Labor is not radical enough
Barely had we digested the news of the unexpected Coalition victory when the corporate media commentators and a number of senior party leaders were blaming Labor’s election loss for it being too left-wing — “too ambitious”, “a large target” and “bit off more than it could chew”.
The very opposite is true. Far from being too radical, Labor’s shift to the left was too little too late, incomplete and sometimes more rhetoric than substance.
While talking about going after the “big end of town” there was no serious proposal to crimp the profits of the big corporations apart from the restoration of weekend penalty rates to those who had lost them, which was of course very welcome.
Going after negative gearing and franking credits enabled Prime Minister Scott Morrison to turn a layer of better-off working- and middle-class voters against Labor, but there was simply not enough inspirational policy to galvanise the mass of working people to offset the losses.
Under pressure, Labor finally promised to review Newstart without actually committing to raise it. What actually needed “reviewing”?
Dental cover for pensioners is a small step forward but is still a means-tested provision for which most of us would not qualify. Including it in Medicare would have transformed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Of course child-care workers deserve a pay rise, but Labor itself could not explain how its subsidy would not just end up in the pockets of private providers. A legislated rise of in the minimum wage for all workers and increased funding for the not-for-profit childcare sector makes a lot more sense and would have struck a chord with millions.
Most of the time politics is more important than personality, but the enduring perception of Bill Shorten as an insincere opportunist party apparatchik was reinforced by the half-baked policy on the run. As we know, Clive Palmer was prepared to spend $60 million to pick at this weakness.
Nowhere was the incoherence of Labor more acute than on global warming. Claiming to stand for “serious action on climate change” while refusing to rule out Adani and proposing to spend $1.5 billion to expand fracking across the north of the country exposed its policy as contradictory, dishonest nonsense. Either you think there’s a climate emergency or you don’t.
To win the argument with the Australian population for serious action on climate change, particularly among communities that currently depend on coal and gas, two things are necessary. First, is being honest about the threat posed by global warming and the need to drastically reduce the use of fossil fuel across the global economy.
Secondly, it requires a serious and costed plan that outlines how a “just transition” can take place, one in which workers in the hydrocarbon industries and their communities are guaranteed a secure future and are enlisted as the very people we need to build and construct our renewable energy infrastructure and carry out urgently needed environmental repair.
However, Labor is congenitally incapable of challenging the fossil fuel mafia and is thus unable to carry out either task. With no serious plan for a transition in which their jobs, conditions and communities are secure, it's not hard to see why some workers in the coal and gas industries would fall under the spell of the fossil fuel industry bosses and their political servants.
Shorten’s failure also throws into sharp relief the impotent and conservative political strategy of much of the union movement and its willingness to accept whatever crumbs and vague promises Labor throws its way.
The “Change the Rules campaign” became more and more of an uncritical cheer squad for Labor as the election drew near. The same could be said of “Your rights at work” in 2007, but in that previous version huge street protests were maintained right up until election eve. Mass protests shift opinion in a way that handing out “Vote 1 Labor” material never will.
GetUp!, supposedly the country's most effective lobby group, was similarly exposed. Throwing vast resources at trying to unseat the most odious coalition MPs we all love to hate is not particularly useful. Every single Liberal and Labor MP in the federal parliament bears equal responsibility with Peter Dutton for the death and misery endured by asylum seekers. All of them are held hostage to the fossil fuel mafia. That’s the truth that needs to be told.
On the eve of the election GetUp! produced how-to-vote material urging people to either vote Green (“Strong support for climate action”) or Labor (“Moderate support for climate action”).
Locked into pitching itself somewhere between Labor and the Greens, GetUp! does not understand that capitalism is the source of the problem and that even moderate climate action is going to require a mass movement in the streets. Fortunately,the School Strike 4 Climate and enthusiasm for Extinction Rebellion-type organising have left this conservative top-down method in their wake.
The continuing appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s British Labour Party along with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US, whatever their challenges and limitations, should put paid to the idea that Labor needs to pitch to the “sensible centre” to win.
Australia has so far dodged economic crises on the scale seen in the US and Europe, meaning polarisation and disruption of politics as usual is not as advanced, but it is surely on the way.
Opinions polls consistently show that no matter how conservative we may think the average Australian is, they are still to the left of our politicians. But there is no Jeremy Corbyn in today’s Australian Labor Party, and even if there were, there is no mechanism for electing them over the heads of their more conservative colleagues. In all likelihood we will need to find another path.
The result achieved by the three Victorian Socialists candidates across a swath of Melbourne’s working-class suburbs (more than 4% in the seats of Cooper, Calwell and Wills) and the 24.2% achieved by Max Chandler-Mather in the Brisbane seat of Griffith, flowing from one of the most left-wing campaigns run by a Greens candidate in the country, show that there is a serious audience for politics that challenges capitalism head on.
We need that approach to confront the Morrison government right now. We cannot afford to wait until the next election.
[Sam Wainright is a member of the Socialist Alliance National Executive.]