Can Labor seize the moment?

Published on AIMN 14/7/16.  A reflection on Labor’s performance in the 2016 election.  This generated a fair amount of discussion, which was particularly welcome.


Are grinners winners?

Let’s face it. A loss is not a win.

So here we are again. The election is over, the counting almost finally concluded, and the Coalition has limped over the line in the house of reps, but with an even more divided, and potentially difficult senate than the double dissolution was ironically called to help remove.

Despite the relative success of the Labor gains, the actual result is really quite depressing. In this largely two horse race, they lost. And it is us, the electorate, who will continue to suffer. Yet if there was ever a campaign that the opposition should have romped home, it was this one.

Firstly, the government ran a lackluster campaign, almost completely devoid of policy detail, repeating ad infinitum the three word slogans that Malcolm Turnbull had sworn the electorate wouldn’t be exposed to. The aim of the game was small target, and presidential. Keep the monkeys away from the media and public, even though it will be these monkeys that will be the ones running the show.

Secondly, Turnbull has also been promising us a “grown-up conversation” with everything on the table, yet somehow over the course of the last six months, still managed to throw things into the mix completely out of left field, such as the idea of the states setting their own income tax rates. So his personal credibility as an action-taking politician has been shown to be so much hot air. Malcolm the Ditherer; Malcolm the Waffler; Malcolm the Flop.

And finally on any measure of financial success, this past government has been less than woeful. There is no value in going over this disaster, it having been described far better by others. Fortunately Abbott couldn’t get any of the really nasty policies past the senate, but Turnbull seems equally incapable of getting anything to stick either.   Three years, and not one budget passed. Worst government ever? Quite possibly.

But then we look at the opposition. In comparison to the LNP policy vacuum, they’ve produced sensible measures, with details and costing’s, across almost every policy area. Oppositions just don’t do this! Moreover they seemed to run a decent campaign, setting the agenda, and regularly putting the government on the back foot. The cabinet team was strong, they were united, they won the debates hands down!

Yet even with the strengths of Labor, and the weaknesses of the Coalition, this still wasn’t enough. Sure, the media gave significant support to the LNP, but some question as to whether they really have that degree of influence to the majority of the electorate anymore. And ultimately the electorate in their wisdom re-elected the dunces, the dodgy and the incapable. WTbleedinF.

If it is the case that even in this perfect storm Labor still couldn’t get up, perhaps they would do well to recognize that we now appear to be approaching electoral stalemate, with significant majorities of voters “stuck” in voting patterns, whether by direct intention, or through fear of the other side getting in.

Campaigning purely towards their “electorate”, a classic Machiavellian tactic, the LNP seem to be able to command enough support to always keep them in the running, or indeed to win well. And as Pyne annoyingly reminded us, they are masters at doing so. Unscrupulously finding loopholes to fund their advertising strategies, shamelessly using scare campaign after scare campaign, delighted to instigate an expensive royal commission whose sole outcome appears to have been little more than smear Bill Shorten, and more than happy to degrade key infrastructure like the NBN, or use refugees as political pawns purely as opportunities on which to wedge Labor. Mental illness, rape, suicide and murder all appear to be legitimate campaign tactics for the current LNP, just as illegal wars, wholesale bribery, and international deceit were stock in trade for their best PM ever.  Their primary goal is to win the election, what they actually do in power is a lot lower in their priority list. But if you don’t win, all your clever policy work means naught.

Compare this to Labor who, I believe, actually try to campaign for the vast majority of Australians, but never quite manage to satisfy enough of them to get much more than a majority, and certainly not a sizeable one.

And such electoral results mean policy outcomes, when won by either of the major parties, that only a significant minority of the population seems easily able to support. Is it any wonder that we appear to be stuck in a slow spiral downwards because the big stuff is just too politically hard?   The current political malaise is far from the nation building that we need to transition us from the old economy to the new, nor to ensure our survival when the true ravages of climate change really start to kick in. And even when we, the electorate, vote to show we aren’t happy with what is being offered, the parties look to put the blame for their lack of results any where but themselves. The total lack of self-reflection has yet again been entirely predictable, with both major parties both now giving themselves huge slaps on the back for what great jobs they’ve done!

Of course the Coalition won’t change. And why should they? They continue to hold the upper hand, and actually don’t really have the talent to do anything other than keep doing what they do.

Conversely, progressive politics needs to change significantly if it is to attract the necessary support from many on the “conservative” side of politics if they are to have a future. As they stand, both Labor and the Greens are too susceptible to the cheap political point-scoring tricks that the Coalition (and their media servants) are all too quick to adopt. They somehow need to make themselves smaller targets. Moreover rather than falling into the false dichotomies that the Coalition love to use, they need to stop being dragged into idiotic discussions that serve no purpose except to those starting them. If the MSM aren’t helping to get the message across, shut them out. Keep playing their game, and you will never win, because the media is a business and knows which side keeps its proprietors wealthy. And in an election comparing policy on one side, against nothing on the other, to have the media choose to endorse the unknown, fundamentally reveals that there is no real support for Labor, and so Labor should stop supporting them. Without content, the media is nothing. Without political news stories, the press gallery have no work. No work, no job.

Personally my single biggest turn-off this election from Labor has been its unwillingness to discuss working with other parties (particularly the Greens) because “history”. I’m sorry, but I’m not supporting political pig-headedness just because the Coalition likes to trot out the “stability” message (whilst clearly being about as stable as Polonium). I know that the best solutions to problems are those determined from a team of diverse thoughts and opinions, not groupthink. I mean, you only need to look at the woefully inadequate thought process that goes into determining LNP policies to see the outcomes of a team of ideologues backed up by nodding dogs of the backbench are not even as good as third rate. So Labor needs to get off its high horse, and start working out how it can avoid the (very few) mistakes that were made in the Gillard years (which, yes, were in part due to the Greens – they need to do the same thing too, and I think they already are), rather than simply dismiss working with others as too hard, or indeed unpopular with the electorate.

You see the electorate actually would prefer a degree of political consensus. And the LNP do recognize this, but as usual want such consensus to be entirely on their terms. Though for them this means that if anyone else doesn’t agree with their ideas, that those “others” are feral, not team-players, spoilers, etc. Brandis on QandA even said so much, and it is no surprise given this was their MO in the last government. But they are just preparing the voters for the anticipated trotting out that it will be Labor’s (and indeed everyone else’s) fault when their next set of inept policies are voted down by the senate.

But what Shorten should do is find a way to genuinely offering the players who commanded enough electoral support (not seats, but by percentage of primary votes) early involvement in the White Paper definition process. The best time to do this is not in the solutions stage, but in the problem definition stage (particularly since this is the bit that both parties seem to get significantly wrong, judging how quick they bought into the “need” for 12 very expensive submarines). And if Turnbull is out building bridges now, Shorten needs to be doing exactly the same, not least because he is a lot better at it, and because if there is a snap election he may have to run another minority government.

Secondly, Labor should have pushed hard for a Federal ICAC, and now should make it a core promise. No ifs, no buts. Their failure to pursue this revealed that they too fear their own skeletons in the cupboard, which to my mind is also another good reason for not being able to fully trust them. And these weaknesses make their elected representatives just as vulnerable to manipulation, and whether that is either actual or imaginary, there are enough voters that think it is real for it to be a problem. As someone once explained to me, in the real world perception IS reality.   And if there are dodgy operators, we need them out. This isn’t acceptable on any side of politics.

Thirdly, Labor need to disengage financially from the unions. Now this is a very major one given Labor’s background, but given the union movement also needs to rethink how it operates in this new world, Labor needs to rid itself of an image of being controlled by “evil unions” which again the Coalition will shamelessly exploit (whilst simultaneously sucking at the teat of big business, property developers, media tycoons, and indeed it would seem even criminals, if they are willing to put money in their electoral fund – ironic? Yep, but it’s a real stopper for many voters, so either get over it or never expect support).   Labor need to pursue a strategy where political parties are no longer dependent on external funding, and make the enactment of such a pre-condition on them dropping that financial tie. And if pursued expediently, it might help cut off the LNP from one of their own most significant advantages – access to the coffers of wealthy donors and big business. Again I believe the electorate would love it.

And finally, all parties need to find better ways of communicating with the electorate in a more complete manner than the current ad hoc communication we have now. I’d like to see a comprehensive document (or better still, website) that explains that parties positions on the full range of policy areas.   Better still if this was a website that the AEC controlled so that voters could compare each parties position on each topic. I’m sure that the utter lack of thought and concern shown by the current government to so many areas (homelessness anyone?) that would benefit from central involvement would assist voters in making informed decisions. As it currently stands, fact-finding takes too much time that voters don’t have. Is it any surprise that many still vote on what they feel is right, rather than what they actually understand to be right.   Of course, that is exactly how the LNP want it, but Labor need to stop being LNP lite, and recognize that the entire system needs a dramatic overhaul, and that if this doesn’t occur their ongoing electoral hopes are very precarious indeed.

Personally, as I’ve stated before, I think party politics stink. I’d rather a representative democracy where the representatives were the best that each electorate could offer (irrespective of their political leanings) rather than a selection predominantly of nodding dogs endorsed by their local cabal.   Evolving to that ideal won’t be an overnight process, so in the meantime we need the parties to progress the small steps that we need to improve the system. Electoral reform of the senate, despite some of what has arrived, was one such measure (and one that the LNP will rue for an awful long time – which makes it so much sweeter!), but we need more improvements to the processes of government if we want our countries decision making to rise above the classroom squabbles that our two major parties seem inextricably locked into, encouraged and abetted by a lazy fourth estate who are more intrigued by the politics than they are by the policies.

To be effective Labor doesn’t just need to win an election or two. Because we know that any positive policies are as quickly condemned to be taken apart by the ever-cynical Coalition when next they get back in. To endure they will need to become the long-term major force in Australian politics. And to do that means more change is needed. The changes to leadership rules are certainly on the right track, but they aren’t enough.   So my first question is this. Are Labor big enough to recognize the actual failure of this campaign, and realize that they need to do much, much more to change the political paradigm? But my second question is equally pertinent. Do Labor actually really want to run the country on an ongoing basis, or are they really just satisfied to be the bit players in the circus that is Australian politics? Because if they truly cared about the electorate then Bill and his team should be absolutely seething that they lost, not grinning like idiots. Well Bill, we’re watching.

About Steve Laing

Political observer, free thinker and problem solver, Steve contends that the current democratic processes have neither kept up to date with globalisation nor modern business practices, resulting in increasing dissatisfaction with modern politics. However, new technology could be used to not only reconfigure our system, but give the electorate even greater representation than was previously the case. For more background information on Steve, please check his LinkedIn profile.

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