Where is John Howard’s opposition? These days, not in the ALP
Recent weeks have seen a flurry of policy ideas – good, bad and stupid – floated by Coalition parliamentarians. Good: the so-called Ginger Group has championed tax reform. Bad: Tony Abbott and others have ignited a debate over abortion. Stupid: Petro Georgiou declared that Australia’s border protection policies have worked so well that they should be abolished.
Various commentators have discussed the threat posed to John Howard by these rumblings from the party room. On another front, the perennial leadership question has returned to the fore. And speaking of the Treasurer, he has drawn fire from state governments over his outrageous proposition that they should use their GST windfalls to eliminate inefficient state taxes, rather than directing it towards crucial projects like the taxpayer-funded refurbishment of Victorian Trades Hall.
In all this excitement, it’s easy to forget the only people we’re not hearing from – the Opposition. Fresh from a fourth successive defeat, federal Labor has settled on a simple strategy: more of the same.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in their choice of leader. The Labor caucus swallowed hook, line and sinker the conventional media wisdom about the reason for Mark Latham’s defeat: he was too “risky”.
It seems not to have occurred to Labor that the real problem with Latham was that, once elevated to the leadership, his much-vaunted courage descended into sheer opportunism as he danced from one populist position to the next. No, Labor thinks that its problem was a leader with new ideas. Their solution?
Appoint a leader with none.
Who could forget cringing before Kim Beazley’s self-debasing advertising campaign to tell the electorate where he stood? The answer, as best we could discern from the ads, was “next to a desk”.
Now we have returned to the purely reactionary and opportunistic style of opposition in which Labor has been mired through most of the Howard era, eschewing alternative policy detail in favour of a shopping list of complaints. At a time in the political cycle when opposition MPs should be flying a thousand policy kites to see which remain aloft, Labor’s benches appear bereft of ideas. As a result, the nation’s only alternative policy agenda is coming from the Government backbench.
This is not just a problem of political cowardice. The Labor malaise runs far deeper.
Here’s an easily-repeatable experiment I recently tried: ask a few grassroots Liberals what policies the Government should introduce. Tax cuts, welfare reforms; you’ll get your answer. For a laugh, try the same with a Green: “Ban cars, free marijuana for all” (I quote from memory).
Now ask a few Labor branch members of the more cosmopolitan variety.
The results are not just reactionary, they are laced with cynicism about both the electorate and the party: Howard’s border protection policy is evil – but we must tread softly or the racist Australian electorate will reject us. We must stop Howard’s IR reforms, welfare reforms, and so on – but we can’t wind back what’s already done. Union power in the ALP is undemocratic – but without it, the lunatics would take charge of the asylum.
It is common to both parties that most parliamentarians are less comfortable with policy and ideology than with political tactics. But when the grassroots membership, after nine years of opposition, cannot identify any unifying cause beyond opposition to the government of the day, it is no surprise that their representatives can’t either.
Unfortunately for Labor, Beazley’s ungainly verbiage does not conceal, but accentuates, his lack of substance, as displayed in a Lateline interview with Tony Jones on 22 February. Having criticised the deployment of additional forces to Iraq, Beazley was pressed for his own prescription:
BEAZLEY: …you will never be able to train sufficient Iraqi security forces to do that job…
JONES: But are you saying we should not be training Iraqi security forces; that shouldn’t be part of the mission of Australian troops?
BEAZLEY: I think we need a different engagement with Iraq. I’ve made that clear before. I think the time has come to say to the Iraqis: well, there is a certain military involvement that we will have – and I don’t want to go through all the issues there; you understand what our position is in that regard – but as far as…
[Here Jones wisely interrupts to change the topic before his remaining listeners nod off].
While it is fun to torment the congenitally-verbose, consider whether Beazley’s style is more a symptom than a cause of his party’s problems. At a fundamental level, federal Labor simply has nothing to say. Beazley merely personifies his party’s irrelevance.
It need not be this way. The Howard Government has overseen a transfer in economic power from those who earn to those who own. Younger generations have every right to feel angered by the baby boomers, who have maintained exorbitant income tax rates to fund unsustainable benefits for their retirement while forcing the rest of us to pay our own way through life. A bold ALP would start by establishing its credentials as the party of inter-generational justice. For instance, Labor could advocate abolishing negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount to fund substantial cuts in income tax. It could push for a rise in the retirement age. And it could devise other policies to address the looming imbalance between workers and welfare recipients.
But while opportunities abound for Labor to demonstrate a fresh commitment to good governance, it remains paralysed by fear. Labor’s renewal will require a positive reappraisal of the electorate Labor has learnt to despise.
Australians no longer believe in a free lunch. That is why too-good-to-be-true policies like Medicare Gold have failed. This is an era of conviction politics.
If Labor is prepared to build on the theme of inter-generational justice and securing the interests of future generations, it will win converts even amongst those adversely affected. Contrary to the bleating of demoralised left-wing columnists, Australians do not decide their votes on self-interest alone, or even principally.
The GST election demonstrated that it is possible to win with policies that people believe will affect them adversely, so long as they feel there is a greater national good at stake. A courageous Labor leader could restore Labor’s sense of moral purpose without venturing onto the Greens’ wilder shores. Nothing lasts forever, and sooner or later Labor will find itself in government, however lacklustre that government may be. It is therefore in the interests of all Australians that Labor find a new and worthy vision to advance.