Labor leader Anthony Albanese (Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

The US election has rightly been likened to a mirror. But it hasn’t just reflected the hopes and fears of US citizens; it has also revealed the stress-induced pustules of our leaders in all their barely concealed repugnancy.

In the Coalition, it has exposed a cloying obsequiousness to Daddy Washington — from conspiratorial MPs and has-beens to a complacent leadership unwilling to call Trump out.

In Labor, it has again revealed self-effacing uncertainty borne from its 2019 election loss.

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The US results were barely intelligible before some ALP figures were claiming Biden’s narrow win demonstrated the wisdom of their “centrist” approach, whilst others claimed it showed centre-left parties can win on a relatively ambitious climate platform.

Joel “Coal” Fitzgibbon then quit the frontbench whilst publicly criticising his party’s climate ambitions, with some of his colleagues rebuking him to the exit.

This debate, like that between the Biden and Sanders wings of the Democratic Party, will undoubtedly continue as Labor finalises its platform for the next election.

Much remains unknown about US voter behaviour, but it is worth considering whether the indications so far vindicate an ambitious or cautious strategy for the Australian left.

US-Australia analogies are complicated

It’s hard to make reliable comparisons between US and Australian politics because the Yanks are so negatively polarised between their two major parties. Never have Americans so intensely reviled those with opposing political affiliations.

This means debates about “electability”, which dominated the Democratic primaries, have rather low stakes. Most supporters will show up either way — they sure as hell won’t vote for that orange bastard. This meant the results looked a lot like 2016, just larger.

Australia is also polarised, but less so than the US. Our elections are also increasingly close, driven by geographic, educational and age divisions. But News Corp does not run a Pravda-esque TV station here, and its newspapers are losing circulation and clout. Our regionalism is often more parochial than partisan, as Queensland’s swing status attests.

Large, motivated bases have deserted our major parties. Compulsory voting and more swing voters mean running either an ambitious or lacklustre leader risks minor party defections. Shorten managed to be both frightening and boring at once, and thus bled votes to Morrison via Clive and Pauline. Who knows how well Biden, another uninspiring orator, would have performed if more voters could defect to third parties?

Aussie voters are a little more open to changing their minds, meaning our politicians are under more pressure to do so too.

On this front, Labor “pragmatists” might find less comfort in the US results. Working and middle-class swing voters overwhelmingly backed precisely the kind of bold, redistributive economic policies Labor often shies away from.

Florida, which dashed early hopes of a “blue wave”, voted 60-40 in favour to nearly double the minimum wage. Colorado increased paid medical and family leave. Arizona raised taxes on the rich to boost school funding. Nebraska capped payday loans.

The hardening of partisan identification on “culture war” issues obscures broad American agreement on economic justice. Aussies are also relatively united against neoliberal “reform”.

After the primaries, Biden and Sanders formed joint policy taskforces to coalesce around a relatively ambitious economic agenda. Labor figures using Biden’s win to justify a “small target” strategy might be shocked to learn his was not a slim, watered-down agenda at all.

It included $2 trillion for renewable energy jobs, overturning Trump’s tax cuts, universal pre-school, penalising wage thieves and much more. Biden also improved his performance in coal country on a “green jobs” message.

What held Biden back from a bigger win was not the scope of his agenda, but a failure to emphasise its most popular elements – the same problem Shorten encountered in 2019.

Chris Wallace, an associate professor at the University of Canberra, recently released the book How to Win an Election, which charts Labor’s path back to power. “The small target versus big target policy trope is really stupid,” she told Crikey. “What you want is smart policy: policy that creates winners, not losers.”

“A powerful way to do so would be bringing the mining and environmental wings of the labour movement together and jointly crafting a full-blooded ‘future jobs in a thriving environment’ package.”

That sounds precisely like what Biden campaigned on, what Albanese’s inner circle is edging towards, and what Labor’s supposed Biden fans are standing in the way of.

Perhaps now Joel Fitzgibbon has resigned from the shadow cabinet, Labor’s leadership can disregard his sniping and move with the US towards an ambitious green agenda.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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