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.