The euphoria is understandable. After trailing Labor in the polls throughout the last parliament, the Liberals can be forgiven a degree of triumphalism after their against-the-odds victory. But beware hubris. It was a narrow victory; and it could easily be different next time if the Liberals learn the wrong lessons from their win and Labor learns the right lessons from their loss.
Yes, the Liberals won because voters were alarmed at Labor’s soak-the-middle-class tax policies and Labor’s radical climate policy. Average voters were concerned that Bill Shorten would turn out to be a puppet of the union movement, especially its most thuggish members.
Yet the Liberals didn’t win because people were enamoured with their policies. What was there to like about tax cuts that didn’t take effect until 2024? Or about a climate policy that was a tepid version of Labor’s? It was because Labor was too bad, not because the Liberals were too good, that the Coalition government was returned.
For Labor to win next time, it needs to appreciate that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. Labor’s honesty in detailing policies to make retirees, investors, renters, home owners, and people earning over $90,000 a year worse off simply made it a big target. It got no kudos from voters for being up-front with them; just plenty of derision for wanting to impoverish Australians making good. It now needs to drop all the policies that would gratuitously harm millions of people and focus, instead, on policies that might make us better off.
Even if new federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese is hardly Bob Hawke 2.0, there are already signs that he is listening. Labor’s opposition to tax cuts for higher income earners looks like it’s about to be dropped. The so-called retirees tax (the end of franking credits for low income earners) is also under review. And while Albanese made a mess of appointing Kristina Keneally to the deputy senate leadership, and to the home affairs portfolio, even she’s realised the error of her previous positions and now claims to support boat turn backs and offshore processing of boat people with no right to stay in Australia.
Climate change, though, will really test the new opposition leader. These days, the belief that human action is dooming the planet and that we can only be saved by ending reliance on fossil fuels is virtually a religion, especially among young people and definitely in the godless cafes of inner Sydney and Melbourne where Labor activists gather. Yet in the outer-metropolitan and regional seats that Labor has to win, people wonder why it’s wrong to burn coal here while we export it to Asia; and care most deeply about keeping their jobs and avoiding high power bills. But the green-Left might give Albanese, a lifelong warrior of the Left, some wriggle room that they would never have allowed to a right-winger like Shorten.
Meanwhile, the Liberals need to get on with governing. Over and above the daily round of photo-ops and doorstop media conferences, this means making a difference to the huge problems our country faces.
The impending closure of the giant Liddell power station will put further upward pressure on power prices (that’s why AGL wants it shut) and will make blackouts and power rationing more common. Because it’s federal climate policy that has corrupted the energy market, keeping the lights on has now become a federal rather than a state government responsibility. And if no private company will supply new baseload power, it will be up to the feds to deliver it: a fossil-fuel version of Snowy 2.0.
Then there’s immigration, which remains at record levels thanks to almost entirely out-of-control ‘temporary’ migration in the form of fee-paying students and supposedly skilled workers on four-year visas. Business claims that high migration is necessary to boost the economy; but to voters, it means more competition for jobs and housing, lower wages, higher rents, and clogged roads and public transport.
And what about some economic reform? The reforms of the Hawke and Howard eras helped to make Australia the world’s best-performing developed economy. But over the dismal decade of the revolving-door prime ministerships, we’ve been coasting at best, or even going backwards.
Scott Morrison has brought some stability to politics, but can he bring some dynamism to economics? The government needs to defend its record without being complacent about the challenges ahead. What about reviving the Abbott government’s red tape reduction, revisiting the tax reform debate that Morrison floated as treasurer only to see it killed off by Malcolm Turnbull, or examining the flaws in a giant superannuation system that benefits managers rather than investors?
Beyond the day-to-day distractions, voters rightly expect governments to address the practical problems they live with; and hope that oppositions will come up with better ways of tackling the challenges that governments have ignored.
Last week’s hysteria over police raids on journalists illustrated the different political currents that our leaders will have to ride and the dangers of just backing those shouting the loudest.
Naturally, where their own freedom was the issue, almost universally journalists insisted not only that they could publish whatever they liked but that people should be able to tell them whatever they liked. And unsurprisingly, Labor backed the loudest voice. More instructive were readers’ online responses to the media’s ‘your freedom is at threat’ commentary. Overwhelmingly, the ‘quiet Australians’ thought that disgruntled officials were wrong to leak secret information and that the media was wrong to publish it.
Yet again, the Morrison government seemed better than Labor at reading what Australians really think.
Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University. He is the author of 40 books, most recently the political/sexual satires ‘So Far, So Good: An Entertainment’ and ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure’, both published by Hybrid in Melbourne.