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Can Labor recapture the will and capacity to win the big debates?

Not since John Howard conceded in 2007 that WorkChoices went too far has Labor controlled and won a big policy debate. AAP/Andrew Brownbill

In the wake of the ALP’s poor result in the recent Western Australia Senate election, The Conversation is publishing a series of articles looking at the party’s brand, organisation and future prospects. In this edited extract of a speech delivered prior to the WA vote, former ALP National President Barry Jones discusses Labor’s aversion to the big policy questions.

The ALP may have lost the capacity to take control of major issues and win debates on them. Its last success was against John Howard over WorkChoices in 2007.

WorkChoices generated a well-founded fear among voters that Howard had gone too far and that job security and living standards were threatened.

Tony Abbott, not exactly an enthusiast for unions, was understood to have strongly opposed Howard’s position in cabinet. Opposition also came from church leaders, Catholic and non-Catholic, and many NGOs.

Since then there has been a long series of failures in advocacy, even when the evidence was overwhelmingly on Labor’s side. The list includes: handling the economy, taxation, climate change and carbon pricing, environment, asylum seekers and refugees, problem gambling, a republic, human rights and the surveillance state.

Handling the economy

The International Monetary Fund and Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz praised the Rudd government as having handled the global financial crisis better than any other developed nation. Australia had lower unemployment than most OECD countries, with low interest rates, a AAA credit rating from all three major agencies, low international debt, high foreign investment and a ranking next to Norway on the Human Development Index.

Labor proved incapable of explaining its success to the electorate – partly because of suicide bombing over leadership. The pink batts fiasco, resulting in four deaths, deplorable and probably preventable, submerged any argument Kevin Rudd might have made that the home insulation scheme was a 98% success.

Polling indicated that voters thought the Coalition would be better at managing the economy. This at a time when Abbott and Joe Hockey were falsely denouncing the economy as a smoking ruin and the Coalition had not yet revealed its economic policies.

The 2009 taxation review chaired by Ken Henry was very badly handled by Labor. The government cherry-picked a few big-ticket items, such as the Minerals Resources Rent Tax, failed to negotiate with miners, jumped the gun and imposed a tax that generated community opposition but raised very little revenue.

Tax rates were never mentioned in the 2013 election campaign. Australia is the fifth lowest taxing nation in the OECD: only Mexico, Chile, the US and South Korea have lower rates. Unfortunately the comparison is virtually meaningless to Australian taxpayers because, other than assertion, they have no basis of comparison.

On the ABC’s 7:30 program on March 12, Henry argued powerfully about the need to raise taxation levels, even if it is politically unpopular, as the only way to fund the Gonski school reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and the increasing costs of an ageing population. Securing bipartisan agreement should be easy. Interestingly, Henry was subject to some biffo in the Murdoch papers for raising the bleeding obvious.

Retreating on climate change

Labor’s handling of the climate change/carbon pricing issue was atrocious. In 2007, Rudd promised a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), generally referred to as the emissions trading scheme. In 2009 he failed to get support from the Greens and decided not to call a double dissolution after the Senate rejected it.

After Malcolm Turnbull lost the Liberal Party leadership, and Rudd returned deeply disillusioned from the Copenhagen Climate Conference, he virtually dropped the issue.

In 2010, Julia Gillard promised not to introduce carbon pricing, then did so after the election. She could have explained her change in direction convincingly but failed to do so, and after the legislation was carried never argued effectively for its merits or explained its purpose.

The mining industry and the Murdoch papers attacked climate change measures relentlessly. To call the Rudd-Gillard government’s response feeble would be to over-praise it. The scientific case was miserably explained and the problems of risk assessment not advanced at all.

Bernie Fraser had it absolutely right when he attacked “brazen falsehoods” and “misinformation” about climate change. He concluded that the “bad guys” won after the “good guys” lay down.

The environment used to be high on the political agenda. Now it is rarely talked about in political circles, and the mantra is “Jobs!, Jobs!, Jobs!”. This often means, in practice, a conviction that work in the future will be essentially what it has been in past generations, an extremely unlikely proposition.

Control of the party by factions, which in practice are essentially executive placement agencies, means the ALP may have lost the capacity to deal with major issues.

Abandoning asylum seekers

The asylum seeker/refugee tragedy continues. “Boat people” are officially designated as “illegals” even when they have broken no law. We have a bipartisan approach, but it is a negative one, a race to the bottom with alternative cruelties offered for the support of voters. Dissenters include the Greens, the Democratic Labor Party and the Palmer United Party.

The period 1947-96 involved bipartisanship on immigration that was positive. Malcolm Fraser gave permanent residence to more than 50,000 Cambodians and Vietnamese after 1977. Bob Hawke did the same with 20,000 Chinese students after Tiananmen Square in 1989. In both cases the then-opposition went along.

The 2001 Tampa incident was a turning point as the politics of fear in the asylum debate took hold. AAP/Wallenius Wilhelmsen

The Tampa incident in 2001 marked a turn in the tide, with a covert racism which the then opposition cravenly supported (it being an election year). Now there is negative bipartisanship based on fear. Abbott and immigration minister Scott Morrison may settle Coalition policy, but they shape Labor policy as well.

In the 2013 election I thought that Labor’s Papua New Guinea “solution” was diabolically clever – then I realised that it was just diabolical. And the cost is extraordinary, not just in dollars but in the destruction of values.

Between about 1967 and 2001, racism was not an element in the practice of Australian politics: it was avoided, by consensus. Now racism is a powerful element, both explicit and implicit.

Failing to tackle problem gambling

Australians, according to The Economist, rank #1 in the world as gamblers. But, as the failed attempts to secure federal legislation to curb problem gambling in the 43rd parliament demonstrated, the sheer size and spread of the gambling industry and its powerful influence in politics and the media make it virtually untouchable.

In addition, states and territories become addicted to gambling revenue, and simply can’t break the habit.

Labor’s craven failure to tackle problem gambling is a striking illustration of the power of sectional and regional vested interests. Ducking and weaving, it refused to address one of the great social problems, a major contributor to poverty, marriage breakup and suicide.

Giving up on a republic

The republic is a highly symbolic issue – not an economic one. Outwitted and outmanoeuvred by John Howard in the 1999 referendum, when direct-election republicans and die-hard monarchists made common cause, Labor has backed away from an issue that is capable of generating idealism, vision and commitment.

Labor adopted the absurd position that the issue would be shelved until the reign of Queen Elizabeth II ended, by abdication (unlikely), incapacity (possibly) or death (she might well outlive her centenarian mother). That enshrines the proposition that our national priorities should depend on an external factor over which we have no control. It also means that affection and respect for a person outweighs matters of principle.

Prince George photographs well. Perhaps there could be a further moratorium to include him.

Surrendering our rights

The United States, during the administration of George W Bush, sanctioned the use of torture, suspension of the rule of law, suppression of information and expansion of the surveillance state. Australia weakly acquiesced.

President Barack Obama has wound back on torture a little, we think, but the surveillance state is still powerful and selective assassinations are increasing sharply. Australia’s weakness in the case of Julian Assange has been a matter for shame.

Where to now?

Five things are needed: vision, courage, judgement, capacity to argue a case and leadership.

In the Whitlam and post-Whitlam era, people were drawn to political activism because of specific policies that they were desperate to change: abolishing the death penalty, getting out of Vietnam, ending conscription, establishing Australia’s national identity (including constitutional reform and the republic), ending White Australia, entrenching rights for Aborigines and promoting affirmative action, preserving the environment (Great Barrier Reef, Tasmanian wilderness), universal secondary education and more universities.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Gough Whitlam, Jim Cairns, Lionel Murphy and Don Dunstan were passionate and courageous advocates for policy changes. They were not particularly close, but they agreed on most issues. We all knew what they stood for. The same was true of Hawke and Paul Keating, and we could add names like Tom Uren, Neville Wran and John Cain.

Where are their equivalents – who are their equivalents – today?

This is an edited extract of a speech delivered to an Evatt Foundation fundraiser on March 15.

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