Good god, are the drums really banging for an early federal election? Can this really be the case? One of the awful things about losing a British election is the five-year term, which yawns wide in front of you if you’ve lost. Five years for the enemy to impose its power. Three years is too short, with only a year or so before the cycle starts again. Now we’ve had an election budget, the possibility arises of a budget election. It probably won’t happen, which means it probably will. Tony Abbott might surely be tempted not only by his somewhat renewed standing, but also by the perceived weakness of Labor, in Australia and beyond.

Your correspondent’s tentative theory that we might be in for a series of one-term right-wing governments is looking a bit, well, yeah, uh. The idea itself was optimistic: you have to do something pretty terrible to be thrown out at the end of a first term, and that goes double for right-wing governments, which have an implicit incumbency effect. Even when they look radical, a la Thatcherism, they are restoring an idea of implicit right. It’s been a measure of the incompetence of the Abbott government, and the initial ineffectuality and perniciousness of the Cameron government, that they go into trouble at all. But there needed to be a positive vision on the other side — a whole that would render the right as fragmented and adding to nothing.

Labour didn’t have that in the UK, though to be fair, they had a go at trying to give some sort of alternative, pallid as it was. Labor has done nothing of that sort at all. They haven’t tried to tell a story about the Abbott government, suggested a simple way of viewing them that would make them look absolutely rejectable. To be fair once again, they had to spend a lot of time just standing out of the way as the Coalition cannibalised itself. But that excuse only goes so far. A positive message could have been developed at the same time. Clive Palmer did it around the co-pay and uni fees, channelling older notions of fairness and opportunity. It struck a chord. Labor couldn’t hit the note.

Now it’s certainly too late for anything to be developed for an early election — but also for a 2016 poll. What sort of Zen sudden thing could Labor develop that could serve instead of a more developed process, to give people a positive reason to vote for them?

1. Replace Bill Shorten.

With Bill Shorten. Yes, there’s no chance he will be, and there’s nothing to serve as pretext even if there were, but something’s gotta give. Shorten has two modes, lassitude and Joan-Crawford-level hysteria, and the latter seems to be an overshoot correction to the former. Under Shorten, Labor has become the world’s first lack-of-personality cult. He strikes one as a man who’s found himself in the grip of a midlife crisis just as he got Labor’s top job. Hardly a coincidence, as Labor has become a technocratic managerialist party. The fights within are far more passionate than those without, and a lot of the passion that once went into opposing the Coalition goes into hating the Greens. Labor, especially the right, feel so much closer to the Coalition, as types, than they do to the Greens, that they can’t really summon up the necessary level of aggro any more. Most men get the wobbles in their mid-40s. If it coincides with stepping into the proverbial crappest job in the world at a time when nothing epochal seems at stake, you’re in deep trouble. Does Bill really want to win? Does he even want to be there?

Who knows? But something has to be done. The simple “shouty” approach didn’t work for Ed Miliband (“hell yes, I’m ready …”), and it won’t work here. But they need to get some strong, other, image of Shorten out there, autonomous but one that is also stable and consistent, not the collection of hard-hat photo opps that have become the norm and add up to nothing. Other than that, does the man need some therapy? He wouldn’t be the first failing politician helped to success by a bit of guided reflection.

2. Get a ‘deal’ together.

The Coalition keeps mucking about with childcare, etc, and they keep getting it wrong, but the point is, they keep making an “offer” to middle Australia. They seem to get what Labor doesn’t — that they have to keep trying to make some sort of direct offer to make life easier. That middle is very broad. The Libs seem to understand this better than Labor. When Abbott was scorned for saying that a couple on $185,000 wasn’t hugely wealthy, he was howled down. Yes, most people aren’t on $185,000. But there’s a lot around $150,000, and it’s a plumber and a teacher. Or a radiographer and an assistant manager. Or a hundred other classic working-middle class couples. Many are so squeezed by this high-salary, high-cost society, which is also time-poor and opportunity-poor, that they feel more under the hammer than their parents did. Any attempt by Labor to prioritise workers the next tier down comes to be seen as disregarding those who are making it at the higher levels That’s pretty much what happened in the UK. Labour lost all but five non-London seats south of the Midlands — 65% of the UK population — because they wouldn’t acknowledge both prosperity and the squeeze on daily life.

Labor needs to bundle up some sort of all-in-one, high-concept deal, combining better childcare and parental leave, tax credits, flexible leave, a Medicare “no co-pay” guarantee, education support, fast-track urban transport planning and commuting and localisation solutions — all as a single, simple offer. It has to be a deal that makes it clear that Coalition governments make life harder for people by not making it easier, and that Labor governments would work with people in a systematic and well-planned way, while the Coalition works against them.

Policies like that are dribbling out, but someone needs to bundle them together and have the audacity to take the risk of making a concrete offer to the electorate. Not only “you’ll get this is you vote for us”, but also “this is what you’re not getting. It’s gettable, so why aren’t you getting it?”. Make the passage about priorities, regulation of businesses, etc, not a huge spend.

3.  Connect that to an argument about investment, education, research and productivity, and how a more directed, less chaotic and compromised approach is needed.

But don’t lead with it. Under Rudd/Gillard Labor became the party of big schemes and nothing of immediate help for the broad middle.

4. Rule off on the deficit.

It’s too late to do a “Keating” and win by explaining the bloody simple thing that a national economy is not a family economy, and a reduced deficit is also a lack of investment. The times also appear to be against that: society has become so atomised that the concept of collective investment is harder to argue. Once again, the UK example: “correct” the record early, say “Labor saved the country from global recession but we went too far, and we’ve learnt our lesson”. Otherwise the thing hangs round for the whole campaign and kills you. The mea culpa clears the ground for the package to be offered to the working-middle class, and to then put the Coalition back on the defensive, replying to Labor policy.

Of course, none of this substitutes for a thorough regrounding of Labor in a changed world. They need to start this now for 2019. Or 2018. But it’s too late for this round. Labor needs some quick, audacious ideas, or it wanders into 2015-16 without a chance — and with the possibility of not merely loss, but going backwards, into crisis. Might not be the worst thing to happen, but I presume they’re interested in their own survival. Which, on the evidence, is generous on my part.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey