Much has been said about the May 18 election outcome. That’s hardly surprising given the result was such an upset.
The first lesson Opposition parties should take from this year’s federal election is that the gift of an underwhelming and underperforming government is not enough alone to guarantee victory.
Labor confused and scared the electorate. We made ourselves the target when we should have left voters free to focus on a 6-year-old Government without an agenda and with no substantial record of achievement.
The second lesson is to never underestimate your political opponent. I never saw any sign that Labor’s key strategists took Scott Morrison sufficiently seriously. There was certainly no substantial re-positioning after Morrison took the Leadership of his Party.
Why was this a mistake? Quite simply because while Malcolm had some redeeming features, a good politician he is not.
Scott Morrison by contrast is a very experienced, professional politician. He is of the Liberal Party. He understands its culture and its internal power dynamics.
Scott Morrison doesn’t care that he’s not seen as the smartest bloke in the building. Rather, he’s a whatever-it-takes sort of guy.
So in May we were fighting the wrong bloke.
The Prime Minister’s win was built off the back of three key messages:
- Labor’s policy package is a threat to peoples’ economic security;
- Labor is putting progressive causes ahead of the rights of people of faith and traditional values; and,
- The Coalition promises to change nothing much.
I don’t want to dwell on the first message because it will only sound like a whinge. Rather, I’ll simply repeat what I’ve already said very publicly; if you open yourself up to a scare campaign that’s exactly what you should expect.
Faith remains important for a large proportion of the Australian community and it’s a topic Scott Morrison understands well. He could see Labor’s progressive instincts were overwhelming its sensibilities on religious respect and he exploited that weakness.
But it’s his third message – to change nothing – that I want to dwell on for just a few moments.
Many have begun to compare Scott Morrison with Donald Trump. That’s hardly surprising, our Prime Minister is encouraging it, doing his very best to look and sound like Donald Trump, at every opportunity.
“In the bubble” is Scott Morrison’s version of “fake news”. “How good is Australia” is his equivalent of Donald Trump’s “let’s make America great again”.
His trip to Ohio to join the President at what was in effect a campaign rally painted the picture the Prime Minister was no doubt hoping for.
Last week he went a bit further when he joined in on the US President’s unbridled attack on the global institutions and frameworks that have laid the foundations for much of Australia’s economic success.
These are views, by the way, he at no time expressed before May 18 or indeed, at no point prior to his recent visit to Washington. I’m confident I can say without challenge, these are views we have historically come to expect only from minor right-wing parties like One Nation and its global equivalents.
And in joining with the President in making China’s WTO status an issue, he has failed to clearly articulate how Australia is being disadvantaged under current arrangements, or how changing them would benefit Australia.
So, we’ve heard Scott Morrison sounding a lot like Donald Trump and he’s doing so because he does not have a domestic agenda beyond fear and division, beyond pitting Australian against Australian.
His big challenge though is sustaining this strategy because he is not really like Donald Trump. The President’s main and consistent message has been one of change; he is constantly challenging the status quo and the political orthodoxy. It’s a model they call “nostalgic conservatism”, a romanticised promise to take us all back to the good old days.
Donald Trump is a populist for sure, but he is no conservative in the true sense of the word. Conservatives resist change, Donald Trump is a change agent.
Scott Morrison is a different beast. He is a conservative with a capital “C”.
Despite his more recent global adventurism, Scott Morrison’s main cut-through message throughout the election campaign – and since – has been a promise to keep things just as they are. And in the midst of Labor’s busy and confusing messaging, it worked.
Maybe we should not be surprised. To paraphrase futurist and author Yuval Noah Harari;
“today, more people die from obesity than by starvation, more die from old age than from disease, and more die by accident than at the result of violence”.
So maybe Australians were happy with the status quo? But I doubt it.
I don’t believe the Coalition won because the status quo sounded appealing to voters. Rather, I believe they chose the safer of the two options on offer.
Australian’s are inherently conservative. “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush”. “Better to be safe than sorry”. They are phrases that have taken prominence in Australian conversation for generations.
Even the most policy progressive amongst us can be fearful of change, particularly if it threatens their financial security and therefore, the welfare of their loved ones.
The “no change” message worked so well on May 18 because so many Australians saw a threat in Labor’s suite of policies. The coal miners I represent were amongst them, so too were my retired mineworkers.
Labor’s equivocation over the Adani coal mine left us in no-man’s-land. We satisfied neither the right nor the left. We failed to point out that if you achieve a 50 percent renewables outcome by 2030, then axiomatically, the other fifty percent will come from fossil fuel sources. That it seems, was because that message would not have suited our city-centric narrative.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the way we stopped talking to our blue-collar base.
We made another mistake in not reminding Australians that under existing energy settings, four coal-fired power stations were due to close before 2030. That timetable had nothing to do with Federal Labor – it was the reality under the Coalition’s watch.
In normal circumstances, Scott Morrison’s “no change” message would have struggled. More of the same sounds okay if you are doing well and you believe the economy is on track to keep things that way.
It would be courageous to suggest that in the economic environment of May 18 the majority of Australians were feeling relaxed and comfortable. Rather, Labor forced Australians to play safe, to be content with what they had.
So, it would be a mistake for Labor to conclude that the message to be taken from the election is to be more like our political opponents; God forbid.
Too many Australians are relying on the Labor Party to drive the policy changes needed to accommodate and adapt to significant global change.
So it would be a mistake not to remain policy ambitious – just not so ambitious.
Which takes me to lessons 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.
Lesson 3. Labor’s path to success in 2022 is a track not to the Right, but back to the sensible Centre where you’ll find the majority of the electorate.
We must stick to our key values, chief amongst them equality of opportunity and just reward for effort. For those falling behind we must offer in the first instance, a hand-up rather than a hand-out, but ensure always there is a strong safety net so that people don’t fall through the cracks.
And we must reclaim the Hawke/Keating legacy and argue the case for giving business every chance to prosper, employ and generate wealth.
Lesson 4: we must be realists, not idealists. We need to respond to a changing world but also learn to be patient and pragmatic. We need to take the electorate with us; that’s what strong leadership is all about.
Leadership is also about remembering who we represent: working people, first and foremost. Those who built our great movement. And I say it again; we must check our progressive instincts when they risk offending people of faith. This, according to some of my colleagues, was a big issue in multi-cultural communities.
Which takes me to lesson 5: Labor needs to reach a sensible settlement on climate change. How many times are we going to let it kill us? Indeed, how many Leaders do we want to lose to it?
Australia is responsible for around 1.3 percent of global emissions, nothing we can do alone can have a meaningful impact. But act we must because as a wealthy nation we can’t be urging others to act – particularly the big emitters – if we are not meeting our own international commitments.
Scott Morrison argues that reducing emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2030 is sufficient to honour our Paris commitment. But even if that is true, due to Government inaction, Australia’s emissions are rising year-on-year – they are not reducing.
The Prime Minister has largely avoided scrutiny and accountability on this subject because all the focus has been on Labor’s more ambitious targets.
But what would be the outcome if Labor offered a political and policy settlement to make 28 percent the target by 2030? The focus would then be all about actual outcomes, and the Government would finally be held to account and forced to act.
A political settlement would also restore investment confidence and for the first time in six years, we could have some downward pressure on energy prices.
Based on recent history, 28 percent would be a meaningful achievement, certainly a better outcome than the one Labor’s last climate policy is now achieving. That is lesson 6: you can’t achieve much if you perpetually in Opposition. As Gough Whitlam once said; “the impotent are pure”.
If we could get to 28 percent by 2030, and also demonstrate that we could do so without destroying blue collar jobs or damaging the economy, then we would have a great foundation from which to argue the case for being more ambitious on the road to 2050.
What an achievement it would be if in three years’ time emissions are falling sufficiently to have us on track to achieve a 28 percent reduction seven years later.
Nowhere would this be more welcomed than in rural and regional Australia where the drought is biting and where coal jobs are so important. That takes me to lesson 7:
Labor’s 2019 election result was anything but uniform. Wealthier electorates – typically in the capital cities – provided strong support for Labor. We also did well in some of the more progressive regions – the NSW South Coast, the Tweed Coast in NSW and Queenscliff in Victoria.
But in many regions – the NSW Central Coast, the Hunter, the NSW Northern Rivers, Western NSW, Central and North Queensland, and northern Tasmania - we did very badly.
McKell, Wran, Carr, Hawke and Rudd had one thing in particular, in common: they all saw they could not win without a strong bush vote and had strategies to win regional seats.
Labor can’t win an election without dramatically improving its performance in the bush. That, as I’ve argued in my submission to Labor’s election review committee, will require new thinking and significant cultural change.
Herein lies a classic “chicken or the egg” dilemma: significant cultural change will be helped by having more bush representatives in the Caucus and around Labor’s key decision-making tables. But cultural change is required to get more country Labor representatives into the Parliament.
On this front I’m encouraged by the Leadership of Anthony Albanese. He’s a city boy but he has spent very substantial time in the bush. He understands the regions and regional people well. He understands how important they are both to the Australian economy and Labor’s electoral prospects.
Lesson number 8 is about Parliamentary strategy. For the past six years Labor has spent too much time playing Government in exile. In doing so we’ve spent a hell of a lot of time saving a bad Government from itself.
Rather than let them govern and pay the price for their mistakes we’ve been busy fixing their mistakes for them, or blocking initiatives in the Parliament which would have caused them grief if they’d passed or passed unamended.
I often joke, if John Howard had not won control of the Senate in 2004 Workchoices would not have passed the Parliament and he’d still be Prime Minister!
They say Governments lose elections – Oppositions don’t win them. That is often true.
Scott Morrison is warming up to lose the 2022 election. His main political message is based on a fiction: the promise that we can maintain our standard of living and our sense of security in our region by marking time in this rapidly changing world. It’s fool’s gold.
Disruption is all around us and we need to be agile and adaptable if we are to maintain our standard of living. But the Government has no clear policy agenda. It was not expecting to win the election, and it shows.
Amongst the few continuities for Australia are the benefits which flow from trade liberalisation and a rules-based global order. Yet this is the one substantial area of policy on which Scott Morrison has chosen to mount a case for change, even before clearly defining the problem.
Australia is a small, isolated, trading nation. While we once rode on the sheep’s back, our more recent wealth flows largely from trade liberalisation and a rules-based global framework which by any measure, has successfully promoted cooperation and peace. Global institutions have arisen to promote these frameworks, including the UN, OECD and WTO.
So why was our Prime Minister, at the Lowy Lecture a week ago, talking about “a new variant of globalism that seeks to elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states to direct national policies”?
He wasn’t clear about the threat. But his words echoed sentiments from the United States.
In his recent address to the United Nations General assembly, Donald Trump told the UN General Assembly; “the future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots. If you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty.”
It’s a big call to make, but this may be the most significant thing he has said since his inauguration in 2017.
The President has now not only declared himself an isolationist, he is urging others to follow. Indeed, he has declared retreat to be part of our patriotic duty; it’s a call to arms we should ignore, but our Prime Minister has embraced it with great enthusiasm.
The US is not our only partner turning inward. The debacle being played out at Westminster had its beginnings in a nationalist style push no one saw coming or thought possible. The Brexit referendum outcome may have been different if it were not for the complacency of those who saw the madness in the populist push.
Now in Australia there is a risk that complacency will allow Scott Morrison to take us on a sleep-walk to lower growth, lower employment, less export income and less wealth.
We should all do everything in our power to persuade our other key international partners and our local community that isolationism is a folly.
Labor is willing to lead that fight and it’s why Australia needs a strong and competitive Labor Party. And that’s what – under Anthony Albanese – we are determined to be.