federal election 2019 labor
Bill Shorten at the 2018 Labor Party National Conference (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Your correspondent’s first ely* of the year was courtesy of AM — that programme that comes through our half-waking, half-sleeping moments, the whisperings of our hopes and fears.

Mathias Cormann had been on the previous day, in both attack dog and John Howard-bot mode, snarling that Labor can’t be trusted with the economy. The next day it was Chris Bowen’s turn and, man, if he wasn’t smoking a pipe and tapping it on the leather patches of his tweed jacket, he sure sounded like he was: ‘Well Fran, I think it’s pretty clear that when you take the doobie ratio into account on the franking credits, the valutron you’ll find the potrezebie ratio…’ and OK it was less jargonistic than that, but it didn’t sound like it.

Bowen had already given the Coalition a moment, with a rare outbreak of political honesty — ‘well if people don’t like it, they don’t need to vote for us’ — on clawing back this free money giveaway to self-funded retirees, and now he was taking the high ground against the Coalition’s big fear. I can see the point of doing that, I can understand not starting the artillery barrage too early, etc etc, but nevertheless, I was having an ely, and that tinkling ely was saying “2016. 2016. Democracts. Democrats”.

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There is a complacency that has settled across the land: that this is in the bag for Labor, that we’re just playing out time, that can we get to May and get this over with. And it reminds me exactly, exactly of Hillary V Trump in 2016. I’m not saying Morrison is like Trump — nothing is worse than those “X is Y’s Trump” pieces — but I am saying that there is a disjuncture, an asymmetry between Labor and the Coalition that is leaving a gap for the latter through which a path to victory or a messy draw could be made.

The simple version of the 2016 US election is that Hillary went — or stayed — high in the pompous and pretentious language of US politics, while Trump went low. He mobilised the sensibility and ethical framing of reality TV, to hole the Democrat campaign below the waterline. But that’s an oversimplification. Hillary going high only failed because she presented no encompassing vision within which individual policies, or her exhausting personal narrative, could be set. Obama had that vision, expressed in big policies, and could thus go to the heights of oratory.

Sadly, I’m getting the same vibe off Shorten-Bowen Labor. The point is surely that if you’re going to have the courage to put in some big tax policies and seek a mandate for them; you’ve got to make them part of a bigger argument. You’ve got to yoke it to national development, combined with the battle for equality of opportunity and the universality of the means of life. You’ve got to name the mix of sadism, rentism and denialism of the Coalition government for what it is: a refusal to face up to the real challenges that a nation and humanity faces, the absence of an idea of the good society.

Absent of that, the franking rebate take-back looks arbitrary; there will be people who will dip to a significantly lower standard of living. To explain your move simply by saying that you’re removing an anomaly that rebates people for tax they didn’t pay in the first place is a technocratic rationale, posing as a moral one. Labor had the same screw-up with the mining superprofits tax under Rudd: they never sold the whole package of re-investing in a nation with money that was its by right. They looked high-handed and disdainful. They were doing government, while the Opposition was doing politics.

This disjuncture of orientations — fairness vs headbanging — means that Labor, unless it curbs its own instincts, will find itself on the petitioning defensive. Thus freedom boy creates a sleazy little website under government seal, to build a virtual movement against Labor’s tax reforms, and Labor… complains to the speaker. The horror.

Well maybe I’m wrong, and the whole five-month campaign has been broken down into 14,721 response stages. But I fear that the fatal complacency of progressivism — that because we respect knowledge, reason and basic science, we should win — may have fused with a sense of inevitability. Labor’s got to tell us what it’s all going to be for. The schadenfreude of watching Labor’s centrists stuff this up would be small compensation for handing the Coalition a decade of power, the nightmare to which we would wake.

* For newbies: ely, from The Meaning of Liff, is “the first tiny inkling that something has gone terribly wrong”, and as I have noted before, the only term from that book with a chance of making it into common use.

Is this 2016 all over again? Send your election predictions to boss@crikey.com.au.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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