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EMMA DAWSON: The ALP — campaigning in prose

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Emma Dawson is standing firm on her opposition of Labor's support of tax cuts (Screenshot via YouTube)

IA columnist Emma Dawson discusses why she will not be running for Labor preselection, despite her belief that if elected, the party will achieve genuine reform.

TO THE RELIEF of my family, I will not be standing as a candidate at the next election, as reported last week.

A few facts to set straight: it’s not a “withdrawal”, as I never applied for preselection. I was not the Party’s pick; I was asked to stand by grassroots members of the Party in the Melbourne electorate and, without factional support, may well have struggled to gain the nomination at a time when local members are barred from voting.

My decision not to run was made for a combination of personal and professional reasons and was communicated to those local members on 23 July, before Labor announced its decision to keep Stage 3 of the Coalition’s income tax cuts the following Monday.

Nevertheless, it would have been impossible for me to run as a Labor candidate given my strong public opposition to these tax cuts and advocacy for policies such as curbing negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount over many years. I am privileged to have a job that allows me to participate in the public policy debate and wouldn’t be much use at it if, with every shift of the political wind, I changed my views on the necessary policy reforms to fight inequality.

Tactically, Labor’s decision makes sense. The coming Federal Election will almost certainly be fought on the management (or lack thereof) of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. Tightening its focus to the Morrison Government’s failures on quarantine and vaccination is more than mere political expediency from the Opposition, it’s evidence that Anthony Albanese’s team knows how to “read the room”. Pretty much the only thing most Australians care about at the moment is getting back to some semblance of normal life.

Until recently, the shrinking of our public conversation to “How many cases/tests/vaccines have we got today?” suited the incumbent Prime Minister very well. With state premiers doing the heavy lifting on quarantine and public health, the PM had apparently planned an election campaign centred on Australia’s world-leading response to the pandemic, in which he’d coast to victory with even fewer actual policies than he offered in 2019. Sadly for him, his own Government’s incompetence has put paid to that plan, as the vaccination horizon recedes into the sunset of 2022.

Sadly for the rest of us, this inexcusable delay means we are still in the midst of the pandemic as the election draws near, meaning our focus is still on crisis management rather than on what happens next. As noted elsewhere, the risk now is that both sides of politics are ‘bypassing the mantra that you should never let a good crisis go to waste’ by running equally small-target agendas.

For policy wonks like me, this is a bitter pill to swallow. It’s understandable that long-term issues get pushed to one side during an immediate health crisis, but elections should be fought on competing visions for the nation. This is how democracy is meant to work: at regular intervals, competing policies are presented for voters’ consideration and a public conversation is conducted, through the media, about the kind of society we want to be.

Last time, the competition was one-sided, with Labor offering a complex mix of tax and transfer policies which were ultimately rejected by the electorate in favour of Scott Morrison’s one-man “how good is Australia?!” campaign. There is a real fear among those who want to see a better Australia that, as a result, the appetite for real reform has been lost not just from the government benches, but from the opposition.

Yet when announcing Labor’s position on the tax cuts last Monday, Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers was at pains to say that the election:

“...will also be about the future. We've already got policies out there...which are really crucial to making sure that we can make the economy stronger and more sustainable and more inclusive after COVID than it was before.”

This is true. Labor’s recent commitment to a white paper on full employment, for example, is very promising, inviting the opportunity for a genuine reform process that will encompass everything from monetary policy to public sector job creation, from industry policy to employment services. It promises the kind of reform agenda implemented to great national benefit by previous Labor governments after the second world war and in the 1980s, which was at the centre of the book of essays, including from Albanese and Chalmers, that I put together with Professor Janet McCalman last year.

It’s an agenda that doesn’t lend itself easily to the three-word slogans that worked so effectively for Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader. Nor can it be achieved through populist rhetoric and empty promises from the Greens who, for example, will still be short by around $26 billion to meet the annual cost of their $80 a day welfare pledge, even if they do “tax the billionaires”.

What the white paper commitment should result in is the kind of forward-looking, complex and comprehensive economic policy reform that Labor governments have previously delivered during times of great transition. It promises a return to governing in the national interest, eschewing the easy political win for long-term collective gain.

The old saying goes that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. This time, let’s hope it’s the other way around.

Emma Dawson is an IA columnist and executive director of Per Capita. You can follow Emma on Twitter @DawsonEJ.

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