How is Labor positioning against Abbott’s conservative government?

March 27, 2014

By David Hetherington

Despite a series of missteps by the new government, the Labor opposition have been laying uncharacteristically low. The party is trying to absorb the lessons of its election defeat. The question is whether a rebuilt Labor will be willing to take meaningful political risks in support of its values

It’s been six months since the election of Tony Abbott’s conservative government and the 44th Parliament is finally beginning to find its rhythm.

The opening months of the new government were unusually stilled. In part, this was because Mr. Abbott made a deliberate decision not to engage on a daily basis with the media. In part, it was because the few announcements the government did make were widely perceived as missteps, further cementing the aversion to public intervention.

These missteps included a double backflip on schools funding, the review of a new national curriculum that had only just been completed, and the appointment of a Freedom Commissioner whose role seems to be to make race hate speech legal again. The result of the missteps was that Mr. Abbott enjoyed virtually none of the conventional honeymoon period, and within weeks of his victory had slipped dramatically in the opinion polls.

A third reason for the parliamentary calm has been the out-of-character quiet of the Australian Labor Party. In the weeks immediately after the national election, Labor captured the national spotlight with its first ever rank-and-file vote for the new Labor leader. Since then Bill Shorten, the winner of the vote, has maintained a low profile in the public debate.

There are signs that things are changing though – on both sides of the parliamentary divide. The Government’s hand has been forced by events, notably a string of factory closures and job losses. Ford and Toyota have both announced they will cease manufacturing in Australia. The financial viability of Qantas is in grave doubt, with the airline cutting thousands of jobs and asking the Government for a debt guarantee.

The response to these developments has been patchy. The Government claims the state should not be intervening to support private companies, yet it was willing to offer an A$16 million grant to a global, highly profitable chocolate manufacturer in a marginal seat while declining to support Ford, Toyota or Qantas.

The Government has also pushed ahead with more of its advertised policy agenda in the New Year, with a Commission of Auditors to inform cuts in public services and the planned repeal of the carbon price and mining super-profits tax.

Its first budget, due in early May, will shed further light on how deeply it plans to cut into the tax base and public services.

To date, Labor’s engagement with these debates has been intermittent. Mr. Shorten has rightly observed that the Government does not appear to have a clear strategy on job losses, and has criticised a range of recent moves including cuts to foreign aid and government attacks on the ABC, the main public broadcaster.

But overall Mr. Shorten has been less visible than his immediate predecessors in the Labor leadership, an approach that has seen Labor’s poll lead over the Government contract.

But there may be sound reasons to keep a low profile just now. Above all, Labor needs to absorb the lessons of its resounding defeat and to carefully plan its intellectual and political rebuilding. If the price of this process is a low profile in the short term, then it is a price worth paying.

There are some signs to indicate this is in fact what Labor is doing. Mr. Shorten has been canvassing a wide range of Labor thinkers to seek their views on the rebuilding task. Labor’s new National Policy Forum has recently reconvened. And former Cabinet Minister Jenny Macklin has assembled a series of roundtables to map a future for the Australian welfare state.

The fundamental question for Labor is whether it is willing to take meaningful political risks in support of its values. For too long, Labor has been captivated by the financial, business and media establishments at the expense of the low-paid and the disadvantaged. The temptation for the risk-averse will be policy incrementalism rather than a bold re-embrace of fairness and social justice. Let’s hope Mr. Shorten is feeling feisty.