It is all very well to be nice and good, but the Labor Party is underselling itself if this is their only appeal to convince voters of their fitness to govern. It is time Labor killed the mainstream orthodoxy that says good economic management and being nice and good are opposing options; that you can have one but not the other. It is time Labor smashed the misconception that to vote Labor, you have to be a nice person who wants to do good things for society, but that in order to do that, you can’t also prioritise economic success. It is time Labor stopped letting the Liberals get away with their tough stance on social issues in the name of good economic management when the world is finally coming to terms with the fact that you can’t have a good economy without a well-functioning society. It is time Labor fixed their narrative to broaden their electoral appeal. It is time Labor said it straight: voting Labor is both a good thing to do socially, and is also the smart thing to do economically. In fact, you can have it both ways, and you can’t have it just one way. Labor should make this story clear.
Cultural habits die hard and so it will take some effort for Labor to undo traditional assumptions about why people vote Labor. It has long been taken for granted that Labor voters are bleeding hearts; they vote for Labor because they are looked after by Labor policies, or because they care about the people who are. The Labor voter is assumed to be the person who wants to solve the homelessness problem because they feel sorry for people who are homeless. Labor voters support Gonski 1.0 because all children deserve the best start in life; their concern extends past their own family and they want to do the right thing by the entire Australian community. Policies like the NDIS, support for Medicare, for strengthening the social safety net are all Labor policies which align with Labor values of caring for people, of having a heart, of redistributing wealth so that people have better lives than they would otherwise, for taking responsibility for everyone in the nation, no matter their wealth. Please don’t get me wrong; it is not a mistake to care for others. Showing sympathy, empathy, doing the right thing, having good values is how we bring our children up and adults who can retain these values are good human beings who should be encouraged.
I know you’re ready for the but so here it comes: BUT if Labor is to rely on people voting Labor because it is the nice and good thing to do, they are letting the Liberals steal voters who believe it is all very well to be nice and good, but what puts food on the table and a roof over their head is hard-nosed business ruthlessness and the do-gooders wouldn’t know a good business opportunity if it handed them profit on a plate.
Labor has long suffered from the notion that their policies are nice to have, but unaffordable and ultimately bad for the economy. This notion has attached itself like an leech to the Liberal’s converse values that there is no money to be nice and good if people get all the social policies they might like in a magic pudding world of unlimited government spending. The Liberals use this notion as an alibi to do really horrible things to society, all in the name of ‘austerity’, under the umbrella of ‘good economic management’ and ‘fighting the debt and deficit disaster’. They cut welfare, education and health spending. They cut regulations (which protect people from harm), they cut taxes, reducing the government’s ability to pay for the policies people need. They undermine unions and prioritise the needs and wants of business owners ahead of workers, all in the name of ‘looking after the economy’.
We don’t just see this in Australia. This issue defines the left-right divide in every democratic nation on earth. Throughout the UK election campaign, if I had a dollar every time I heard Jeremy Corbyn’s policy wish-list described as ‘unaffordable’, I would have had enough money to buy Corbyn a new shirt.
Labor suffers from this perception which influences into not only voting intention, but our very ideas about how business works and what it means to be successful at making money. For instance, the boss who gives his workers a pay rise is seen to be too nice, and not hard-nosed enough to be successful in business. The idea is that the only way to make a business work is to minimise costs and maximise profits. Same goes for government spending. Take the new world-class Royal Adelaide Hospital in South Australia, built by the Labor State Government, and under constant criticism from the Liberal Opposition and their cheerleaders in the media for being ‘too expensive’. No matter that the SA government is in surplus. No matter that it is a state in one of the richest countries in the world. No matter that the old hospital it replaced was falling to bits and full of asbestos. There is an idea from the right-wing of politics that somehow spending on a brand new public hospital which will look after people to the best of the government’s ability is a waste of money. Many voters, who you would think might be a little miffed at the Liberals for telling them they’re apparently undeserving of a world-class hospital, instead congratulate the Liberals for their good economic sense.
Labor has let this situation go on for too long. Because the new hospital is not just a nice thing to have. It’s not a shiny new toy that the people don’t really need. It’s not a sop to the bleeding hearts. The new hospital makes South Australia healthier. A healthy society is a richer society. What is good for people is good for the economy. Sick people lead to sick economic outcomes. There are a million ways to say it; Labor needs to tell the story clearly and loudly so that the misconception is vanquished. Education is not a nice to have, it’s good for the economy. Policies which hurt the environment are bad for the economy. Cutting welfare hurts economic growth. Letting business profits soar to 40% while wages grow a measly 2% in the same period is not just cruel to workers, it’s economically irresponsible and shows an ignorance about the way the economy works which is dangerous for all our livelihoods.
In a nutshell, voting Labor is socially good AND economically smart. Policies which write the rules of a society so that everyone has a chance to share in prosperity, is good for everyone’s prosperity. This is because economic growth comes from everyone’s consumer spending – the poor, the middle, the rich alike – and does not trickle down from the top. It is not bleeding-heart to understand this vital economic equation; the IMF, the World Bank, the Australian Reserve Bank, all literate economists are saying the same thing. You don’t have to be a good person to vote Labor; although it’s great if you are. You can care about the economy too. Or, you can care for only one thing – your own bank balance – and still find Labor’s policies are better for the country than the Liberals’, who may I add currently run an economy teetering on the edge of recession.
Labor needs to be proud of its economic record, it needs to tell the story of why its governments have managed successful economies. Labor needs to pull not just hearts, but also minds, over into Labor voting territory. The world is growing open to this idea. Is Labor ready to take advantage?
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