Can Labor remain a winner simply by being less worse?

May 16, 2023
Government, BUDGET. Binder data finance report business with graph analysis in office.

It would be a fatal mistake for Labor to think that it represents the values and aspirations of its primary constituencies. It doesn’t. It is just that it misrepresents them slightly less than the coalition.

The federal budget was a success, the more so for ticking off some Labor boxes and reaching a surplus. The government can be taken to be much relieved. That’s not because it was particularly vulnerable, at least to criticism from the formal opposition, but because uncontrollable events, from here and abroad can derail the most careful strategies. What went down was all the better from the reset a week or so before budget day during which better than expected revenue forecasts allowed the immediate invention of some budget goodies, able to allow Treasurer Jim Chalmers to insist that the budget strategy was about making sure that those worst off got at least a little relief. The prime minister and he had, of course, always wanted to be seen to be doing something. But they had spent much of the budget preparation period fending off claims on the grounds that the economy, as they then knew it, simply couldn’t afford it. Or couldn’t afford anything much beyond its best efforts to meet some minimal election campaign promises.

Chalmers is lucid and persuasive and has earned and deserved more admiration and respect from Treasury professionals than any of his recent predecessors. The new gestures towards Medicare, the distribution of blankets and singlets to the young unemployed, greatcoats to those 30 years older, and the restoration of entitlements taken from single mothers by the last Labor government allowed the fashioning of a narrative about this all being what Labor was all about. So were some more conservative narratives, about the repayment of debt, the taking on of more ballast against the risk of international recession, and, of course, the coalition-cancelling national defence strategy of nuclear submarine acquisition some time in the future. But Chalmers has conspicuously not taken down the shutters, announced the arrival of spring, or fresh and original projects to move towards the Light on the Hill. Hill, hell. We still do not know in what direction it now lies, or whether we will know when we get there. Old rhetorical questions about whether we feel more secure, or well off, or settled (or housed!) than we were a decade or two ago tend to focus on material advancement. It’s an even bigger problem when the focus is on morale, on the spiritual and the sense of purpose and common goals. We are still, it seems, embattled, uncertain, careful and afraid of commitment.

Nothing could better exemplify this than modern Labor. It holds power throughout the mainland. All things being equal it looks likely to hold on to it, particularly at federal level, for a long time. That’s because of demographic change, and the fact that the Liberal Party is seriously out of touch with the thinking of most Australians, particularly women, younger people, and the educated. Willy nilly, but particularly because of the negligence and incompetence of Scott Morrison and his ministers, the coalition has surrendered moral ownership of “daddy issues” — political advantages it once held over Labor — particularly as to economic management and national security. If anything, the coalition is now at greater disadvantage on “mummy issues” where Labor has always tended to be ahead: health, education and welfare. A year of Labor’s miserable and mean-minded performance among its bases may have dulled the enthusiasm of many of its constituents – and perhaps made them look longingly leftwards. But it has not caused buyer’s remorse, or improvement in the opinion polls for the opposition.

It would be a fatal mistake for Labor to think that it represents the values and aspirations of its primary constituencies. It doesn’t. It is just that it misrepresents them slightly less than the coalition.

It goes without saying that supposed Labor policies and the values that its personalities, history and culture are said to represent resonate far more strongly among the new and growing demographics. But it would be a terrible stretch and possibly a fatal mistake for Labor to think that members of these groups think that Labor encapsulates them. And that, thus, these are the new loyal Labor voters, the quicker to become rusted on as they get used to preferring Labor goals and aspirations to those of the mean-minded old white Anglo men who dominate the councils of the Liberal Party. People who might almost be defined by climate change denialism, antipathy to multiculturalism and (in practice to Aborigines) hostility to same-sex marriage and gender politics.

Labor is not even close to being a good fit with the expressed views of most of those indicating that they prefer Labor to the Liberals in any two-party preferred split up. On matters such as climate change, Labor is seen only as marginally less worse than the coalition, seemingly committed to doing the least it can get away with. Its fear of being wedged has made it as reactionary and out-of-touch with women, professionals, better educated Australians, and young millennials and Gen-Xers on issues such as refugee rights, the acquisition of nuclear submarines, or instinctive hostility to China. This demographic is not particularly taken with the supposed war on terrorism, the development of the national security state, or the increasing intrusion of religion and religious zealots of American patrilines in mainstream politics. Nor are they enchanted by the increasing role of extremists and conspiracy theorists in the ranks.

One cynical way of putting it might be to say that for a good many of the emerging demographic, the Greens are a better fit than traditional Labor. Albanese, from an electorate where his main opposition comes from his left, is keenly aware of this, and devotes at least as much time to making war on the Greens as he does on what he once proclaimed as his major focus: fighting Tories. He actively looks for points of distinction with the Greens – particularly ones in which he can portray himself as pragmatic and somewhat middle-of-the-road, while he portrays Greens as ideological, and wildly impractical. He doesn’t mind their being seen as idealistic, but he paints them additionally as being unconcerned with and naïve about the juggling of priorities, especially with practical mainstream concerns of the population. Albanese does not disavow his old factional activism and background in the Left but shows that as prime minister and statesman, he can put his impulses aside to be cautious, sober, consultative and appreciative of all points of view.

The Greens may never displace Labor. But, on values, particularly on climate change and human rights, they are a better fit with the views of women, the better educated, professional, millennials and Gen Z – the groups that constitute the core of support for centre-left parties.

Nationally, the Greens win about one vote for every two that Labor gets, and their preferences come reliably to Labor. Labor could not hold office without them, and it is simply not true that Green voters have nowhere else to go. It is unlikely that the Greens can replace Labor as the major left-of-centre party, but it is not impossible. But increasing Labor candidates are losing inner-city votes to Green ones. The Green voters come from the new and increasingly dominating demographic. Labor is also vulnerable to independent candidates of progressive hue, fighting big-party candidates thought to have been imposed from outside the electorate. Labor’s own internal processes and organisation are not well adapted to fighting battles with the Greens. Inside Labor branches the average age of members is closer to 80 than 20, and even then, most of the minority under 50 are suits, careerists and branch-stackers, not imbued with sincere party spirit. Trade union representation in party councils is also hidebound and out of sympathy with the politics of inclusion, urgent action on climate change, human rights and social justice.

It’s a process not dissimilar to the way that Teals and independents, or people who might once have been comfortable members of moderate wings of the Liberal party are winning safe-coalition seats from Liberals, sometimes even the National Party. Almost invariably these moderates have views resembling Labor on matters such as climate change and integrity in government (and thus in clear distinction to the coalition). But, given the electorates, they see the need to project themselves as fiscal conservatives.

Labor’s prospects of winning such seats in its own right are slim, even as the Liberal Party continues to decline. Given that a seat for the Teals is a seat the coalition does not have, one might think that Labor would be at least passively supportive of Teal candidates, particularly on issues where they agree. In fact, Labor seems as concerned with creating points of difference, denying them much credit for advancing progressive policy initiatives, and seeking to undermine their branding as if it stood in opposition to Labor’s positions. Given Labor’s present House of Representatives majority, it can do all these things easily enough now. But it seems not to be thinking ahead. A time may come when they will need every crossbench vote they can muster. And Labor may well be miscalculating if they assume that Teal representation will decline after the high point of 2021, if only because Scott Morrison has disappeared from politics. From the viewpoint of Teals and their supporters, the rude and intolerant old white men’s club still exists and is still hostile to action on climate change and other middle-of-the-road causes. If Teals are not to win, other moderate independents, possibly more fundamentally hostile to Labor will.

I have commented before that Albanese seems to be rather more focused on governing for the benefit of the thin slice of the population moved to shift their vote from the coalition to Labor at the last election than for people who had always tended to vote Labor. No doubt he does not want such people to think that the governing party has suddenly gone mad or become (as the coalition always alleges) wild, profligate and irresponsible in its spending of money. That might help explain why it persists with the sense of siege, the pessimism, and the dour and tragic faces purporting to navigate as best they can in straitened times. It might encourage the belief that the new Labor is parsimonious by nature, even with its pet projects, and that it is never going to let itself forget the fundamental importance of keeping the engine room of the economy running, the promotion of small business and an entrepreneurial profit culture. Less a gang of Bolshevists threatening to shoot the royal family than loyal chapel folk seeing the virtues of austerity and personal initiative; in favour of community and collective self-help, but not if it creates disincentives for hard work, ambition and abstemiousness.

Albanese’s studied refusal to articulate a long-term vision, his Light on the Hill, or even his road map for getting there.

The most amazing, and the most troubling, aspect of Labor’s lack of, or loss of confidence and boldness is the studied refusal to articulate any sort of party or collective vision. Albanese and his ministers do very little thinking aloud, whether in their caucus, to the party at large, or to the population at large. Nor is there much in the way of iteration or reiteration of why Labor exists and how it sees the operation of power. Whether from lack of confidence in their own vision or fear of a public statement of their intentions, or the public’s ignorance of any considered and coherent plan or program, Labor is not reaching new supporters and ideas. He has a very bright ministry, almost all of whom can babble on about the minutiae of programs, but few of whom bother much to connect them with a broad plan or vision. Or to connect the reason, the rationale and the logic with emotion, will and a sense of urgency. Albanese should be wanting to excite and enthuse his followers, not calm them down.

It is true that Neville Wran, former premier of NSW, responded to calls for more vision and expression of principles by saying “if those greedy bastards out there wanted spiritualism, they’d join the fucking Hare Krishnas.” But he was of an age, and in company that constantly stated, and restated, Labor ideals and values, even when the practice fell short of the aspiration. Today’s dead silence appalls.

As the age, education and employment profiles of the general population change, Labor must re-invent itself to retain the support of those it needs to exercise power. If it doesn’t, it will wither, increasingly irrelevant to, and incapable of inspiring passion from, most Australians. It might be able to use focus groups to get fixes on the pre-occupations of voters, and market research companies and advertising agencies to find slogans that cut through. But it will be simply unable to inspire the best and the brightest women and men into wanting to make a better world. It will instead be full of plodders and managers, too timid to do anything bold or innovative, too scared for anything but incremental change. Labor needs leaders with insight and the imagination to use the tools of the modern age to redesign modern government, social justice and human relationships. Political parties are changing, just as concepts such as the family, the community and society. So are concepts of looking out for each other and looking after each other. It’s a conversation Labor must lead and not follow. Rather than using the budget as guidebook, Labor might be better consulting the phonebook.

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