Should Labor prevail in this election — which, thanks to a week of public holidays, currently hangs somewhere between phoney war and shooting match — then Bill Shorten will continue his run as one of the luckiest men alive. That is not because he is not capable or intelligent, but because he is squeezing in at the very end of a historical period when a figure like Bill Shorten is acceptable as the “natural” candidate of a progressive political party.
Across the world, the “long compromise” in progressive politics is falling apart. The notion that left elements of such parties should accept a centrist and safe figure for the purposes of electability, in exchange for a few limited policy wins, is going out the door.
In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has seen off two challenges from the parliamentary party who largely hate him and his genuine social democratic program (so far from full or even part socialism, it isn’t funny). In the US, Bernie Sanders is the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, and his rival to the right, Elizabeth Warren, is wildly to the left of what was thought sellable even four years ago. In France, the Socialist Party (PS) collapsed because the insurgent candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon quickly became viable (and Emmanuel Macron jumped in only after the PS had collapsed). In Germany, the Social Democratic Party has ceded about a third of its support to the Greens — now on 20%. In New Zealand, Jacinda Arden.
Into this world comes Bill Shorten: once the hyperkinetic figure of youthful Labor, now as ancient and steeped in tradition as a moth-eaten banner for the Amalgamated Slurryists and Frittlers hanging in a Trades Hall glass case. That has been part of his success of course; he stands right at the juncture of Labor and the unions, the most union leader of the party since Chifley (including Hawke, who was an ACTU creature from the start).
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That has allowed him to align the two sides to an unprecedented degree; drawing the CFMMEU-dominated “Industrial Left” into his support base has tamed militant demands for the moment. Australia, with its kooky counter-cyclical prosperity has avoided the mayhem that is going on everywhere else in the world, so there is no great demand for a different sort of Labor leader. Even so, and to satisfy progressive demands, Shorten has moved to the left of where he and others would otherwise be on penalty rates, renewable energy and taxes.
The trouble is, that is not a natural place for Shorten or for the far more doctrinaire and cynical people who form his kitchen cabinet. Shorten himself, the working-class Xavier boy, has always been in the Catholic Right tradition of ameliorating the given system’s effects, not changing its structures (which are seen in the end, in such politics, as God-given), even though he has shed Catholic social teaching on abortion, sexuality and the like.
None of these people feel very comfortable with such a sweeping progressive agenda, with its categorical shifts on energy supply, the environment, wholesale state-assisted transformation of everyday life, and it shows. Labor, from way before the campaign started, has been pursuing a small-target strategy, to let the government damage itself beyond repair, while pushing out big-picture policies — far more transformative in their character than those serial adjustments of Paul Keating, the so-called “big picture man”.
That was always going to be contradictory, and now the pressures of even this low-energy election are starting to have their effect. For if you are proposing all these major spending initiatives, without an overarching theme, without there being a means to an end then, what are they? Nothing more than big ticket items, to solve a problem that you haven’t really put front and centre — that inequality is starting to yawn wide in Australian life, that the planet is being killed by rent-seeking capitalism, and that these two conditions are related. Leaving that connection unmade opens a gap, and it is one that the Coalition is now pushing into.
Whether that will make any difference at all to the polling remains to be seen. One’s deep sense is that a key section of the electorate have wanted to throw this lot out since the budget of 2014, and only the instalment of Malcolm Turnbull saved them by a whisker in 2016. When he failed to bring the Coalition to heel — which was effectively the instruction of the election — his polling slipped back to what Abbott’s had been, and Morrison’s is now.
But once Labor is in, it doesn’t matter that its principals are the last of the old type of progressive leaders: union lifers, perpetual student politicians, Treasury-siding “sound money” people. The demands that the world is making will start to rain upon them, especially if they are greeted with a fresh global recession.
Labor is in a mess on big programs that it has not given a theme, an aspiration, a purpose; it is telling at least two stories on coal and Adani and that can’t go on; it has been caught in the usual gutless bet-hedging on refugees.
Bill Shorten, lucky as ever, has been gifted this first, half-arsed 10 days of the election as a practice run. It all starts in earnest on Friday, the 26th. Labor better come roaring out of the gate and take the fight to the right, or the near-certainty of its victory will be the very force used against it to create one of the greatest upsets in recent decades. This would take with it the notion that Labor can talk from the left and run, and govern, from the centre.
The only consolation of a Labor loss would be that the hybrid progressive-centrist strategy would be utterly discredited. Then a genuine conflict over where and what a Labor Party should be could begin.
What should Labor be doing differently? Send your comments (with your full name) to firstname.lastname@example.org.