Australian Laborism: The Way Ahead

Success for Australian Labor will require not the growth of inequality and a shrinking middle class, but shrinking inequality and a growing middle class. This is the heritage and the heartbeat of the Australian Labor Party. It is the essence of what I call Australian Laborism as outlined in my 2012 essay “The 0.01% - the power of vested interests in Australia.” While the Federal Liberal coalition prepares to snap back to classic neo-liberal policies of tax cuts for the wealthy and wage suppression for Australia’s working people, we are going to have to pursue our Labor values and our traditional policy frameworks with pragmatic idealism and ruthless organisation.

The same powerful vested interests that hounded the Gillard Government from office are pushing their tired but aggressive neo-liberal agendas to drive higher inequality, wage suppression, deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy and a smaller public sector. How different things would have been in this pandemic if Labor had won the 2019 federal election. Labor’s campaign review points our way ahead.

We have to dramatically improve our campaign machine and we have to get much better at winning the battle of ideas. Just having the better ideas is clearly not enough.

We must be ruthlessly and relentlessly fixated on winning government – not because government is the end, but  because without the power of government Labor is powerless.

In 2019 we failed to convince working people we would protect and lift their living standards. We heard their fears and their priorities but our campaign left them wondering if we had really listened. Protecting the living standards of working people is how Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard campaigned and won election victories. We did it by adapting Laborism to suit the times and to win we must do so again.

In a book published late in 2019 academic Elizabeth Humphries argued that Labor’s agenda was no different from the neo-liberal agenda of Reagan and Thatcher, and that the unions were complicit on this path. To call the Hawke-Keating agenda neo-liberal is to squint at it through one eye.  If Hawke and Keating were merchants of neo-liberalism they wouldn’t have resurrected Medicare, nor raised a capital gains tax to rein in the excesses of the financial sector. They wouldn’t have delivered a social wage which included greater funding for health, education, child care and welfare for those who the “let it rip free” market might have left behind.

The Hawke-Keating economic reforms should be more appropriately described as Australian Laborism, and nothing like the Third Way ideology embraced by some US Democrats and some in British Labour.

We were first. And we did it our way, the Australian Labor way.  We led the way, forcing the conservatives into policy retreat and to fight the battles on our turf.

Australian Laborism showed that when the circumstances are right policies that produce a competitive economy delivered in conjunction with policies that taper the excesses of market capitalism can provide economic benefits for working people. The ethos of Laborism guided the Rudd and Gillard governments ambitious reform program: a price on carbon, the national broadband network, the national disability insurance scheme, all appreciated that equality could not take a back seat to the pursuit of economic growth.

We can take some comfort from the list of those epoch-making reforms – Labor ideas stand the test of time. Medicare is a national icon, the NDIS remains entrenched and the conservatives have finally conceded the value of the NBN after a decade of petulant vandalism. And just as the coalition has embraced activist fiscal policy after more than a decade of denial, carbon pricing will one day be forced upon them by a global community tired of post-fact Trumpian antics.

The conservatives in this country are forever in revolt against the future, and forever falling back trench by trench.

But dishing out humiliation in the battle of ideas is not enough – must never be enough – for Australian Labor. Forcing Liberal Governments to adopt Labor policies under sufferance will never deliver on our sacred mission. To deliver Labor policies we must be in government.

As Labor has long recognised, economic equality must be a driver of prosperity. Strong working and middle-class households are a source of growth not merely a result of growth.  The IMF has shown conclusively, when the benefits of growth are concentrated overall growth is weaker, when growth is more fairly shared overall growth is stronger.

When the GFC arrived, Labor’s response recognised this and was swift, sweeping, substantial and most importantly, stunningly successful. It was the very antithesis of the trickle -down vision of neo-liberalism, which is why the Murdoch media was so frenetic in its attempt to demonise stimulus and the role of governments in markets and society. In contrast, Australian Laborism provides a guiding light. A dynamic public sector which pursues activist fiscal policy and honours a commitment to full employment is entirely compatible with the pragmatic heart of Australian Laborism.

Listening to the people

The last decade, while a trying one for Labor, shows that we can still set the terms of engagement on policy – but to win, we must meet people where they are and put their interests first. When we lose sight of the people, we cannot hope to win.

Laborism’s defeat in 2013 owed as much to our internal disunity as it did to the powerful vested interests that mobilised to install Tony Abbott and his survival of the fittest ideology. Bill Shorten’s remarkably narrow loss in the 2016 federal election, with a traditional Australian Laborist platform centred around the fight for Medicare, gave us all hope for the future.

Yet sadly since then social democrats here in Australia in 2019, and in the United States in 2016 suffered narrow, cruel and unexpected defeats.  In 2019 British Labour was trounced in an environment where victory should have been certain – an example of policy ambition and preoccupation with non-core issues overrunning connection with working people in their communities.

What is clear for progressives in Australia, the UK, the US and recently in Scandinavia, is that the rise of the populist right is hollowing out centre-left voter support among working class and lower income earners.

These defeats have brought forward the predictable debates that policy agendas have either been too radical or too conservative, and the usual debates as to whether policy or leader electability has been the culprit. There is no question a robust economic message is a pre-condition for winning back working-class votes, but it doesn’t clinch the deal.  British Labour’s dreadful loss demonstrates that.

A party of government

We must remind ourselves that Labor isn’t a pressure group, nor a policy seminar, or a wine and cheese society. Labor is a vehicle to win government and to govern, or it’s nothing.

To do so, Labor must have a message that gives voters comfort if it is to be handed the keys to the car.

We are living in a world where the right’s success in demonising the whole political class depletes the reservoir of voter trust progressive parties rely on to shape and win a mandate for change. In a world of diminished voter trust, progressives must start with a core set of saleable intelligent reforms that begin to turn back the tide – reforms that build political capital for the next tranche of reforms and the one after that.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t adopt a bold policy architecture, but it does mean we must adopt a policy architecture which can be used to win the votes of our traditional supporters as well as the increasing body of people in the community who are not aligned with any of the traditional political parties. We mustn’t allow our enemies to wedge our own people, working people, against one another.

We need visionary policies that convince our base and the middle that we hear them and have their backs. In 2019 Labor made the campaign miscalculation of having too many progressive policy solutions which enabled the conservatives to argue they would surely wreck the economy and people’s lives. The clearest lesson from the campaign is that good old fashioned scare campaigns work and the conservatives were successful in demonising our tax and climate change policies. 

In 2019 the core conservative argument was that Labor lost because it pursued the politics of envy, namely removing tax loopholes that delivered huge tax benefits to higher income-earners and corporates. The Liberals characterised these as tax increases for all which would hit lower income earners and stoked fear in those living on the economic margins with the most to lose.

Ironically, the conservative attack that Labor’s program was aimed at curtailing middle-class aspiration delivered an unexpected result.  Swing voters in middle-income areas stayed with Labor. Upper middle-income earners shifted toward Labor.  Meanwhile, lower income voters in regional and outer suburban areas shifted to the conservatives. In other words, lower income-earners who were the principle beneficiaries of Labor’s program moved away from Labor, while the people who may have lost through our proposals held, or swung towards us.

Getting the basics right

So where did we fail?  First, Labor didn’t do enough to defend our vulnerabilities on taxes. Our policies were ruthlessly demonised by the “surround sound state media” of the Murdoch press and a $80 million spending spree by a single plutocrat, Mr Clive Palmer – one of the biggest in the modern history of Western elections.  The combined expenditure of the Liberals, the Nationals and other minor parties saw Labor outspent six to one. Labor had a knife in a gun fight.

In 2019 the Liberals persuaded Australians with low incomes and in insecure work to go with them, often for the first time.  This is a cause for concern. If you’re a truck driver in Logan city or a steel worker in Wollongong you are constantly told to work harder for lower wages and more insecurity while Liberal tax cuts go to the top end.

Too frequently the underlying economic issues of these workers are lost in the noise of wider moralistic and identity issues, leaving them to  think their priorities of jobs and wages and a better life are not on the agenda. When your primary concern is economic insecurity of your family, hearing constant debate and conflict over social issues makes you feel like you don’t count. So if we have learned anything about the last election it’s that we cannot assume economic discontent will push support our way. In fact, it may be the opposite.

We must consider the fact that Liberal fuelled economic insecurity and scare campaigns are a potent combination in driving fear into those who need the most help but have the most to lose when policies change or recessions hit.

In life and politics, lose aversion is a real thing. When things are tough, gambling with the future is often a risk not worth taking. In 2019, it is clear working class Aussies felt that, while it would be nice for things to improve, the chance of things getting worse under Labor was real.  In short, the scare campaign worked.

Unstitching this dilemma requires policy, campaign and messaging focus and will not be a fight won easily. To prevail, Labor must always have a strong message centred around growth and jobs.

For Labor members of Parliament and Labor members more generally, nothing should spur our imagination and activism more than matters of economic democracy – how wealth is created and distributed fairly, wage setting, the power of monopolies – the list is long and frequently our voice is not heard loud enough or drowned out. We must have a robust economic agenda to capture the imagination of Australians in language they understand because bold sounding bad ideas will often triumph over better ideas that seem hedged, timid or technocratic.

Avoiding false contests on climate policy

It is here that the right’s cause celebre of climate denial smashes fairly and squarely into the scientific and political imperative of zero net emissions by 2050, the biggest social and economic challenge for our generation.  Clearly in parts of the country our climate agenda cost us support in some working-class, resource and regional communities as surely as it won it in the broader community. Make no mistake. Morrison has no climate policy, but as you would expect from a marketing guy, he does have a clearly articulated PR strategy to use climate as a wedge aimed not just at coal miners but working people more generally and particularly the elderly. 

It is possible to support blue collar jobs and reduce emissions across our economy but proposals that talk about shutting down the export coal industry or demonise entire sectors instead of focussing on the hard and tough policy which includes reducing emissions across the whole of our economy are entirely counter-productive.

Australian Labor has an historic opportunity to show how an inclusive, fair clean energy economy can be achieved and doesn’t leave working people fearful of the future but leaves them confident they fit into a world that is de-carbonising rapidly.  They need to see their elected politicians are talking straight to them, and have solutions not just slogans. Those of us who accept the science of climate change, support blue collar jobs and are seeking a way forward to reduce emissions across the economy have had no support from either the right or the extreme left, with Labor often left in the middle of a firing squad from all sides.

Over the next 20 years there will be a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel production delivered by the market. As Ross Garnaut has pointed out through this we can rediscover our zest for innovation and re-industrialisation. Fortunately, we are one of the few developed countries with access to the most bountiful store of renewable resources on the planet. As a nation we can successfully achieve strong industrial development and rapid climate transition.

This is something that Labor has been good at in the past and needs to be good at again. It is about getting into the communities most exposed to job losses and change, organising politically and industrially, deciding together on the new opportunities that can genuinely replace the jobs at risk and then using the tools of Government:  incentives, subsidies, grants, industry and community development to smooth the path between the present and the future. In short we need to do what the Germans have done; that is a strong dialogue between government, industry and the unions operating on the principle ‘no-one gets left behind’. If it sounds familiar, it should – because its old fashioned Australian Laborism put in placed during World War 2 by Curtin and Chifley, Hawke and Keating during the rebuilding of Australia into a modern economy, and our government during the GFC.

The cause of Labo(u)r matters

While we are a progressive party open to idealists from all parts of society, we are, and must remain, a party of working people – it is afterall the reason we were created some 130 years ago.  We can’t be that voice for working people unless we maintain a strong voice for the representatives of working people – their trade unions. That’s what makes us Laborists and makes our party uniquely special amongst the parties of the world.  

Put simply the task for Australia for the rest of the 21st Century is to do what our forebears did in the last century – massive economic and environmental reforms that will drive future economic prosperity and social cohesion.

We must also acknowledge that the task of winning power has got harder in Australia in the last twenty years. The power of big corporations and big money in politics, backed in by the surround sound of the Murdoch empire and the disappearance of balanced journalism across many platforms has made it difficult for our voice to be heard. 

At the same time, it has gotten easier for our opponents to run massive under the radar social media campaigns of Trumpian proportions.  In much of regional Australia, where Labor’s fortunes floundered in the last campaign, independent media has disappeared to be replaced by Sky After Dark. The $80 million spend of Clive Palmer in the recent federal election is but a foretaste of what is to come as more and more plutocrats join the assault on Labor and on our democracy.

For Labor, persuasion of the non-aligned and the disaffected has never been more difficult nor more urgent.  We have an obligation to reach out to the broadest possible coalition and building as many allies as we possibly can, some of whom we might have disagreements with on matters that are important but, for now, not as urgent. We must organise with the new tools at our disposal and rethink ways to raise money through small donations in the method undertaken by Democracts to compete with the forces massed against us.

More than 50 years ago, one of Australian Labor’s greatest Prime Ministers, Gough Whitlam, said, in a call to party members to campaign pragmatically for Labor values that “only the impotent are pure.” There is nothing more disloyal to the sacred mission of progressives in defending the interests of working people than the heresy that says achieving power isn’t our most fundamental responsibility. There is nothing gained by winning the argument but not government.

Winning power to put in place the building blocks of economic prosperity and environmental sustainability is what Laborists must focus on. This is the path to shrinking inequality and growing the middle class. It is the path to a better Australia.

Wayne Swan served the Australian community and the Australian Labor Party for over 24 years as the Member for Lilley, Treasurer of Australia for six years, including three years as Deputy Prime Minister.  He was awarded Euromoney Finance Minister of the Year in 2011 for his “careful stewardship of Australia’s finances and economic performance” during the Global Financial Crisis.  He was instrumental in the introduction of Australia’s Carbon Price and Clean Energy Package.  Wayne is the author of The Good Fight:  Six Years, Two Prime Ministers, staring down the Global Recession (2014). He is a member of the International Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation and President of the Australian Labor Party and has been a member of the Australian Labor Party for 46 years.

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