The abiding fear of the weak and the timid in Australian politics is of being wedged, of being misrepresented, or of having the true, but undisclosed, implications of what one has said being drawn to the public's attention, unravelling one's position.
This week's intervention in the national security debate by Paul Keating, the prime minister of 25 years ago, is an object lesson in why the confident, the self-assured and the bold are never restrained by such anxieties. Whatever Paul Keating's failure as a politician, they were not of being mealy-mouthed, of shying away from Labor tradition or principle, or of being afraid to enter into a debate lest anyone, anyone at all, disagree.
That most leaders of the federal Labor party since Keating have distrusted the electorate, have been pessimistic about its capacity to hear and understand its messages, and have shied away from conflict and debate, or couched its policies with weasel words is one of the major reasons it has been unable since to win, or having won, to retain the electorate's confidence.
One might think that Labor was poised to take office at the next election. Scott Morrison is doing almost everything he can to deserve to lose it. But Labor, in full panic mode lest anything it says or does gives comfort to Coalition scare campaigns, is also doing everything it can to deserve to lose, or to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Not only do I doubt that it can win an election by default, but I suspect that if it wins an election without a coherent message or broad set of policies, it will govern in a way that forfeits any right to the respect of its members or supporters. That is, it could be as weak, indecisive and devoid of guiding principle as it has been over the past two years, in effect merely taking its agenda from being ever so vaguely more moderate than the Liberal leader of the time. At such a time it is the Coalition calling the shots, not Labor.
Finding some spine and giving potential Labor voters something to support or mobilise about is not necessarily about suddenly issuing policies presently withheld for what Labor's campaign geniuses will insist are tactical reasons. (These same geniuses, party organisers, pollsters and advertising advisers, are, of course, the very same people, despite changes of Labor leadership who have advised Labor into mostly consecutive defeats since Keating's time. The one exception - Kevin Rudd in 2007 - won on the strength of his personality, not by following the accumulated wisdom of the party machine and campaign "specialists".)
It may well be, indeed, that the election will be won not by policies or promises but by philosophies. Scott Morrison is attempting to fashion a narrative of the Coalition being about "freedom" and choice, about its being an enemy of any force of moral, social, economic or legal coercion, with the Labor Party being hopelessly caught up in wanting to make all of the decisions itself, depriving the middle class of choice. In this narrative, Labor is becoming more and more authoritarian, more and more wedded to collectivist decision making using the full force of the state's coercive powers to punish anyone who does not agree with it. By this account, apparently, one must understand that it is Labor which is doctrinaire, totalitarian in bent, and the natural enemy of any Australian who wants to tackle problems in his or her own way.
It would be all too typical of modern Labor cowardice on such matters if its strategic or tactical response was developed on one or other of the following three lines. First, it's a trap. If we try to respond by defending collectivism in any way, we will be portrayed as communists, with members of the secret police at our elbow. Best to just ignore it. Or, second: we must prove that we are more freedom-oriented than they are. Perhaps, to throw them off their stride we should propose using Commonwealth powers to override all speeding laws. Or third: the very fact that they are settling on this as a campaign idea suggests that they have been told that this, like economic management, law and order, and national security are perceived by voters as among their strengths. It could distract us by taking the focus on the election campaign away from infrastructure. Or housing. Or (cough, cough) education.
With responses such as this, one could imagine Morrison knowing he is on to a good thing and suggesting that Labor is avoiding the real issue of the campaign. That it is using prevarications, evasions and refusal to address the questions to disguise its intrinsic tendency to want to use the power of government to advance its policies, and its decided and determined view of what will best advance the interests of the Australian people.
Needless to say one could not expect, in this scenario, that there would be many Labor advocates pointing out that successive Coalition governments have become more and more coercive, totalitarian and surveillance-oriented, with national security legislation far more enveloping and unaccountable than it was during any of the World Wars. Or that its supposed opposition to mandated or coercive policies does not extend to welfare policies (see, for example robodebt), refugee or deportation policies, or the right of welfare organisation, charities or public interest institutions to advocate their policies and to criticise the way that government stands in the way. Nor has it stopped the government talking non-stop of tightening its control over social media, over watchdogs of the public interest and the ABC, while reducing public controls over police, blatant corruption by government and over protection of the environment. The party that, in the name of freedom hands out over $40 billion to its mates and cronies in business on the pretence that they are suffering from the pandemic, while consciously deciding not to have systems to retrieve the money if it turns out that they didn't need the money, or were ineligible for it in the first place.
In a different time a more spirited Labor, particularly a confident Labor leadership, would be taking advantage of the opportunity provided by a pseudo-"freedom" debate to defend and promote the organised activity of the whole community as against the cult of individualism, choice and markets that has reduced and debased the quantity and quality of services available to citizens. It would move quickly from a robust defence of principles to a principled attack on modern developments in government - the attack on public service and the politicisation of its leadership, the substitution of partisan and interested advice from minders and consultants at the expense of independent and professional advice, and the virtual demolition of the rule of law, transparency and accountability in how public money is now being spent.
Such things, and the philosophical basis of why Labor promotes (or ought to promote) education, health, housing, community care, a safe and tolerant and more equal society do not need to await a formal election campaign, least of all when it is clear that Morrison is already in full campaign mode. Labor is on trial not only for what it means or promises to do (campaign matters) but for its general ideas, ideals and its way of thinking about important social and economic problems of the community. A would-be leader or leadership may judge it tactically wise to prioritise some policy - for example about (yawn) physical infrastructure - and to de-emphasise some other former policy - for example about taxes. It may have particularly bright new ideas about some area of policy - for example about climate change action - the better polished because it waited for the government to commit itself. But these are matters of tactics, not fundamental approaches. They are not reasons for keeping quiet for tactical surprise, or so as to conceal policies that might not be as popular as others. Voters should never be in any doubt about Labor's general approach and aspirations in any area of government activity. But they can now be excused for being thoroughly confused about what Labor stands for, or about its abiding ideas. It might be nice to think that Labor deserves office simply for not being led by Scott Morrison, or being influenced by the ideas and philosophy of the National Party. There's a case for that, but, alas for those who think so, it is an idea more powerful among those already predisposed to voting Labor, rather than among those who have previously supported the Coalition. Labor will not win the election with cheerio calls. Nor with vague, but "moderate" appeals designed, through focus groups, not to actually offend anyone. Most of Labor's policies on the national security state, on boat people, and on welfare fraud have been designed to mirror the Coalition's approach, rather than to signal any points of difference of philosophy or policies.
Labor's follow-the-leader policies on defence and foreign affairs, its adoption of the nuclear option without anything passing for debate, the implicit copying of policies of much-reduced aid and remaining unpopular in Southeast Asia have been strongly (and rightly) criticised by Paul Keating. The problem is not merely one of dumb policies, or of being sucked into ad hoc provocations of China, France and some of our Asian neighbours. It is that the shirking of any sort of intelligent debate over resources, priorities and the future of our region, and conflict-avoidance by Labor's leadership has seriously skewed good policy and practice. A Labor election win could be a real opportunity to get political and cultural relationships with China back on an even keel, without any retreat from criticism of China's domestic policies or of its human rights record.
Scott Morrison is vulnerable to attack for failing to articulate any sort of vision or long-term economic plan for Australia, even, or perhaps especially in relation to climate change action, but also in terms of resetting the economy after all of the disruptions of the pandemic, including the interruptions to immigration, state border closures and the revival of industries particularly hard hit by the pandemic recession. No doubt he can answer this by saying that government is focused, as it should be, on creating the conditions under which business can flourish, and in which new technology and personal choice and market solutions will prevail. But he has put the economy under an array of handicaps. The most obvious one is in relation to tertiary education, consciously crippled by government when, during the recession, it refused to give universities any assistance from loss of income, disruptions caused by lockdowns and the loss of lucrative foreign student income, and serious loss of staff. The reason was ideological, but even so, it involved a good amount of economic self-harm given that it is precisely on this sector that government and the economy must depend if innovation, invention and technological change are to make up for the gaps in policy in addressing the government's limited climate-change targets.
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Anthony Albanese has no reason for caution in promising major re-investment in education, and at all levels, primary, secondary, vocational and tertiary. Like road-building or railway-building (even after the savings from dumping projects such as spur lines to coal fields on the inland railway), it is capital investment that can be achieved by borrowing at very low interest rates, rather than by taxes. By itself, a renewal of spending and investment will stimulate employment and the general economy, as well as a re-opening of the battered education export sector. Just as significantly, it addresses potential Labor voters at present somewhat disillusioned by both of the major parties (particularly because of climate-change policies, or the lack of them. An unenthusiastic vote, or even a pissed-off one arriving via the Greens has no less currency than a whole-hearted one. But if a Labor campaign cannot cause any enthusiasm or aspects of a mass movement among younger voters, Labor is doomed. And not just at this election but elections to come. The payback of electoral support - not to mention new jobs and general economic stimulus, will be far bigger than from road or rail-building and have a longer-term impact on the economy. Likewise with serious re-investment in public health, and in hospital services, focused on learning lessons from the pandemic, and making sure that future pandemics, virtually inevitable, catch us better prepared.
It may well be that the near-invisible Tanya Plibersek (Labor's shadow education minister) and the Albanese campaign team are holding back a comprehensive education and university program designed to achieve just that. But any advantage from surprise will be more than overweighed by the fact of nearly two years of serious damage to the higher education sector with only the most muted protest from the Labor Party. Students, put bluntly, have not known that Labor was on their side, or that it fully intended to restore, or indeed rebuild, the sector in a way designed for the needs of the population and the economy.
Recovery from the pandemic has provided governing parties with enormous opportunities, not least in an environment in which (temporarily) money is cheap, debt not a major short-term problem, and rebuilding of institutions and services a requirement as much as a worthy aspiration. Morrison may be an able election campaigner, in the sense of designing or confecting straw electoral issues. But a real leader would be dealing in important images of a nation responding to new challenges in new ways, not merely seeking to restore a tired and stagnant past. The ALP has, or ought to have, an authentic leader, as well versed in appealing to the emotions as to the facts, and with a very long, and pretty convincing list of the Morrison government's iniquities. The polls suggest that Labor, if not yet Albanese, is preferred by voters. Why then are even rusted-on Labor voters so fearful of disaster? Of blowing its chances? Or being sabotaged from within? Of being outsmarted by politicians whose whole progress over the present term suggests serious problems of planning, organisation, breadth or depth. Labor has got to be in it to win it, and it is not yet there.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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