserts its power in the region and Donald Trump plunges from chaos into nihilism. It’s a cunning tactic for sure; but it means that good governance is being thrown out the window and cheap political expediency, and convenient obfuscations (lies) have become the pathological norm in everyday Australian politics. Labor must get out from under the boot that Katherine Murphy says Morrison has planted on its throat. It’s time for Labor to stand up.
The culture of ennui and self-pity engulfing the ALP since the election is giving far too many free kicks to the Morrison government. This is despite the fact that the Coalition that fudged its way back into government is bereft of a coherent policy agenda. Its prevailing narrative is defensiveness and fear-mongering. It threatens journalists and whistle blowers. It excuses its policy vacuum by blaming Labor’s past even as it enters its seventh year in government. Its leading figures daily bluster and pass the buck on just about every matter of public policy significance. It is led by a Prime Minister who specialises in smirking while ducking away from the truth, even as he parrots a version of politics drawn from glib advertising slogans and the shallowest form of theological thinking. Not for good reason is he acquiring the reputation for being Trump-lite.
The Morrison government is shaping up as the most fatuous, self-interested and complacent government since the Menzies era so brilliantly excoriated by the late Donald Horne in his ironically titled book, The Lucky Country. A sequel to that book accounting for the Morrison era could well be titled The Lazy Country.
It’s time for Labor to get over the election loss and to come out swinging with a clear policy narrative that addresses the concerns of voters who are increasingly alienated from their political representatives. They rightly see MPs as a class apart, feathering their own nests, ignoring the real crises affecting the majority of contemporary Australians. A new Labor narrative has to be bold, clear and simple. Its central theme has to be about “bringing the state back in” – that is, demonstrating clearly that if a healthy mixed economy is going to be allowed to flourish amidst a harmonious and cosmopolitan society, government must take the lead with a clearly articulated policy strategy.
This could be developed around four cardinal issues:
There is a crying need for a wide ranging and creative jobs creation strategy for the contemporary Australian economy. There are too many people who want to work in the cities and in the regions. Many of them are the victims of the worst kinds of reactionary responses to globalisation – for example, the wanton destruction (especially by the malevolently ideological Abbott and Hockey) of manufacturing industries. The jobs creation strategy must focus on new industries – for example, clean energy technologies.
Labor must recognise that such developments have to be carefully nurtured by governments. It would be useful for Labor to consider Japan’s industrial development policies during the 1960s and 1970s when government was absolutely central in creating an economy that for a time was “No.1” in the world (a status that collapsed as soon as Ronald Regan persuaded then Japanese PM Nakasone to adopt a ramp of destructive Reganomic neoliberal economic policies). It must also face the fact that so-called free market forces are inept, incoherent, and totally inefficient when it comes to building an economy that functions in the interests of everyone, not just in the interests of fat cat CEOs and off-shore share-holders.
At the centre of an effective jobs creation strategy there has to be a dynamic TAFE sector geared to training people to transition into the new industries being nurtured by government. The courses offered by the revived TAFE sector have to be free – part of a process of investing in people to help them transition to new work opportunities in order to become productive and secure citizens in an inclusive economy and society where they are treated with dignity. This means they will have to be paid sustainable allowances to undertake the necessary training programs.
(iii) Climate Change
This semester I have been teaching a third-year university class with nearly 100 enrolments on issues in contemporary Australian foreign policy. When discussing the issue of climate change what was striking is the white hot anger many of the students feel about the issue. They, and their age cohort in the wider community, many of whom share a similar anger, will be voting at the next election. Here is a major opportunity for Labor to take a principled and unambiguous stand on the matter. This would not only bring a significant proportion of younger voters on board, but maybe even have them stay on board. Moreover, as the latest Lowy Institute and ABC surveys have noted, they will be joined by many others out there in voter land. On its own, climate change could hand government to Labor, provided the party adopts a bold policy and holds fast to it.
(iv) Publicly Owned Bank
Labor has been astonishingly weak in its responses to the report of the Royal Commission into the Financial Sector. The prolonged corruption of the big banks still rankles vast numbers of voters. Now that the big four banks are refusing to pass on interest rate cuts to people with home loans provides fertile ground for Labor to come to understand that what people want is a publicly owned bank to compete with the bastards. This could be a stand-out issue for a social democratic party committed to “bringing the state back in.”
Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne