Federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese. (Image: AAP/Albert Perez)

Well, if you’re going to start somewhere it may as well be Perth.

Anthony Albanese’s out-of-town tryout of a series of headland speeches went over well enough for a Tuesday matinee on the road. The idea was simple, but with a neat fold-over: Labor is the party of wealth and job creation, but one that’s committed to transitioning traditional industries to renewable energy. It’s a green new deal in all but name.

That’s not a bad first go, though such things will only go so far while Labor fails to address the core question: what, in 2020, is a Labo(u)r party for?

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Is it a “hands off” jobs, wages and basic services minimalist party, which offers people more to spend as they wish? Or is it one which wants to offer people better ways to live: better designed and shaped cities, a responsive education system, a reconstruction of working life, real gender equality through parental leave and childcare, etc?

Prior to that there’s an even more fundamental conversation to have about what Australian society in 2020 actually is. Various Labor types — usually lifelong academics or apparatchiks — are throwing around terms like “blue collar” and “working class” as if these were simple, received categories (always absent, invoked and never self-represented). This needs deeper thought, especially if you propose to redesign worker protection around the appeal of the gig economy, as Albanese also proposed.

The proximate danger for Labor remains the simplistic atomised framework offered by its economistic Right. In their conception, a rational “offer” — coal, then solar — should be enough to win northern and regional voters. But these voters’ rejection of Labor has now become as much cultural as calculating.

In Queensland, yes, there are many workers supportive of new energies like solar. But there are also many who see the preference for solar over coal as representing something else: the passing into history of the industrial working class, and a distinctive way of life which is now not only being marginalised but disdained. The new world is directed towards automation; the knowledge class is marching in.

Paradoxically, the promise of coal then solar is not an exciting journey; it is asking these workers to conspire in their own cultural extinction and replacement. Faced with that, many will continue to prefer the Coalition’s messages of “have a go, get a go” and the “promise of Australia” — not an invitation to an exciting journey, but the political consecration of where, and who, you are.

One reason the Labor leadership is not yet fully awake to this paradox is that it still does not fully accept the key class division between itself and its supporters: being in command of knowledge, policy, information and culture, as opposed to being commanded by it, and subjected to it.

Witness Richard Marles’ recent, embarrassing musings on how his post-university beginnings as a lawyer for the TWU gave him an appreciation of, and closeness to, the lives of truck drivers. It’s hard to know which is more cringeworthy: believing that yourself, or believing that truck drivers would believe that.

The full truth is that Marles, a hereditary Labor grandee, went to the TWU after being president of the Melbourne University Student Union, at a time when union management positions were being filled by warriors of the Victorian Right’s pathetic sub-factional wars. Thousands of hours were spent on this — no doubt all on their own time — and the idea that union members didn’t notice this is delusional. Is Marles worried that someone might actually adopt Nick Dyrenfurth’s self-parodic suggestion — that a Labor party has affirmative action quotas for working-class members — and getting in an early bid?

Sadly, Marles’ brain-burp indicates that Albanese’s headland speeches will only go so far in remedying Labor’s problems. Getting a new map of class and culture in Australia would require dismantling the narcissism that makes real rethinking difficult and, of course, predisposes its leaders to snarling hostility when criticised.

Without such rethinking, I (and others) see no reason why the next election would not be a 2019 repeat: 76-80 for the Coalition, 64-68 for Labor, four to eight crossbench (unless the Nats collapse rurally), with much the same geographical spread. Federal Labor would then have won one and a half elections in 30 years. And, well, ah. A more searching process than a headland speech is required to avoid that.

But props to Albo for having a go. Now it’s time for the long trek across the Nullarbor. Maybe Marlesy will pick him up in his rig, blue singlet sweat-stuck to his chest, Waylon Jennings blasting from the quads, furry dice banging against the mirror. Ten-four, rubber ducky! We got ourselves a Conroy!

What did you think of Albo’s speech? Email boss@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name for publication.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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