Anthony Albanese receiving a COVID-19 vaccine (Image: AAP)

Well this is interesting.

Faced with the government’s debacle of a vaccine rollout, Labor proposes a cash bounty of $300 for anyone double-jabbed. The prime minister responds with a speech in which the adjective “Australian” is put on the front of everything, including “Australian results” and, who knows, “Australian cheese graters” and “Australian sock suspenders”.

Filthy cash payments are not the way this country works, says the leader of a country which pays people compensation for the tax they don’t have to pay on shares they haven’t sold.

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The polarities have been neatly reversed. The party which argued that the pursuit of individual gain is the motor of success now appeals to collective altruism; the party based on a collective orientation in pursuit of fairness is using CASH PRIZES as a policy lever. 

One had presumed the idea of a direct cash payout came from the wonk right, before it was sent out to the focus groups to see if it could shave 100 votes off the left-handed Indooroopilly tradies Coalition vote. Now it seems it was a leader’s call, with many MPs hearing it through the meeja. 

Will it work? Who knows, but it sure takes an axe to what remains of the platform on which the light on the hill stands. It does so against a government that would appear to have won the last election precisely by appealing to a sense of national purpose when Labor did not: “the promise of Australia”.

Labor wonks and progressives sneered at that, but it seemed to me to do the trick in the regions. People felt it was cheesy, but also that it meant something. The charge from the “promise of Australia” was running out. Labor appears to have revived it by allowing Scott Morrison to identify himself with a national interest he is widely seen to have betrayed — Labor nipping in with a policy which suggests it believes no one ever acts in collective interest at all.

Well that is courageous, opposition leader. There’s no guarantee it will work, and as an added bonus, it clearly undermines the implicit (if vestigial) claim Labor had on the idea that there were values other than the market which could motivate people. Indeed, Labor’s direct payment model would appear to be the most naked appeal to self-interest around the world.

Other governments have sought to motivate people negatively with sanctions, or positively with the right to attend events or automatic entry into a lottery. These mediations leave the act of being vaccinated with at least some bearing of its own, some special meaning.

A direct payment makes it just another transaction. Purporting to reward good behaviour, it makes amoral self-interest indistinguishable from principled action. That is potentially demotivating — to those who might have felt an inner compulsion to prompt action, and who are not sufficiently motivated by 300 smackaroos. It could suck the energy out of such a process, while ScoMo pumps himself back up. 

Going up against Morrison’s khakification of the vaccine rollout seems to be exactly the wrong thing to do. If it were indeed Albo and his office’s call, there’s a real The Thick of It character to it, the need to do something.

But it must also be said that what was done seems to be a product of the increasing hold that the wonk right has on the party’s imagination. If the first response of Labor to a political/actual crisis is to turn to the cash nexus while the Coalition fronts the press conferences with a general, then it would appear that Labor has backed itself into a corner.

What’s interesting is that such a move suggests that Labor is losing the most basic ability to think through its political challenges from within its own social democratic traditions. By responding to the Coalition’s move of taking the vaccine rollout out of the market realm — by drawing in the military — with a re-marketisation of it, Labor appears to be willing to fight the battle entirely on the Coalition’s terrain.

What if it had instead drawn on its own traditions — drawing on mass social solidarity and mutual trust — to assail the Coalition’s game-playing incompetence over many months? It seems to be the sort of message that, having the advantage of being true and right, would be paying dividends by now. 

The really interesting thing is that there’s a famous study, about almost exactly this dilemma, that for a time undergirded post-war social democracy. In 1970 UK sociologist Richard Titmuss published The Gift Relationship, a study of voluntary blood donation in the UK versus paid blood donation in the US.

Titmuss argued that a purely voluntary system of blood donation — absent all cash rewards or state sanction for refusal — was an example of gift exchange in pre-modern societies. I give you an axe I made, you give her a basket you made; she gives someone else a net she made, they give me an axe they made. Understood obligation reproduces itself, draws us together, and gives the pleasure of mutual involvement.

Titmuss argued that social democratic governments should strengthen such institutions, and enable the growth of social cooperatives. In the UK, the book persuaded pre-Thatcher Labour against internal marketisation of the NHS, even though elements of it would have yielded an efficiency dividend. Holding the line to keep the NHS as a free service in which cash did not deform the giving of care kept the NHS sufficiently strong to limit the political space Thatcher had to muck around with it.

Many of an earlier generation of Labor leaders would have known Titmuss’ work and the tradition it was from. I would doubt anyone now on the shadow front bench has heard of it. So there is some significance in a leader from Labor’s left choosing exactly this issue as the one on which to go to the right of the Coalition — to the market right of the Coalition — and to make Morrison’s turn to the military look like an act that enforces social solidarity.

Since, as I’ve argued earlier, militarisation weakens the fact and idea of social solidarity, it’s quite an anti-achievement to reinforce Morrison’s pitch that he represents the national interest. Labor looks like a bunch of spivs. I keep hedging my bets on this stuff by talking about Labor’s fragmented model, appeal to 20 pissed-off subgroups, don’t worry about the big picture, inconsistency over much, etc.

But my heart’s not in it. For Labor to be the one to offer raw cash for jabs seems such a mistaken call that it indicates a loss of contact with the most basic framing of the party’s philosophy, or former philosophy. This may be the ultimate product of a party centre that has redefined itself through the atomised philosophies of life that underpin neoliberalism, and a parallel hairy-chested, beer-burp anti-intellectualism.

Worse, it assists team Morrison’s longer-term cultural strategy, which is to use the force of his religious fanaticism conviction in a secularised form, giving an appearance of resolute purpose, which Labor lacks.

I doubt anyone on that side has read Titmuss either, or much else, but they have a more concrete nous about messaging, which Labor seems unable to access. 

Well, an interesting experiment if nothing else. This would appear to be the most total political switcheroo within the Anglosphere, and maybe beyond, offering small political gain and further wearing away of a whole tradition.

Sadly, at the moment, Labor seems to have a gift for it. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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