Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Labor’s shock election loss in May was always going to lead to hand-wringing, recriminations, and a fight over the party’s future. Now, shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers has became the latest MP to cast themselves as the pin-up boy for a “New Labor”, chastised by the lessons of the election and ready to listen.

Delivering the annual Light on the Hill address this weekend — named after one of the party’s most storied phrases delivered by one of its most storied figures — Chalmers told the true believers that it was time to change.

“We won’t win 2022 by re-contesting and re-prosecuting the 2019 election,” he said.

While Chalmers acknowledged the wrecking-ball effects of neoliberalism, he warned against reaching to a “grab-bag of defunct ideas of decades past”. It’s a dig at the UK Labour Party which, under Jeremy Corbyn, has shifted dramatically to the left. Chalmers’ remarks won plaudits in unexpected places, but also gathered some criticism from the party’s old left, pointing to Labor’s ongoing struggle to find its feet after the election. 

Friends in unusual places

Chalmers’ speech was particularly well received in the same News Corp paper which has been the party’s most ardent media critic; The Australian got exclusive access to an advance copy of the speech. In a column, senior writer Troy Bramston labelled it “required reading” for Labor, arguing that “finally, someone is taking the election defeat seriously”. 

Mark Latham, former Labor leader turned NSW One Nation MP offered his own gleeful advice to Chalmers on Twitter: “tell inner-city elites to piss off”.

But Chalmers’ speech was not quite the lurch to the right it was framed as. According to the Oz, Chalmers told Labor it must “seize the sensible centre”. That phrase does not appear once in the speech published on Chalmers’ website. Instead, Chalmers seems to offer no easy solutions, arguing that “the answer is neither a capitulation to the right on further liberalisation, nor a turn back to old left socialism”. He acknowledges that Chifley’s “light on the hill” is in need of recharging but, nice rhetoric aside, we’re no clearer on what that recharge is going to look like.

What we perhaps do get is a sense of Chalmers’ future trajectory. The shadow treasurer is considered an ambitious rising star who even thought about contesting the leadership in May. And as the Oz acknowledges, delivering the Light on the Hill lecture at Ben Chifley’s birthplace is “a rite of passage for the party’s future leaders”. 

Where to for the ALP?

Still, the fact that the speech was so enthusiastically received by the Oz makes it hardly surprising that it got some pushback from the left. Doug Cameron, one of parliament’s last self-described socialists who retired as a Labor senator at the election, offered a scathing rebuke to Chalmers in a long Facebook post on Saturday.

I am over the view that we can win the next election by capitulating on our principles and values and by becoming a pale imitation of the Morrison government,” Cameron wrote. “Capitulating to neoliberalism will mean the “light on the hill” will be extinguished for a long time to come.”

Cameron’s criticism comes after some growing unease among progressives at the party’s post-election positions. Since left factional stalwart Anthony Albanese took over as opposition leader, the party has appeared to capitulate to the government and voted in favour of bills it once opposed — most notoriously the Coalition’s income tax cuts.

In the days after the election, Albanese appeared to blame “attacking the rich” for Labor’s election defeat, and hinted that the party might be adopting a more pro-business stance

But Labor’s position on what went wrong and what to do next is still unsettled. Earlier this month, for example, energy spokesperson Mark Butler called for a “ruthless and unsparing” review into the election, with none of its policies, climate included, immune for a potential reset. Just weeks later, Butler told The Guardian that the party’s policies on climate change were “unshakeable”. Meanwhile, national president Wayne Swan said the party’s election agenda, particularly around tax policy, was something to be proud of.

A review into the party’s electoral performance is currently underway, and its release could bring greater certainty about the party’s future direction. But Chalmers and Albanese appear to be paving the way for a far more “centrist” Labor — much to the Oz‘s delight.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey