Divide over Labor’s (lack of) ambition

May 3, 2023
Beautiful cityscape from Lake Burley Griffin at dusk, at Commonwealth Bridge, from City Centre towards the Parliament House Canberra, Australia.

There is a growing divide between voters, who according to the polls are increasingly favourable to the Albanese Labor Government, and media commentators, who are increasingly expressing disillusionment with that government. Next week’s budget may bring their sentiments closer together, though probably not.

The Government is now well beyond its honeymoon period. Almost a year after the election, the polls are showing that the gap between the Labor Government and the Liberal-National Party Opposition is growing. While this may be due at least in part to the ineptitude of the Opposition leadership, the fact is that support for Labor is actually increasing. At the election Labor enjoyed a bare 51 per cent share of the two-party preferred vote. The peak honeymoon vote (August-October) was 54 per cent while currently its up to 55 per cent.

But the commentariat is unhappy. In the New Daily, under the heading ‘Something strange and sad is happening to the Labor Party’, Alan Kohler complained: ‘But really, has there ever been a Labor government so bereft of policy ambition. Relief, repair, restraint. Really?’

Tim Colebatch in Inside Story wrote, ‘Across the board, (Labor’s) problem is that as the traditional party of social justice it has raised expectations it has no plans to meet. By camping in the middle ground, it leaves its traditional radical base looking for an alternative.’

These sentiments are widespread through the media. Labor is a disappointment because it isn’t doing what commentators – or voters – expect it to do. It is not delivering social justice initiatives. It hasn’t done away with the tax benefits for the well-off that don’t come into effect for another year or so, it isn’t helping the unemployed or lifting pensions generally.

The problem is, they acknowledge, that basically Labor is sticking to the minimalist policies it took to the last election. Its not breaking any promises. Rather its not doing what they hoped it might do, but what it deliberately did not promise that it would do.

The expectation apparently, was that Labor had a secret agenda that it would reveal or put into effect once it took over the Treasury benches in Canberra. Surely it must have wanted to do more than the bare minimum it made public during the election?

Well, maybe. We will know more when the budget is revealed gradually during this week and on Tuesday night next week. There are bound to be some concessions for those who are most in need.

But the Prime Minister has had one firm goal since he took office and that is to win a second term when he would be in a better position to deliver on those unpromised (so far) social welfare and other benefits that commentators expect from Labor. That would make achieving a third term a definite possibility.

That said, the Prime Minister has begun work on delivering significant improvements in two absolutely vital areas that are central to Labor’s social policy platform – the national health system including Medicare and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Those goals cannot be achieved by the national government without the active co-operation of the States and Territories. Australia remains a federal nation, with constitutional and governmental power divided between the Commonwealth and the States. Over the past half century more and more power has moved to the central government, but the States are still important repositories of power in many areas.

One such area is health, where the Commonwealth’s constitutional power is very restricted. It is limited to providing ‘pharmaceutical, sickness and hospital benefits, medical and dental services (but not so as to authorise any form of civil conscription’) The constitution, s. 51(xxiiiA).

As for the power to set limits on housing rents or to regulate them, there is nothing to find in the Constitution. Which is why at the end of the National Cabinet the Prime Minister pointed out that the various States and Territories had set their own individual rules. They might talk about achieving some uniformity, but the Commonwealth certainly cannot impose it – no matter what the Greens believe.

It is true that the Commonwealth can use its power to make conditional financial grants to the States to try to persuade them to adopt its policies. But there are limits to how effective this financial carrot can be.

This fundamental lesson about our federal Constitution was driven home during the Covid epidemic. When the National Cabinet could reach consensus, good policies could be adopted and implemented. In the absence of agreement and good will, the Federal Government lacked the capacity to progress its own policies.

Health services and the NDIS are two areas where the Commonwealth lacks the constitutional power to give full effect to any policies that it might adopt. The cooperation of the States is absolutely essential if the enormous problems in those areas are to be overcome. This has been recognised, accepted and acted upon by the Prime Minister. Last week’s National Cabinet meeting was the first real step in trying to resolve them.

Meanwhile it is important to note that while in the past week a few Labor backbenchers have publicly argued for increased social security payments, the Albanese government has been remarkably united. Leaks don’t seem to happen. If there are dissenting Ministers over policy decisions they don’t let it be known publicly. That is the sign of a very healthy government, even if it is one which for the moment chooses to restrict its policy ambitions.

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