LIONEL ORCHARD. Centre Left Strategy in the face of Election 2019

May 27, 2019

The debate about the reasons for the result of election 2019 covers many issues including the coherence or otherwise of the Labor strategy. For social democrats, a key question is where to now. Third way thinking about wealth generation before redistribution threatens a return. A stronger social democratic response will be needed.  

In the immediate wash up of the election emotions are pretty raw given the unexpected result. Commentary covers many issues. Bad polling misreading public opinion. Over ambition on the Labor side not well explained and defended, and out of step with mainstream views in the Australian electorate. The overplaying of protests against the proposed Adani coal mine and high profile but toxic conservative politicians like Peter Dutton offset by the success of the well organised local campaign against Tony Abbott as the most toxic of all. Smart but pretty empty salesmanship on Morrison’s part and clever strategy to hide divisions and shut down controversial voices on the Coalition side. The triumph of self-interest with swinging voters narrowly focused on what they stood to gain and lose economically. The success of well-funded scare campaigns against Labor policies and leadership. The Labor failure to articulate a coherent vision or narrative to accompany the policy specifics or as Guy Rundle has argued going with a ‘big ticket’ rather than ‘big picture’ strategy to its cost.

Much of the commentary expresses somewhat extreme views both ways – on the one hand, the Coalition result as a triumph and miracle with the conservative right gaining influence; on the other, the Labor loss as devastating for centre left politics and progressive public policy in Australia. Neither extreme is valid. The election outcome doesn’t represent a fundamental realignment in the Australian body politic even if there has been growth in support on the political margins in both left (green) and right (hard populist) directions. The Coalition has won a majority in the House of Representatives but only just. Labor’s primary vote may have declined significantly at least in certain places but it’s parliamentary representation has held. The cross bench in the Senate expresses a better balance of conservative and moderate voices than perhaps it did in the last parliament.

Nevertheless the worry from a centre left viewpoint is that the new Morrison Government will have clear air and energy at least for a time to pursue policies rewarding its backers and to carry on more stridently across the policy terrain – economic, social, environmental and security. The biggest problem with election outcome is that the issues facing the country will continue to worsen while our political institutions will fail to respond in new and needed ways.

Complacency threatens. One of the most interesting responses post-election has the palpable sigh of relief expressed on the Australian share market and those sectors that stood to be impacted by the Labor initiatives. Private sector interests in health insurance, child care and housing to name just a few have lined up to note the difficulties that would have been entailed in adjusting to Labor’s policies. An increasingly privatised economy dominated by so-called market imperatives makes it very difficult apparently to accommodate even slight changes in the public interest.

This is where the hardest dilemmas will sit for a coherent and successful centre left program in Australian politics in the future. Already we are seeing the response of key Labor politicians and intellectuals harking back to third way mantras about the generation of wealth through the private economy and private production as a precondition for redistribution through public means. The Hawke/Keating model figures large in this thinking as does the critique of the Whitlam failure in this framing

The centre left in Australia has struggled since the Hawke/Keating period to define a new way forward. The third way model worked well for a time but was always open to challenge from mainstream neoliberal strategy proposing more market and less government in public policy. In some respects, one of explanations of the Labor’s failure under Shorten’s leadership is that it expressed too much stasis and timidity in the face of this history. Tread carefully with very tailored and specific policies rather than articulate and pursue a clear vision.

In pursuing new centre left ideas, we should not lose sight of the social democratic critique of the third way of earlier times. That critique centred on the need to maintain and develop a genuinely mixed economy in which the moderating influence of the public and non-profit economy offsets the socially corrosive impacts of the private capitalist economy. What is ignored in so much contemporary debate is the idea that the public and non-profit economy at its best can be just as productive and efficient as the private economy. It also addresses many merit needs that a productive society requires, including newer green imperatives. But the key social democratic message is that it is better to pursue the development of the public and non-profit sectors without too much accommodation to private interests and values. It is in this space that a way forward for a new centre left strategy needs to spend much more time especially given that well designed public institutions go well with the moderation that mainstream Australian society desires.

Neoliberal ideas and priorities continue to frame Australian politics and public policy. The problems of inequality, economic and social dislocation and the environment continue to fester. The election result has not seen any of this change. What it has seen change is the pressure we face is building coherent responses to the problems.

A parting comment on civility in politics. One of the most corrosive aspects of political debate in Australia is the way it is conducted with a toughness and sometimes very intemperate language. It perhaps has always been thus but this style has become more entrenched in recent times for complicated reasons at least partly related to widening division and conflict over social and cultural issues. Some glaring examples were in evidence during the heat of the election campaign. While it might be too much to expect that this will change one hopes that the debates we need to have will be conducted with greater levels of respect.

Lionel Orchard taught public policy at Flinders University.

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