After its failure to win government at the 2019 Election, Labor needs to rethink its strategies for a chance to succeed in 2022, writes Professor John Quiggin.
SINCE ITS UNEXPECTED defeat in the May 2019 Election, the Australian Labor Party has taken the view that all policy commitments must be reassessed. Rather than take a stand on economic policy, Labor waved the Morrison Government’s massive tax cuts for high income earners through the Parliament.
Rather than offer a climate policy in response to the catastrophic bushfires of the last summer, Labor took the view that ‘the immediate focus should be on firefighters battling the blazes, people at risk and those grieving lost loved ones’. While scoring points on scandals like the sports rorts and cynically exploiting of divisions within the Government, Labor has put forward hardly a word of criticism of the Morrison Government’s policy position, let alone any alternative.
There have, however, been a couple of exceptions to this pattern of near-invisibility. First, Labor has made it clear that coal mining is here to stay and that the future of coal-fired power will be left to “the market”. Second, while displaying intense solicitude for those voters who switched their support to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Labor has engaged in co-ordinated and ferocious attacks on the Greens.
Even as Labor walks away from its own 2019 policies, a string of Labor figures has raked up the tangle of events surrounding the failure, a decade ago, of Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
For those who want some positive response to the catastrophe now engulfing us, Labor has a simple answer — nothing will change until a Labor government is elected. So, until Labor comes up with a climate policy for the 2022 Election, there is no point in even discussing the issue. And, once the policy is announced, however weak it may be, there is no alternative but to support it.
Even if all of this were true, Labor’s approach would be a betrayal of all those who can see the catastrophe unfolding around us and want immediate action with whatever tools are available to us from public protest to parliamentary debate. In fact, however, Labor is relying on two dubious assumptions.
First, it is taken for granted that the Morrison Government will serve its full term, leaving Labor plenty of time to square the circle on climate policy. Second, it is assumed that a Labor government elected in 2022 will have a reliable majority at least in the House of Representatives and won’t need to deal with Greens or independents.
Recent history suggests otherwise. Three of the last four elections have produced knife-edge results. In 2010, Julia Gillard failed to secure a majority and was forced to rely on Green and independent support to form a government. In 2016, Malcolm Turnbull finished the election with a majority of one and in 2019, Scott Morrison increased that to two. In both the first and second cases, the picture was complicated further by defections and resignations, requiring further deals and dodges. Both governments barely managed to complete their terms.
This pattern has continued in 2020 with the resignation of Llew O’Brien from the National Party and threats by the Barnaby Joyce faction to vote down government legislation. In the wake of this denialist revolt and the increased awareness prompted by the bushfire catastrophe, it is scarcely inconceivable that a handful of Liberals might cross the floor to vote for a sane policy. Alternatively, the epidemic of scandals might produce enough resignations and by-elections to wipe out the Government’s majority, as happened in 2018.
Looking ahead to the next election, it seems likely that most of the six independent and minor party candidates will be re-elected and quite possible that their numbers will be increased. Labor’s policies seem calculated to drive environmentally concerned voters to prefer Greens or progressive independents, who may win in surprising places. And Labor’s small target strategy seems more likely to eke out a narrow win than to produce a landslide.
There is, therefore, every possibility that Labor will have to rely on the support of Greens and independents to form a government and on Green votes to pass legislation through the Senate. Rather than trying to wipe out its rivals on the Left, Labor should be seeking common ground and promoting an alternative to the Morrison Government’s policies of denial and do-nothingism.
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