Was it a mistake to raise “the big end of town”
and so-called inequality. People voting at the central Punchbowl booth in south-west Sydney showed their abhorrence of class war by swinging eleven percent towards the Liberal Party. What were Bill Shorten and his mates thinking? This is a country of aspiration.
This befuddlement is shared by many who now know where Labor went wrong. Former Labor Minister and now Chairperson of Industry Super, Greg Combet, told the ABC Business program: “I always think Labor is best when it’s thinking about wealth creation and economic reform as well as wealth distribution but there was a heavy emphasis on the latter”.
Unfortunately, Joel Fitzgibbon, Shadow Agriculture Minister dropped out of the opposition leader ballot. After experiencing a ten percent drop in support from Hunter electors, Joel is very clear about what needs to be done:
Let’s start digging
“We need to, as quickly as we can, get up, dust ourselves off , acknowledge we got things wrong and provide plenty of evidence to the electorate that we recognise we got it wrong and we’re about to embark on a new path. And this time we’re going to talk more about the regions. We’re going to talk more about coal jobs. We’re going to talk more about getting gas out of the ground so we can fuel our manufacturing industry and create jobs in the region and generally speaking we’re going to talk as much about blue collar jobs as we do about aspiration in other areas like electric vehicles or renewable energy or whatever that might be.” At last, Labor has a potential future Energy Minister to match the vision of Angus Taylor.
To help our understanding, The Age invited two experienced election campaigners to discuss what went wrong for Labor. The result was a fascinating insight into the importance of strategy along with the failure and misuse of polling. Lachlan Harris from Labor and Peter Shmigel representing the Libs told us that it’s not enough to explain what you’re doing. You have to explain why.
They hurtled through a series of observations. Every time Labor mentioned tax the Liberal Party celebrated. People are no longer looking at politics ideologically. They view it practically. In Sydney, you can get away with talking about the big end of town but not in decentralised Queensland. Your neighbour might be an aspirational tradie. Labor has to look for partners in the same way the Liberals have the Nationals. And Labor cannot win in the future with thirty three percent of the vote.
On this point, Lachlan Harris expanded, Labor needs to find a rational partner “that would allow us to navigate this new world voting order where there’s very, very clear demarcations and that is going to be a very hard lesson to learn.” He continued that “we on the left” have to find an informal way to pick up the Zali Steggal kind of vote. He was adamant that the ideal partner was not the Greens whose economic policy was too radical.
The central point I picked up from their discussion was that Labor’s narrative was “not strong enough to cover its policy agenda”. Our experts didn’t discuss a narrative and I’m glad they didn’t. Vision did not appear to be their strength.
It was always the economics
Is the environment to be part of this narrative? ABC viewers must hope so. Remember the ABC telling us in their Compass survey that our major concern was the environment. Yet, it seems over half the country saw things differently. No-one told Antony Green before before this announcement. His first response was surprise. He thought the number one issue was economics and he was right.
The Herald’s Jacqueline Maley reinforced a commonly held view on the ABC’s The Drum. She explained that “managing the economy well is part of the Liberal Party’s brand.” Assertions such as this might as easily come from Scomo or a member of his team. You might reasonably want a few more synapses and time assigned to proving this assertion. There is a counter-narrative to the one Maley presented that rarely finds its way into our press.
Special mention here for the “Change the Rules” campaign. A rule change took away penalty rates from retail and hospitality workers. A rule change might also have removed the tax concession on franked credits. In the end there was no rule change. Sally (current ACTU head) and Bill’s campaign looked like a rerun of the 2007 “Your Rights at Work” project. You remember, the one that knocked off the Howard Government’s “WorkChoices” attack on the labour force. “Your Rights” was lead by Kevin Rudd and Sharan Burrow (former ACTU head).
As John Buchanan, head of Business Analytics at Sydney University, explained to Geraldine Doogue a couple of months ago, WorkChoices was the worst piece of industrial relations legislation in our history.
Labor’s 2007 election victory ended WorkChoices. Rudd and Julia Gillard (as Employent Minister) gave us The Fair Work Act. Buchanan described this as the second worst piece of industrial relations legislation in our history. Anyone who was involved in the “Your Rights” campaign twelve years ago and has had to deal with a modern day enterprise bargaining agreement under “Fair Work” was unlikely to have been too excited by this latest promise of liberation. Unfortunately, for Bill, we had seen his trick before and when he pulled out the rabbit it was dead.
Buchanan’s cameo emphasises the important role the ABC can play. Unfortunately, it rarely deals with the economics in a sophisticated way. There are endless gotcha questions about surpluses and deficits. Such debates play to the Liberal Party’s congered superiority. Our media endlessly celebrates our 5% unemployment. It ignores the much larger figure of under-employed and those who have, despairingly, given up dealing with the vicious job agencies. These unemployment percentages, suspiciously, avoid scrutiny when commentators celebrate the Liberal Party’s economic mastery.
Unlike Radio National, ABC TV is often as infantile as the commercial media. The “We Share a Dream and Sing with One Voice” jingle belies the lived experience. If you want to see division, have a look at the electoral voting map for Macquarie.
The vision thing
So many of the narratives we are given fail to describe the lives we lead. The Labor narrative remains confused. The Liberal Party narrative is largely confected neolberal, business-focused, aspirational mumbo jumbo reinforced by commercial media and disinformation. As Philip Mirowski explains, “We are all neoliberals now”. The world has been so devastatingly reshaped in the last 40 years that we have difficulty viewing things in any other way than through the market.
The Liberal Party gave up on vision years ago. They adopted an electorally pragmatic philosophy in the middle of last century. Twenty three years in opposition and a mere three years in power convinced Labor by the late 1970s that it needed to change. Dean Jaensch described this change in his book, “The Hawke / Keating Hijack”, which described how Labor shifted from a mass party to a catch-all party. Jaensch labelled the electoral process this engendered as electoralism. For all the celebration of Hawke’s achievements, you don’t get a 12 page celebration of your life in the Australian Financial Review, as Hawke did last weekend, by being a socialist.
Shorten’s vision may have been informed by a grander narrative We will never know. What seems certain now is that Labor is about to shift right and fight for the votes of people without “ideological baggage”. Albanese is a true market believer. He won’t need a grand narrative. The old one will do. He will compete with the Liberal Party in making us more business compatible and compliant. We will see the reduction of society and the electoral process to the rolling out of endless culturally garnished pork barrels. Of course, special accommodation will be made for our Muslim and Jewish friends.