The elephant in the room in ALP's federal election post-mortem

Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten

The ALP's recently released federal election post-mortem has a giant invisible elephant in the room: the party's own culpability for its defeat through its embrace of neoliberalism and its abandonment of progressive “traditional Labor values” over decades.

Effectively, the report blames Bill Shorten for being unpopular and for not having a winning election strategy. Its proposal for winning the next federal election is to have a simple message, to campaign around a "less-cluttered" set of policies, to focus more on digital advertising and, if possible, have a "popular" leader (pressure's on, Albo!).

The review notes that the ALP struggled with its persistently unpopular leader. Heading into polling day, Shorten had a net negative favourability rating of -20 while Morrison’s was -4,” the report says.

Awkward Bill Shorten struggled as Labor “leader” to come across as though he really meant what he said. The Liberals zeroed in on this with the “shifty Bill” label and then Palmer went social media ballistic with it.

The Liberals' simple, Scott Morrison-centred, negative campaign – amplified by Clive Palmer's $60 million in a shamelessly fact-free social media and traditional media campaign – was having an effect but there was no strategic adjustment by the ALP.

However the report makes the startling confession that it could identify "no body that was empowered to discuss and settle a strategy or any process to monitor its implementation”.

"New spending policies appear to have been decided by a combination of the leader and his office, a shadow expenditure review committee and an augmented leadership group. These decisions were not informed by an overarching strategy. Indeed, the National Secretary seems to have been taken by surprise by the number and size of the policy offerings that were announced during the campaign.

"Another group involving the leader, his office, senior shadow ministers and senior Party officials had been meeting weekly for several months as a campaign audit committee but it did not determine the overall strategy going into the campaign."

The polls consistently predicting an ALP win may have lulled the party leadership into complacency about this lack of strategy, the report said. Instead it relied on advertising slogans devised when the silver-tailed merchant banker Malcolm Turnbull was Liberal leader and PM. But Morrison successfully cast himself as a "suburban dad" so all the rhetoric about the "big end of town" did not stick.

Worse, many workers earning above- average incomes "felt Labor was including them in 'the big end of town'".

This perception was fanned when the ALP leadership came up with its "negative gearing and franking credits [will be] with other revenue measures to fund large, new spending initiatives".

The report says that these proposals where a result of the ALP leadership trying to fund $100 billion of new expenditure (over and above Morrison's spending proposals).

"Going into an election campaign with unfunded expenditure of more than $100 billion would have exposed Labor to a highly effective attack of massively increasing budget deficits and debt. If the extra spending was to be funded by revenue measures, which was the Labor leadership group’s position, then alternatives to negative gearing and franking credit refunds would need to be found. Since Labor was already proposing an increase in the top personal tax rate to 49 per cent and opposing the Coalition’s tax cuts for higher-income earners, the only alternative revenue source would be from lower and middle-income earners."

The report adds that, ironically, "The voters most affected by the franking credits policy actually swung to Labor. However, the sheer volume of spending announcements released during the campaign created a sense of risk in the minds of the main beneficiaries of Labor’s policies – economically insecure, low-income voters – about Labor’s economic management credentials."

Here the report seems to blame those "economically insecure, low-income voters" for not knowing what is good for them!

Labor's plan for the next election is to keep it simple for these stupid voters and not make too costly proposals so that they don't get spooked into believing the conservatives argument that an ALP government will crash the economy.

"Labor should adopt the language of inclusion, abandoning divisive rhetoric, including references to 'the big end of town'."

Further, "Labor should position itself as a party of economic growth and reform, job creation and rising living standards, drawing upon and expanding on its past economic reforms."

Basically, this is a re-affirmation of the ALP's neoliberal course, with a perfunctionary genuflection to retaining "core values, including improving the job opportunities, security and conditions of working Australians, fairness, non-discrimination on the basis of race, religion and gender, and care for the environment".

The ALP review does not even consider following the alternative course pursued by the Jeremy Corbyn leadership of the British Labour Party. That is, of breaking from right-wing, neoliberal politics and putting forward truly progressive policies that correspond to the urgent needs of today, crucially shaped as they are by the global climate emergency.

Facing up to the climate emergency and repairing the horrendous social damage wreaked under decades of neoliberalism will require big public investment. The report does not even contemplate that this can be funded other than by taxing low- and middle-income workers more heavily.

Such an emergency social and environmental program could be funded by seriously taxing the corporate rich, nationalising key resources and by totally responsible and justifiable public borrowing for urgently-needed capital investment.

Nor can the review contemplate winning the hearts and minds of "economically insecure, low-income voters" who are currently easy targets for the messages of bigotry and fear peddled by the corporate rich.

But this should be no surprise. The ALP not only abandoned progressive values a long time ago but destroyed party democracy in the process. The parliamentary leader has called the shots in that party for a long time. The lack of strategy, the corruption and bureaucratisation of the trade unions, the culture of reliance on commercial advertising "research" are all collateral damage to the ALP's flight to the right.

The ALP not only fails to fight the anti-trade union thrust of ongoing "labour reform". They still champion the attacks on workers' right to use their collective power in support of better wages and conditions that were spearheaded by Labor governments under Hawke and Keating.

The neoliberal policies spearheaded by Hawke and Keating have helped create the very insecure and fearful lower-income workers in regional cities and the outer suburbs of the big cities who abandoned the ALP in the last election. No wonder they don't trust Labor promises!

An ALP championing the Hawke-Keating "example" can't be trusted to guarantee secure and well-paid jobs in new renewable industries any more than they could be trusted in old industries that are gone or going.

The review acknowledges that: "Around the world, polls reveal declining trust of politicians and political institutions. Contributing to this collapse have been political scandals, deal making between politicians and large businesses, the Global Financial Crisis and its recessionary aftermath, and the conspicuously extravagant lifestyles of the highly wealthy at a time when the wages of most workers have been stagnating."

But this is also a product of the ALP's capitulation to neoliberalism. Its pretence to being a progressive party rings false because the ALP has acted like the Liberals in government. And the ALP has been corrupted in the process, as the NSW ALP's governance review, led by former attorney-general Michael Lavarch, is now hearing.

"This is not the case of one, or even a couple of bad apples," Steve Murphy, the newly elected NSW secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union said in a submission. "This is a case of the entire cart rotting from its core."