Labor
(Image: AAP/David Crosling)

My correct views on everything.
— Subtitle of a book by Friedrich Nietzsche

Well they’ve only gone and bloody done it. The mighty Australian Labor Party have lost the unlosable election, with the seat numbers between the major parties pretty much unchanged, after a couple of swaps.

Almost worse than the loss for progressives is the feeling that this was all a waste of time. All that rallying, all that energy, the agony and the ecstasy, and nothing much was said by the Australian people in their vote.

They decisively rejected Labor in certain parts of Queensland and Tasmania; they didn’t embrace them sufficiently in Victoria or New South Wales. The one or two new left independents/Greens didn’t eventuate; existing independents kept their seats. All of that for all of this.

Well, okay, a moment of Cassandra time now. Your correspondent noted in February that Labor appeared in danger of throwing this away, and so it proved. Hearing Mathias Cormann and Chris Bowen on the radio — one a rabid attack dog on tax, the other woolly and professorial, I remarked:

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 versus 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.

So it has proved. Labor loyalists went the tong on that article, which was a measure of the magical thinking already taking over Labor circles: to criticise was to mozz victory. There was the same reaction when I expressed a concern that Labor was piling up big ticket items — big tax takes, big spends — without joining them together in an overall strategy, a take on the world. This was a denigration of Labor’s bold vision, the risks it was taking etc.

Well Labor was taking a risk, but it didn’t have the courage or imagination to go further and make a case as to what this was all for, what sort of society they wanted to create. They were running for federal office like it was a state election, emphasising redistribution without talking about the whole picture. As I also noted. They bore the cost of their “big ticket” strategy, and gained none of the benefit from a more comprehensive vision. Which is pretty ironic, for a party that has become so economistic in its manner.

So, yes, the Murdoch press was brutal and relentless, and Clive Palmer may have drained votes away. But these things were to be expected. There was no way to combat them, save with an alternative vision that would break through the propaganda wall.

What one heard, out in the backblocks and in the suburbs, was the opposite. Save for the groups around some independents, there was an absolute lack of enthusiasm, a deeping cynicism about politicians, a visceral dislike of Bill Shorten that intensified as the weeks went on, and a warming to Scott Morrison.

Labor seemed, as it seemed in the Beazley/Crean years, dazed and zombified. Not knowing why it was doing what it was doing, and coming to life only in death, when the Bob Hawke exequies commenced. Everyone thought this might be good for a point or two; insofar as it had any effect at all, it fed Labor’s immense capacity for self-involvement.

When on Sunday I heard that standard Labor refrain — ah, but Bill gave a great concession speech — I wondered why I had been fooled again by a party that never gave the impression that they passionately wanted power. You shouldn’t be able to give a good concession speech! Politics, like love, is meant to destroy you! You should be helped, shambling, to the microphone, to say a few short words, and get off ahead of total collapse.

The common refrain has been that Labor had two choices: a conservative small target strategy, or the “bold” one they took. It wasn’t bold at all. It was piecemeal but pricey, an inept combination, the worst possible. Missing entirely was the third possibility: one in which Labor talked of production and work, not just distribution, about how we could transform the way we live, about our place in a changing world.

Now they’re talking about waiting for 2022, as if it’s theirs. Last Saturday night, they lost the era. They can go on losing it indefinitely with that attitude. You didn’t think they could, but they’ve only gone and bloody done it.

Peter Fray

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