The outcome of the super Saturday by-elections have settled the question of Bill Shorten’s leadership at least until after the next general election. Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership also seems secure, if for no other reason than the lack of plausible alternatives. Both are unpopular and the by-elections (and polls) suggest that the electorate is sick of the focus on the leadership challenges and three word slogans masquerading as policy.
The Coalition government is rightly criticised for having no coherent approach to policies; proposals are floated and then disappear if the public reaction is unfavourable; ministers are often caught out by swift changes of the message whether it be an increase in the GST or the dangers of eating out in Melbourne. Commitments to market purity sit uneasily with interventionist policies; the rhetoric of rights and freedoms contrasts with draconian legislation restricting scrutiny of security issues and removing access to proper legal processes. It is a government characterised by short-termism and shameless appeals to fear and prejudice – boats, “black gangs” or $100 legs of lamb. And it is prone to very public brawls over policy and personalities both within the factionless Liberal Party and between the Coalition partners.
Since it lost power in 2013 the ALP has shown considerable discipline. Bill Shorten’s poor performance in the polls has not produced any significant public criticism from within the party. Like the Hayden and Hawke ALP post-Whitlam, the memory of the damage the party did to itself seems to have focused the party’s mind on winning office and governing effectively.
In light of this one might ask why the ALP is not playing more to its strengths in both policies and personalities. The Labor front bench contains a number of people who served as ministers in the Rudd and Gillard governments. While those governments are remembered for leadership crises and some significant policy backdowns they did have real achievements. Rudd responded quickly and effectively to the financial crash in 2008; the Gillard government, despite being in a minority in both Houses implemented a significant legislative program. Thus the front bench does have a core of experienced people with a record of achievement in government and, in opposition, Jenny Macklin, Andrew Leigh, Penny Wong and others have driven serious policy development. By any measure, in terms of ability and experience they compare more than favourably with their opposite numbers in Government.
In the key area of economic policy and managing the public revenue the Coalition has squibbed serious change despite having a series of reports identifying areas in need of reform and a comprehensive blue print for a restructured tax system in the Henry review. The Labor Party has shown readiness to pursue genuine reform in some areas even where there is the potential for serious political cost – reform of negative gearing, capital gains tax, family trusts and superannuation, for example – although it has not yet committed to the thoroughgoing reform proposed by the Henry Report. Chris Bowen and Jim Chalmers, Shadow Treasurer and Finance Minister respectively, with Andrew Leigh as Shadow Assistant Treasurer, exhibit a degree of economic literacy certainly beyond the treasurer, Scott Morrison, and Bowen himself has spoken of wanting “… a mandate not just to govern but to reform”. Labor is also relaxed about subjecting its program to external scrutiny whether it be from the Parliamentary Budget Office or its own external costing review panel. In contrast Morrison has failed to develop a thoroughgoing fiscal reform program and struggles to explain the policies he is pursuing in any plausible way, relying instead on bluster and ad hominem attacks on his opponents.
In other areas Labor is similarly willing to stake out its positions. The shadow Foreign Minister, Penny Wong has made a number of speeches over many months setting out Labor’s approach to the rapidly changing international environment acknowledging that the Trump presidency, Chinese assertiveness, the increased flows of refugees, etc. have radically disrupted the international environment and outlining the approach Australia should take in response. Senator Wong has also demonstrated considerable skill in managing the Senate which will be a crucial role in any future government that is trying to implement a significant legislative program.
In contrast Julie Bishop, one of the government’s better public performers, has made little contribution to foreign policy debates and has been unable to prevent the downgrading of Australia’s foreign aid program. A recent speech at Chatham House while acknowledging U.S. disruption and unilateralism, had little to offer beyond generalities and a bit of flattery for Britain’s pretensions to a global role post-Brexit.
The ALP also has sound policies in those areas that are its traditional strengths – Health, Social Services and Education – that can also give prominence to some of its better performers, such as Tania Plibersek and Catherine King, who have the added advantage of being calm and measured at a time when the public seems to be over loud and bullying and resentful of dishonest scares.
Why then don’t we hear more of them? One explanation is the increasingly Presidential approach to party politics; thus whenever a senior Labor spokesman makes a significant speech it is often interpreted as a veiled criticism of Bill Shorten. The recent media hyperventilation over Anthony Albanese’s mild speech on relations between the ALP and business demonstrates the risk. A second consideration is that for much of the print and electronic media headline grabbing stories about leadership challenges, budget black holes, dodgy deals or scandalous behaviour are easier to produce and sell more papers or attract more clicks than serious analysis of serious speeches. Lastly, of course, while Labor has been almost courageous in putting out policy in some areas, in others, for example asylum seekers, it would rather keep its head down and let the government wear the opprobrium.
With leadership off the table for the time being, and recognising that Bill Shorten is not a vote winner, perhaps it would be a sensible strategy for the ALP to start playing to it’s strengths and giving more prominence to the front bench – a team’s captain doesn’t have to be the side’s most visible player.