Three Labor Futures - Chapter in "Not Dead Yet"

I have a chapter in a new Black Inc book on the future of the ALP. Here's an extract, plus the endnotes (for anyone who's interested in that sort of thing).
Labor must continue to follow road of openness, The Australian, 30 October 2013

Labor must never forget that our brand is not interchangeable with that of the Coalition. The two parties play fundamentally different roles in the Australian political system. Labor’s role is to take the initiative, to defend those whom life has treated unfairly, to carve out an activist role on the global stage. By contrast, the Coalition parties are defenders of the status quo, more likely to be heard supporting vested interests than those on the margins of society, and largely untroubled if people turn off politics entirely. Australian politics isn’t Coke versus Pepsi. To become a Labor version of Mr Abbott’s Opposition would be to repudiate the essence of what our party stands for. Labor must continue to be the party of ideas and reform.

There are three possible futures for federal Labor. The first is negativity. One lesson that will inevitably be drawn from recent Australian political history is that the way to win office is by denigrating the government, while minimising your policy differences with the party in power.

Negativity corrodes the sense of hope, idealism and common purpose that is so vital to being a successful parliamentarian. It also crowds out policy development. If your sole focus is on demonising the government, then the hard-heads will argue that putting forward your own ideas will only distract from the main task at hand. Yet we know from history that carrying out policy development in the full light of public scrutiny tends to make for better results.

The second possibility is ‘closed Australia’. During the twelve decades since Labor’s founding, our party has been wrong on immigration for longer than we have been right. It took Gough Whitlam’s leadership of the ALP finally to put the party’s worst racist tendencies to bed. A similar story applies in the case of trade.

The pressures of economic nationalism are never far from the surface. While the 1996–98 electoral term saw federal Labor operate as a unified and effective Opposition, it was also a period in which the party too readily distanced itself from the economic reforms pursued by Hawke and Keating. As Lindsay Tanner noted of this period, “Labor has continually offered support to disgruntled producer groups at the expense of consumers. Every time we do this, we take another small chunk out of our economic credibility.”

Advocates of a closed Australia come in different flavours. Some oppose imports, migrants and foreign investment. But more commonly, people advocate raising the walls in just one or two domains. Some want higher tariffs but more migrants. Others demand less foreign investment but support more aid. And there are those who believe we should have a smaller population but take more refugees. Whether the “closed Australia” model comes in part or as a whole, this is not a strategy that should tempt the ALP.

The third and best approach for the ALP is to embrace the record of openness that has been the hallmark of Labor at its best. Whether through support for individual liberties or belief in open markets, social liberalism has a prominent place in the story of the Australian Labor Party. This is an approach that is particularly appealing in light of the Liberal Party’s steady abandonment of small-L liberalism. To adapt a US quip, theirs is a LINO Party – Liberal In Name Only.

Labor will always be the party of egalitarianism. Too much inequality can tear the social fabric, threatening to cleave us one from another. In also taking on the mantle of social liberalism, Labor states our commitment to open markets as the most effective way of generating wealth.  A commitment to social liberalism would also pledge Labor to an open and multicultural Australia.

Over the past six years, Labor has many policy achievements of which we can be proud. On the international stage, we won Australia a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Our economy grew from the fifteenth-largest to the twelfth-largest in the world, productivity ticked up, and inflation and unemployment remained low by historical standards. We moved to cap carbon pollution, and struck an agreement that allowed the Murray to flow again.

Openness may be the right road for Labor, but it is not the easy one. After losing government to what Anthony Albanese has tagged “the Noalition,” it will be painful for Labor in opposition to adopt a more positive approach. Perhaps some of our supporters will argue that the real reason Labor lost the 2013 election was that we did not embrace economic nationalism across the board. But if Labor is to serve its core mission – of raising living standards, spreading opportunity and encouraging diversity – then we should pursue openness in our policy settings and our party structures.
Andrew Leigh is the shadow assistant treasurer. This is an edited extract from Not Dead Yet (Black Inc).

References (from full chapter):

* ‘As Dennis Glover has noted…’  Dennis Glover, ‘The real lesson from NSW: stop trying to govern forever’, Online Opinion, 30 March 2011

* ‘In a speech on the economics of media reform…’  Andrew Leigh, ‘The Naked Truth? Media and Politics in the Digital Age’, ‘Challenge Your Mind’ University of Canberra Public Lecture Series, 1 August 2012

* ‘As former Hawke Government adviser…’  Bill Bowtell, ‘Reform or Die: Labor and Medicare’, Labor Voice, Winter 2011, pp.20-23.

* ‘Labor has continually offered support…’  Lindsay Tanner, 2012, Politics with Purpose: Occasional Observations on Public and Private Life, Scribe, Melbourne, p.295.

* ‘British Blue Labour’s Maurice Glasman…’  David Runciman, ‘Britain's Left Turns Right How Labour Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nationalism’, Foreign Affairs, 22 July 2013.

* ‘The Australian philosopher Tim Soutphommasane…’  Tim Soutphommasane, 'Leave Marx out of it', Australian Literary Review, February 2010

* ‘In an excellent 2008 speech…’  The most thoughtful counterpoint to this view is Dennis Glover’s reply to my Per Capita speech on Labor and liberalism, delivered in Melbourne on 5 December 2012.

* ‘As George Brandis has noted…’  George Brandis, ‘We believe: the Liberal party and the liberal cause’, Alfred Deakin Lecture, 22 October 2009

* ‘In 2010, Tony Abbott watered …’  Tony Abbott, ‘A stronger economy for a better Australia’, Alfred Deakin Lecture, 28 October 2010.

* ‘As the political commentator…’  Peter Van Onselen, ‘What’s in a name? Ask the Libs’, Sunday Telegraph, 17 November 2012.

* ‘Australian policy could do with a few…’  No-one makes the case for randomised policy trials in a more engaging fashion than Tim Harford, 2011, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Hachette, London. For a dustier (albeit antipodean) presentation of the argument, see Andrew Leigh, ‘Evidence-Based Policy: Summon the Randomistas?’ (2010) in  Strengthening Evidence-based Policy in the Australian Federation, Roundtable Proceedings, Vol 1, Productivity Commission, Canberra, 215-226.

* ‘Many of Australia’s greatest successes…’  For a lengthier discussion of why we need to spend more time experimenting, potentially failing, and then learning from our mistakes, see Andrew Leigh, ‘The Spirit Which is Not Too Sure It’s Right’, ANU Graduation Address, 12 July 2012.

* ‘As the US judge Learned Hand…’  This has much in common with what Daniel Mookhey’s recent Per Capita paper called the principle of ‘shared risk, shared sacrifice, shared benefit’. Daniel Mookhey, ‘Bridging the Divide: How Reform Consensus Can Unite Australia’s Three Economies’, Per Capita, October 2012.

* ‘And a politics that acknowledges the power…’  As an aside, it is striking to see how reluctant the Greens Party have been to embrace markets as a tool to achieve environmental outcomes. For example, the Greens Senators voted against the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in 2009 (they take responsibility for its defeat, because two Liberal Party Senators crossed the floor). In 2012, the Greens again joined a handful of renegade Liberal Party and National Party parliamentarians to vote to disallow the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

* ‘We should also allow ALP members to directly elect…’  For a thoughtful set of proposals of this kind, see John Graham, ‘Speech to the Fabian Society’, 10 September 2013

* ‘The Queenslander William Kidston…’  Quoted in Bill Shorten, ‘The Battle of Ideas and the Good Society’, Fraser Lecture, 26 August 2013.

* ‘I find much to like…’  Chris Bowen, 2013, Hearts and Minds: A Blueprint for Modern Labor, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.