JAMES BUTTON. The ALP Federal Conference.

Dec 22, 2018

It looks like the times will suit Bill Shorten. Voters don’t love him, yet in a year in which the feral rump of the Liberal Party hopelessly botched a coup that felled a Prime Minister but failed to install his self-anointed successor, by-election after by-election and poll after poll showed Shorten’s party poised to take power.  

This week the ALP held its triennial National Conference in Adelaide. The Morrison Government tried to upstage the opening day by announcing good economic news, only to be upended by a magazine expose of an oversexed, underachieving member in the government’s own ranks. “We’re into big ideas, they’re in New Idea,” said Shorten’s deputy, Tanya Plibersek. Labor is in one of those rarest moments in politics, when everything goes right. That presents it with a potentially historic opportunity — and a danger.

With an election only months away, the tight stage-management of conference was no surprise. In three days of public debate over the party platform – if debate is not too robust a word — just one issue was taken to a contest, when the Left faction’s push to introduce a Charter of Human Rights lost by just three votes. Earlier, the Left had moved that asylum seekers who had been subject to the Coalition’s fast-track and probably flawed refugee determination process be given a second chance to have their claims heard. But when National President Wayne Swan declared the amendment lost on the voices, the Left did not insist on a count, though it was clear that a vote would be very close. At the 2015 conference Left and Right argued furiously over asylum seeker turnbacks. In 2018 no one rocked the boat.

Yet it would be wrong to say that nothing substantial came out of the conference. The policies announced or confirmed in Adelaide are big on ambition. In his opening address, Shorten committed his government to subsidise the building of 250,000 homes for low- and middle-income earners over 10 years. Labor promised to fund 15 hours a week of subsidised preschool for every three-year old, a potentially far-reaching reform in the light of emerging evidence about what high-quality early education can do for young brains, and for equalising children’s life chances.

There were new funds for schools and TAFE, a commitment to higher pay for “feminised industries” such as child, disability and aged care, and restored penalty rates for 700,000 workers. The refugee intake would be lifted over time from 18,750 to 32,000, and moves hastened to empty offshore detention centres on Manus and Nauru, policies made possible behind the cordon of asylum boat turnbacks, a policy now accepted by the party’s Left, at least on the surface. Labor also promises to hold a referendum to recognise First Australians and create an Indigenous advisory body to Parliament in the Constitution. The conference made new commitments to fight climate change, yet ducked the issue of the Adani mine.

Overall, it is a big and in parts radical agenda, funded by some brave policies to cut negative gearing, refunds for franking credits, and the capital gains discount. The question is how it came to be forged in such frightened times. Part of the answer lies in the internal cohesiveness of the ALP, bent on not repeating the chaos of the Rudd years. Shorten and a talented front bench have overseen an ambitious policy-making process, not the small target approach that Kim Beazley maintained in seven years as Opposition Leader.

But the more intriguing issue is how the global political tumult seems to have helped, or at least not hurt, the ALP, when it has spawned Donald Trump, put British Labour either on the brink of power or of splitting in two, and devastated social democratic parties in mainland Europe. Here are three theories why.

First, perhaps because of the healthy economy and migrants’ contribution to it, or because nearly half the Australian population is born overseas or has at least one parent who was, immigration has not been the lightning rod for discontent that it is in other countries, and is therefore not dividing Labor’s core working-class and inner city supporters in two.

Second, in Europe populism has above all damaged centre-left parties. In Australia its impact is greatest on the right of politics. It has shrunk small-l liberalism and turned Tony Abbott and his band of former conservatives into right-wing radicals, who, to save civilisation as they know it, have no compunction in bringing down their own government.

Labor has no equivalent of the structural divide on the right. Its split happened in the decade from 2001, with the rise of the Greens. While losing much of its middle-class left was devastating at the time, today it protects the party from any Jeremy Corbyn-style takeover, since many Australian equivalents of the mainly young people who surged into British Labour to support Corbyn are already in the Greens. Labor internal polling in Victoria also suggests that precarious work and the rise of the gig economy are so alarming many young people that they are turning to Labor, which they see as more likely to tackle these problems than the Greens.

Thirdly and most importantly, it’s clear the world has changed when the Reserve Bank Governor, Philip Lowe, says it’s time for workers to strike for higher wages. He and other leading economists, along with the OECD and the IMF, all say that growing inequality and persistent low wages are bad for the economy. The trickle-down theory that higher company profits will eventually flow to higher wages is largely discredited; instead, the share of income has tipped too far towards capital over labour. Former senior public servant Michael Keating has written on this blog that the nature of the economic crisis of the 1970s suggested to many that so-called neoliberal solutions were needed. By contrast, today’s crisis favours a left-wing response: an increase in union rights, including restored powers to enter workplaces and strike, increases in welfare payments such as Newstart, and, most importantly, investment in education and skills. All these ideas are captured in varying degrees in the ALP platform.

History’s wheel may be turning toward Labor. The unions, too, may get an unprecedented chance to regain some of their old power. The danger, though, is that as their membership numbers fall, unions are growing ever more dependent on Labor governments to achieve their goals. Some of their conference rhetoric was belligerent, most of it suggested that expectations of a Shorten government will be massive. Yet solutions to the big economic and workplace problems will be far from simple. A senior figure said quietly in the main hall, “If we did everything that’s been promised in this platform we’d…” and he mimed a plane crashing to Earth.

Making tough choices is politics, though. If Labor can govern from the radical centre, intent on achieving big change but never closed to the opposing arguments, it could be in power for some time, and change the country along the way.

James Button is a former journalist and was an elected independent delegate to the ALP National Conference.  

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