Winning Costs: Labor past, present, and future.
The epilogue to Labor’s shock election loss in 2019 involved a comprehensively damning intra-party review. The Emerson & Weatherill review called for a smaller and more targeted election platform in 2022. Many of Labor’s policies were too easily weaponised and misrepresented by a cunning Coalition government and their attendant stenographers in the press. Some policies were even invented, like the infamous (albeit fictional) “Death Tax”. Certain policies, taken together, carried so much negative baggage for the party, that shedding some of that political dead weight became inevitable. What wasn’t obvious was just how many, and which, policies Labor would shed. In the end the party abandoned most of the politically tarnished policy offerings in an attempt to regain the nation’s trust. Of all contenders who could have assumed the Labor leadership after Bill Shorten’s rein, one might have guessed that Labor-left’s Anthony Albanese was least likely to so totally internalise the election review’s edicts. After all, this is the same guy who opposed the excesses of Labor’s brand of neo-liberal reform in the 80s and 90s. Was this guy really going to preside over Labor’s galactic pivot away from the most progressive election agenda in recent history? Such doubts underestimated Albanese’s commitment to his party, which he has described as one of three great faiths in his life. Since taking the reigns, the Labor leader has described getting Labor into government as a foundational principle of his. Clearly the lesson Albanese took from 2019 was that running a campaign that includes so many of the progressive changes Labor desires is worthless if it results in another three years of Coalition rule.
Labor has ruled out a variety of measures it took to the last election, most notably those related to tax reform. But additionally, a promise to review the unemployment benefit level, more Medicare coverage of dental health, and plans to pay super on paid parental leave, were also consigned to history. Although the press, most blatantly the News Corp outlets, have been typically and shamelessly biased in favour of the Coalition, the shift by Labor has certainly blunted their opponents attacks. So too has their expensive commitment to having all major policies independently costed, as well as their efforts to win the support of the BCA and other stakeholders in contested policy areas, such as climate and energy. Albanese’s long-term strategy, to make the election a referendum on the PM’s character, as well as a selection of carefully chosen issues, namely integrity in government and the cost of living, looks to have been vindicated. If the polls are even half-way right, the party is set to assume government. But along the way the party has shifted towards the centre-ground politically.
Considering the commitment to a federal ICAC and a referendum on an Indigenous Voice to parliament, which Labor has committed to achieve in it’s first term, it seems erroneous to label Labor’s agenda as small target, as many have. Smaller, sure, but not small. It’s certainly no smaller than the agenda that Rudd swept into power with in 2007, but it’s notably more meagre than the more recent 2019 agenda. In contrast to 2019 Labor has tightened the purse strings in areas of serious need. Rhetorically, they’ve tried to win back credibility on national security. Labor’s language on refugee policy descended to levels as heartless as it’s actual policy has been for years. This has concerned a lot of Labor’s base, but I sense another underlying fear. A fear that what if not only their 2019 performance has forced Labor’s smaller-target strategy, but that so too has it’s new leader. What if painting a bigger picture, a more compelling story about what Australia can become, would have been difficult for a leader whose media performance, and by direct extension his capacity to sell big ideas, doesn’t rival that of past Labor PMs? Albanese sometimes rambles, and on occasion struggles to answer questions directly, even when a direct answer could play well for him. One wonders if a better storyteller could have salvaged more treasure from Labor’s sunken 2019 platform.
Albanese’s colleague and shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, presents as a masterful communicator who commands the respect of the press pack. Regurgitate to Chalmers a Coalition party line of attack (standard practice), and his answer will usually deconstruct your erroneous framing, demonstrate lucid insight into the issue, talk up the Labor party, and somehow carve out space in a broader, coherent national story. Chalmers effortlessly crafts national stories. It seems fair to wonder, should Albanese win this election, and even the next, if it might not be long before his colleagues seek generational change. Whether it be Chalmers, or another impressive contender, say Tanya Plibersek or Annika Smethurst. Between the Murdoch and Nine papers, the anti-Labor bias won’t randomly cease, and it’s not yet clear how Albanese would manage under such scrutiny when he’s not buoyed by such a widely-loathed opponent in Morrison.
On the other hand, it’s easy to doubt someone who doesn’t present as a born-to-lead aspirant. Growing up as poor as he did, there’s no reason to believe Albanese ever felt entitled to the Prime Ministership. That makes him different to most recent PMs, and it could make it difficult to see him as leadership ‘material’ at first glance. Does he have the supreme confidence and charisma? Does he need to? Maybe after Morrison Australians have tired of the cosmetics, the marketing, and will be more concerned with government’s actual capacity to hone good policy and build things. In these areas there’s no doubting Albanese, who, for his part, says he’s been underestimated his whole life.
We often describe the Overton window shifting from side to side, or left to right, in political discourse. Another way to look at it is the window widens and narrows. Both widening and narrowing, whether because of past defeats or present limitations, carry political risks. The consensus reflection on Labor’s 2019 election loss is that their platform broadened the Overton window beyond the bandwidth of the electorate, and far past the ideological red lines of the agenda-setting Murdoch media. The consequences are history. But what are the opportunity costs of narrowing the bounds of debate, as has occurred since 2019? Projecting itself as a party of “safe change” will certainly persuade some to redirect their vote. Whereas others, more impatient for big economic reforms, will feel uninspired by the campaign. This cohort, of (usually metropolitan) voters, Labor is betting it can afford to leak to the left, where preferences will tend to favour it downstream. Clearly Albanese’s Labor sees this as just one of the costs of forming government. But Labor’s strategy does set constraints on what it could do in government, if elected. Bold attempts at progressive reform could easily be painted as a shocking betrayal of national expectations. After all, we were promised ‘safe change’. Enter ‘Xi Jing Albo’s Socialist Trojan Horse’ — you can just see the headlines. More than likely the party’s redistributive instincts, proven potent and real by their 2019 agenda, will be fenced into relative dormancy by their defensive election strategy. These are the opportunity costs of a risk-averse campaign. The winning costs, perhaps.
In her biography of Anthony Albanese, Karen Middleton writes that the veteran parliamentarian thinks 10 steps ahead. Recently she’s reported that Albanese’s team has, over the past 3 years, been planning for not only this election, but also the next one. Albanese himself has said that a Labor government can’t expect to accomplish everything it desires in it’s first term. During his tenure as Labor leader, Albanese has reaffirmed his desire for an Australian republic, universal childcare, serious action on inequality, and an expansion of Medicare. And it would be naïve, in my view, to think redistributive economic reform won’t be back on Labor’s agenda in the future. But what’s becoming clear is just how committed Albanese is to forming a long-term government. There’ll be no Whitlam-style ‘crash or crash through’. Perhaps what looks like capitulation will prove to be something more like patience. The Labor leader thinks in long timespans. Whether he can win and keep the faith for long enough to entrench the kinds of reforms he’s advocated for his whole life remains to be seen. And whether a bolder strategy could have garnered a bigger mandate for faster change is unknowable.