Sunday, 3 Mar 2024

Labor faces a tough road ahead. Can the party hold itself together this time?

Tough times are ahead for the Albanese government this year, but how tough? The opposition’s strategy runs along the following lines. The economic slowdown caused by rises in the cash rate will smash the government’s financial credentials, with Anthony Albanese and Jim Chalmers in the frame to be blamed squarely for all of it, along with every price rise that comes along. The opposition’s mantra is already “why is everything dearer under Labor?”

The federal opposition has adopted the mantra: “Why is everything dearer under Labor?”Credit:Wayne Taylor

Full marks to them for trying – oppositions have to have something to say. In the past, these tactics could and often did work. When the electoral contest was overwhelmingly a binary choice between Labor and the Coalition, and the mainstream media was the gatekeeper for news and opinion, with many voters following the daily narrative of politics, sympathies could shift pretty quickly.

But these are more diverse and diffuse times, with voters belonging to one of three camps in roughly equal number: Labor, the Coalition, and the rest. Voters are not dummies, nor do they have memories like goldfish. Their clear intent was to get rid of the Coalition government by voting Labor, Green or teal, with 52 per ensuring their vote finally wound up with the ALP. The Liberal Party was sent to the doghouse.

Yes, Albanese will take heat as unemployment and mortgage repayments go up. But most Australians right now want his government to succeed. At the election nine months ago a solid majority of voters were seeking a government open to new approaches to the nation’s challenges. Some of these challenges are the result of deliberate policy decisions by past governments. Others are down to the indolence or disarray of those same past governments.

Changes of government in Australia are rare. In the 78 years since the end of World War II, we’ve changed governments only eight times. The default choice of most Australian voters through the years has been the Coalition parties. Recent history underscores that point. Voters were more tolerant of the Liberal Party’s revolving leadership door that brought us Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison than the one that Labor used to give us Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Rudd again.

It’s regularly the role of Labor governments to bring the country into the present day and beyond. Conservative policy settings where the status quo is good enough might be preferred by most voters, but eventually they conclude that some modernisation is in order. This has been the case with all newly elected postwar Labor governments.

Voters were more tolerant of the Liberal Party’s revolving leadership than Labor switching from Kevin Rudd (left) to Julia Gillard (right) and back to Rudd.

But voters hand the keys to the ALP on one condition: that it keeps its act together. Albanese has plenty of policy challenges, but his biggest political challenge is to maintain a settled government. Most modern Labor prime ministers have not managed to do that. Bob Hawke did, for the best part of four terms, but Gough Whitlam, Rudd and Gillard could not and paid a heavy price.

The country needs more than a patch-up job. For too many of us, Australia has ceased to work as it should. Just getting a roof over our heads has become punishingly expensive. The wages system has been bastardised, ensuring reduced real incomes for the bulk of workers. Our health system is failing and in need of comprehensive reorganisation. The inequity in our education sector is scandalous.

The country depends too heavily on international supply chains for vital goods. The prevailing model mostly worked for more than a generation, but as all models do, it’s gradually lost its utility as its internal contradictions became more exaggerated. The best example is the tax and investment regime that burdens home buyers with increasingly unmanageable debts.

Whether Albanese and his ministers and caucus have what it takes to tackle all these problems, fashioning effective solutions, overcoming the usual political and parliamentary obstacles to implement them, and then selling them to the Australian people is something we can’t know yet. But the opportunity is there.

The chief reason that the Hawke government succeeded was that it came to office with an Accord agreement between the ALP and the union movement that ensured there could be no repeat of the chaos of the Whitlam years.

That history resonates today. The Rudd/Gillard Labor government, like the Whitlam government, lasted two terms and was mostly responsible for destroying itself through its lack of self-discipline and poisonous internal relationships.

Like Malcolm Fraser, whose Coalition government was voted in after Whitlam, the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government that replaced Rudd lasted three terms, taking office on a promise of being an administration of grown-ups. Also like Fraser, it was hard-wired to push difficult policy choices off into the future and focus on short-term politics.

It’s hard to win from opposition, but it’s equally hard for a young federal government to seriously fall out of favour, unless it blows itself up. The searing experience of the Rudd/Gillard misadventure might be the best thing to have happened to today’s crop of Labor politicians. They can’t say they don’t know what not to do.

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