Andrew Leigh Labor
Bill Shorten, Andrew Leigh and Tanya Plibersek (Image: AAP/Daniel Pockett)

When is it wrong to write 5.3% as “around 5 and a half percent”? Not when the Reserve Bank does it. According to Nick Cater and Judith Sloan, the answer seems to be “when the writer is a member of the Labor Party”. Over recent weeks, the duo has mounted a bizarre attack on an opinion article that I had published online in The New York Times at the start of October. The critiques are as fatuous as they are false. 

Sloan says of me: “He claims that labour’s share of national income in Australia has fallen, which it has not.” She may wish to discuss this claim with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which wrote earlier this year: “the labour share of income has declined over the past two decades in Australia”. Then there’s Cater’s attempt to revive the discredited idea that tax cuts like those implemented by Donald Trump “frequently lead to a rise in revenue”. According to the independent US Congressional Budget Office, the Republican tax cuts will increase that nation’s debt by $1.9 trillion between 2018 and 2028.

Both Sloan and Cater also angrily fault my October 9 article for its failure to use statistics released on October 18. It’s not clear whether they are clumsy or deliberately trying to deceive their readers. Worse yet, perhaps they just don’t care about the truth — just whether they can score a partisan point.

Apparently it was perfectly fine for Josh Frydenberg to write on the UK Spectator website in 2012 that Julia Gillard was “dumbing down… our foreign policy” and “cheapens our parliament with a trumped up and false charge of misogyny”. But for me to discuss the challenges of the Australian economy on The New York Times website (with no direct critique of the current government) is tantamount to high treason. Cater and Sloan rushed in like Liberal Party stormtroopers; those who firecely defend whatever the Morrison government happens to be saying that day.

In the big picture, Cater and Sloan are really just two bit players in a larger drama. From Breitbart to Fox, America is seeing the rise of “cheer squad media”, whose role is to amplify and repeat their own side’s talking points, and demonise their opponents. The traditional tasks of scrutinising policy and discussing the future are replaced by a daily battle to shield friends and wound enemies. It’s a humourless style that’s devoid of nuance and curiosity, in which the aim is to provoke anger rather than understanding.

It is only because Labor has eschewed “small target” politics in favour of hard decisions that we are able to make a triple-pledge to Australian voters: larger personal income tax cuts for most Australians, more funding to fix our hospitals and public schools, and bigger budget surpluses than the Coalition. Perhaps that agenda evokes the hatred of the far-right. If so, then I welcome it.

But if a Shorten government is fortunate enough to win a mandate at the next election, we won’t fight bile with bile. You won’t see a Shorten government attempting to use race-baiting and fear-mongering to win cheap headlines. You won’t see us demonising union members and fellow citizens who are reliant on income support to feed their families. We’ll create a national integrity commission, and restore stability to government. We’ll work with business, and pursue the proposal of an Indigenous voice to parliament.

Australia faces too many challenges to spiral into negativity. We need to get real wages rising again, play a larger leadership role in the Asia Pacific region, and diversify our economy. It’s vital we reduce inequality, close the gaps, and reverse the decline in school test scores. None of this is possible without a stronger sense of purpose and national unity — a shared vision that Australia isn’t just a great nation, but can be greater still in the decades to come.

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer, and hosts The Good Life, a podcast in which he interviews people about living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.