Shorten Needs To Talk About Inequality

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Bill Shorten has popped his head up again after the holidays, giving an interview to Fairfax’s Michael Gordon this week.

The interview was billed as marking Shorten’s first 100 days as opposition leader; Shorten is also busy campaigning in Brisbane in the run-up to the Griffith by-election on 8 February.

As wide-ranging interviews go, it was a sad reflection of the ever-declining standards at Fairfax, which once would have devoted several pages over the weekend to such fare. Even so, there were some useful nuggets.

Shorten is quoted as saying that he is “amazed at how our relationship with Indonesia went from hero to zero so quickly,'' and also tells Gordon he is writing to Prime Minister Tony Abbott to ask for a bipartisan approach to alcohol-fuelled violence.

“Young men need to see other men condemning this street violence,” Shorten told Gordon. He wants to see a national media campaign on the issue. “They need to know it's completely uncool and unacceptable.”

Shorten’s plan of attack this year seems to be about picking his targets carefully. Rather than a sweeping rejection of the Coalition’s ideological agenda, he is highlighting aspects of Abbott’s policy platform that are failing in their implementation. On climate, he is arguing that direct action “is just a handout to big polluters”.

“I get the argument from some people that we shouldn't be leading the whole world, but, under the Abbott government, we're following the whole world,” he said. “The attack on science and research is remarkable.”

On asylum seekers, Shorten is tip-toeing around Labor’s decidedly checkered record in government, to attack the Coalition on its secrecy. Campaigning in Brisbane last week, he told journalists at a doorstop that “Australians know that boats sail on water so this argument of the Abbott Government that because it’s happening on the water we can’t tell you, it just won’t wash”.

Time will tell whether Shorten will get any traction with this kind of cautious, procedural approach, but in the much-discussed metric of opinion polling, the opposition leader has started well. With Labor comfortably ahead in two-party preferred terms, the Coalition’s honeymoon tickets appear to have been lost on the way home from the travel agent.

In his interview, Shorten said he won’t be setting out detailed policy this year, spending 2014 instead working on an ALP membership drive, and holding the government to account. He says he wants Labor to win in 2016 because the party “has better ideas, not because [the Coalition]break lots of promises and make lots of mistakes”.

That’s fair enough, but history suggests Shorten has rather less time to develop compelling policies than many realise. The Coalition, for instance, repeatedly procrastinated on policy development throughout much of 2011 and 2012. By 2013, Labor’s disastrous unpopularity was such that Abbott and his key lieutenants decided that an almost completely negative campaign was all that was required to regain office.

The Coalition now finds itself in government with little in the way of a positive agenda. The challenge for Shorten — and for the Labor Party as an organisation — is to use its time in opposition wisely.

It would be foolish to assume that Abbott’s tough early months in office will continue. John Howard stumbled through his first eighteen months in government, and was lucky to survive the 1998 election. By 2004, he had established a three-term hegemony that would see the Coalition win a majority in both houses of Parliament.

The coming years represent Labor’s best chance in a decade to reform itself. Given the dismal trends of political engagement in contemporary western societies, it may also be Labor’s last chance to resurrect itself as a genuine force for progressive change capable of mobilising a broad coalition of Australia’s increasingly diverse and socially atomised electorate.

To do this, the party will have to find a way to dynamite the chessboard of factions and sub-factions that have come to dominate the internal dynamic of labour politics. Whether Shorten can do this, or even wants to, remains to be seen. He is of course himself a creature of that factional system, and came to the Labor leadership despite comprehensively losing the popular vote of ALP members.

Labor is also going to need to make some big decisions about its philosophies and ideals. One way of thinking about the post-Keating years is to see Labor’s eclipse as the intellectual leader of the major parties. Historically, Labor has generally been the party putting forward big ideas of reform, with the various right-of-centre parties defining themselves as anti-Labor.

But after Keating, Labor struggled to come to terms with the contradictions inherent in 13 years of government in which it was the ALP that pursued the neoliberal policy agenda of economic reform, tariff busting, and labour market deregulation. Many of the problems that social democrats and union leaders now worry about, such as rising inequality and falling union memberships, are the direct result of the big economic reforms led by Hawke and Keating. Labor still doesn’t seem to know what to make of this legacy.

Shorten is actually a more substantial figure intellectually than many on the left give him credit for. His campaign for national disability insurance was by no means original, but it was effective in moving the issue up Labor’s policy agenda. We still have a long way to go until 2019, but if a robust and comprehensive national disability scheme does get implemented, Shorten will have played an instrumental role in one of the largest extensions of the Australian welfare state in decades.

The next step is for Shorten to articulate the big-picture ideas that the ALP can stand for in 2016. It won’t be an easy task, because he will have to fight on many fronts: both on his left, against the Greens and the left of his own party, and also against the government and a media landscape that shows no signs of becoming any kinder to the prospect of a Labor prime minister.

In a previous article, I’ve outlined some of the issues for Labor to grapple with. Working out where the ALP stands on environmentalism and capitalism are the two biggies — and they’re not easy to reconcile, because global capital is rapidly destroying the planet’s atmosphere. Australia is up to our neck in the whole disaster, exporting coal at record levels to China and India, where it is being burnt with suicidal abandon.

Shorten is showing positive early signs that he is prepared to fight for Labor’s legacy on carbon pricing, a policy that cost it so much pain in office. But environmentalism alone is unlikely to knit a winning electoral coalition together for 2019 (let alone 2016). Shorten is also going to have decide what to do about the social impacts of capitalism. Here he has an opportunity to reframe much of the contemporary political debate, for instance around the theme of inequality.

The growing intellectual and academic movement coalescing around the idea of inequality in recent years has yet to move into the mainstream. But the sudden respectability of once-loopy ideas such as a universal basic income shows how quickly the ground is shifting.

The last forty years of neoliberalism have resulted in massive increases in inequality, obscene wealth for a tiny few, but no greater happiness for the many. Falling union memberships and the slow erosion of organised labour as a politically powerful force has played a key role in the ascent of global capital. For the ordinary middle classes, aspiration has not brought happiness, and for an entire generation of young Australians, the ideal aspiration of owning a home is no longer possible anyway.

In the idea of fighting inequality — of ensuring dignity, and extending opportunity – Shorten has the nub of an idea that could unify much of Labor’s base, and win swinging voters. It won’t be easy, of course. Much work will be required to develop policies and shape messages in politically palatable ways. But the straws are in the wind, if he cares to grasp them. And Shorten will have one potentially decisive advantage: the intellectual bankruptcy of the government, in which Joe Hockey is currently the most credible figure.

Journalists like to talk about “narratives” a lot, and most of the time it’s lazy talk, because journalists don’t have to do the hard work of convincing grumpy voters that their narrative is worth supporting. But they do help. If he can shape one, Shorten may just have a chance in 2016 after all.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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