Australian Labor needs to set its house in order

September 16, 2014

By David Hetherington

It’s been a time for reflection in Australian politics.

This week marks the first anniversary of the Abbott government and provides an opportunity to assess how all sides have fared in the wake of the mercurial, self-destructive Rudd and Gillard prime ministerships.

Let’s start with the positives. To the surprise of many, the new government has acquitted itself admirably on the international stage. In the hours after the MH17 disaster which claimed 37 Australian lives, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made straight for the UN Security Council in New York to co-ordinate a response between the Malaysian, Dutch and Ukrainian authorities. She then shuttled for weeks between Ukraine, the Netherlands, the US and Australia, winning widespread plaudits for her efforts from international peers.

The government has struck trade deals with South Korea and India, and repaired its relationship with Indonesia after getting off to a rocky start. It has kept its promise to “stop the boats,” curtailing the flow of asylum seeker vessels from Indonesia, although its aggressive means have drawn criticism.

It’s a good thing the international record is solid because the government’s domestic performance has been shambolic. The dysfunction has four principal causes. First, the government has chosen to spend scarce political capital on ideological battles of limited interest to most Australians. The Attorney-General spent much of the first year seeking to overturn race hate laws in defence of the ‘right to be a bigot’ before finally abandoning the cause. The Education Minister launched a new curriculum review because the existing curriculum, barely three years old, apparently undervalues Western civilization.

Second, much of the policy program is inherently contradictory. The government says it is fiercely determined to restore the budget to balance and pay down debt. Yet it has abolished taxes on carbon and mining super-profits, and embraced a costly, regressive parental leave scheme in place of the existing, well-functioning one.

A related cause is that citizens are rightly wary of aggressive spending cuts against the backdrop of a weakening labour market and signs of a slowdown in China. The case for deep austerity hasn’t been made successfully, because it is a poor one. Australia simply cannot afford to compound its existing economic headwinds.

Finally, and most importantly, the government is suffering from a raft of broken promises. Mr. Abbott campaigned loudly on trust, arguing that Julia Gillard had betrayed her commitments to the people. He has not listened to his own advice. Some lists circulating now count over 100 broken commitments in the first year alone. Amongst other things, the government said it would not touch the public Medicare system, change university funding, cut spending on schools and hospitals or raise taxes. It has announced backflips on these and much more, and the public is unimpressed.

Where does this leave the Opposition? Labor has been strangely muted as dysfunction has enveloped the government; protest has been concentrated amongst unions, and student and community groups. The new Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has had a quiet year. Arguably there is some logic to this strategy – as the adage says, do not interrupt your opponent while they are making a mistake. The next election is still two years away, and Labor needs focused internal work to rebuild its case for government after the chaos of the Rudd/Gillard era. But the time for self-censorship has passed, and Mr. Shorten must begin to challenge the government’s ineptitude more forcefully.

Internal reform is another task the party must embrace before it can claim to be once again fit for office. The destructive personality politics of the previous government and a host of nasty corruption findings against Labor politicians and affiliated unions underscore the need for reform. The party has already revised its leadership ballot mechanism to give greater weight to members’ voices. This new model delivered Mr. Shorten the leadership, but it is only a first step.

Labor must build greater transparency and democracy into all its processes, giving members a say in the election of upper house candidates and party officials. It was the extraordinary concentration of power in a few hands that allowed corruption to take root. The electorate will be loathe to trust Labor until it takes decisive steps to set its house in order.

For Australia’s sake, it is imperative Labor wins back that trust. The damage being wrought by Abbott’s conservatives in the meantime is deep and lasting.