Labor must be more spirited for voters to know what it stands for

Nov 17, 2021
Anthony Albanese
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

If a Labor campaign cannot cause any enthusiasm or aspects of a mass movement among younger voters, Labor is doomed to lose the next election.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is fashioning an election campaign narrative where the Labor Party is against freedom and choice for the middle class, while the Coalition is an enemy of any force of moral, social, economic or legal coercion.

Needless to say one could not expect, in this scenario, that there would be many Labor advocates pointing out that successive Coalition governments have become more and more coercive, totalitarian and surveillance-oriented, with national security legislation far more enveloping and unaccountable than it was during any of the world wars.

Or that its supposed opposition to mandated or coercive policies does not extend to welfare policies (see, for example robodebt)  refugee or deportation policies, or the right of welfare organisations, charities or public interest institutions to advocate their policies and to criticise the way that government stands in the way.

Nor has it stopped the government talking non-stop of tightening its control over social media, over watchdogs of the public interest and the ABC, while reducing public controls over police, blatant corruption by government and over protection of the environment. The party that, in the name of freedom, hands out over $40 billion to its mates and cronies in business on the pretence that they are suffering from the pandemic, while consciously deciding not to have systems to retrieve the money if it turns out that they didn’t need the money, or were ineligible for it in the first place.

In a different time a more spirited Labor, particularly a confident Labor leadership, would be taking advantage of the opportunity provided by a pseudo-“freedom” debate to defend and promote the organised activity of the whole community as against the cult of individualism, choice and markets that has reduced and debased the quantity and quality of services available to citizens.

It would move quickly from a robust defence of principles to a principled attack on modern developments in government — the attack on public service and the politicisation of its leadership, the substitution of partisan and interested advice from minders and consultants at the expense of independent and professional advice, and the virtual demolition of the rule of law, transparency and accountability  in how public money is now being spent.

Such things, and the philosophical basis of why Labor promotes (or ought to promote) education, health, housing, community care, a safe and tolerant and more equal society do not need to await a formal election campaign, least of all when it is clear that Morrison is already in full campaign mode.

Labor is on trial not only for what it means or promises to do (campaign matters) but for its general ideas, ideals and its way of thinking about important social and economic problems of the community.

A would-be leader or leadership may judge it tactically wise to prioritise some policy — for example about (yawn) physical infrastructure — and to de-emphasise some other former policy — for example about taxes.

It may have particularly bright new ideas about some area of policy — for example about climate change action — the better polished because it waited for the government to commit itself.

But these are matters of tactics, not fundamental approaches. They are not reasons for keeping quiet for tactical surprise, or so as to conceal policies that might not be as popular as others.

Voters should never be in any doubt about Labor’s general approach and aspirations in any area of government activity.

But they can now be excused for being thoroughly confused about what Labor stands for, or about its abiding ideas. It might be nice to think that Labor deserves office simply for not being led by Morrison, or being influenced by the ideas and philosophy of the National Party.

There’s a case for that, but, alas for those who think so, it is an idea more powerful among those already predisposed to voting Labor, rather than among those who have previously supported the Coalition.

Labor will not win the election with cheerio calls. Nor with vague, but “moderate” appeals designed, through focus groups, not to actually offend anyone. Most of Labor’s policies on the national security state, on boat people, and on welfare fraud have been designed to mirror the Coalition’s approach, rather than to signal any points of difference of philosophy or policies.

Labor’s follow-the-leader policies on defence and foreign affairs, its adoption of the nuclear option without anything passing for debate, the implicit copying of policies of much-reduced aid and remaining unpopular in South-East Asia have been strongly (and rightly) criticised by Paul Keating.

The problem is not merely one of dumb policies, or of being sucked into ad hoc provocations of China, France and some of our Asian neighbours.

It is that the shirking of any sort of intelligent debate over resources, priorities and the future of our region, and conflict-avoidance by Labor’s leadership has seriously skewed good policy and practice.

A Labor election win could be a real opportunity to get political and cultural relationships with China back on an even keel, without any retreat from criticism of China’s domestic policies or of its human rights record.

Education and social infrastructure, not roads and railways, the key to Australia’s future

Morrison is vulnerable to attack for failing to articulate any sort of vision or long-term economic plan for Australia, even, or perhaps especially, in relation to climate change action, but also in terms of resetting the economy after all of the disruptions of the pandemic, including the interruptions to immigration, state border closures and the revival of industries particularly hard hit by the pandemic recession.

No doubt he can answer this by saying that government is focused, as it should be, on creating the conditions under which business can flourish, and in which new technology and personal choice and market solutions will prevail.

But he has put the economy under an array of handicaps.

The most obvious one is in relation to tertiary education, consciously crippled by government when, during the recession, it refused to give universities any assistance from loss of income, disruptions caused by lockdowns and the loss of lucrative foreign student income, and serious loss of staff.

The reason was ideological, but even so, it involved a good amount of economic self-harm given that it is precisely on this sector that government and the economy must depend if innovation, invention and technological change are to make up for the gaps in policy in addressing the government’s limited climate-change targets.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese has no reason for caution in promising major re-investment in education, and at all levels, primary, secondary, vocational and tertiary.

Like road-building or railway building (even after the savings from dumping projects such as spur lines to coal fields on the inland railway), it is capital investment that can be achieved by borrowing at very low interest rates, rather than by taxes.

By itself, a renewal of spending and investment will stimulate employment and the general economy, as well as a re-opening of the battered education export sector. Just as significantly, it addresses potential Labor voters at present somewhat disillusioned by both of the major parties (particularly because of climate-change policies, or the lack of them).

An unenthusiastic vote, or even a pissed-off one arriving via the Greens, has no less currency than a whole-hearted one. But if a Labor campaign cannot cause any enthusiasm or aspects of a mass movement among younger voters, Labor is doomed.

And not just at this election but elections to come.

The payback of electoral support, not to mention new jobs and general economic stimulus, will be far bigger than from road or rail-building and have a longer-term impact on the economy. Likewise with serious re-investment in public health, and in hospital services, focused on learning lessons from the pandemic, and making sure that future pandemics, virtually inevitable, catch us better prepared.

It may well be that the near-invisible Tanya Plibersek (Labor’s shadow education minister) and the Albanese campaign team are holding back a comprehensive education and university program designed to achieve just that.

But any advantage from surprise will be more than overweighed by the fact of nearly two years of serious damage to the higher education sector with only the most muted protest from the Labor Party. Students, put bluntly, have not known that Labor was on their side, or that it fully intended to restore, or indeed rebuild, the sector in a way designed for the needs of the population and the economy.

Recovery from the pandemic has provided governing parties with enormous opportunities, not least in an environment in which (temporarily) money is cheap, debt not a major short-term problem, and rebuilding of institutions and services a requirement as much as a worthy aspiration.

Morrison may be an able election campaigner, in the sense of designing or confecting straw electoral issues.

But a real leader would be dealing in important images of a nation responding to new challenges in new ways, not merely seeking to restore a tired and stagnant past. The Labor Party has, or ought to have, an authentic leader, as well versed in appealing to the emotions as to the facts, and with a very long, and pretty convincing list of the Morrison’s government’s iniquities.

The polls suggest that Labor, if not yet Albanese, is preferred by voters.

Why then are even rusted-on Labor voters so fearful of disaster? Of blowing its chances? Or being sabotaged from within? Of being outsmarted by politicians whose whole progress over the present term suggests serious problems of planning, organisation, breadth or depth?

Labor has got to be in it to win it, and it is not yet there.

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