It’s really frustrating to find that respected commentators like Jonathan Green persist in suggesting that there are no material differences between the LNP and the ALP. Writing in Mamamia, in an otherwise thoughtful article about Julia Gillard and the importance of gender, he said ‘our parties are in broad agreement’ and that ‘heartfelt views that test the status quo are out of favour in a mannered modern politics that is an often loud contest for whatever unique but slender toeholds might be found in the narrows of the middle ground.’ I think that the few short weeks since the election show how shallow this view is.
On one hand, we have an Abbott government doing exactly what we thought it would; denying the reality of climate change and championing the unfettered free market’s right to exploit Australia’s natural resources without let or hindrance by government. Sacking the Climate Commission and supporting fracking – despite having said during the election campaign that they favoured restrictions – are only the beginning. I
t’s true that the LNP’s ‘small government’ rhetoric hasn’t always played out in practice in the past, and it will be interesting to see how they react to the small government right wing nut jobs that have, perhaps inadvertently, been elected to the Senate.
Will the blocking of such ‘big government’ initiatives as direct action to meet the carbon reduction target, or Abbott’s signature paid parental leave scheme lead to a double dissolution? Will we see an Abbott election campaign supporting the intervention of government into the free market? I won’t be holding my breath.
Don’t get me wrong; Liberals – and especially Nationals – don’t really believe in ‘free’ markets – they are perfectly happy to distort markets through things like fuel subsidies and negative gearing, to say nothing of state aid to private schools. They want interventions that protect the already privileged. They just don’t want interventions that make society more equal, and, heaven forbid, use government to do anything that could possibly be done by private enterprise, no matter how inefficiently or inequitably.
Abbott himself seems confused between populism and the politically correct Liberal free market line, but the weight of neo-liberal opinion in his party and among his big business mates will prevail, and they’ll forget about the carbon reduction targets and the paid parental leave scheme.
Like the conservative parties in Britain and the US, the LNP stands for smaller and smaller government and the broadest possible play of the free market consistent with the interests of their mates. And that’s what we’ll get.
On the other hand, the contest between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese for the leadership of the Labor Party has given us the opportunity to focus on ALP policy in a way that wasn’t possible during the election – or for most of the last six years.
The reasons for this failure are complex and include the mainstream media’s obsession with political trivia rather than policy, the difficulties of working in a hung parliament and the ALP’s inability to break free of the daily grind and enunciate a broader vision.
How many times did we hear them criticised for not having a ‘narrative’? (No one seems to criticise the LNP for not having a narrative – perhaps it’s just taken as a given that power is all they care about.) In fact, I think there is a Labor narrative, and it’s just easier to see it when someone – in this case, two people – have to enunciate it publicly.
There are a couple of caveats here. It’s easier to talk about Labor values to Labor Party members who mostly share them than it is to talk about Labor values to swinging voters, who are very likely interested in what’s in it for me. Labor’s not like the Greens. As a major party, Labor needs to appeal to something approaching a majority at any election. They can’t just aim at policy purity for the 8-10% who support them. Thus the rhetoric for the internal audience probably isn’t going to be the same as that for the population at large. One of the challenges for the ALP is, however, to align the two sets of rhetoric.
Second, the Labor narrative has, of necessity, changed in the last twenty years. There might still be references to ‘the light on the hill’, but Chifley wouldn’t recognise the current Labor Party or the political landscape it finds itself in. Paul Keating’s embrace of neo-liberal economics – financial deregulation, dismantling of tariffs, privatisation – has seen to that.
There are now far fewer rusted on Labor voters, far fewer unionists, far less sense of common cause than before economic rationalisation reduced us all to single competing units in a market economy. It’s because both major parties accept market capitalism that we are told that the parties are the essentially the same. But I don’t think that’s ever been true.
What have the two candidates for Labor leadership been saying about Labor’s narrative? Essentially both agree that the ‘fair go’ is central to Labor’s worldview. Both are committed to improving the lives of Australians in the future.
Now any party could say this. What do Bill and Anthony have in mind? Both seem to be looking at gaps in the current activities of government, in areas like urban public transport, better provision for old age and science and innovation, as well, of course, as defending the gains of the Rudd and Gillard governments in education, disability, and health.
Call this a defining narrative? Well yes. Implicit in Labor’s embrace of economic rationalisation is the promise of an accompanying social wage which ensures that the market does not simply reward the strong or the lucky. It is this social wage that is eroded by small government and low taxes. It is this social wage that requires active government intervention in the market. Only a Labor government can deliver this – the other side doesn’t recognise either the need or the means to achieve it. The narrative is thus government intervention in the market to promote greater equality.
Neither candidate has put their vision in quite these terms; support for greater equality is the nearest they’ve come. I think it’s time for Labor to stop being afraid to say that greater equality can only be achieved through government and that it is the party of government intervention. Given the apparent success of the mainstream media’s anti ‘pink batts’ campaign, they may need to find better ways of saying it. But, thank you Jonathan Green, it’s what makes them different from the winner-takes-all views of the free market Liberal Party.
There are lots of areas where Labor needs to work harder for greater equality than it has so far acknowledged. One stands out: the need to ensure that the rigours of climate changes do not fall most heavily on the already disadvantaged – and this includes many rural communities.
There’s been some acknowledgement that Labor’s agenda has to include sustainability as a core filter for all other policies; for example, there’s no point creating jobs that simply add to the problem of greenhouse emissions. Even the British Conservatives can see that a low carbon economy can create new jobs; Labor’s challenge is to promote growth that is not only sustainable but also equitable. Pricing carbon – which is, of course, a market mechanism – is a good start, but is by no means a sufficient response to the changes that global warming will force upon us.
There’s no doubt lots of other areas where modifying market outcomes is necessary; housing provision and taxation policy come urgently to mind. Labor has time to develop policies in such areas, so long as it is true to its promise to listen to the needs of ordinary people.
The Liberals and their friends in the mainstream media can be relied on to call such policies class war or the politics of envy. This is rubbish. As Warren Buffett says, ‘There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.’ He should know.
Labor doesn’t oppose capitalism, or profit, or entrepreneurialism. Nor, these days, does it want class warfare. But it does want to use the power of government to create a more equal society, and it needs to say so loudly. And it needs to build new constituencies in support of this.
There is much at stake here. It isn’t just about Labor. It’s about rekindling the belief in the efficacy of government action that twenty years of neoliberalism has eroded. The market, as it is currently configured, is not serving us well. We need to revive the belief that government can, and will make things better. Next time Jonathan Green says Labor and Liberal are the same, can someone please send him this article?
By Kay Rollison