Anthony Albanese Labor
Labor Leader Anthony Albanese (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

You’ve been up for hours already, and the man that will kill you today is still sleeping.

Argentinian saying

Time was, when the monarch opened the UK parliament, a dinner of roast swan was served afterwards. I don’t know what new governor-general David Hurley served up on Tuesday night, but whatever it was, it had a better day than Labor.

While the party’s supporters watched in horror, even the most stalwart with mouths agape, the leadership’s most notable sally was to try and amend the name of the Coalition’s tiresomely named “Tax Relief So Working Australians Keep More Of Their Money” bill, to something both tiresome and lame. They lost that because of course they were always going to, and then they voted up the full tax package.

The political point of agreeing to the tax package was presumably to minimise being seen as high-taxing and powerless; the renaming seemed to draw attention to precisely that. Now we go to the Senate to… what? Try and alter the third stage tax breaks they’ve already waved through? Wave them through when there’s a chance of stopping them? There are no good choices for them and it will be that way for some time. 

There’s a kind of sympathy one feels for Labor in this situation, but it’s not unambiguous. It’s like watching a clown who played your children’s party drunk get hit by a cement truck. Amid the tears and laughter, there’s a sense that this had been coming for quite a while. Though Labor offered a progressive alternative to the Coalition’s “your money” giveaway, it never sold the implicit idea behind it — that of shared benefit and an integrated series of programmes which offered clear collective improvement.

Importantly, the betterment of life that Labor offers has to be the sort of improvement that can only come from large-scale public initiative — say, an urban public transport revolution, combining new build renewables, and a real alternative to the car.

Absent of that, there was a mystery about what the money was for, with some programmes (curing cancer) seeming vainglorious and others (subsidised childcare wages) seeming capricious. Because Labor never established the reason for its tax programme, or any tax programme, it has nothing to say now about why high-paid workers should not get more of the wages they earn back. 

But of course that dilemma is itself situated by the choices Labor made decades ago, with individualised forms of social return introduced or perpetuated — compulsory superannuation, negative gearing, private school student subsidies that work as a decision facto voucher system, a rebate-based Medicare system with thin coverage of specialist services. These choices, by Hawke-Keating Labor, steered Australian society in a profoundly individualist-familialist direction. It was going to take a lot more than piecemeal programmes that had the mark of the focus group to convince enough people to support them, against the flow of the culture, or to weather the storm of misinformation.

Optimists will say — or at least, non-catastrophists will say — that the worst of this will pass, as the government faces a worsening economy with no answers. Trouble is, Labor has no answers either. Its 2018 programme was overwhelmingly distributist, with nothing to say about the changing nature of production and work. Lacking any discourse on this, Labor lacks a diagnosis for whatever is coming — and thus no response to the Morrison government’s response, which will be austerity.

Should this crisis occur early in the Morrison government’s term, they will be in the same position as they are with income tax. Austerity will look like common sense. Opposing it will look perverse. 

Indeed the best hope Labor has is that nothing challenging happens immediately, and that it is essentially irrelevant for a year or so. Take the daily hits, the hideous shellacking of opposition, and have a deep think about what one actually wants to do in power, and what is possible in the individualist society its predecessors created.

Without such a rethink, the party will take on the character and psychology of a permanent opposition, living off the occasional point scored against a “natural party of government”, losing the ability to formulate a full alternative.

At this point I usually try and tie the metaphors together but I see we have a dead, drunk kids clown; a gaucho gangster proverb; and a cooked swan, so I might just leave it there.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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