Commentary / World

Australian Labor Party snatched defeat from the jaws of victory

by Ramesh Thakur

After leading in over 50 consecutive public opinion polls, and despite chaos, acrimony, divisions and dysfunction in the leaderships of both parties in the coalition government, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) managed to lose an election it seemed certain to win. Labor voters are in shock while Liberal faithful are in awe of their new messiah.

In foreshadowing Donald Trump’s victory six months before the election in these pages (March 8, 2016), I wrote: “Of all the candidates in both parties, Trump’s appeal seems to reach the broadest and deepest with respect to region, class, education and income. They are looking for an in-your-face champion who will stick it to the snobs (elites) and scolds.” The ALP was guilty of the same mindset as Hillary Clinton’s disastrous comment on the basket of deplorables and reflected a similar hubris. The same hubris was obvious in ALP leader Bill Shorten’s response that asking for costings of climate action policies was dumb.

Opposition finance spokesman Chris Bowen went so far as to tell people who did not like their punitive tax policies on retirees to vote elsewhere. His advice was comparable to Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal advice to eat cake. Post-election analysis shows it was accepted by many voters. In polling booths where people over 60 make up at 15 percent of the population, there were 15 percent swings against Labor.

In his victory speech, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his win was a victory for quiet Australians who work hard every day. Their dreams and aspirations are “to get a job, to get an apprenticeship, to start a business, to start a family, to buy a home, to provide the best you can for your kids. To save for your retirement and to ensure when you’re in your retirement that you can enjoy it because you’ve worked hard for it.”

The ALP needs to introspect on how it managed to put itself on the wrong side of these everyday aspirations. The traditional Labor strongholds of workers, families under stress from rising costs of living, and low and middle income earners drifted to the coalition in enough numbers to determine the outcome. On economic policy, Labor picked too many fights on too many fronts, sucking oxygen out of a coherent narrative and instead gifting a counter-narrative to the coalition: Because Labor can’t manage the nation’s money, they will steal your money any which way they can — taxing property investors, retirees, high-income wealth creators to give to the aggrieved and entitled millennials.

This was a highly effective fear campaign that simultaneously also undercut Labor’s other core message of fairness. How is it fair to punish those who have played by the rules, worked hard, lived prudently and saved for a comfortable — not extravagant — retirement? Wealth creation and economic growth are necessary for an affordable welfare system. All democracies have to balance adequate social services as part of the welfare state against the need to grow the economy by rewarding enterprise, and the need to reward prudence and thrift to encourage self-reliance. Labor ignored this requirement for balance.

On environmental policy, climate action was pursued more as a moral crusade than an economic strategy to support practical, affordable and results-oriented solutions. The targets of 45 percent emissions reductions, and 50 percent renewables and electric vehicles in new cars by 2030, was overly ambitious. Refusing to provide the estimated cost to the economy frightened voters even more. Labor simply wasn’t able to answer the key question: why should the Australian economy be deindustrialized and the Australian worker lose his job for miniscule global environmental benefit?

Environmental warriors oppose two policies that would help curb global emissions, namely replacing India’s dirty fuels with Australian-sourced clean coal and nuclear fuel. According to a report from the Lancet Commission, in 2015 pollution killed 2.5 million Indians, 1.81 million from air pollution alone. Another study showed the number of deaths from air pollution in 2017 to be 1.24 million, reducing average life expectancy by 1.7 years. The next time someone is basking in the glow of environmental virtue, they should spare a thought for the poor family paying with grave health effects because the same sense of virtue stops India from accessing cleaner Australian-origin energy sources.

On identity politics, consider the high profile case of rugby star Israel Folau, who has been sacked for quoting from the Bible a passage that damns a long list of sinners, including gays, to hell if they do not repent. “Diversity and inclusion” should mean it is okay to be LGBTI, Christian, Muslim, Jew or atheist. “Intolerance and exclusion” result when it is OK to be gay or Muslim, but not Christian or Jew. An oxymoron is a boss who imposes ostracism and banishment on employees in the name of inclusion and diversity. And hypocrisy is when someone is punished for quoting his religious text in a private space outside the workplace, while in the workplace the chief sponsor gets into bed with business partners from a countries where gays are flogged, jailed and worse.

Australians voted in large numbers for same-sex marriage because they are tolerant and compassionate. During the election campaign, footage emerged of a Green Party candidate in Sydney who during the same-sex marriage referendum hurled expletive-laden hate speech at peacefully campaigning Christian students. Such ugly and vicious abuse of Christians can only deepen hostility to identity politics in all its manifestations, and to political parties that are seen to embrace it.

On leadership, in Canada, the Liberal Party is unlikely to have won the last election without Justin Trudeau as leader and he would not have been chosen leader under ALP rules. Conversely, under the Canadian system Anthony Albanese would have prevailed over Shorten, who was a drag on the party from start to finish as leader. When treated by contempt by political parties, sometimes voters return the favor at the ballot box.

Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. This is an updated and revised version of an article published in Pearls and Irritations on May 21.