Australia will go to the polls this year, most likely resulting in a Bill Shorten Labor government. With the exception of a few progressive concessions from the ALP, their platform will not leave much for those of us longing for a mainstream left-wing choice. Instead, voters will have the option to choose between a self-indulgent and self-destructive conservative party in the LNP and a fairly uninspiring centrist party all too willing to play it safe in the ALP.
There will be, and already are, many differences between the two parties’ platforms, but one element will persist throughout both: the politics of fear.
Where the LNP has been playing the classical game of fear by dog-whistling frightened voters around issues of national security and immigration, the ALP has been playing a much more subtle one. Their platform of fear instead posits an Australia where the chaos and dysfunction of the LNP reigns over us for at least another three years.
Elements of the national platform on show at the National Labor Conference in December reveal an ALP more concerned with a brand of opinion-poll policies that can be reductively summarised as having a progressive lean. But in reality it has a more neoliberal predisposition in the finer details.
One example is Labor’s $6.6 billion plan to build more houses by “turbocharging” investment. The aim of the plan sounds good enough — invest in the supply of housing in Australia to bring down rental prices for low- to medium-income households, thus addressing and maybe solving a massive issue of housing affordability. The finer details are where it begins to sink however. The housing plan will give a yearly subsidy of $8500 to investors looking to build these new homes. These subsidies will be offered to those new homes that are offering rent 20% below the median of $462 per week. This equates to $4800 a year, leaving investors to pocket $3700 a year.
The finer detail of this program is that it really represents a 55%-45% split of the benefits between Australians needing housing relief and landlord-investors looking to further increase their wealth. The split becomes more exaggerated in lower-income areas. For example, if the median rent in a certain area is $300 per week, landlords only need to discount $60 per week (a yearly cost of $3120) to collect a yearly surplus of $5380 from the government.
Direct government investment is much more effective for easing long-term housing pressures for Australia’s economically vulnerable. An Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute report published in November last year estimates that rent for public housing could be $155 per week with the right commitment to increasing our publicly owned housing. As some of the authors of that report made clear in a recent piece in The Conversation, Labor’s program is framed with the right idea in mind, but the principle of fairness is brutally undermined by the finer details.
A further example of Labor’s safe brand of centrist policies is the decision not to commit to an increase in Newstart payments, but rather commit to an 18 month review into them. It is already evident that current payments are woefully lacking and only further the sense of vulnerability for the unemployed and economically insecure. A Deloitte Access Economics report released in September last year on the analysis of the impact of raising benefit rates states that “the age pension has doubled in real terms since 2000, but Newstart has barely budged”.
Rather than being bold on issues such as these, and on others such as immigration policy, Labor instead insists upon utilising “fight back” politics; that is, fighting back against the easiest and most unpopular Liberal platforms, such as cuts to penalty rates, the ABC and higher education. The campaign to “save” Medicare still persists, with Labor’s campaign website exclaiming that “under Mr. Morrison, Medicare will never be safe”. While these campaigns reflect a well-intentioned ALP — one that is striving to take Australia two steps forward after we were taken two steps back — the larger issue is that with a lack of progressive reform we will inevitably stop dead in our tracks. It is one thing to fight back, but it is another thing to push onwards.
The way in which the ALP has decided to play it safe for the next election proves just how much ground it has truly lost to conservative ideals in this country. Labor may be considered a shoo-in to win the next election, but it has given up an awful lot of ground in this country’s ideological war. This should go without saying especially after the egregious concessions made to the LNP by helping pass their encryption bill late last year.
Without a progressive agenda to compliment its policies, the ALP will remain an unexciting, uninspiring and devastatingly disappointing party.
As Ben Chifley said, “I try to think of the Labor movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody prime minister or premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective — the light on the hill”.
It is becoming increasingly evident that this light is fading, and, without some brave policy to stoke the flames, all that will remain is a flickering ember in the distance, one that will slowly be suffocated by the politics of opinion polls rather than the politics of ideas.