RAMESH THAKUR. Labor must look in the mirror

In foreshadowing Donald Trump’s victory six months before the 2016 election, I had written: ‘Of all the candidates in both parties, Trump’s appeal seems to reach the broadest and deepest with respect to region, class, education and income… They are looking for an in-your-face champion who will stick it to the snobs (elites) and scolds (political correctness warriors)’. Labor was guilty of the same mindset as Hillary Clinton’s disastrous comment on the basket of deplorables and reflected a similar hubris. The same hubris was obvious in Bill Shorten’s response that asking for costings of climate action policies was dumb.

By natural inclinations reinforced by the depth-cum-dearth of front bench talent on the two sides, most political values and preferred social, foreign and defence policy settings, I should be a Labor voter – provided it adopts the Hawke-Keating agenda of fiscal responsibility through a ‘dry’ economic policy, a warm and moist social policy, and a liberal internationalist foreign policy. Policy settings drive productivity gains, the economic pie gets bigger and policies on education and health provide the compensating ‘social wage’.

Yet Labor did their best to punish me and the shadow Treasurer explicitly told me to vote elsewhere. His advice, accepted by many voters, was comparable to Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal advice to eat cake. In his victory speech, PM Scott Morrison said his win was a victory for ‘those Australians who have worked hard every day. They have their dreams, they have their aspirations — to get a job, to get an apprenticeship, to start a business, to meet someone amazing, to start a family, to buy a home, to provide the best you can for your kids. To save for your retirement and to ­ensure when you’re in your retirement that you can enjoy it because you’ve worked hard for it’.

In these and other respects, for all their attacks on the big end of town, Labor abandoned the workers in the heartland and was captured by the big end of inner city elites. Labor needs to introspect on how it managed to put itself on the wrong side of these set of aspirations of ordinary Australians – Howard’s battlers. The traditional Labor strongholds of workers, families under stress from rising costs of living and low and middle income earners drifted to the Coalition in enough numbers to determine the outcome.

On economic policy, there is little evidence to suggest that most Australians support sweeping change to be effected by a massive spending agenda and funded by punitive tax increases. Labor picked up too many fights on too many fronts, sucking oxygen out of a coherent narrative and instead gifting a counter-narrative to the Coalition: Because Labor can’t manage the nation’s money, they will steal your money any which way they can – taxing property investors, retirees, high-income wealth creators to give to the aggrieved and entitled millennials.

This was a highly effective fear campaign that simultaneously also undercut Labor’s other core message of fairness. How is it fair to punish those who have played by the rules, worked hard, lived prudently and saved for a comfortable – not extravagant – retirement? Do those on the edge of and aspiring to be rich, deserve to be dragged down?

Wealth creation and economic growth are necessary for an affordable welfare system. Policies that promote and reward growth are therefore essential for the self-interest of the poor people in the rich countries. The simple if brutal reality is that the lot of the poor, vulnerable and disabled is infinitely worse in the poorest countries of the world than in the rich countries. Being a wealthy country does not guarantee the poor will be looked after. But being a truly poor country does guarantee that its poorest people cannot be looked after by the state. All democracies have to balance adequate social services as part of the welfare state against the need to grow the economy by rewarding enterprise, and the need to reward prudence and thrift to encourage self-reliance. Labor ignored this requirement for balance.

On environmental policy, climate action was pursued more as a moral crusade than an economic strategy to support practical, affordable and results-oriented solutions. The targets of 45% emissions reductions, and 50% renewables and electric vehicles in new cars by 2030, was overly ambitious. Refusing to provide the estimated cost to the economy frightened the punters even more.

Labor simply wasn’t able to answer the basic but fundamental question: why should the Australian economy be deindustrialised and the Australian worker lose his job for miniscule global environmental benefit? Bob Brown’s gimmicky travelling roadshow against the Adani project seems to have galvanised entire communities against the Green agenda. Nor have the Greens been held to account for teaming up with the Coalition to defeat Kevin Rudd’s attempt at an emissions policy that would have given us a more sensible policy setting over the past decade than we’ve had, and spared us the horrors of revolving prime ministers to boot.

The Labor-Green environmental warriors oppose two policies that would help curb global emissions, namely replacing India’s dirty fuels with Australian-sourced clean coal and nuclear fuel. Leave aside the debate about whether Australia itself should use coal and nuclear in order to triangulate the three imperatives of affordable, reliable and clean energy. We are told constantly that the cost of renewables is coming down. Yet despite big public subsidies, the price of household power keeps climbing steeply. The subsidy structure has grown complex and opaque. How about we start removing all market distorting subsidies and see what the outcome is? No public money for Adani but none for renewables either: let the market decide?

Meanwhile consider this. Three years ago I was visiting one of India’s prime coal producing regions. The two hour drive to the state capital city airport through a scenic landscape was a torture because of the thick choking smog that blanketed the entire countryside. According to a report from the Lancet Commission, in 2015 pollution killed 2.5mn Indians, 1.81mn from air pollution alone. Another study showed the number of deaths from air pollution in 2017 to be 1.24mn, cutting down average life expectancy by 1.7 years. So the next time someone is basking in the glow of environmental virtue, I hope they will spare a thought for the poor family paying with grave health effects because the same sense of virtue stops India from accessing cleaner Australian-origin energy sources.

On identity politics, consider the high profile case of Israel Folau. ‘Diversity and inclusion’ should mean it is okay to be LGBTI, Christian, Muslim, Jew or atheist. ‘Intolerance and exclusion’ result when it is okay to be gay or Muslim, but not Christian or Jew. An oxymoron is a boss who imposes ostracism and banishment on employees in the name of inclusion and diversity. And hypocrisy is when someone is punished for quoting his religious text in a private space outside the workplace, while in the workplace the chief sponsor gets into bed with business partners from a countries where gays are flogged, jailed and worse.

Yet instead of supporting repeal of the free-speech restricting 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that narrows the public space for necessary policy debate by pandering to anyone looking to be offended, Labor threatened to broaden its scope and toughen its enforcement. Its perverse effects would have included deepening support for white nationalism rooted in the conspiracy theory of the ‘Great Replacement’.

Paradoxically, Labor has not paid sufficient heed to the need to readjust to Australia’s changing demographics. I was offended when Labor parachuted Kristina Kenneally into the Senate in 2018. I have nothing against her, have never met her and wish her well. But I would have preferred an able and high profile Asian–Australian as a more urgent priority. I defy anyone to look at the Labor caucus and tell me that it reflects the face of today’s multicultural Australia. With Dave Sharma’s victory from Wentworth, the Liberals will have a high-profile Indo-Australian MP. His prominence could cause my community’s support to leach from Labor.

On leadership, in Canada, the Liberal Party is unlikely to have won the last election without Justin Trudeau as leader and he would not have been chosen leader under Australia’s Labor Party rules. Conversely, under the Canadian system Anthony Albanese would have prevailed over Bill Shorten and Shorten was a drag on the party from start to finish as leader. When treated by contempt by political parties, sometimes voters return the favour at the ballot box.

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Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.

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