ROB STEWART. Everything but the Elephant – Labor ’s Election Campaign Report

Labor has taken Government from Conservatives only 3 times in the past 70 years. It must start representing those who have no effective power – the majority – if it wants to be taken seriously.

“We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both”
– US Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, 1941

Given the poorly performing economy and government disunity, leadership changing and scandals Labor was expected to win in a cantor. In the post-election wash-up Labor got flogged. It fared poorly in the Senate, but in net terms lost just one seat in the House while the Coalition picked up just one seat. However, Labor’s primary vote was at a record low level of 33.3%. It was a drubbing and a damning indictment that Labor has only managed to take office from conservative government’s 3 times in the past 70 years.

I will focus on a just a few observations and one big elephant stomping all over the Report. First, the elephant: neoliberalism – doesn’t get a mention. Globalisation, new technology, trade, disruption, challenges, opportunities, flexibility, AI, renewables, the environment… all the usual words are there but not neoliberalism. That’s fair enough. Neoliberalism wasn’t the specific cause of Labor’s loss this year, but it has been a slow burner for more than 40 years, contributing to Labor’s abysmal performance for decades.

Neoliberalism is a particularly virulent form of destructive parasitic pseudo capitalism – state support for corporations (banks) and capital while individuals are largely left to fend for themselves, privatization of profits but socialization of losses. It professes to be about small government, but it is not, it is about big government of, by and for the 1%. Powerful interests have usurped the democratic process by simply buying out a commodified political process – democracy. Political parties everywhere do capital’s bidding and implement anti-democratic policies that redistribute wealth and income upwards. Possibly no greater example of this can be found than in the way in which trade arrangements are negotiated. These deals are negotiated by bureaucrats, corporate lawyers and lobbyists, in-secret and served uup to parliaments on a take it (all) or leave it (all) basis. That’s anti-democratic.

Great rewards are promised to politicians who support neoliberal interests, political oblivion is promised to those who don’t. Right wing parties sold their souls to neoliberalism before the word was even coined, that is understood. Therefore, the greatest level of opprobrium in selling out is reserved for centre and left leaning parties that have, over the past 40 years, abandoned their working and lower-middle class bases, throwing them into stagnation and precarious economic uncertainty, while still purporting to represent them – Clinton and Obama in the US, Blair and Brown in the UK, and to a lesser extent Hawke and Keating in Australia.An excellent general historical account of neoliberalism can be found in David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, which has the distinct advantage of being written by an anthropologist, not an economist, and therefore has some credibility.

Labor in practice has shifted greatly to the right. Although the Hawke and Keating governments implemented several substantial reforms, it was also the Hawke government that introduced HECS, an inherently neoliberal user pays approach to tertiary education, abandoning Whitlam’s legacy. That was abandonment of a value, not just a policy change.

Albanese said Labor’s values and priorities are about economic growth and jobs, fairness, infrastructure, climate change and national security. Well, Labor will have to do more than glibly declare its values are immutable and about benefits for everyone.

Labor says it will prioritise jobs and fairness. In the neoliberal world order, this is oxymoronic – “flexible” zero-hour contracts are not fair, “contracted” uberised work is not fair, but that is precisely the type of work environment neoliberalism wants and gets, so how will Labor rationalize this? Labor can choose neoliberalism or fairness – it can’t choose both.

The language in the Report also implies Labor shouldn’t use terms like “the big end of town.” Why? The suggestion seems it is a divisive “us” versus “them” term, and that we’re all in fact one Australia. The fact is our economy and society is becoming more divided, inequality is soaring, poverty and precarity is on the rise and Labor has contributed to this. Labor cannot pretend to represent the interests of everyone and the amorphous and highly flexible “national” interest all the time. People are totally over this rhetoric. Labor’s only hope is to start representing those who have no effective representation or power – ie. the majority.

Malcolm Turnbull used to say “top end of town” all the time – eg. in parliament relentlessly accusing Bill Shorten of selling out union members to their bosses in the morning before tracking across to the ‘top end of town’ to tuck his knees under the Pratt’s dining table for a spot of foie gras and free-range pheasant. And if anyone should know about the top end of town it’s Mal – that’s where he lives. If it’s good enough for Malcolm I can’t see why Labor should eradicate terms of class division from its lexicon. Why should Labor have to be on its best behavior and mind its P and Qs, like a well-behaved servant, while the masters rage and spit vomit and bile endlessly across parliamentary chambers at their adversaries and right across the nation. People will support Labor if they believe they have some fight in their dog, not just a dog in the fight.

The Report suggests the Labor platform was too complicated and comprehensive for the electorate to swallow. This is patronizing and wrong. There may have been upwards of 250 policies in the platform, but the reality is only a few caused a problem and attracted attention, because they were badly designed and badly sold. Who can forget Chris Bowen’s atrocious faux pas when, while being interviewed on the ABC, he suggested anyone who doesn’t understand the franking credit policy shouldn’t vote for it! Bowen, was channeling his mentor Paul Keating, but he got it badly wrong. Keating was talking about the other side’s policies – not his own! This mistake was a simple slip-up but it also exposed the arrogant over-confidence Labor had that it would win the election anyway.

Apparently many Labor stakeholders had already “banked” the win and were demanding things of Labor as if it was already in government but the leadership itself had also banked the win and was behaving arrogantly. While Scomo was raging against Shorten’s great big socialist style tax grab that was going to wreck the economy and make the sky fall in, Shorten was acting calmly, diplomatically and measuredly, as if he already had the burden of the highest office in the land on his shoulders. Scomo playing the daggy dad yobbo, raging against Labor with spittle flying everywhere, while Shorten was trying to play the statesman didn’t work. Keating made a similar mistake in toning done his approach against Howard in 1996.

In conclusion, the Report seems sensible and detailed and fits nicely within the existing neoliberal ground rules. If Labor takes heed of the Report it may scrape across the line and take government in 2022. But unless it totally changes its approach, and finds some real values, Labor will be lucky to maintain its abysmal record over the past 70 years and take government as many as three times in the next 70 years.

Rob Stewart is a retired economist.



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11 Responses to ROB STEWART. Everything but the Elephant – Labor ’s Election Campaign Report

  1. This is a good debate. I agree with Jocelyn, whose book on central banking is a mine of information. Labor policy for the May 2019 election for the first time in decades was headed in the right (that is, the left) direction. The key mistake was Chris Bowen’s pledge to produce a budget surplus even bigger than Josh’s.

    Politics in Australia and elsewhere is overshadowed by events in Britain and the USA. Will the Democrats through Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders find the backbone to tackle Wall Street and reform capitalism? Boris Johnson has the advantage of simplicity on Brexit. Corbyn would prefer not to campaign on Brexit because Britain has more important problems and many Labour voters favour Brexit. He is not against it himself.

  2. Avatar Ken Dyer says:

    The fundamental point of the LNP ideology is that fossil fuels provide jobs, exports and contribute to GDP. Therefore, it is good for Australia NOW and into the future. That is LNP 101. Fossil fuels is also an industry that is established and is interwoven with our current electricity grid, fundamentally unchanged since the 1900’s.

    Therefore, the advent of renewable energy technology is a threat to jobs, exports, and GDP, and that does not accord with the LNP ideology, and they, with their “coal cronies” will fight RE every inch of the way. You will note, however, that never a word is said by the LNP about the thousands of jobs that will disappear and will continue to disappear as RE taken over.

    This is the main reason why the Labor party has, so far been unsuccessful. It has always been the party of the worker, and how resources are deployed to support those workers. Given the current situation with the environment, and the battle between it and working people whose livelihoods rely on resources, becomes almost impossible for Labor to navigate between these workers and those (like the Greens) who are dedicated to limiting those resources or closing them down.

    This was the main reason labor lost the last election, that inability to take resource based blue collar workers with them, and the inability to enunciate a planned safety net for these workers, at the same time going all out on climate change, the environment and emissions. Now we have the situation whereby coal is less competitive as an energy source, RE is ramping up all over Australia, technology is accelerating the demise of coal mining as a “career”, and the window is starting to close on those workers who, if something is not put in place soon, will most likely find themselves out of a job.

    Taking the Ford factory in Geelong as an example, after it closed in 2013 after three years notice, one in five of those workers are still unemployed, and only 45% have found full-time work. This is an example of the future that faces coal miners within a decade, but the LNP ideology will not recognise the human costs of the demise of coal, only that they can keep kicking the ever diminishing coal can down the road. Perhaps those coal miners who failed to support Labor in the last election might have another look at their unions who have let them down badly in not supporting the ALP.

    I think Labor has real values. But to make sure they can bring these forward, they have to avoid the inevitable attacks of the LNP whose values are firmly entrenched in the neo-liberalism of the 20th Century.

  3. Avatar Jocelyn Pixley says:

    Rob you are clearly not a neoclassical economist! However, never forget, Hayek and Mises invented the term ‘neoliberalism’ but there’s nothing ‘liberal’ in their authoritarianism. There shall be no change to white male privilege, no freedom to anyone or any union which dares ask for a wage rise. There will be savage interest rates [etc].
    From my sociological background, I’ve asked why allegedly democratic governments are so beholden to private banks. It’s a structural story about capitalism, but the saddest point about the election loss was Labor was moving away from neoclassical economics and back to John Curtin’s Labor. It was a near run thing and the Report and the new Opposition bench are, as you say, trying to be nice to everyone.

    • Avatar Rob Stewart says:

      Thanks Jocelyn, and you’re correct I am not a neoclassical. I also hate the term neoliberalism. It provides what is essentially a distorted and in my opinion vile political ideology a cover of economic legitimacy it doesn’t deserve (like sibling terms such as the Washington “Consensus” and “rational” economics). Yes, as you point out it’s roots lie well back with Hayek and Von Mises and the Mont Pelerin society etc. However, to paraphrase Chomsky (yes, not an economist) not only is there nothing new about neoliberalism, there is also nothing liberal about it either. In this respect it fits the Orwellian lexicon of newspeak perfectly.

  4. Avatar Geoff Davies says:

    Well said Rob. But don’t hold your breath, I can’t detect any understanding of the failure of neoliberalism within the PLP.

  5. I’m as guilty as many in using stats to “catastrophise” the ALPs electoral malaise. Rob says: “Labor has taken Government from Conservatives only 3 times in the past 70 years.”
    Conversely, the Conservatives have taken Government from Labor four times in the same period.
    If we confine ourselves to the 47 years of the “modern” era (from Labor’s 1972 victory onward), it’s actually three apiece.
    In that era Labor has won eight elections and governed for 22 and a bit years; the Coalition has won 10 elections, for 24 and a bit years in office.
    And many of those elections, including the most recent, were very close.
    The “catastrophe”, to split hairs, is the decline in Labor’s primary vote since 2007.
    On how to recover that, I agree with Rob Stewart (and many others) that Labor must not hide from issues of “class”. Not the differing classes of individuals (which is becoming increasingly difficult to identify and define). And certainly not the inane (in my view) distinction between the “educated” and the “uneducated”.
    The relatable “class” distinction is the one between individuals (mostly powerless and vulnerable) and institutions (mostly opaque, manipulative and exploitive). Ordinary people are not blind to the near-daily revelations that corporations are more committed to what they can get away with, until they’re caught, than to the “corporate responsibly” to which they pay lip service.
    Individuals, of all classes, recognise that in redistributing opportunity, justice and wellbeing, the “big end of town” is a worthy and legitimate place to start.
    Labor must find the language and the courage to assert that.

    • Avatar Rob Stewart says:

      Thanks Richard. Your point on the stats on election wins is well noted. From 1949 to 2019 conservatives have held office for 48 years out of 70. Perhaps this is more relevant. And of course, if we include State and Territory governments (where so much policy actually hits the program road) the picture gets more complicated. I haven’t looked into it all that closely. The decline in Federal Labor’s primary vote is the more concerning trend. A chart in the Report shows Labor has on average ( and yes, I am wary of averages) lost about 1 percentage point in its primary vote per election over the past 40 years. This was what I was thinking of when I mentioned the “slow burn” of neoliberalism. I think it has eaten away at Labor’s base. Albanese won’t reverse the trend by simply declaring Labor’s values are immutable when so much of neoliberal ideology, which Labor has adopted, is at fundamental odds with what are (or where?) traditional Labor (and labour) values in my view.

      I also take the point that many losses are close run things (eg. Kim Beazley). The bottom line seems to be that Labor simply can’t win with a primary vote in the low 30s. It can only take office by an incumbent government failing so badly it cedes office. And, apparently, the rabble the LNP was over the past 6 years, wasn’t bad enough. That’s scary!

  6. Avatar Lesley Tucker says:

    …and finds some real values.
    How true. As an all life Labour voter I really believe that the values have changed, so much that I’ve been considering voting green, but then that’s not going to get the values I want for our society that Labour used to stand for.

  7. Avatar Andrew McRae says:

    Some good points, but I disagree with the comments on ‘the top end of town’. The real problem with the phrase is that it is dated – old hat, as it were – and so indeed was Malcolm Turnbull, who couldn’t cut the mustard as PM. It seemed strange that Shorten kept hammering these anachronistic words that had been used against him, because Turnbull, also a kind of anachronism, was no longer his opponent and therefore there was not even any irony in them. Labor’s campaign would have been stronger with, say, ‘the one percent’ and huge non-tax-paying corporations as their bogeymen, and a repeated hammering of LNP ineptitude as manifested in the NBN debacle and the waterways catastrophe.

    • Avatar Rob Stewart says:

      Thanks for the comment Andrew, and your point is well taken. I guess what drew my attention was that that particular phrase was mentioned several times in the Report and has been mentioned a great deal since the election loss. I read this as a strong suggestion from Labor’s brains trust that it’s not just the term “top end of town” that should be abandoned but all notions of any class division in Australia.

      In my view Labor would make a big mistake to abandon all rhetoric on class, privilege, disadvantage etc. I think you may agree with this as you say better use could have been made of using terms like “the 1%” more often etc.

      I guess my main point was that capitalist economies, and particularly neoliberal economies, are fundamentally class based, divided, inherently unstable and becoming more unequal. Labor and left leaning parties everywhere were born from the division and power imbalance between capital and labour. If Labor thinks it can abandon this historical foundation I think the long run trend in its declining primary vote will continue and it will struggle even more to win Government.

      • Avatar Jocelyn Pixley says:

        This is a good debate. I think the Labor Review was ill-informed, and we still wait on better electoral analysis, which will come. Labor is a term that says “workers”, and I asked Albanese why he avoided that, about 2 years ago. His answer remains unsatisfactory. A colleague with more electoral analysis than I will ever have makes 2 points. First, women voted more for Labor than men, but we await any data. Second, the ‘white male workers’ are mostly middle class; cling to franking credits [possibly] whereas there is wage theft, gender, ethnic and class/wealth inequality deepening by wealth and income.
        I also agree the educated divide brushes over all the law firms which promote tax minimisation and so on. And it is asset wealth, with its tax perks which is one key.
        So again, thanks Rob.

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